The Teesside Controversy

Some British school administrators recently sought to “improve” their students’ Teesside dialect by urging parents to correct their children’ speech. The letter prompted outcry, for reasons well-summarized by Stan Carey of Sentence First. This photo of the note in question has circulated the internet:


So what does the school want to correct, exactly? Dialect? Spelling? Pronunciation? True, the letter cites some actual dialect features: “Gizit here” (for “give it to me”) and “nowt” (for “nothing”) are obvious examples. Other “mistakes,” however, involve orthographic mistakes, such as the “you’re/your” quibble. At least in one case, the children’s accent is taken to task, for the “mistake” of fronting “th” so that “three” sounds like “free.” Needless to say, this is a very scattershot approach to language education.

I would also argue that two of the “offensive” terms are acceptable in spoken Standard English. “I dunno” is obviously just a reduced version of “I don’t know,” not a case of non-standard grammar. I also feel that “yous,” while out of place in an academic paper perhaps, can be used in conversation without it “de-standardizing” one’s language. I’ve heard the word used by Irish natives within otherwise academic discourse, just as I’ve heard “y’all” used by Standard-English-speaking American Southerners.

While I abhor prescriptivist attempts to “correct” dialects, I’m more disturbed by how muddled this attempt is. How should parents correct “letta/butta” and “werk/work?” Are these spelling mistakes? Mispronunciations? And what if one’s child genuinely wishes to express that “He was sat there?” (“Someone assigned him a particular seat.”)

The bottom line is, this letter seems to have been written by someone with a shallow understanding of the very language they seek to “correct.”


About Ben

Ben T. 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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36 Responses to The Teesside Controversy

  1. Robert Cox says:

    I don’t understand how pronouncing “three” like “free” could possibly be considered “dropping the th”. Dropping the th would give you “ree”. But I know that the “Letta, Butta” complaint can’t be about R-dropping, because dropping one’s R’s in those words is RP. Maybe some kids spell them that way. Or it is a pronunciation quibble about them using an open [a]-like sounds at the end of those words instead of [ə]? About the “you’re”/”your” quibble: maybe they expect kids to make a pronunciation distinction between “you’re” [juə] and “your” [jɔː]? I don’t know.

    • Ed says:

      It’s a reference to an open [a] sound at the end of the words. This is common in the north-east of England.

      I didn’t realise that any dialect distinguishes between “your” and “you’re”.

      • IVV says:

        Although it’s not necessarily common among the people I grew up with, I do have a spoken your/you’re distinction. “Your” uses the FORCE vowel and “you’re” is closer to the CURE vowel. Now, in practice, I reduce both vowels to a NURSE “yer.”

        That said, I fully expect the two words to be homophones, anyway.

      • Peter S. says:

        Re: you’re/your.

        I believe there are several dialects in the U.S. with a your/you’re split, including one I grew up sort-of-speaking (my mother, from Illinois, had this, although my father didn’t). These are ones with the poor/pure split, which have lost the CURE vowel. In these, your and poor rhyme with fore, and you’re and pure rhyme with fur.

  2. Ellen K. says:

    I was definitely puzzled by letta and butta when I first read that one. I’d more expect the opposite in correcting someone’s speech in England. But after reading the item below it, I concluded that they must have switched to spelling errors there.

    I daresay, educators who use such a non-standard meaning of “saying” really shouldn’t be making a list correcting non-standard usages. (In some cases “say” can refer to something written, but I think not here.)

  3. Penny says:

    I think the ‘letta’ ‘butta’ thing is a poor attempt to represent a glottal stop, which is perhaps commonly followed by an open [a] sound.

  4. Ellen K. says:

    I think it’s generous to think a pronunciation distinction was meant in the your/you’re thing. (Generous in the sense of assuming they are actually sticking to their own description.)

  5. Gonfal says:

    My thought with the “letta/butta” is that it might be a muddled intrusive-r thing. This is the north, so they’re probably going to interpret something written as “letta” as sounding like north american “letter”, so there’d be a contrast between the way they’d read “letta” and “letter”. The glottal stop theory also works, I can imagine that being something that might concern them.

