What is the difference between an accent and a dialect?
‘Dialect’ includes the vocabulary you use, the grammar that you use and lots of local expressions as well. Dialects are defined socially – depending on your social background, and regionally - in terms of the area that you come from.
Accents are basically the sounds that people produce – it can involve the tunes that people use when they are speaking, and also the individual sounds of speech. So ‘accent’ is a more narrow term than dialect.
So what is Scouse? Is it an accent or a dialect?
It’s an accent really. Merseyside speech, which is commonly known as ‘Scouse’ as a kind of cover term, is actually fairly standardised in terms of its dialect features. There are not many non-standard words used – ‘rob’ is one – meaning to steal as well as ‘to rob’ (to deprive) – there are a few others – ‘Lent it off him’ instead of ‘Borrowed it from him’ for example - but those are found widespread over a lot of dialects.
There are a few non-standard dialect words, and there are a couple of non-standard grammar constructions, for example ‘I haven’t seen nothing’ or ‘I haven’t been nowhere’ where you’ve got two negatives in the same sentence. But again, that’s very widespread – it’s not peculiar to Merseyside at all.
Not a lorra people like Cilla's accent
In terms of accent features though, Merseyside speech is very different from the standard accent of ‘English English’ – that’s to say English English as opposed to Scottish English or Irish English – which is known as Received Pronunciation. Merseyside speech is very different to that, and actually very different from the accents of the area of the country around it in the North West.
What have been the major influences on the way we speak in Merseyside?
I think there are two main influences, and you can contrast Liverpool with Manchester – another big city only 30 miles away - to see how this has worked. Manchester accents are a lot more like the accents of the areas around it in Cheshire and Lancashire. Manchester took a lot of its immigration in the 19th century from these surrounding areas.
Liverpool took its immigration from two mains areas – Lancashire and the North West, as well as Ireland. I think it’s probably the marriage of features of Irish – both Gaelic and Irish English – and Lancashire speech, which built the foundations of Scouse.
- Click on the audio links at the top of the page to hear more about the influences of Gaelic, Irish English and Lancashire English.
How far does Scouse or Merseyside speech reach? Are linguistic / geographical boundaries clear cut in Merseyside and the surrounding areas?
The boundaries are not clear at all – accents and dialects are both socially and regionally defined. You can’t talk about a single Merseyside accent – there are a whole range of them, depending partly on whereabouts in Merseyside someone comes from, but also who they interact with – who they want to be, basically.
We use our accents as a kind of badge to show people who we are, and where we belong. You could take say two people of the same age, same sex, who look identical, and have grown up in the same part of Liverpool all their lives, but their Merseyside accents might be very different. You have to say that even within the city there are no fixed boundaries. It’s a very mixed, heterogeneous situation.
Liverpool - gateway to a new life
Outside the city you can see Merseyside accents rubbing up against the Lancashire accents in areas like St Helens and Ormskirk. On its east side the Wirral shows strong Merseyside influence; less strong on the west side or Deeside, which is partly social and partly geographical. You can see Merseyside influence along the North Wales coast; and among young people on the Isle of Man.
Where does that classic ‘blocked-nose Scouse’ way of speaking come from?
Well the sort of folk belief about it is that it was adenoids – that children growing up in Merseyside in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Scouse as an accent was being forged, listened to older speakers who all suffered from adenoids. If you think about when you’ve got a cold you can‘t actually put air through your nose, so you talk differently. So the idea is that the children were listening to that cold-ridden voice and imitated it.
Another speech type you get in Merseyside is a very breathy sort of voice – with a lot of breathing out as they speak. Young people do that quite a lot, and it seems to be more of a female than a male type of speech.
The third type of voice, which you’ll hear in some speakers – more male than female – is the John Lennon type speech – very down the nose.
- Click on the audio link at the top of the page to hear more about the 'blocked nose syndrome' and other Scouse peculiarities.
Where does that throaty ‘c’ come from? You hear it in words like ‘cream’ and ‘chicken’….
I think it’s carrying to its logical conclusion a change that has been happening for a long time in Merseyside speech. Received Pronunciation would have a ‘k’ sound there, but in Scouse it would come out as a weaker ‘h’ sound.
