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.

The Strange Death of the English R

In one part of Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is sent on a mission among the English Catholic exiles in the Low Countries by the spy master Francis Walsingham. As he listens to the speech of an old priest at the English College he starts to notice a subtle defect in his speech:

What he noted in the speech of the speaker was a property that was not of the language of London… Our language is rich in what our orthopeists term the rhotic (I know these things; I was brought up an actor), that is to say our dog sound is a firm roll in words containing the letter r. But this gentleman was weak in it and spoke argument and preacher and Caesar with but a limp tap.
This weak r sound is something that Burgess’s Marlowe continues to notice in the English exiles, and it even goes on to play a role in the plot, as someone’s weak r gives him away as a Jesuit in disguise. I’m not certain what Burgess is implying here, but perhaps it is that the exiles’ pronunciation of the English r has been influenced by being surrounded by louche French speakers, or perhaps by clerical prissiness.

What is strange for a 21st century Englishman to contemplate is that a strong r was once a distinctive trait of English speech, even – especially – of London speech. That certainly isn’t the case today. In most of England – and in many parts of the world that were a part of the British Empire, English is ‘non-rhotic’, with an r only being pronounced when directly preceding a vowel. For some reason, between the late sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the terminal r disappeared from English speech of all classes and most regions. Like most linguistic trends, it started in London and spread outwards. In England, the ‘English r‘ is now confined to the West Country, and a few smaller redoubts such as Blackburn, Lancashire. America, Canada, Ireland and, with its different, more heavily rolled r, Scotland, remain resolutely rhotic.

The loss of the terminal r is perhaps the biggest single change in the character of English pronunciation since the great vowel shift. Its pronunciation, or lack thereof, has a defining effect. A few years ago some academics tried to recreate the speech of Richard the Third as they thought it might have sounded. It sounded, they explained, much the English of the East Midlands as it is spoken today. And it did, a bit, but to the English listener, its pronounced rhoticism gave it an oddly celtic flavour.

Some of the most famous lines of poetry sound very different if pronounced in rhotic English. Here is John of Gaunt’s celebrated speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II with the r’s highlighted that would not be pronounced by most English people:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter‘d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

That certainly sounds different, though I couldn’t say that the loss of the r‘s detracts from the poetic effect.In other examples, however, something may be lost with the r‘s. Take the second verse of Marlowe’s own A Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

That is an extra four r’s in three lines, and, along with the proliferation of l’s, makes the sound of the lines much more liquid, more trilling, and more imitative of those falls and madrigals of which the shepherd sings.

London English may have been losing its r’s by the late eighteenth century when William Blake wrote, but the intended alliteration of his most famous lines is unmistakable:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night

That burning tiger somehow sounds fiercer and fierier when you pronounce the r’s, no? Although that might depend on how you pronounce them… speaking of which: next post- the Northumbrian r.