Leeds or Manchester?

Turning back to the world of accent minutiae, a reader emailed me with a conundrum regarding the difference between Leeds and Manchester accents. This concerns ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke, from Salford in Greater Manchester:

I like to think of myself as quite good at identifying English accents, yet I would have no way of telling whether [Clarke]’s from closer to Leeds or Manchester.

Here is a clip of Clarke speaking:

The accents of Leeds and Manchester sound very similar to me, although Northern England is notorious as a region where adjacent suburbs speak ‘different languages.’ The difference I’ve noticed the most between the two cities is found in what we call GOAT words: ‘go,’ ‘flow,’ ‘road,’ etc. In Leeds, there seems a tendency for this to be a monophthong, while in Manchester, this seems more typically a diphthong.

(To review, monophthongs are single, ‘pure’ vowel sounds, so GOAT might be something like goht, while diphthongs are combinations of two vowel sounds, so GOAT might sounds like goh-oot, guhoot, or geh-oot depending on your accent.)

I have at least one (slight) piece of evidence to back this up, courtesy of the British Library. In 1999, the BBC conducted a nationwide survey of English dialects* entitled the Millennium Memory Bank.  This includes an interview of a man from Manchester named Cyril, born in 1923, who exhibits consistent diphthongization of the GOAT vowel (rendered [ɔʊ]).  In Leeds, the survey profiles a group of teenagers who consistently use a monophthongal vowel for GOAT ([ɔ:] or [ɵ:])**.  So while it seems diphthongal GOAT was a part of Manchester at least by the mid-20th-Century, monophthongal GOAT is still going strong among the youngest natives of Leeds.

My impression is that when people from either city move away (or in more ‘non-local’ accents) diphthongs are the norm regardless of where one is from.  Hence Leeds celebrity Angela Griffin uses more of the ‘Manchester’-style diphthong:

It’s unclear to me why there is a difference in this respect between Leeds and Manchester. Any thoughts from locals of either city?

*Well, more a sample of English people talking than a dialect survey.

**The transcriptions of someone at the British Library, not mine.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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30 Responses to Leeds or Manchester?

  1. S Moody says:

    You can actually locate plenty of British city comparisons where accent differentiation seems at odds with geographic distance. Another prime example is Liverpool-Manchester of course but lesser known anomalies like Coventry-Birmingham or Nottingham-Leicester throw up interesting material. Historical geography has a large part to play. The densely forested areas of the Midlands and the North certainly shaped accent formation as did river and mountain positioning. These accents also developed within societies denied rail, car and air travel, so distances which seem fairly trivial take on a completely different dimension 800 years ago.

    I think Angela Griffin (Leeds) and say Noel Gallagher or Terry Christian (Manchester) sound quite different when witnessed on Youtube. You have to be cautious with celebrity examples of course but the handling of the rhotic, in particular in words like ‘right’ is perhaps one area of markedness in the Manchester accent.

    The gulf between the RP spoken by King George VI, and say that of William and Kate, is yet another example of the constant centrifugal and centripetal forces acting upon the English accent even today.

    • trawicks says:

      I tend to think the industrial revolution, and more specifically rail travel, is the most important factor in the formation of northern urban dialects. That’s why they are so fascinating: they are a mixture of features that have been around since the dawn of Early Modern English and features which only date back to the 19th century. The mystery (to me) is why some cities got certain ‘non-Northern’ features (like Liverpool’s fronted diphthongal GOAT vowel), while other cities didn’t.

    • Ed says:

      What’s the difference between Nottingham and Leicester? I’m intrigued.

      The East Midlands gets neglected in dialect discussions.

  2. DCF says:

    It’s not specifically a difference between 2 cities – the monophthong form of GOAT (as well as FACE), extends from around Leeds as far as Scotland, though they become more close the further to the north you are. The two cities are just close to the dividing line.

    • trawicks says:

      Yes, but monophthongal GOAT extends at least as far sound as Sheffield, further south than either Manchester or Liverpool. There seems to be a striking difference in this regard between cities on the East and Western sides of the Pennines.

      • DCF says:

        Sheffield isn’t *much* south of Manchester and is pretty much *on* the line – you can hear GOAT with a diphthong there besides the monophthong, so the dividing line runs far closer to east-west than to north-south.