- Click on the audio link at the top of the page to hear more about why what we often think of as being 'lazy speech' isn't lazy at all!
We all try and sound posh on the phone
How can we measure people’s reactions to different accents?
We can test this by playing tape recordings of different accents and asking people to grade them in attractiveness, or by asking them what occupations they think that those users might have. Liverpool always comes near the bottom, along with Glasgow, London and Birmingham. Now those are all big cities. It’s possible that it’s a prejudice against big cities which people are carrying over into their attitudes to the accent.
- Click on the audio link at the top of the page to hear more about why we rate some accents more highly than others.
So basically a broad Scouse accent is not seen in a terribly positive light by people within Merseyside, as well as by people outside Merseyside?
Well I don’t think there’s any such thing as a one-language individual – a person who could only speak broad Scouse, broad Glaswegian or anything else. We all have a telephone voice or a Sunday best voice that we can put on. We do that unconsciously, when the situation demands it.
"We use our accents as a kind of badge to show people who we are, and where we belong."Andrew Hamer
Telephones are a very good example because we can’t see the other person – we often don’t know the other person and they can’t read our lips. We have to speak a little more clearly, a bit slower and a bit more towards the standard accent when we’re talking to strangers anyway. Partly to help them out; but also partly because we automatically move towards the accent of the person we are talking to. Everybody is kind of bi-lingual.
Although I would agree that a broad Scouse accent is stigmatised - in England, anyway - there’s a lot of telephone sales that goes on in Merseyside among people with perfectly good Merseyside accents. They couldn’t be selling things if their accent was perceived to be that bad.
The Scousers... a negative stereotype?
A lot of these views about Scouse, Glaswegian, Birmingham or any other stigmatised accents are based around what you might call stereotyped images of that accent. These are produced by attitudes to the city itself, but also by comedians making fun of them on television – comedians often not from the area themselves so producing a ‘hammy’ kind of accent. And they [the comedians] often associate those accents with particular kinds of attitudes – of wasters, loafers, thieves or scoundrels, but never with brain surgeons, test pilots or those other kind of prestige jobs. I think people’s reactions to various accents are constantly being reinforced by stereotyping.
Is our accent likely to change with our age?
The period when you are at your most intensively interactive and when you most want to be different from everybody else is when you are an adolescent. Let’s say starting from nine or ten years old through to 17 or 18; it’s very important for young people to establish their own identities.
One of the ways they’ll do that is by rebelling in all sorts of ways – particularly against their parents. They will speak in a different way to their parents, with their own slang. That’s the time of life when people are typically at their least standardised.
Once you reach more than 17 or 18 you’re thinking about settling down and getting a job and sorting out a relationship. As you become part of the whole institutional machinery your voice tends to move with you and you become more kind of ‘main stream’. You will still have your Belfast or Glaswegian or Merseyside accent, but it’ll be less extreme.
People’s accents do change quite a lot in early adulthood. People’s accents change all throughout their lives anyway. Your language is always evolving – that’s one of the nice things about language.
What would you say is the biggest current influence on the way we speak in this region?
I think the biggest single influence now is London speech. What you notice among young speakers – say speakers under the age of 30 – 35, is increasingly frequent use of ‘f’ and ‘v’ for ‘th’. So where some speakers would say ‘brother’ and some speakers would say ‘brudder’, younger Merseyside speakers are saying ‘bruvver’. And where some older speakers would say ‘thick’ and others would say ‘tick’, younger speakers are saying ‘fick’. Now those ‘f’ and ‘v’ sounds are cockney in origin; they are London based. But it is a feature that is spreading all over the country at the moment – in Glasgow they call it ‘Jockney’ – Scottish Cockney. London speech has been influencing the rest of the country for at least four hundred years, so it shouldn’t surprise us.
Is London speech ever likely to take over Scouse completely?
No, language doesn’t work like that. Ultimately it boils down to people’s own views about themselves. You’ll have some people embracing the new influence, and some people rejecting it. I’m quite happy about the future of Scouse – it’s going to continue changing, it’s going to continue developing. But it will continue.