What is the Nottingham dialect and where does it come from?
Artefact 2: Dialect | Feature 3 of 4
East Midlands English – a ‘transition zone’ between North and South?
We all know famous authors, such as Alan Sillitoe and D.H. Lawrence, who have used language that appears to be Nottingham dialect. But what do we know about the city’s language? In the third of four essays, linguist Natalie Braber provides some answers.
Nottingham is referred to as ‘Queen of the Midlands’ by John Beckett in his centenary history of the city. It is an important centre of the region, and although there is language variation within the region, Nottingham English is a good example of dialect used in the East Midlands.
Evidence from my research reveals that inhabitants of the East Midlands find it difficult to define the boundaries of the East Midlands as a region. The region lacks TV representation: there are almost no soap operas or reality TV programmes set here as there are in other regions of the UK, which promote awareness of and reinforce familiarity with local speech forms. It seems that the East Midlands does not form an important region in the mental maps of people outside the area and is seen as being ‘neither here nor there’. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that dialectologists have so far failed to agree on how to classify and treat the dialects of the East Midlands, and its major urban areas of Nottingham, Derby and Leicester.
However, UK research in sociology, politics and language has often discussed the traditional North/South division in England. What makes the East Midlands and Nottingham interesting within this debate is the question of where it fits in. Does Nottingham belong to the North or the South or is it part of a tri-partite division which includes a Midlands in addition to the North and the South? The answer seems anything but straightforward. Linguistically, Nottingham shares features with the North such as short ‘a’ vowel in words such as ‘bath’ and ‘grass’ and the fact that ‘put’ and ‘putt’ sound the same. But there are also shared features with varieties found in the South, including l-vocalisation (where the ‘l’ in words such as ‘milk’ sound like ‘miwk’) and th-fronting (so ‘three’ sounds like ‘free’), although these may be spreading throughout the country more generally. This means that the present-day variety can be viewed as a mixture of northern and southern forms. Nevertheless, a number of linguistic features can be regarded as characteristic for the region. It can be noted that the vowel in words such as ‘mouth’ and ‘house’ is distinctive and the final sound of words such as ‘happy’ can be pronounced as ‘happi’, ‘happee’ or ‘happeh’.
My work also shows that language has changed in the region over the past few decades. This can be examined in data sets held by The British Library (for example the recordings and transcripts of The Survey of English Dialects, The Millennium Memory Bank and Voices). Joy James, a Nottingham-born author, has also stated that the ‘real’ old Nottingham accent is slowly dying out, but she had said too that it is a difficult dialect to mimic and in the TV plays and films based in and around this city neither actors nor actresses have yet managed the pronunciation successfully. Historically, for example, films featuring the Nottingham dialect have frequently been mocked for their inaccuracies by critics and lay people alike, including Sean Bean’s performance in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Albert Finney’s in Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Peter Wright, who wrote Notts Natter in 1979, has asserted that people claim that all Midlanders mumble and that Nottingham has a ‘wishy-washy nondescript style of speaking’ but that this isn’t ‘reight’, adding: ‘Value judgements are often given about the city’s speech. It is branded as having no distinct traits apart from slovenliness’.
John Beeton, a local author who produced four booklets entitled Nottingham as it is Spoke, has written: ‘From a cursory examination, it may appear that Nottinghamese is a form of slang born out of a lazy or slovenly method of speaking. Closer inspection however will show that it is, in fact, a complete language, containing many unique words and observing a strict grammatical pattern’. His books contain word lists, many of which are simply words written together, such as worreewwee-izzsenn? (‘Was he alone?’) and many of them give information about the local grammar and the way words are pronounced such as hissen (‘himself’), or intitt koad? (‘isn’t it cold’) which illustrates the way the ‘l’ is pronounced.
So, there definitely seems to be something like Nottingham language. What do we know about its historical origins? Like other dialects of the East Midlands, it owes aspects of its vocabulary and grammatical structure to Nordic influences, as the region was part of the Danelaw resulting from Danish invasion in the late 9th century. This is still clearly seen in some place names which retain these Nordic influences, for example the ‘thwaite’ (woodland clearing), sometimes converted to ‘wood’ as in Eastwood.
We know that the East Midland dialect of Middle English (roughly 1150-1500) was an important influence in the early development of Standard English and some linguists have said that present day English derives ultimately from the East Midlands dialect. It played such as important role as the East Midlands was a very rich agricultural area and a very important economic centre due to its wool and corn exports.
Another factor was that the varieties used here occupied a middle position between the extreme divergences of the north and south. It was less conservative than the Southern dialect, less radical than the Northern. It represented a kind of compromise, sharing some of the characteristics of both its neighbours, making it easier to understand for people from all over England.
This is an abridged version of the work found in East Midlands English written by Natalie Braber and Jonnie Robinson and published by Mouton de Gruyter in 2018.