    I honestly couldn’t see this whole thing working, though. Their parents will have that accent too, so I can just imagine them going “You seen this paper? Go on, read it frough again. Anner got talked to by the teacher today, I thought you was going to correct her!”

    • Tom says:

      I think it’s got to be the glottal stop theory, which could be simply represented as “LET-uh” (letta) and “BET-uh” (betta) as opposed to “LET-tuh” (letter) and “BET-tuh” (better) that RP would favor. Certainly not a spelling issue, I don’t think.

  6. John Mclaine says:

    This is rather oppressive… but is there any non-sentimental reason to protect local dialects? (I’m just curious.)

    • Ed says:

      In some cases, you could argue that it’s an earlier form of the English language and contains many forms that are much older than those used in the standard accents.

      However, this cannot be said for the Middlesbrough accent. Middlesbrough only grew into a sizeable town in the early 20th century and there’s nothing historic about its speech.

      • gaelsano says:

        “John McClaine”, our esteemed author is quite the descriptivist and while I sympathize, I understand your point as well.

        The simple solution is to have prescriptivism in formal contexts like school to facilitate communication and mutual intelligibility and have fun with dialects in casual conversation or within one’s community.

        African-Americans have no problem balancing standard English (which doesn’t exactly exist since there are no academies for the English language) and AAVE. When I use formal Korean I avoid certain phonemic reductions (still standard but not preferred) and use more formal verb forms and in conversation with locals use slang, haplology, and special suffixes.

    • L says:

      Variety? It’s not objective reason, but it isn’t sentimental either. It’s just that I can’t imagine living in a world where all speech is uniform. Sounds deadly boring. Yes, I know before the era of easy travel and mass communication lots of people lived surrounded by a sea of largely uniform speech, but it still sounds incredibly boring to me, as do lots of other aspects of the past. But I’m well aware that many people don’t enjoy or care about linguistic variety, and as far as objective reasons go, I can’t think of any.

      Still, I don’t see what noteworthy practical purpose the death of dialects would serve either. I live in a country of many vastly different dialects, and everything functions just fine, since everyone is able to communicate in the standard language. (This 2nd paragraph is not really in answer to anything in your post, John, I just wanted to share my experience.)

      Either way, this Teesside story is a complete mes. As an ESL speaker, the way dialect can define a person in other people’s eyes in the Anglosphere is always fascinating to me, and a bit intimidating, too.

      • Don says:

        A practical purpose? How about facilitating communication? I’m not saying I want regional dialects to go away either, but that’s a practical purpose.

        • L says:

          Don, but that’s exactly what I was saying. Like I wrote above, I live in a country with a myriad vastly different dialects, and I’ve never expereienced or heard about a communication problem happening. That’s what we have the standard language for. Communication is already facilitated.

        • Don says:

          I was thinking more of accents, even though I wrote dialects.

        • L says:

          Well, people tend to temper their accent when communicating in standard language. Fully emulating standard or prestigious accents can be very difficult, but modifying one’s accent enough for full comprehension should be well within anyone’s abilities.

        • Don says:

          Yeah, but if there were only one accent of each language, communication would be easier. No modification would be necessary.

        • L says:

          That’s why I wrote “noteworthy practical purpose” in my OP – I’ve simply never seen that kind of modification as much of a hassle, really, it’s just second nature (like I said, full emulation is a whole other story). But, the more I think of it, the more I have to admit I must be a bit biased, since I have an ear for languages. So I have always just taken such partial accent modification for granted, when it might very well be a hassle to people who don’t.

      • L says:

        Fully emulating standard or prestigious accents can be very difficult

        Just to clarify, since I think I worded it a bit ambiguously, fully emulating any accent can be very difficult, not just standard or prestigious ones, of course.

      • Don says:

        I think you may be a bit biased. A lot of people aren’t even aware that they have an accent. My point is simply that if all regional accents went away, there would be fewer misunderstandings. I don’t think that’s debatable.

        • L says:

          Well, I think I am a bit biased regarding the level of hassle it is for people to temper their accents. But in my experience, accent-based misunderstandings really are rare – in conversation, that is (I’m sure I’d have plenty of problems eavesdropping, of course). However, my experience with English in this context is limited. It’s very possible that, compared to my language,the different accents of English have more potential for this kind of misunderstanding and/or are more difficult to “tone down”. Maybe to do with the bazillion different vowel variants and vowel shifts in accents of English?

