The Northumbrian R

When the writer Daniel Defoe travelled north to Tyneside in the early eighteenth century, he commented haughtily on the locals’ pronunciation:

I must not quit Northumberland without taking notice, that the natives of this country, of the antient original race or families, are distinguished by a shibboleth upon their tongues, namely, a difficulty in pronouncing the letter r , which they cannot deliver from their tongues without a hollow jarring in the throat, by which they are plainly known, as a foreigner is, in pronouncing the th: This they call the Northumbrian r , and the natives value themselves upon that imperfection, because, forsooth, it shews the antiquity of their blood.

The sound that Defoe is referring to is the Northumbrian r, or to give it its technical name, the uvular r… Defoe had it about right calling it a gargle. In Defoe’s day, it was spread across Tyneside, Northumberland and northern County Durham, but these days is confined to parts of Northumberland. It sounds somewhat like the French or German r, and I have read some claim that it was brought to the North East by the French Normans who colonised the region and made up the majority of its aristocracy. This is not true – Norman And Medieval French did not, I think, have this feature of speech, which developed at a later date, and in any case, the North East certainly had no stronger a Norman influence than other parts of England and Wales. More likely, it was a natural development of speech, such as happened in Germany, France and Denmark – the difference being that it stuck there because it spread outwards from areas that spoke the prestige dialect of those countries, whereas in England it took root in an outlying region and stayed local.

I must admit, I have rarely heard the Northumbrian r in speech, despite spending quite some time in Northumberland. To hear it in speech, one can always listen to the recordings at the British Library’s accents and dialects archive, a rather excellent project which has tried to record the traditional speech of every part of the United Kingdom. Here’s an example with the Northumbrian R.

You can also listen to the poetry of Basil Bunting, particularly the recording of his long poem, Briggflatts. I am a great fan of Bunting’s poetry – so much so that I named my first blog after the opening line of Briggflatts; nevertheless, I have always had some doubts about his ‘Northumbrian English’. To me, the reading of his great poem owes as much to the grand oratory style of his mentor Ezra Pound than to the spoken English of the North East. He sometimes trills and sometimes gargles his r’s – this may be down to the consonant’s position relative to others, or it may be Bunting’s own inconsistency. Nevertheless, he is an impressive reader, and there is nothing wrong with poetry sounding different from everyday speech.  It is still a poetry that exists as much in the hearing and speaking and the reading… and with its trilled and gargled r’s alike, keeps alive what Burgess might have called the great rhotic (or rhoto-uvular) tradition in English poetry.

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