Photograph of three men talking

Social variation across the UK

When feeling ‘pleased’ we might say we are ‘chuffed’, ‘delighted’, ‘happy as a sandboy’, ‘over the moon’, ‘tickled pink’ or ‘thrilled to bits’. Discover how speakers use English differently according to age, gender, ethnicity and social or educational background and explore how people adapt their speech according to context and audience.

If you overheard the following statement, the pronunciation of the word wearing might give subtle clues about the social status of the speaker or the relative formality of the conversation:

maybe she was wearing a cap

This statement, if pronounced without an obvious regional accent, appears to reveal little about the speaker – certainly in terms of his regional origins. But the pronunciation of the final consonant in the word wearing might reveal a great deal about a speaker’s social background or the context in which he is speaking. Most people either use the <n> sound in finger, or they use the <n> sound in fin. In popular writing, the latter pronunciation is often transcribed as wearin’ and this usually conveys the sense that the speaker is either from a lower socio-economic group or is speaking in an informal situation.

Making speech fit the situation

All native speakers adjust their speech patterns depending on context: from relaxed conversation in familiar surroundings to a more formal setting. Most of us have been accused of having a ‘telephone voice’. We all have a range of different voices – for talking to children, talking to friends in the pub, making a presentation or talking to a foreigner and we modify our speech accordingly. In most cases, the changes we make are extremely subtle but nonetheless noticeable, and a perfectly natural way of making the people we are talking to feel at ease. Often this process is subconscious and we are simply expressing a shared identity or group solidarity or attempting to present a certain image. However, the range of any given speaker’s repertoire is defined by who he or she is. People from different geographical places speak differently, but even within the same small community, people might speak differently according to their age, gender, ethnicity and social or educational background.

Listen to these extracts of speakers using features of informal spoken English.

ING with [n] 

and now I’ve moved on: I’m working for The Family Planning Association as a Peer Educator. Uhm, and I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next, you know, so I’m, I’m always on the look-out for different challenges

Listen carefully to the way this speaker pronounces the final consonant in the words working, planning, going and doing. Research has shown that in all English-speaking communities, this use of a <n> sound at the end of nouns, such as morning and ceiling, verbal constructions, such as running and playing and pronouns, such as something and anything is a feature of informal speech everywhere. Moreover studies have demonstrated that <n> is more likely to occur among lower socio-economic groups and that in all social groups its use increases in informal contexts. The alternative pronunciation – using the consonant that everybody uses for the <n> in the noun finger or the adjective longer – occurs with greater frequency for all social groups in more formal contexts, thus illustrating it is considered the prestige pronunciation by speakers everywhere.

Interestingly, in the Midlands and North West of England many speakers also pronounce the <g> sound in all words where <ng> is present in the spelling, including nouns like singer and hanger and verbs like banging and ringing. Unlike other localised pronunciations, this is considered highly prestigious locally and thus unites speakers from a very wide range of backgrounds in an area that extends from Liverpool, Greater Manchester and Sheffield in the north through to Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham in the Midlands. Elsewhere in the UK you might also hear informal pronunciations of the pronouns anything, nothing, something and everything with a <k> sound as the final consonant.

Listen to the recordings featured on this site for other examples of this variable.

Multiple negation

so it’s nice, you know: my younger brother hasn’t got no children, but that’s, that’s his decision

Multiple negation – the use of two or sometimes several negative markers in a statement – often provokes disapproval, and is viewed by many speakers as somehow illogical: two negatives surely do not make a positive? This prescriptive view of language – the notion that linguistic rules should apply according to logic or mathematics – stems from 18th-century attempts by the so-called grammarians to make the English Language conform to a certain set of rules. In many cases these rules applied to the classical languages of Ancient Greek and Latin, but not to English, which is after all ostensibly a Germanic language. You only have to consider the French constructions ne ... pas or ne ... jamais to realise other languages allow multiple negation quite happily and, closer to home the construction neither ... nor seems to escape disapproval.

Multiple negatives were considered perfectly acceptable in most forms of early and Middle English, as is illustrated by the triple negatives in Chaucer’s description of the Friar in The Canterbury Tales – ‘there nas no man nowher so vertuous’ – and in Viola’s description of her heart in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – ‘Nor never none / Shall mistress of it be, save I alone’. Although modern Standard English speakers studiously avoid such constructions, multiple negatives thrive in most non-standard dialects of English, often serving to intensify or enhance the negative impact of a statement. Al Jolson’s famous line in The Jazz Singer in 1927 – you ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ – and Ronald Reagan’s taunt at the Republican National Convention in 1992 – ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ – would have carried far less force had they been expressed in Standard English.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of multiple negation: Kniveton, Portesham, Burnley, Birkenhead, Melksham, Milland and Stonehaven.

H-dropping

you see we have a bond; we have a bond down here that, uh, whatever happens, we’ll still turn up trumps if anybody is sick or if there’s a bereavement.

Listen carefully to the way this speaker pronounces the words have, here and happens. H-dropping – the tendency to delete the initial <h> sound in words such as happy and house – first provoked comment in the 18th century and has been avoided by the middle classes. Nonetheless, it is a feature of popular speech that distinguishes speakers in the whole of England (apart from Tyneside and Northumberland) and Wales from those in Scotland, Ireland and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world, who retain their <h>s.

Most speakers do not always pronounce the <h> in high frequency grammatical words, such as he, him and her other than in extremely careful speech. Sometimes speakers prone to H-dropping consciously seek to avoid it in formal situations and end up inserting an <h> inappropriately, resulting in oft-caricatured pronunciations such as honest with the <h> intact, or statements such as what an orrible hexperience. This phenomenon is known as hypercorrection, and might explain the increasingly common pronunciation of the letter h (aitch) as if it were haitch.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of H-dropping: Leeds, Burnley, Nottingham, Banbury, Hackney and Maerdy.

T-glottaling

I go out and, like, my mum, I don’t know, sits at home watching telly or she goes round to clean the Community Centre or she goes to my grandma’s or, but, like, me and my mate go swimming and that

Listen carefully to the way this speaker pronounces the words out, sits, at, community, centre, but, mate and that. She uses a relatively modern feature, known as T-glottaling, which has provoked a great deal of interest in recent years. T-glottaling refers to the substitution of a glottal stop – a noise made by a brief closure at the back of the mouth – for a <t> sound between vowels, as in better and it is, or at the end of a syllable or word, as in little, that and don’t. It is an age-specific feature, rather than characteristic of a particular accent and it can be heard among younger speakers across the UK. Intriguingly it seems to arouse widespread disapproval in some circles and is a stigmatised feature – and yet it is a distinctively British innovation. It is not, for instance, a feature of any US accent and thus one of many examples that British English and American English, in terms of pronunciation at least, are diverging rather than converging.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of T-glottaling: Withernsea, Norwich, Canterbury, Plymouth, Bethesda and Glasgow.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.