Manchester is one of the few places in the UK that has a clear distinction between the words ‘four’ and ‘for’ – meaning Mancunians pronounce these words differently. Other places that still have this distinction can be found in Scottish English, Northern Irish English, and Caribbean Englishes.
The ‘north-force distinction’ – words like ‘four’, ‘wore’, ‘hoarse’ and ‘mourning’ having a different vowel sound to ‘for’, ‘war’, ‘horse’ and ‘morning’ – has been an aspect of the traditional ‘Manc’ accent since the Great Vowel Shift. The spellings of these words give a clue about how different they once sounded, but the words in these pairs sound identical for several of the dialects in the UK today.
Some long-standing aspects of local accents are disappearing, and other features are spreading across the country – for instance, the traditional working-class Cockney accent is said to be weakening, but multicultural London English is becoming much more widespread.
New research from the University of Manchester has found that the ‘north-force distinction’ is disappearing from people’s speech in the south and centre of Manchester, but not in the north.
Differences in the accent between north and south Manchester
After hearing that the north accent sounds different to the south in Manchester, linguistics expert Dr Maciej Baranowski conducted a study on 122 people from areas within the M60, but avoided areas to the north of the M60 to avoid including Bolton, Rochdale and Oldham. These areas were excluded from the study because these towns are known to have their own sound systems, as the ‘Manchester Voices’ research found.
The Manchester Voices study found that people of Bolton have their own way of speaking such as saying ‘pea-wet,’ for water in mushy peas and ‘hospickle’, for hospital. Another difference is the presence of rhoticity in Oldham and Rochdale but not in Manchester itself, with speakers not pronouncing the ‘r’ in words like ‘park’. Also, while they are a part of Greater Manchester, they are not part of Manchester itself.
Baranowski’s study found that there were differences between the north and south areas of Manchester with the ‘north-force’ merger making slower progress in North Manchester. A ‘neighbourhood effect’ was also found which may be due to differences in socioeconomic characteristics between north and south Manchester.
“A working-class child growing up in north Manchester is much less likely to be exposed to merged speakers than a working-class child from south Manchester, and is therefore more likely to preserve the phonemic distinction heard in their parents’ and grandparents’ speech.”A quote from Baranowski’s study
Dr Baranowski explains: “Features of the ‘Manc’ accent are still present across Manchester though they are much stronger in the working classes. Working-class Mancunians from north Manchester sound a little different from working-class Mancunians elsewhere in the city.”
North Manchester is considered to be largely working class and more of a tight-knit community, as data from the ONS revealed that the north of Manchester is more deprived in terms of income. In comparison, middle-class Mancunians tend to live in central and south Manchester. The research shows that they use “accent features that are closer to those found in the south of England” as the distinction of ‘north-force’ words had completely disappeared from middle-class accents in Manchester and suggested this happened decades ago.
Linguists have found that our speech develops with people around us as we are exposed to more patterns of speech, but for those whose accent does not seem to change – such as those in the north of Manchester – it may be because they have a secure sense of identity.
The legacy of the ‘Manc’ accent
Overall, the south Manchester accent is disappearing because of a multitude of factors such as differences in socioeconomic characteristics. South Manchester has a higher number of middle-class speakers from outside the city and the UK due to immigration, whereas north Manchester is seen as a less mobile community in comparison.
Dr Baranowski said that the thousands of educated workers moving to the city may accelerate the changes already happening to the accent. Despite this, he is convinced that the ‘Manc’ accent will still be around for a long time.
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