Tuesday, 5 May 2015

"You right, love?" A linguistics nerd in Manchester

Grammar is the greatest joy in life, don’t you find?” says Auntie Josephine in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window. Grammar may not be exactly what you consider a joy. I certainly do not. But I can’t help loving phonetics and phonology with all my heart. Call me a freak.

I moved to Manchester around 10 months ago. My oral comprehension has never been very good - not even in my mother tongue -, so getting used to the Mancunian accent took me a while. Once I got used to it… or sort of, I started mentally making patterns of this accent’s features that were unusual to me. I’m sure there are lots of studies on the Mancunian accent, but here’s a list of just a few of the features I’ve personally noticed:

Intrusive /r/

10 years ago I was in my 2nd year in university and studied English phonetics and phonology for the first time. In those lessons I heard about the phonetic phenomena called linking /r/ and epenthetic or intrusive /r/.  Let me explain what these are:

In RP (RP is considered the standard variety of British English; also called the Queen’s English or BBC English), the final /r/ in words ending in vowel + /r/ is not pronounced.

e.g.:       “car /kɑ:/

However, if these words are followed by a word beginning with a vowel, this /r/ that had disappeared is now pronounced. This is called linking /r/.

e.g.:       “car and bike” /’kɑrən’baɪk/

Notice that this linking /r/ only happens between vowels. A development of this rule is the so called epenthetic or intrusive /r/. This intrusive /r/ will appear between vowels even in cases where the first word does not have any /r/ in it.

e.g.        “law” /lɔ:/ -- “law of a country” /’lɔrəvə’kaʊntrɪ/
                “draw” /drɔ:/ -- “draw a map” /’drɔrə’mæp/

Being the Mancunian accent a British one and thus a non-rhotic one, I expected to hear this linking /r/ all the time. And I did. But what I did not know is that I was going to hear the intrusive /r/ as well… even in the middle of words (which means that this rule applies not only to word endings but to any open syllabic codas) and in isolated words (which… is absolutely crazy)!!!

e.g.:       “drawing” -- RP /’drɔ:wɪŋ/ vs Manchester /’drɔ:rɪŋ/
                “idea” -- RP /ʌɪ’di:ə/ vs Manchester /ʌɪ’di:ər/

Final velar nasal /ŋ/

I was an EFL teacher in Spain for some years and, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, for me, right pronunciation has always been a matter of concern. One of the hardest things for Spanish students is correctly pronouncing the final velar nasal, as they assume the <g> must be pronounced. They either add a velar plosive (usually a voiceless one as in Spanish there is no final voiced velar plosive) or they change the velar nasal for an alveolar nasal.

e.g.:       “eating         RP /’i:tɪŋ/
                                               Spanish students      Option 1: /’itiŋk/
                                                                                              Option 2: /’itin/

But then I arrived to Manchester and my world was turn upside down:

RP <ng>  [ŋ] / __#
Manchester <ng>  [g˳] /__ #

So to make Spanish students happy, here the <g> is pronounced and actually, it’s slightly devoiced. “Eating” would be pronounced as /’i:tɪŋg˳/

/u:/ fronting

I’ve noticed that in some words with what in RP would be the /u:/ sound, here is pronounced /y:/. It’s like a 21st century Vowel Umlaut. I’ve heard it in final position in monosyllabic words (e.g.: “poo” - RP /pu:/ vs Manchester /py:/) but I’m still trying to figure out if this is the only condition in which this fronting occurs.

Glottal fricative dropping

For some reason, in most cases, Mancunians drop the glottal fricative when it’s at the beginning of a syllable, and especially if this syllable is unstressed.

RP [h] vs  Manchester Ø / #__Vͯ

e.g.: “tell him” [‘telɪm]

When I think of how the names of certain places in England are pronounced, I assume the glottal fricative dropping is an extended feature.

                e.g.:       “Buckingham” /’bʌkɪŋəm/
                               “Dunham” /’dʊnəm/
                               “Birmingham” /’bɜ:mɪŋəm/

I realise these 3 examples I’ve given contain the same ending ( <-ham> ) which derives from the Anglo-Saxon word “ham” meaning "settlement", so maybe my theory that the glottal fricative dropping is a widespread feature is completely wrong.

Last but not least, I’d like to mention one of my favourite cases. It’s a mix of the first and the fourth features listed: intrusive /r/ and glottal fricative dropping.

It’s the way the phrase “saw her” is pronounced. The /h/ in “her” disappears, which results in a diphthong. This diphthong is then broken by introducing /r/.

                RP [‘sɔ:hə]
                Manchester [‘sɔ:ɽə]

Absolutely lovely, don’t you find?


  1. Zara this blog is awesome :O you know more about the English language and grammar than I do! And I'm engl- wait, no I'm mancunian...BIG difference :P just remember, I know you hate complements so I'll just say you're awesome

  2. This is fascinating stuff Zara. Cheers. Dave W.