Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Yorkshire dialect: variation and social values

In this guest blog, Paul Cooper takes a look at Yorkshire dialect, how we identify whether someone 'sounds Yorkshire' and the variations that can be noticed within Yorkshire dialect. Dr Paul Cooper is a lecturer in English Language at the University of Liverpool. He's primarily interested in historical sociolinguistics and you can find more of his work here.

The idea that there is a Yorkshire dialect has been around for a very long time – since at least the seventeenth century, as evidenced by the anonymously-authored A Yorkshire Dialogue Between an Awd Wife, a Lass, and a Butcher (1673). Today, we can see examples of Yorkshire dialect in many different contexts including in dialect dictionaries, on commodities like t-shirts, tea towels, birthday cards, and coffee mugs, in media representations, as well as online in Facebook and Twitter posts, and people seem to have a reasonably good idea of what Yorkshire dialect is, where it is spoken, and what they think about it.

My research takes a language-ideological approach to analysing Yorkshire dialect which illustrates the specific language features people think of as being Yorkshire dialect, as well as the social values they associate with it. By doing this, I’ve been able to identify a repertoire of features that people broadly consider to be Yorkshire dialect, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Repertoire of Yorkshire dialect (see also Cooper 2019)
These features are most likely to make people think “Yorkshire” when they hear them, or if they wish to affect Yorkshire dialect they will employ these features. There is also wide awareness of these features – my research highlighted that people from all over the world could identify these features as Yorkshire dialect in some cases. This is because the repertoire has been enregistered, meaning that it has undergone ‘processes through which a linguistic repertoire becomes differentiable within a language as a socially recognized register of forms’ (Agha 2003: 231).

In the case of Yorkshire dialect, the linguistic repertoire is comprised of the features listed in Table 1. We can say that this repertoire has become differentiable and socially recognised by virtue of the fact that people identify it as Yorkshire, they can talk about it and they can provide commentary on it.

In order to investigate the kind of commentary we can see I conducted interviews with 19 speakers (10 female and 9 male) from across Yorkshire who had lived there all their lives and were highly familiar with the dialect. These interviews highlighted the social values linked to both Yorkshire dialect and Yorkshire speakers, which included ‘plain speaking’, ‘authenticity’, ‘independence’, ‘sense of humour’, ‘geniality’, ‘hospitable’, as well as the perception that the dialect is ‘unintelligible’ to outsiders, which is seen as a positive thing and adds to a sense of in-group membership for Yorkshire speakers. This came up in an interview (see Cooper 2019: 77) with Alfred (an older male speaker) who described the scenario in extract 1 where switching into ‘broad’ Yorkshire dialect meant that people who weren’t familiar with it couldn’t understand him:

1) Alfred: years and years ago me dad once went to Spain fishing sea fishing=
PC: =mhm=
Alfred: =and on this boat me dad and me brother there were two Spaniards on the boat and they were speaking Spanish
PC: yeah=
Alfred: =so me dad and me brother started talking Yorkshire broad Yorkshire they couldn’t understand they come up to ’em and said what language is that we don’t understand it and they’d no idea they said can you talk in English because we can’t understand

However, in addition to the social values listed above interviewees also perceived Yorkshire dialect to be internally varied, leading them to discuss features not included in the repertoire in Table 1. For instance, several speakers discussed notional differences between Sheffield and Barnsley (two urban areas in South Yorkshire that are roughly 16 miles apart), exemplified in extracts 2 and 3 where Nora (an older female speaker) and Esme (a young female speaker), both from South Yorkshire, highlight the distinctive nature of Barnsley dialect relative to Sheffield dialect:

2) Nora: yeah cos the Barnsley is the Barnsley accent’s totally different to t’ Sheffield
3) Esme: It’s true though innit because like from Barnsley and Barnsley’s still in Yorkshire but it’s still completely different to Sheffield

The main way in which they perceived Barnsley dialect to differ from other parts of Yorkshire was in the pronunciation of the name ‘Barnsley’ itself, which they demonstrated as having a different vowel to their own pronunciation, as illustrated in extracts 4 and 5:

4) Nora: if you ask somebody that comes from B[ɑː]nsley where they come from they’ll come from B[aː]nsley
5) Esme: We’d say B[ɑː]nsley they’d say B[aː]nsley

In the first instance the first syllable of B[ɑː]nsley would be pronounced the same as the word ‘barn’ in RP, whereas in the second, B[aː]nsley, features a more fronted vowel (which I call the ‘Barnsley vowel’), rendering it something more like ‘Baaarnsley’. This is a pronunciation that Barnsley speakers themselves appear to be aware of. For example, in the run up to the 2014 Tour de France, some of which passed through Barnsley, the Barnsley-based graphic design company Black Bee Creative posted a blog article which described how the word ‘Baaarnsley’ was written in large letters in a local field as ‘a pun on the local accent plus the noisy sheep in the field’ (Black Bee Creative 2014).

Ultimately, despite the long-standing nature of the dialect and the wide awareness of its enregistered repertoire, it seems that the term “Yorkshire dialect” only broadly applies to certain language features. When we look at the situation more closely we can see that there is more localised variation within Yorkshire that local speakers are aware of, and there are varieties within Yorkshire that are simultaneously associated with a particular town or city as well as Yorkshire itself, and may be distinguished from other areas by the pronunciation of a single vowel.

Agha, A. 2003. The Social Life of Cultural Value. Language and Communication 23, 231-273.

Black Bee Creative. 2014. Putting baaarnsley on the map [Online]. Available at: http://www.blackbeecreative.com/putting-baaarnsley-map. [Accessed 12th October 2017].

Cooper, P. 2019. The enregisterment of ‘Barnsley’ dialect: Vowel fronting and being ‘broad’ in Yorkshire dialects. Language and Communication, 64, 68-80.

Kellett, A. 2007. Ee By Gum, Lord! The Gospels in Broad Yorkshire. Smith Settle, Skipton.

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