They say that the only language that isn’t changing is dead. And while this may not be quite so noticeable in areas of the UK with familiar accents and dialects, the South East of England is a hotbed of accent change, where gradually everybody is beginning to sound the same.
This is a fairly simplistic way of looking at things but research in Milton Keynes has shown that the new town is at the forefront of this development and is a good example of what is happening generally around London.
In the 1990s Milton Keynes was used as the centre for a linguistic study run by the Economic and Social Research Council. Academics wanted to see what happened to accent development in a new town as opposed to how they progressed in an area that already had an established accent.
Paul Kerswill is now Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Lancaster and took part in the study when researching at Reading University.
Doing two sets of recordings in 1991/92 and 95/96, the study focused on 48 children from three of the main new town developments near the town centre: 16 four-year-olds, 16 eight-years-olds and 16 twelve-year-olds. The children were either born in Milton Keynes or had arrived there by the age of two and each group of 16 children were equally divided between the sexes.
"We wanted to see if there was an effect of the old North Bucks accent in, for example, Wolverton and Stony Stratford, on the youngsters accent" he explains.
"Almost all the kids weren’t native in that their parents had all moved into the area. In the 1980s about one third of the people there [Milton Keynes] had moved there from London so you would expect it to affect the accent.
"We wanted to see if there was any influence from London, a kind of Cockney transplant, or even if was anything Scottish in it [their accent]."
The children were interviewed by Ann Williams (now at the University of Wales in Bangor) who set tasks to get them talking. She also interviewed , on one caregiver (usually the mother) for each child to see if there was a difference between the child’s and the adult’s accent.
"We were interested in whether the child formed a new accent by themselves in a new place as opposed to following their parents" Professor Kerswill continued.
"The four-year-olds mainly sounded like their parents but the 12-year-olds appeared to be developing new accents and these weren’t Cockney accents either.
"What they had developed was a watered down, or less strong London accent."
They also discovered that there was a shift in their accent when they moved away from being with their parents all the time to being with their peer group more, and this shift was developing into a very distinct Milton Keynes accent.
"One child at age four sounded Scottish but when he was re-interviewed at 5 ½ he sounded more Milton Keynes" added Professor Kerswill.
"Then a second study with 14-year-olds showed that that age group could tell the difference between a Milton Keynes and a London accent when presented with voices on tape."
On the face of it, you would assume that with people moving into the new town from all over the country, their new accent would be a complete mishmash of everything, but this mishmash has in fact developed into a distinct Milton Keynes dialect.
Obviously it is difficult to describe an accent in words but in general Professor Kerswill says that Milton Keynes has all the features and pronunciation that are widespread but with no pronunciation that is only found in one place.
Therefore most kids have the widespread features of using ‘f’ instead of ‘th’ and the ‘glottle stop’ (i.e. they don’t pronounce the ‘t’s in letter or butter) but the way they say the vowel in a word like town is not ‘tahn’ as you would expect. Older pre-new town resident of Milton Keynes tend to say ‘tain’ while a Milton Keynes youngster would say ‘town’.
"So youngsters have avoided the rural pronunciation and strong London accent in favour of what’s known as dialect levelling" he says. "The difference between regional accents is getting less with time."
The next stage was to see if this accent was like that in other towns in the area so they did a similar study in Reading with 14-year-olds and discovered that while they should have sounded like they were from rural Berkshire they were heading towards sounding like those in Milton Keynes.
It seemed as though all youngsters in South East England were beginning to sound like each other, but their accent was less strong than a London accent.
Nevertheless, Milton Keynes was still quite distinctive.
"Milton Keynes is a very mobile place with not a strong accent and it’s this that might actually make it identifiable" says the Professor.
He says that they weren’t really surprised by the results of the study because they had no real views before they started, but nevertheless, it was reassuring to find out that there was a levelled accent spoken there, because this was what you would expect from a more mobile population.
"People in Reading or on a Council Estate in London have a strong local accent because they mix with strong local networks" he explains.
"But on estates in Milton Keynes there is not a strong accent because they are mobile and therefore have a more levelled accent. They are not picking up their parents speech but speech from other places.
"Milton Keynes also had a young population and those who migrated there were of child bearing age, therefore you would expect the accent to develop quite quickly" he added.
Even though Milton Keynes has a distinctive accent, the levelling that is going on there is indicative of the Home Counties, including Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, where some people have moved out of London, and others commute in.
"The people who live there [Beds and Herts] have more ties outside of their community" explains Professor Kerswill.
"There is a lack of local ties so speech forms from other places and is closer to standard English. Local communities are watered down and there is a tendency to take on more features of Received Pronunciation.
"You could say that Milton Keynes is at the forefront of this development."
So the migration and development of Milton Keynes seems to be a microcosm of what is now happening on a wider scale around London. Like it or not, you could say that the whole of the Home Counties is like one giant Milton Keynes, with London in the centre and a general levelling of accent rippling out from it. You never know, one day we may ALL sound the same!