  3. AW says:

    1) You have to consider sociolinguistics as well here. To my ears Ms.Griffin sounds somewhat ‘posher’ than Mr.Clarke, whose accent is pretty raw.

    2) The Manchester accent isn’t truly northern – Trudgill groups it with Stoke and Derby in his “Dialects of England”. What is striking is the great difference between Manchester and the towns just to the north like Bolton – where they speak proper Lancashire. Take Peter Kay for example.

  4. Ed says:

    First of all, I’m the reader who e-mailed Trawicks about this. I thought about this after someone told me that I (Yorkshire) sound like John Cooper Clarke.

    John Wells had two methods for distinguishing between Leeds and Manchester, but neither seems to work for Clarke.

    * Lancastrians (like people from the West Midlands) usually have no NG-coalescence, and this is true throughout the class spectrum rather than being a working-class feature. However, John Cooper Clarke has NG-coalescence.
    * Yorkshire folk (at least West Yorkshire folk) are known for “Yorkshire assimilation”, where a consonant can get devoiced if followed by another devoiced consonant. This leads to pronunciations like [apsəlu:t] for “absolute” and [bakfʊl ] for “bagful”. Clarke does this sometimes. He talks of a “sat tale” (sad tale) in one of the clips.

    As regards monophthongs, I think that they are more common in Leeds than in Manchester, but there are definitely people on both sides of the Pennines who use monophthongs in GOAT.

    • Ed says:

      I meant to write in the last sentence:

      “there are definitely people on both sides of the Pennines who use diphthongs in GOAT.”

    • Kenny says:

      Ed: “Yorkshire folk (at least West Yorkshire folk) are known for “Yorkshire assimilation”, where a consonant can get devoiced if followed by another devoiced consonant…Clarke does this sometimes.”

      I think I’ve heard Peter Kay (from near Bolton) do this as well. But he’s a comedian though, so maybe he’s incorporating features from nearby regional accents into his own accent to make it even stronger and (hopefully) funnier. His “northernness” does seem to be part of his appeal and maybe he’s aware of that. I don’t know though. I’m not even English.

      I remember reading in Language in the British Isles (David Britain CUP 2007) that Mancunians have [ɒ] in the lettER/commA set(s), e.g., Manchester [ˈmanʧɛstɒ]. That could be a shibboleth. I’ve heard it in Mancunian accent impressions on YouTube.

      What about intonation though? I know that’s a bit more difficult to discuss than these other features, but Peter Trudgill says in English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles (2005; p. 143) that Mancunian intonation is somewhat similar to Scouse intonation. He doesn’t go into any more detail than that, unfortunately, but I know that Scouse is one of the UK accents that has a rising pattern in certain situations where “the standard accents” would have a falling pattern.

      • Ed says:

        This is the clip I meant where Clarke talks of a “sat tale” at the start.

        I’ve not heard [ɒ] in Leeds, so that can be a shibboleth. Again that’s not something that Clarke does.

        Intonation is an interesting one. I think that Manchester is slightly more nasal, but both are quite low on tonal variation in comparison to Scouse.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Ed (and thanks for the original question). My impression is that NG-coalescence is quite possible in Manchester and Liverpool, even if it’s a working-class shibboleth, so that doesn’t much surprise me. But Yorkshire assimilation is indeed puzzling in Clarke’s speech. I will say that Mancunian sounds a bit hard to define: it is arguably less ‘Northern’ than Leeds, but not as much of an outlier as Scouse. There is possibly some difference between suburbs?

  5. Jared says:

    Also what about the use of an alveolar tap for /r/, e.g., a veddy bad day? Is that more common in Manchester or Leeds? Who uses an alveolar approximant [ɹ] as a realization of /t/ (a lorra people outside) more often?

    Then there’s the even more difficult to discuss topic of voice quality. Liverpool and possibly Birmingham is/are known for having a velarized voiced quality. North Wales is known for having a pharyngealized voice quality. What about Leeds and Manchester? Are they different in this respect? I’m just trying to add something to the discussion 🙂

    • trawicks says:

      Intervocalic /r/ tapping is typical of both Leeds and Manchester. I couldn’t say if it’s more common in one than the other.

      I know a slight amount about the intonation of Leeds English, but very little about Manchester outside of personal observations. Both would no doubt differ substantially from Liverpool with its distinctive rising intonational patterns.

