Rhoticity in Lancashire: Liverpool – Manchester

The aim of this article is to check some on-line sources  for evidence of changing habits of rhoticity in Lancashire accents.

Rhoticity is concerned with the pronunciation of the consonant r. In English, rhotic speakers pronounce all instances of /r/, non-rhotic speakers do not pronounce those instances of /r/ in a syllable coda like ca(r) or ca(r)d (loosely, dropping postvocalic /r/, or simply r-dropping).  All accents of English used to be fully rhotic, but occasional spelling variants in documents such as the Paston Letters point to r-dropping occurring in East Anglia at least by the 15th century. During the past 300 years or so, starting from London and the SE and spreading westwards and northwards, some English accents have become completely non-rhotic. Or almost. The last vestige of a dropped /r/ is a schwa-like glide in pronunciations like [mɔə] for more, but this is usually still counted as being non-rhotic. And, of course, the linking r is part of a non-rhotic accent, a usually dropped /r/ reappearing across a morpheme boundary between vowels, for example doo(r) vs door opening, or hea(r) vs hearing

The question of rhoticity in Lancashire arises from the book Northern English (1899) by Richard J Lloyd (1846-1906), who based the examples on his own rhotic Liverpool speech (a trilled r in prevocalic positions, otherwise an r-coloured vowel in syllable codas). Did he really mean he spoke a rhotic form of Scouse, albeit a form spoken by someone well educated? Liverpool and Manchester speech had ceased to be rhotic by the middle of the 20th century (Wells 1982), so how rhotic had the Liverpool accent been in the 19th century? Lloyd’s self-description indicates that a rhotic model evidently still prevailed in Liverpool during his childhood in the 1840s while he was acquiring speech. In the neighbouring houses on his street at the 1851 census, there were some 40 adults and 20 children, mostly adult migrants from elsewhere, and children born in Liverpool. Roughly 75-80% of those adults were born in counties that were potentially rhotic (including Liverpool at that time), and 20-25% were born in counties that were potentially non-rhotic (the latter is probably overestimated because the more elderly residents were born during the 18th century and might still have had rhotic accents). In any case, an overwhelming majority of the people around him had rhotic accents of various kinds. His father was Welsh, his mother from Liverpool, and, by his own account, he acquired a Liverpool accent. Despite that linguistic mosaic surrounding him, he tuned in to the local accent, as children do.

MacMahon (2007) describes Lloyd’s life. He was born in Liverpool and spent all his life there, working in the family business at the Port of Liverpool, assessing imported goods for duties. In his spare time he studied for his London BA, MA and DLitt, and then continued his academic interests alongside the family business. At the time of his death he was honorary reader in phonetics at University College, Liverpool, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and vice president of the International Phonetic Association. He published regularly in the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology, Le Maître Phonétique, the Modern Language Quarterly, Die Neueren Sprachen, Phonetische Studien, the Westminster Review, and Zeitschrift für französische Sprache.


The model of language sound change adopted here assumes that a sound change is introduced when the children of a new generation restructure what they hear spoken in their local speech community. This is suitable for the present situation, where recordings are what happen to be available in archives. A model that additionally recognises adults collectively altering their pronunciation during their lifetime would require planned recordings of the same informants repeatedly over a very long period of time, perhaps combined with interviews. One motive for larger numbers to actively modify their accents is to avoid intolerance and scorn from other people who have stigmatized some aspect of pronunciation. Another is to improve their chances of employment by establishments that actively discriminate against some varieties of speech.

The following sets of recordings, available online, were used as data sources (the sets are not necessarily complete, they might be a selection from an original collection, or the current progress in digitization):

  • The Leeds Survey of English Dialects. Directed by Harold Orton (1898-1975) of the University of Leeds. Recorded in the 1950s. Elderly informants from country areas were selected, in order to observe conservative features. Online at the British Library.
  • A collection of British and Commonwealth dialect recordings from soldiers held in German prison camps 1915-18, from the Berliner Lautarchiv, directed by Professors Wilhelm Doegen and Alois Brandl. Online at the British Library. These recordings were cut directly onto 78rpm gramophone disks, the informant shouting into a horn; the sound quality is similar to that of telephone transmission, consonants like /f s h/ being particularly indistinct or even eliminated.
  • The Millenium Memory Bank, recordings by the BBC made in 1998-99. Online at the British Library
  • BBC Voices, recorded by the BBC in 2005. Online at the British Library

For convenience, the recordings were split by origin into four areas of Lancashire
(the expectation is that area A will have become non-rhotic first):

  • A: Liverpool, St Helens, Manchester
  • B: Southport, Chorley, Bolton, Rochdale
  • C: Blackpool, Preston, Burnley, Blackburn
  • D: Lancaster, Carnforth

The recordings were split again, into generations, by the informant’s year of birth
(the expectation is that any change towards non-rhotic speech will appear first in some younger generation).

Conclusions for Area A: Liverpool to Manchester

 lancashireliv2manMap of Area A (Liverpool to Manchester) showing the places and years of birth of the informants. Satellite map source: GoogleEarth.

