30 September 2016
Dialects not only connect, they sometimes divide
Towards the end of the 1980s a close northern friend once confided in me his disappointment at being consistently overlooked for international honours in cricket and rugby due to perceived selectorial bias towards players based in the south of England. The fact he hadn’t played either sport for a recognised club since leaving school seemed irrelevant: there was a principle at stake. There are constant debates in sport about the relative likelihood of selection for national squads depending on which school or club a player represents, but until this week I hadn’t considered the possibility that quizzes might be anything other than geographically impartial.
As a fan of Only Connect I was intrigued this week to see a question which required contestants to predict the final element of a sequence given the following stimulus:
The sequence required contestants to solve a mathematical and linguistic puzzle by recognising that a descending mathematical sequence of 2 to the power of the given number produced an answer supposedly homophonous with a synonym of the corresponding word or phrase:
23 = consumed (i.e. ‘eight = ate’)
22 = in favour of (i.e. ‘four = for’)
21 = also (i.e. ‘two = too’)
20 = was victorious in a quiz (i.e. ‘one = won’)
The first problem here is that, for many speakers, eight and ate are not homophones. For most speakers in the UK eight rhymes with ‘gate’, but for many ate rhymes with ‘get’. Both words were included in the questionnaire of the Survey of English Dialects – a nationwide study of regional speech in England carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. For the vast majority of informants the simple past tense of the verb ‘to eat’ rhymed with ‘get’ and there are very few unambiguous examples of rhymes with ‘gate’. The only examples of an apparent past form rhyming with ‘gate’ were in places like Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and Cornwall where, historically, the local dialect makes no distinction between present and past tense – i.e. eat is unmarked for tense but is pronounced to rhyme with ‘gate’ regardless. This reflects a middle English vowel sound that survives in a small set of similar words – meat still occasionally sounds like an RP pronunciation of ‘mate’ in these dialects. Interestingly, despite only fleeting glimpses in this survey of ate rhyming with ‘gate’, we increasingly hear this pronunciation nowadays, presumably as a result of a pronunciation falling in line with spelling – a trend confirmed by data published in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells, 2008:54). A similar process is happening with says so that, as with your pronunciation of ate, whether you pronounce says to rhyme with ‘fez’ or with ‘phase’ may reveal a good deal about your age.
Four and for and two and too indisputably rhyme in most varieties of British English (if we exclude for convenience the Scots preference for twa), but one and won present a similar problem. If you speak RP – the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England – you probably rhyme one with won and chances are if you’re from the south of England you will, too. If, like my sister-in-law, you come from Leeds you might also do so, but with a completely different vowel to the one used by RP speakers and southerners. For many speakers in the UK, however, one rhymes with ‘gone’ while won rhymes with ‘gun’. Data from the Survey of English Dialects suggests that one was almost universally rhymed with ‘gone’ in the north and Midlands, apart from a small pocket of West Yorkshire (cf. my sister-in-law’s pronunciation in Leeds) and the far north, where the dialect form yan competed with one. In contrast, speakers in the south of England varied between a rhyme with ‘gone’ and a rhyme with ‘gun’ with the latter more common. According to a survey conducted for the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary roughly 70% of British English speakers favour a rhyme with ‘gone’ meaning that one and won are homophonous for a minority of speakers (Wells, 2008:563). Thankfully the captain of the team presented with this clue was a young RP speaker, but I wonder if contestants from the north (or older speakers) subconsciously struggled to make the connection between the mathematical and linguistic clues, as for them the link may not be immediately apparent for either the first or fourth item in the sequence (or both).
So my friend may have been deluded all those years ago about his chances of ever playing for England, but he might genuinely have a case to argue about his relative chances of winning TV quiz shows. The British Library holds the entire set of recordings made for the Survey of English Dialects thus allowing researchers to explore and enjoy these fine distinctions between dialects.
Only Connect Series 12 Episode 12, Genealogists v Surrealists. 2016. BBC2. 26 September, 20.30.