Regional differences are disappearing as northerners increasingly use southern words
- The word splinter has now become dominant across the British Isles
- Words like backend, used instead of autumn in the north, have died out
- The way words like ‘arm’ are pronounced has become more southern
- Surprisingly saying ‘last’ with short vowels has spread from the north
They cause a surprising amount of pain for something so small and can be infuriating to remove.
But the slithers of wood buried under skin are also revealing something dramatic about the way we speak.
A team of researchers has discovered that the once rich and varied dialects used around the British Isles are gradually merging into one.
Where once there were many different words used to describe an injury sustained while handling timber – spelks, slivers, shivers, speels, spools, spiles, spills and splints – most have now vanished.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have mapped out how dialects in Britain have changed since the 1950s. They found that many regional words for a piece of wood under the skin have vanished, with most of the country now using the word splinter, apart from a small part of the north east that still say spelk (illustrated)
Instead, most people around Britain now use a term that was traditionally only found in the south of England – splinters.
Only those in the northeast continue to use the word spelk.
The findings are just one example of the changing use of language within the British Isles as increasing movement of people and television has altered regional dialects.
Researchers at Cambridge University have found that pronunciation and dialects across England are becoming more like those spoken in London and the south east.
In the 1950s there were distinct regional differences in the words used to describe a piece of wood under the skin, particularly in the north of England (pictured left) but today these have almost totally vanished (right)
HOW ENGLISH IS CHANGING
Backend – Used instead of autumn that has vanished from the north of England
Shiver – Once common in Norfolk and Lincolnshire but now replaced with splinter
Sliver – Used in Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Kent but now replaced with splinter
Speel – A regional word used for splinter found Lancashire and Carlisle but now no longer used
Spell – The middle English for splinter, it was still being used across the North of England in the 1950s but has now vanished
Spile – Used instead of splinter in Blackburn and Bolton but now replaced
Spill – Seen in just a few places on the welsh border in the 1950s but now totally vanished
Spool – Used by people in Huddersfield in the 1950s but now replaced by spliter
Fifteen per cent of people pronounce three with an f compared to just 2 percent in the 1950s
The southern pronunciation of ‘butter‘ – with a vowel as in put – has spread north
They used data gathered from a free app – the English Dialects App – to study examine how people in different parts of England used certain words and pronounced phrases in different ways.
In other examples words like backend – used instead of autumn – were once common in the north of England but have vanished from use entirely.
Pronouncing the letter ‘r’ in words like arm has also changed over the past 60 years.
While there was once a definite divide between the south of London and Shewsbury – where the ‘r’ was dropped – and the rest of the country that has almost completely vanished.
Instead almost the entire country now pronounces the word arm without the r.
The study found that those in Scotland and Ireland, however, still use the important central letter in arm.
Dr Andrian Leeman, a linguist at Cambridge University who led the study, said: ‘When it comes to language change in England, our results confirm that there is a clear pattern of levelling towards the English of the south-east.
‘More and more people are using and pronouncing words in the way that people from London and the south-east do.’
The researchers analysed data from more than 30,000 people from over 4,000 locations around the UK who had used the English Dialects App.
Sixty years ago a splinter (pictured) may have been known as a spool, a spelk, a sliver, a shiver, a speel, a spile, or a spill, depending on where in England you were. Now, most of these words have disappeared
The use of somewords like backend instead of autumn has vanished completely in the past 60 years (pictured)
The free app asked users to select which words they would use to describe an item and listen to different pronunciations to select the one closest to those they used.
It then attempted to guess a user’s regional accent based on their pronunciation of 26 words and colloquialisms.
Scientists used the data gathered from this and compared it to the Survey of English dialects – a ten year field study conducted during the 1950s by the University of Leeds.
THE ENGLISH DIALECTS APP
The free app, available for iOS and Android, was built by researchers from the University of Cambridge.
It attempts to guess a user’s regional accent based on their pronunciation of 26 words and colloquialisms.
Users can either select which word they use to describe an item, or they can listen to how different words are pronounced and select the most appropriate.
For example, one question asks what word the person uses to describe a small piece of wood that becomes lodged in a finger.
Another question features audio clips of a man saying the word ‘bacon’ in various different ways, and asks the user to select the clip that sounds most like their own pronunciation of the word.
The app then generates a heat map and tries to guess where the user’s accent is from using three possible locations.
They can rate how accurately the app determined where they are from and give feedback to improve the app’s accuracy.
The app also allows users to view which areas of the country use the different variations of each word or colloquialism at the end of the quiz.
While they found many regional words appear to have been slipping from use, there are others which still show the old divides across the country.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the pronunciation of the word scone – something which causes many dinner table disputes – still shows a strong regional differences.
Pronouncing the word to rhyme with gone is still much more common in the north of England and Scotland while rhyming it with cone is still more common in Cornwall and the area around Sheffield.
However, for the rest of England, there seems to be a great deal of variation even with in communities.
This might, in part, be a reflection of the movement of people around the country. As ‘scone’ has always been a highly disputed word with regards to the way it is said, the divides may persist despite this mingling of people from different regions.
The researchers, who compared the responses given by 30,000 people in the UK to a survey conducted in the 1950s, found even the way words like arm are pronounced have changed with many more people now dropping the ‘r’ compared to 60 years ago when it was common for it to be pronounce ion the south of England
Surprisingly the pronunciation of the word last, with short vowels instead of long vowels, has moved south from the north (pictured), against the trend of most dialect change
Saying words like ‘last’ with a short vowel – a northern pronunciation – instead of a long one has also remained surprising robust.
Here the pronunciation from the north has spread southwards, into the Midlands and the West Country.
Professor David Britain, another of the researchers involved in the study, who is based at the University of Bern added: ‘People in Bristol speak much more similarly to those in Colchester now than they did fifty years ago.
‘Regional differences are disappearing, some quite quickly.
There is still a great deal of variation in the way people say ‘scone’, even within communities. However, pronouncing the word to rhyme with ‘gone’ is still much more common in the north of England and Scotland while rhyming it with ‘cone’ is still more common in Cornwall and the area around Sheffield (illustrated)
The researchers used the English Dialects app (pictured) to ask 30,000 people about the way they pronounced different words. They were asked to select words (left) of listen to different recordings (right)
‘However, while many pockets of resistance to this levelling are shrinking, there is still a stark north-south divide in the pronunciation of certain key words.’
Tam Blaxter, a PhD student who helped conduct the research, added that many of the reasons for the changes lie in the movement of people around the country over the past few decades.
He said: ‘There has been much greater geographical mobility in the last half century.
‘Many people move around much more for education, work and lifestyle and there has been a significant shift of population out of the cities and into the countryside.
‘Many of the results have confirmed what language experts might predict – but until now we just didn’t have the geographical breadth of data to back up our predictions.
‘If we were to do the survey in another 60-70 years we might well see this dialect levelling expanding further, although some places like the north-east seem to have been especially good at preserving certain colloquialisms and pronunciations.’