      Linguist Esther Grabe studied intonation differences between different cities in the British Isles. She didn’t look at Manchester English, but, interestingly, did do both Leeds and Bradford (a city just to the west of Leeds). Interestingly, she noted a striking difference in the intonation of the two cities: Leeds has a significantly higher rate of falling intonation in yes/no questions. I’d be curious if this is true of the difference between Leeds and Manchester as well.

      • Jared says:

        “Both would no doubt differ substantially from Liverpool with its distinctive rising intonational patterns.”

        If you admittedly know “very little” about Mancunian intonation, then how do you have “no doubt” that it would differ substantially from Liverpool intonation? I think that’s a fair question and it’s not meant to be insulting in any way.

        But I was talking about “voice quality” anyway, not intonation. Some people might call this “setting”. Maybe that’s the term people here are more accustomed to hearing.

        • trawicks says:

          ‘No doubt’ was a poor choice of words. Rise-plateau is perhaps unique in Liverpool in that some (e.g. linguist Gerry Knowles) have suggested that it may have been directly imported from certain varieties of Irish English. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but it would suggest a phenomenon separate from other features of Northern English. Although Tyneside English is noted for its use of rising intonation as well.

          As to voice setting: my general impression is that at least Manchester (or parts of Greater Manchester) shows some of the velarization and/or pharyngealization of Scouse. It’s a little hard to find empirical evidence supporting this, obviously!

        • Jared says:

          Okay. Fair enough.

        • boynamedsue says:

          Trawicks might know very little about the intonation patterns of Manchester, but he’s right. They are very different from those of Manchester, certainly much more than Leeds and Manchester differ from each other.

          As a native of Leeds, I went to live in Liverpool at 18, and initially found that the differences in intonation and certain consonants often made me wonder if people were actually talking English. All I ever noted in Manchester was people talking in a way that was similar to what I ws used to, but with a few hard to define differences.

          I’ve mistaken Mancs for Leeds folk before, their accents are less noticeably different than say… Wakefield and Barnsley, places about 5 miles apart from each other.

        • boynamedsue says:

          second Manchester should read “Liverpool”

        • Jared says:

          That’s wonderful, but these are all just impressions though. Your impression is as good as mine as far as I’m concerned.

        • boynamedsue says:

          Well, do you have a different impression?

          Liverpool English is exceptionally different from all other forms of northern English, and it’s intonation is one of the factors that make this true The fact I can’t quote literature on it doesn’t mean it isn’t so.

        • Jared says:

          It doesn’t mean it is so either.

        • boynamedsue says:

          So you are saying that only academic papers on the topic are valid contributions? Certainly most of the ones I’ve read in the past mention differences of tone, and anybody listening to scouse English immediately perceives it as completely different from other northern accents. Manchester English is much flatter whereas Liverpool using rising and high tones on stressed syllables express emotional involvement.

          Anyway, you either know the accent and know this and are playing daft, or you would do if you spent 5 minutes on youtube checking out the accent, or even went for a holiday there lah.

        • trawicks says:

          To interject, I feel the problem here is that the study of intonation lags far behind many other aspects of phonetics and phonology, at least in terms of the difference between dialects. There are unquestionably academic articles one could cite that mention Liverpool ‘upspeak;’ but many of these arguably only offer ‘impressions.’

        • boynamedsue says:

          Back under he bridge Jared, with any luck it’ll fall on you.

  6. Matthew says:

    There are of course other segmental features that may differ between the two accents, some of them subtle:

    1. /l/ – allophony, quality [resonance or coloring], vocalization
    2. /r/ – “fronting” to [ʋ ~ β̞]
    3. the “th sounds” – fronting, stopping and/or elision (or something else)
    4. /t/, /k/, /p/, /ʧ/ – aspiration (if so which environments and degree), glottal reinforcement, glottal replacement (especially with /t/ [and which environments]; not so much [if at all] with /ʧ/)

    Of course there can be differences in frequency (and degree with aspiration) as well as opposed to just the existence vs. non-existence of a feature. But I don’t even know if there are actually differences with those features because I haven’t studied these accents in depth. Some (or all) of them could be what locals from each city latch onto when they say there is a clear difference between Mancunian and Leodensian. I would really love to see a detailed phonetic and sociolinguistic description of the accents of both Manchester and Leeds of the type in Urban Voices: Accents Studies in the British Isles. I eat that stuff up 🙂