Nineteenth century sound change in Kent


1. Introduction


Rural locations and years of birth of the seven SED Kentish informants and H G Wells (each in bold italics), and other locations referred to in the text. The Medway Towns have always included at least Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham, and today they are amalgamated in the Medway Unitary Authority, along with surrounding rural areas like the Thameside marshland of the Hoo peninsula to the north (Stoke1868). The Hoo peninsula was one of the rural areas excluded by Ellis, having already lost the earlier accent.

The sound changes concern one consonant /r/, and nine vowels (FACE, PRICE, TRAP, STRUT, THOUGHT, GOAT, MOUTH, LOT and BATH). Loss of rhoticity refers to the loss of /r/ in syllable codas, i.e. in words like ca(r)t. This “r-dropping” had begun in Lincolnshire and East Anglia by the 15th century, revealed by unusual spellings in manuscripts like wills and private letters. Since then it has been spreading across the country and had reached Kent by about 1850 (inferred from Ellis  1889). Seven of the informants were recorded by the Survey of English Dialects (SED) in the 1950s, while the eighth is the author H. G. Wells, recorded during a radio broadcast in 1931 (map above). Additional recordings, contemporary received pronunciation (RP) and 20th century Kentish speech, are included for comparison. Informant anonymity is preserved by referring to them by their location and birth year (for example Farningham1881) unless they are public figures (when their names are used, like H. G. Wells). Spectrographic analysis is used to visualize their individual vowel systems.

Ellis, A. 1889. Early English Pronunciation. Teubner, Vol. 5.

The ten sound changes were part of a much larger event in the 19th century, contact between migrating Londoners and the local populations of industrial towns along the shores of the estuary. Ellis and the SED provide two snapshots of Kentish pronunciations separated by a few generations (Ellis’ account was based on notes from correspondents and interviews with adult Kentish speakers born around 1840-50 and earlier, while the seven SED informants were born between 1865 and 1895). Similar contact sound changes were occurring in all directions from London, throughout the home counties. This was caught by George Orwell (Coming up for Air, 1939, Part II, Chapt. 7) in a novel set in the Thames Valley somewhere between London and Oxford in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (cited by Parsons 1998):

“In the Thames Valley the country accents were going out.
Except for the farm lads, nearly everyone
who was born later than 1890 talked Cockney.”

Parsons, G. 1998. From “RP” to “Estuary English”. MA Thesis, Hamburg University

 FACE  ai, eə  ɛi
 PRICE  ʌi  ai
 GOAT  ou  au (P: ʌu)
 STRUT  ʌ  a
 TRAP  close æ near dress  open æ
 MOUTH  ɛu~ɛʉ   æɒ (P: æʉ)
 LOT  ɑ  ɔ
 BATH  aː  ɑː
Table 1. The earlier Kentish pronunciations of the nine vowels, reported by Ellis, and the new pronunciations of the informants, including partially new changes (P), listed in estimated chronological order of new pronunciations.


 FACE  ai, æi, ɛi
 PRICE  ɑi
 GOAT  au
 TRAP  ɛ, close æ near dress,
open æ
 MOUTH  æu~æː~aː
 LOT  ɔ
 BATH  ɑː
Table 2. The 19th century migrant London pronunciation model (Matthews, Cockney Past and Present,  1938; Sivertsen, Cockney Phonology, 1960; Wells, Accents of English, 1982), listed in the same order as Table 1.

For the Kentish part in this major 19th and 20th century levelling of regional Southern British English (SBE) in the home counties, it will be necessary to establish the previous accent (that the informants were changing from), and the postulated popular London model (see the tables).


2. Theory

The current theory for linguistic change generally and contact sound change in particular, based largely on the work of Labov, is summarized by, for example, Britain (1997, 2009), Fabricius (2000, 2002), and Kerswill (2003a, 2003b, 2010). The ten sound changes reported here hardly amounted to a new koine, such as was proposed for the Fenlands by Britain (1997) and Milton Keynes by Kerswill & Williams (2005). In 19th century Kent, each of these sound changes was simply a direct modification. Koineization may well have occurred when regional variants merged into levelled Home Counties SBE, especially if syntax and the lexicon are included.