This area was virtually completely non-rhotic in these recordings, as expected from existing descriptions. For Manchester, the earliest informant was born in 1883, suggesting non-rhoticity was present in Manchester at least towards the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell just when Liverpool lost its rhotic accent, the earliest informant being born in 1921, non-rhotic and three or four generations younger than Lloyd.

The following examples are extracted from the Liverpool informants. Each example contains words with the same vowel from all informants, arranged from oldest to youngest.

Example 1: Liverpool. Words with the NORTH vowel:
affo(r)d doo(r) wa(r)d befo(r)e moo(r)s sco(r)e o(r)

Example 2: Liverpool. Words with the START vowel:
da(r)k ca(r)d ba(r)code cle(r)ks ma(r)ks

Example 3: Liverpool. Words with the NURSE vowel:
wo(r)khouse wo(r)king chu(r)ch conce(r)ned gi(r)ls su(r)plus wo(r)kforce ski(r)ts wo(r)ds

Example 4: Liverpool. Word-final weak syllables with r:
brothe(r) flowe(r)s pictu(r)es teache(r)s collecto(r) custome(r) pape(r)

Lloyd described his own prevocalic r as trilled. The final example from Liverpool illustrates apical taps or trills from Liverpool informants (in contrast there were no taps or trills from any of the other places).

Example 5: Liverpool tapped or trilled r:
area crane married celebrate decorated ground parishes groups playground through

There were two exceptions to this overwhelming non-rhotic tendency in the Liverpool-Manchester area, namely the earliest informants from Wigan (born in 1904) and Oldham (born in 1918). Both are partially rhotic, retaining rhoticity after the NURSE and GOOSE vowels, and NURSE and letTER vowels, respectively (there might be others, the recordings did not include every vowel). Wells (1982) reports that Wigan is now non-rhotic, so this is possibly one of the last glimpses of rhoticity from there. Both these places are on the northern edge of this area. Wells states that rhoticity is typically heard from Rochdale to Accrington (to the north). Oldham is just south of Rochdale. These two exceptions have possibly just caught the southern limit of Lancashire rhoticity receding northwards during the 20th century.

Here are examples from these two  partially rhotic exceptions:

Example 6: Wigan, born in 1904.
ca(r)ts, pa(r)t, sta(r)t, eight yea(r)s, a few yea(r)s, curls, it weren’t, nurse, girl, fi(r)egua(r)d, poorly, fathe(r), feve(r), neighbou(r)s

Example 7: Oldham, born in 1918.
ca(r)pet, were, grandfather, fender

There were no Liverpool soldiers in Doegen and Brandl’s P.O.W. recordings (Berliner Lautarchiv), and no Liverpool informants in the Survey of English Dialects recordings (they specifically targeted rural areas). Consequently there were no recordings available from informants born around 1880 to show whether Liverpool, like Manchester, was already becoming non-rhotic by the 1880s.

Honeybone (2008) traces the emergence of the localised Scouse dialect in the Merseyside area, and, following Knowles (1973), concludes there had been no uniquely Liverpool English before Scouse, only the surrounding Lancashire dialect also within the town. Knowles had set the outside limits for Scouse between 1830 (published evidence of the Lancashire dialect still being spoken in Liverpool) and 1889 (Ellis’s published evidence that Liverpool speech differed from the Lancashire dialect), and Honeybone generalises from this, setting the creation of Scouse by new generations to the mid 19th century, and consolidation from 1900. By this reasoning, Lloyd’s Liverpool English would have been Lancashire English rather than Scouse, and Scouse would have emerged during his lifetime.


British Library. Accents and Dialects. http://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/. Accessed 2013.

Honeybone, Patrick. 2008. New-dialect formation in nineteenth century Liverpool: a brief history of Scouse. In Grant, A. & Grey, C. (eds), The Mersey Sound: Liverpool’s Language, People and Places, Liverpool, Open House Press.

Knowles, Gerald O. 1973. Scouse: The Urban Dialect of Liverpool. Unpublished PhD
dissertation, University of Leeds. Available online (accessed 2013) http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/2080/1/Knowles_GO_English_PhD_1973.pdf

Lloyd, Richard J. 1899. Northern English. Leipzig, Teubner. Available online at http://www.archive.org (http://www.archive.org/details/northernenglishp00lloyuoft). Accessed 2013.

MacMahon, Michael K. C. 2007. The work of Richard John Lloyd (1846–1906)
and “the crude system of doctrine which passes at present under the name of
Phonetics”. Historiographica Linguistica 34 281-331.

National Archives, London. 1851. Census returns.

Wells, John C. 1982. Accents of English, vol. 2 The British Isles. Cambridge, University Press.

Wikipedia. Survey of English Dialects.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survey_of_English_Dialects. Accessed in 2013

Wikipedia. Rhotic and non-rhotic accents. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_and_non-rhotic_accents. Accessed 2013.

©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2013


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