In our discussions of dialect evolution in the UK, a common denominator is th-fronting. To review: th-fronters turn ‘th‘ words into ‘f’ or ‘v’ words: ‘thing’ becomes ‘fing,’ ‘bother’ becomes ‘bovver,’ and ‘both’ becomes ‘bof.’ It’s a feature common in broad London accents. Note Cockney celebrity Danny Dyer‘s pronunciation of ‘thing,’ ‘with,’ and ‘third’ in this clip:
It’s clear that this feature is spreading in the UK, but not entirely clear why. Linguist Paul Kerswill, who has studied the spread of ‘London’ accent features in the UK, has accumulated some interesting data about ‘th-fronting,’ particularly in his work on British children’s speech in the late-90’s with colleague Ann Williams*.
At the time, there was clearly still a working-class/middle-class divide in terms of th-fronting. In Reading, a city on the outskirts of Greater London, rates were 0% for middle-class girls compared to over 80% for working-class boys. There was also a striking gender split, particularly in the town of Milton Keynes, where th-fronting occurred less than 10% of the time for middle-class girls but over 30% for boys.
But perhaps the most impressive observation gleaned from Kerswill and Williams’ data is the geographical spread of ‘th’-fronting. The highest incidence of this feature was found in working-class boys in Hull, a city in Northern England, far from Greater London. Quite a journey!
We tend to think of th-fronting as a marker of London accents, but this is perhaps stereotypical. As the feature has also been a long-time feature of the Bristol accent, it might more accurately be thought of as a Southern English feature. Within the past fifty years, however, th-fronting occurs in localities far from its heartland, in urban areas of Northern England and Scotland.
The fact that th-fronting seems more common among males suggests a ‘covert prestige’ feature, a working-class shibboleth that while stigmatized, becomes a secret source of pride. The question, of course, is how the feature entered the speech of young men in such far-flung places in the first place.
As I’ve said before, what deepens the mystery is that this feature clearly can arise of its own accord without outside influence. Some accents in the American South (along with varieties of African-American Vernacular English) front ‘th’ words in a manner identical to Cockney. So to what degree is this feature spreading, and to what degree is it emerging independently?
Williams, Ann & Kerswill, Paul (1999). Dialect levelling: change and continuity in Milton Keynes, Reading and Hull. In Paul Foulkes & Gerard Docherty (eds.) Urban voices. Accent studies in the British Isles. London: Arnold. 141–162.