Sounds Familiar? is a new site created by the British Library; according to a Guardian story by John Crace:

Made up of recordings from the 1950s Survey of English Dialects and the 1999 Millennium Memory Bank, Sounds Familiar incorporates more than 600 audio-clips to create a unique sound map of spoken English, past and present. “Some of the oldest recordings are of men and women who were in their 80s in the 1950s,” says Jonnie Robinson, curator of english accents and dialects at the British Library, “so it’s like hearing an echo from the past. We also have a real mix of cultures, regions and generations, which allow us to chart the variations and changes in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar through time.”…

Language doesn’t always change in the way we might think. Not so long ago some academics argued that estuary English (or non-standard southern English, as linguistics experts prefer to call it) was, thanks to TV shows such as EastEnders, slowly taking over the whole country and that some northern accents – particularly Glaswegian – were being diluted. But Robinson points out that this latest version of the imperialist south has turned out to be a false alarm.

“There is no doubt the London dialect we have come to call estuary has spread out across the south-east,” he says, “but research has shown that northern accents and dialects have withstood its spread. Language is a great deal more robust than we imagine.”…

There are interesting observations about population change, cultural perceptions, and the reasons for the Great Vowel Shift, as well as this sentence: “Academics have noticed that many young women in Yorkshire have changed their vowel sounds in certain words; instead of Cooca Coola, they now say Cerka Curla – simply because they imagine the new accent to be posher.” Cooca Coola? Cerka Curla?? Yes, I realize the r’s are not pronounced, but still, those are some weird pronunciations.

I like the concluding quote (from Clive Upton) very much: “We’re not in the business of preservation. The only language that doesn’t change at all is a dead one.”

There’s also a BBC News article by Joe Campbell; all links are courtesy of Benjamin Zimmer of Language Log—thanks, Ben!


  1. E is for Ephemera says

    Pronunciation of the ‘o’ sound in Coca Cola as ‘Cerka Curla’ is a very strong feature of the Hull accent. It’s limited to city and the near surrounding area, maybe only to ten mile or so, but I think something similar (though lesser) can be heard in the speech of many people from Yorkshire.
    The Hull accent in particular is not particularly well known outside of the region, even if it is as distinct as something like scouser or geordie. I remember I used to work with a few people from the wrong side of the Humber, and had endless fun asking them to say ‘toad in the hole’.

  2. David Marjanović says

    Reasons for the Great Vowel Shift? Where?

  3. Fourth para from the end of the Crace piece.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Ah. I hadn’t read the article.

  5. Ginger Yellow says

    Separated By A Common Language had a comment thread on US/UK dialect resources recently, which included this British Library site. Check it out for more links.
    “Cerka-Curla” sounds perfectly natural to me, although not necessarily as a Yorkshire pronunciation, and I’m skeptical about this sounding posher argument. None of the standard sources of perceived posh voices – BBC News, Radio 4, class based sitcoms, would be likely to have anyone saying Cerka-Curla without them being marked in some way as being not posh.

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