          That bit of speculation above aside, having thought about it, I definitely agree that at the very least it’d be less of a hassle for most people.

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    How French.

  8. Peter S. says:

    For those wondering about “werk/work”, wikipedia says, about the Teesside dialect, In common with the east coast of Yorkshire, words such as bird, first, nurse, etc. have an [ɛː] sound. It is difficult to represent this using the alphabet, but could be written bare-d, fare-st, nare-ss. [This vowel sound also occurs in Liverpool and Birkenhead].

    • Graeme says:

      It could also be a simple spelling mistake. As you know, /ɜː/ can be spelled in many ways including “er”. But if they were trying to represent the pronunciation of those words in the local accent, as you say, then it seems like they did a poor job; I can’t actually think of any /ɛə/ words that are spelled “er” (where the “r” isn’t followed by “e”). On the other hand, though, the spellings “werek”, “warek”, “weark”, “weirk” and “wairk” look odd and might confuse people. So, in conclusion…I don’t know (as is often the case).

      • Peter S. says:

        As wikipedia says, it is difficult to represent this using the alphabet. The same holds for the New York City allophone of /ɔ/ that New Yorkers represent by the spelling cawffee. This must completely baffle people who don’t live near New York City, but I believe most New Yorkers know what is meant by that spelling. The same may be true for werk in Teesside.

      • Lucy says:

        I don’t know if I’m baffled by that, but I do think it’s a bit funny because spelling “coffee” as “cawffee” doesn’t lead to a different pronunciation of the word anywhere in North America. In areas where the so-called “cot-caught merger” has taken place, the spellings “aw” and “o” represent the same sound (when “o” doesn’t represent /oʊ/). In areas where it hasn’t, “coffee” has the vowel of “caught” and “cawffee” would too if it existed.

        What’s different about “coffee” in New York City (and some other East Coast) speech is not the fact that it has /ɔː/ in the first syllable. That’s widespread in America. It’s the phonetic quality of /ɔː/. But this is hard to show without using the IPA so the locals do the best they can I guess. Okay, I’ll stop now. This is OT. Sorry Ben.

        • Tom says:

          I would probably show it as something like “kwawffee”, although that’s not quite it either (and there are variations in pronunciation, for sure).

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  10. Lucre says:

    As someone else mentioned there are US dialects which differentiate the sounds of your and you’re. Personally I think I pronounce “you’re” as something that almost sounds like two syllables: YOOwr, like a quicker version of ewer – and pronounce “your” like tore: YOR.

    In contrast to poor and pure, I pronounce “poor” a bit like I pronounce “you’re” with not quite two syllables: POOwr.

    I grew up in Eastern Iowa, and have lived in DC for the last decade or so.

  11. julie says:

    I am a mancunian living in the south wes (UK) Now at school we were told the anglo saxons contributed to our northern accent/ language
    any way my point is the southerners insist on barth where my consonants are flat as in bath. the Kentish accent has a lovley burr sound where mine can come across as harsh I would like to know why the southerners add r’s to their words. Well it is implicated in their speech but isn’t defined as such

  12. Contrary to the views of most of the contributors to this thread, I feel that the school is (a) being realistic, and (b) has the best interests of its children at heart. Whether it should be the case or not, there can be little doubt that having a non-standard accent, particularly one stigmatised as being inferior in some way, can lead to (for example) markedly reduced chances of being accepted into the professions. As far as I can see, the school is trying to inculcate into the parents the idea that if their children learn to speak properly (where “properly” is defined as (a) being gramatically correct, and (b) being as close to RP as would be easily achievable for a child being brought up in an area where both non-standard grammar and non-standard pronunciation are the norm), then their chances of success in later life will be substantially increased.

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  14. Gary H says:

    The LETTA and BUTTA thing here are not glottal stops or rhoticity but the pronunciation of the schwa (spelling?)

    BAD: Lettah (short ‘a’ sound as in the word back).
    GOOD: Lettuh (lengthened ‘e’ sound).

    These are specific to North East England.