Sociolinguist Dr Sandra Jansen examines Cumbrian vowels
05 May 2016
Why do speakers speak the way they speak? How does the way people speak change over time? In what ways does it change and what are the factors that drive change?
When people who speak different dialects come into contact with each other they subtly adjust the way they speak in order that communication does not break down: speakers faced with hearers who speak a different dialect therefore tend to use less local features. In places where people with a lot of different dialects meet, the distinctiveness of individual dialects or accents is therefore vanishing. As a good example, consider towns close by London, where it is typically difficult to pinpoint where an individual comes from. The further away from the larger cities one goes and the fewer people enter the community from outside – as tourists, or itinerant workers – the more likely the speakers within the community will retain traditional local features. While various projects have addressed the questions above in urban places such as London or Newcastle, language change in very peripheral communities in England is less well studied. Maryport is a town of 10,000 on the rural West Cumbrian coast and is of particular interest to researchers on language change. It is fairly isolated, and the inhabitants there have little contact with people from other areas. The nearest motorway is some 50km away and even though many tourists visit the Lake District, hardly anybody makes the effort to visit this kind of out-of-the-way coastal town.
Dr Sandra Jansen spent five weeks in Maryport talking to people of all ages about growing up in the place, what they liked about it and what kind of changes they would like to see. The conversations were recorded and quantitative methods used to analyse the data. Of course, what people said is relevant, but more relevant is how they said what they said. By looking at the analysis of the way people in Maryport speak, and how the differences between them correlate with social factors such as age and gender, Jansen is beginning to paint a picture of language change within the town. Initial findings suggest that older speakers prefer more traditional Cumbrian forms in their speech while younger speakers are using more general forms now found in many places in the north of England; also, while men retain traditional forms longer, women tend to adopt changes faster.
Of course, the kind of change Jansen describes in her work does not take place overnight. It happens gradually, and investigating the change, as well as suggesting the process that underlies it, forms part of a lengthy project. Given the special nature of the situation in Maryport, however, the work may well be generalised, and used to explain the factors at work in language change elsewhere.