Sociolinguistics, particularly William Labov’s quantitative analyses of linguistic variation and change, attempts to explain how social factors such as socio-economic grouping, age, race and gender affect language use (see Labov 1966a, 1970, 1972a). The idea is that these social variables can then be used to study linguistic behaviour in a range of communities. The concept of Standard English (SE) is a useful contrastive tool for describing regional variation in terms of grammar (encompassing morphology and syntax) and lexis, where Received Pronunciation (RP) – traditionally associated with Southern accents and the middle and upper classes – is useful for observing phonological variation in regional accents.
In Peter Trudgill’s The Dialects of England,he acknowledges a distinction between traditional dialects, where speakers are predominantly rural, older and more working-class, and modern dialects, where speakers are predominantly urban, younger and more middle- and upper-class (1990). Barbara Fennell argues that modern regional dialects are not as different from each other as the traditional dialects, and that these modern dialects do not diverge from Standard English to the same degree as traditional dialects. It is in the interest of variationists like Trudgill and Fennell to discuss modern dialects in relation to older varieties, because of the inveterate relationship between language variation and change.
I propose that there is more variation between modern dialects and SE than sociolinguists like Fennell appreciate, despite the more obvious contrast between traditional dialects and SE. This essay will examine the phonological, lexical and grammatical differences between the modern dialect of Tyneside and SE, in order to emphasise these distinctions, and provide evidence for a resistance to standardised forms of English.
The data I have used in my analysis was collected through a questionnaire, using direct naming questions to elicit responses. The questions were also arranged into semantic fields of People and Accessories, and Being, Saying & Doing, to encourage an elicitation of nouns, lexical verbs and auxiliary verbs, so that we may observe the differences in phonological features, lexis, grammar and syntax from RP and SE.
A common criticism of dialect geography is that the informants chosen to participate in studies are often “nonmobile, older, rural males”, or ‘NORMS’ (chambers & Trudgill, 1998, p.29). NORMS are increasingly in decline, due to the boom in travel and education of the late twentieth century. I have therefore chosen a young, urban, female informant, to provide a more accurate representation of the Tyneside dialect.
This also has its pitfalls, however, as urban communities, as opposed to rural ones, involve more flux: the result of this, that some dialectologists and sociolinguists call dialect levelling, means that this type of informant may not provide a strictly accurate portrayal of the speech used in a particular locale. However, there are still identifiable linguistic trends in the Tyneside dialect, that when considered alongside SE and RP, reveal a substantial divergence from these standardised conceptions of English.
Tyneside versus RP: Phonology
One of the most prominent differences between regional accents and RP is the phoneme inventory. A well-documented distinction between Northern accents and more standardised usages, is the absence of phoneme /Ã/ when producing words such as ‘putt’ and ‘butter’ (Hughes et al, 2005, p.59). In RP there is a distinction between phonemes /Ã/ and /U/ in these words: /pUt/ (‘putt’), /bÃt«/ (‘butter’). My informant’s responses concur with this observation, with /U/ used consistently in words like mug, munter, and mullered (Appendix A, lines 8 and 23 respectively). An exception to this rule is where /u/ appears word-initially and following a voiced alveolar, as in /plant wn n «z/ (plant one on us), where the anticipated [U] becomes [«] (see Appendix A, lines 18 and 20).
In their study of the distribution of variants of face in Tyneside English, Watt & Milroy observed a higher frequency of monophthong [eù] in young, middle class females than [I«] and [eI] (1999, p. 35). This monophthongisation of long medial vowels is less frequent in males, particularly older working class males, suggesting that the diphthongisation of vowels associated with traditional Tyneside English is affected by variables of age, socio-economic grouping and gender. The medial long vowels in items like /sI«z lI«?«/in the transcript exemplify this diphthongisation (Appendix A, line 16). Issues of convergence and divergence of course affect the accuracy of any accent study; my informant may have consciously conformed to the traditional pronunciation of these items, and equally, the informants in Watt & Milroy’s study may have adhered to a conceived ‘prestige’ form of pronunciation in the variant face.
Another phonological feature characteristic of the Tyneside accent, and one that is also shared by Scottish English, is that of /uù/ where RP denotes /aU/ as in ‘town’ and ‘brown’ (Hughes et al, 2005, p. 124). My informant produces /uù/ in about in line 18, although evidence for dialect levelling, such as that produced by Auer & Hinskens (1996) and Trudgill (1986), suggests that some of these traditional features attributed to the Tyneside accent may be exaggerated here. According to such sociolinguistic study, increased mobility, industrialisation and increased communication at regional, national and international levels, has encouraged a greater level of dialect contact. Whether my informant has consciously conformed to traditional notions of the Tyneside dialect or not, the data still reveals a resistance to standardised forms of English.
