Cross-Discplinary Insights on Regional Dialect Levelling
Dave Sayers (University of Essex, UK)
This paper has two aims: firstly to locate regional dialect levelling historically, marking it out as a distinctly modern phenomenon; and secondly to locate it spatially, as a reflection of population movements within ‘regions’ – geographical areas defined by the movement of populations (Allen et al.) – rather than as a result of dialect diffusion from a single urban centre.
For the first aim, I demonstrate the spread of predominantly standard dialect forms across England between Ellis (1889) and Orton et al. (1962), and compare this with the increased spread of non-standard forms in the present day (e.g. Trudgill, 1988; Torgersen & Kerswill, 2004). In the former period I assert that literacy, not mobility, had the greatest impact on dialects. The present day diffusion of non-standard forms, however, suggests the reverse. I explain this contrast with detailed reference to 20th century increases in regionally concentrated intra-state migration, long-distance commuting, urbanisation, counterurbanisation, and the consequent dissolution of the ‘local’ into the ‘regional’. I assess the ability of the ‘regional dialect levelling’ narrative to account for this new pattern of dialect change, and propose some improvements.
Regional dialect levelling, a theory based primarily on dialect convergence in present day Great Britain (e.g. Torgersen & Kerswill, 2004; Britain, 2005), sees dialect features as diffusing outward from the biggest urban centre, through successive smaller urban centres and thence to rural peripheries. Thus in southeast England it is London that acts as the dialectological epicentre, with other towns and cities gradually receiving and appropriating its dialect input to varying degrees. Lesser urban centres in the southeast are quite reasonably rejected as being the dialectological point of origin (e.g. Reading, Torgersen & Kerswill, 2004:46); but, I argue, to automatically assume that ‘London’ is the originator and distributor of dialect features (as Torgersen & Kerswill do) is to oversimplify things. Intuitively the bigger and more ‘connected’ urban centres will indeed participate more in this regional flow, and indeed this is borne out by sociolinguistic data, but the evidence is much less conclusive that London is the prime mover in southeast levelling.
I aim to move towards an understanding of dialect features flowing around regions as a whole, and with no particular pre-given point of origin. Thus regional dialect levelling in southeast England is not the result of people aspiring towards, or coming into more contact with, people from London; but rather the result of people moving ever further and faster around the southeast, and mixing their dialects together in the process. London is not the cause or origin of these changes. Nowhere is. The region is of prime concern.
This still allows, and in fact supports, an ‘urban hierarchy’ model of linguistic diffusion, since the bigger the town or city, the more connected it is and the greater the participation in the regional flow. It even allows a conception of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ since towns closer to the centre of the southeast – like Ashford and Reading (Torgersen & Kerswill, 2004) – will participate faster and more fully than places further away, like the Fens in East Anglia (Britain, 2005). The core of the region is still important as a kind of gravitational centre; it is just not the origin of those dialect innovations.
With this paper, then, I bring together insights from sociolinguistics, sociology and geography, to shed light on dialect convergence and how it can be seen as a historically new process, reflecting equally new patterns of geographical mobility in our late modern society.
- Allen, J., D. Massey & A. Cochrane (1998). Rethinking the Region. London: Routledge.
- Britain, D. (2005). Innovation diffusion, ‘Estuary English’ and local dialect differentiation: the survival of Fenland Englishes. Linguistics, 43(5): 995-1022.
- Torgersen, E. & P. Kerswill (2004).‘Internal and external motivation in phonetic change: Dialect levelling outcomes for an English vowel shift. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8(1): 23–53.
- Trudgill, P. (1988). Norwich revisited: recent linguistic changes in an English urban dialect. English World-Wide 9: 33–49.