Whatever Happened to the Northumbrian /r/?

Thomas Girtin's Bamburgh CastleAs I’ve previously discussed, English accents exhibit various types of /r/ sounds. Yet few are as peculiar as the /r/ once typical of an accent known as the Northumbrian burr, spoken in rural areas of Northeast England.

The burr was notorious for its uvular /r/ sound, similar to the /r/ in Metropolitan French or Standard German. To put that into impressionistic terms, it was a ‘swallowed’ r, pronounced from the back of the throat.

The burr is clearly audible in this old recording made for the Survey of English dialects in the 1950’s (courtesy of the British Library).

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Where did this strangely ‘continental’ /r/ come from? What makes this region so unique that from its villages would emerge this most rare of English rhotics? One possible clue can be found in the history of English in the area, as summarized in this passage from a description of Middle English dialects* on the UPenns’s Linguistics Department website:

In the aftermath of the great Scandinavian invasions of the 860’s and 870’s, large numbers of Scandinavian families settled in northern and northeastern England … in some areas their settlements had so completely displaced the preexisting English settlements that they cannot have had sufficient contact with native speakers of Old English to learn the language well. They learned it badly, carrying over into their English various features of Norse…

So it seems there was a stronger-than-usual connection between the English in Northumbria and Old Norse. Those with some knowledge of Scandinavian tongues might see a possible link in that Danish and certain dialects of Swedish and Norwegian feature uvular /r/’s. But in their book Dialectology, linguists JK Chambers and Peter Trudgill posit that the uvular /r/ heard in modern Scandinavian countries actually originated in Paris, and spread from city to city in Western and Northern Europe.

So how the Scandinavian connection might have actually produced the unusual /r/ of the region is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, it seems that the region was linguistically isolated from the beginning.

As to how the /r/ disappeared, well, that one isn’t so difficult to figure out. The ‘standard’ English alveolar approximant has conquered the traditional trills that were once part of rural English dialects. Although its memory lives on, the Northumbrian burr will most likely never reemerge.

*I’ve yet to find out who the author is of this page, as it’s buried in a largely inaccessible part of the website.

 

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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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9 Responses to Whatever Happened to the Northumbrian /r/?

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    The description you mention appears to be by:

    Donald Ringe, Kahn Term Professor in Linguistics
    Historical linguistics, Indo-European, morphology (Ph.D. Yale, 1984)

    (I suppose it’s possible that Dr. Ringe is not the author, but the editor, of that particular page; but at any rate, it’s related to his field, and that’s his name and first initial in the URL.)

  2. Matt B. says:

    That’s “What ever happened”, with a space, i.e. “what, at any time, happened”. “Whatever happened” would be a nominal clause, not a question.

  3. DCF says:

    “In the aftermath of the great Scandinavian invasions of the 860′s and 870′s, large numbers of Scandinavian families settled in northern and northeastern England”

    – The north east – and modern Northumberland in particular – were largely beyond the range of the Scandinavian settlement. This can be seen graphically in the case of place names and also in the use of geographic terms of Scandinavian origin like “fell” and “beck”. This just adds to the unlikeliness of a Scandinavian origin.

    • Montmorency says:

      An interesting map, which rather surprised me. Although it is not as though there is no Scandinavian influence there, and some place endings are not in the list, such as -wick, as in Berwick.

      Here is an interesting overview article:
      TYNESIDE and NORTHUMBRIAN DIALECT

      Some interesting stuff from the Ordnance Survey on placenames, focusing on Scotland, as (so they say) these have been less subject to later linguistic changes, and so retain the Scandinavian elements more clearly:

      Placenames

      Scandinavian intro

      glossary

      Scandinavian guide (pdf)

    • Mike says:

      I read that the Northumbrian ‘r’ came about because of the high regard for the local hero Hotspur “Percy” who had a similar speech pattern.

  4. John Pierce says:

    There are also some Irish and Scottish accents/idiolects (idiocents?) with uvular R (I’m sorry if people have already pointed this out on here a million times). And Northumbria borders Scotland of course.