Tyneside versus Standard English: Lexis
There are many instances in the transcript of lexical items particular to the Tyneside region. Some are traditionally associated with the area, for example canny as someone or something who is kind (BBC Voices, 2004). Though this item is still in use, it appears to have lost its traditional meaning, although it has expanded its semantic repertoire: the speaker uses canny as both a greeting, and a term to denote a person who is mean with money. In this case, processes of semantic widening and pejoration have occurred, where canny, in this latter sense, has acquired negative connotations (see Appendix A, lines 15 and 10 respectively).
As with a few of the phonological features discussed above, the transcript reveals some vocabulary that is shared with Scotland and other northern English counties: words like bonny meaning ‘attractive’ in SE, lass denoting a ‘girl’ or ‘woman’, bairn meaning ‘child’ and bap for a type of bread roll. Stotty, also a type of bread roll, is listed in the OED as specifically a Tyneside delicacy, though it’s etymology is unknown (OED Online, 1989). It is interesting that the informant listed bonny as a variant of ‘attractive’, as this adjective, associated with traditional northern dialects, is not documented in the OED as a present-day ordinary usage (OED Online, 1989).
Tara (pronounced /trAù/ by the informant, with an elision of the medial vowel that would ordinarily be found in SE) is listed as a colloquial alternative to ‘ta-ta’ and is mainly a northern term (OED Online, 1989). Worlass is an interesting compound of ‘wor’, denoting ‘our’ in SE, and ‘lass’, meaning ‘wife’ or ‘girlfriend’ in SE. Though this is perhaps primarily a morphological point, it’s notable that as a lexical item it fuses the grammatical classifications of second person possessive pronoun and singular concrete noun.
Let us now turn to an account of the grammatical (morphological and syntactical) elements of the Tyneside dialect that contrast SE constructions.
Tyneside versus Standard English: Grammar
The questionnaire reveals a number of distinct features of the Tyneside dialect that have previously been observed by dialectologists studying the area, such as Hughes et al (1996, 2005), and Wells (1982):
The use of gan as an alternative verb to SE go shown here in table 1.1, is a feature characteristic of both modern and traditional Tyneside dialects (Crystal, 2003, p.326). Contraction of the negative modal auxiliary verb ‘can’t that is commonplace in SE is absent, with the informant instead utilising the full form cannot (Appendix A, line 22). Although there is no noted dialectal association between the use of this particular auxiliary and the Tyneside area, a folk etymological interpretation might observe the link between cannot and canny, which, aside from the meanings discussed above, is also used in the Glaswegian dialect as a negative variant to the verb ‘can’ (Dictionary of the Scots Language, 2005).
There are two exclamatory words that the speaker uses to punctuate, emphasise or complete utterances: by, as in ‘by, she’s a big lass!’ and like, as in ‘there’s loads like’. The latter is ubiquitous in the Tyneside dialect, and whilst it’s not strictly a variation from SE in itself, in this context it poses a non-standard usage. By appears to be a dialect variant of ‘why’, which may be used in this type of context in SE.
The use of first person plural us in place of the SE first person singular me is also a well documented feature of the Tyneside dialect, and appears to be most frequently used at the end of an utterance: “Plant one on us” (Appendix A, line 20). In line 9, the informant produces the verb phrase /w¨«/. The quality of the vowel  here suggests that this item would denote ‘was a’ in SE, which would violate the concord of the utterance: the informant begins with third person plural ‘they’, and therefore SE would dictate that the verb form should also be plural (‘were’). This is a common feature of northern dialects and a persistent retaliation from standardised forms.
This analysis of the grammatical, lexical and phonological distinctions between the regional dialect of Tyneside and standardised usages of English has illuminated a number of features that dialectologists and sociolinguists have associated with the traditional dialect of the area, and processes of language variation and change. The paralinguistic attributes of the informant (young, urban, middle class female) in opposition to Chambers & Trudgill’s model of the NORM, were designed to reveal a survival of traditional dialect features in the face of issues such as dialect levelling. The data revealed that certain vowel sounds, lexical items and grammatical features traditionally associated with the Tyneside dialect are still in use, although of course a wider study with a range of informants, representing different age ranges, socio-economic groupings and of both genders, would produce a more accurate portrayal of present-day urban usage. The structure of the questionnaire comprising a set of direct questions, also may limit the quantity of grammatical constructions elicited; a more indirect approach may encourage greater discussion of dialect variants, something that a denser study would enable. Despite this, a clear resistance to SE and RP is evident from the collected data, which I believe will continue to prevail even as dialect contact increases, as regional dialect is such an integral part of an individual’s identity.