Britain. D. 1997. Contact, focusing and phonological rule complexity: the koineisation of Fenland English. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 4.
Britain, D. 2009. One foot in the grave? Dialect death, dialect contact and dialect birth in England. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 196-197:121-155.
Fabricius, A. 2000. T-Glottaling between Stigma and Prestige: a Socio­linguistic Study of Modern RP, PhD thesis, Copenhagen.
Fabricius, A. 2002. RP as sociolinguistic object. Nordic Journal of English Studies 1.
Kerswill, P. 2003a. Dialect levelling and geographical diffusion in British English, in Social Dialectology: In Honour of Peter Trudgill.
Kerswill, P. 2003b. Koineization and accommodation, in Handbook of Language Variation and Change.
Kerswill, P. 2010. Standard English, RP, and the standard-nonstandard relationship, in Language in the British Isles.
Kerswill, P. & A. Williams. 2005. New towns and koineisation: linguistic and social correlates. Linguistics 43.

Equally, this account relies heavily on the role of child language acquisition for language change, recognized since the 19th century and summarized, for example, by Greenlee & Ohala (1980), Labov (1989) and Kirswill et al. (2013). Further, Kerswill, following Trudgill, recognizes accommodation (adaptation of pronunciation by adults) as an active process in diffusion. However, all recordings were made late in the lives of the informants, and it is assumed they still reflected their pronunciations from childhood, or at least adolescence.

Greenlee, M. & J. Ohala. 1980. Phonetically motivated parallels between child phonology and historical sound change. Language Sciences 2)
Kirswill et al. 2013. English as a contact language: the role of children and adolescents, in English as a Contact Language.
Labov, W. 1989. The child as linguistic historian. Language Variation and Change 1.

Any possible involvement of RP in these 19th century Kentish sound changes will be examined. At first sight it was not implicated, the postulated model being the speech of Londoners. In addition, there would have been few opportunities for Kentish inhabitants to hear RP in the 19th century. They probably heard very little before the BBC brought RP voices into homes from the 1920s onwards.

3. Results

The results are summarized in Tables 3 (number of informants acquiring each sound change) and 4 (number of sound changes for each informant), showing new (N), partially new (P), and old (O) pronunciations.Table 3 also shows the percentages of the informants who still have old pronunciations for each sound change, from 0% for FACE to 100% for BATH. In Table 4, the four informants with most new pronunciations (28, on the left) are all in the north or northwest. The four informants with fewest new pronunciations (15, on the right) are all in the south and east. Each sound charge started in the industrial towns along the River Thames and its estuary, and then diffused to neighbouring rural areas before spreading to the entire county.

The results for each individual sound change are reported separately on new pages.


Table 3. The numbers of informants with new pronunciations (N), partially new (P) and old (O), for each of the ten sound changes, ordered from the left by the total number of O acquired, assuming a progression from the earliest sound change to the most recent. The grand total for each sound change is 8, the number of informants. The percentages for remaining old pronun­ciations are rounded up.

Table 4. The number of new (N), partially new (P) and old (O) pronun­ciations of the ten sound changes by each informant, ordered from the left by the number of N.


4. Informants and sound extracts

4.1. SED Kent and H G Wells

The SED recordings, made in the 1950s, are available online in MP3 format from the British Library Sound Archive. These informants were born between 1865 and 1895 and were selected for their lifelong residence in their rural locations. They are referred to by their location and birth year, thus: Farningham1881 (map above). No birth year was provided for the informant from Staple, so he is just identified as Staple18xx. They were all male, with such varied occupations as blacksmith, coal miner, farmer, groom, and traction engine driver. A radio broadcast made in 1931 by the novelist, biologist, and political commentator H. G. Wells is also included (BBC Archive). He was born in 1866 at Bromley, at that time a large village growing into an urban area, and today incorporated as a SE London Borough. His recorded speech is phonologically comparable to that of the con­temporary SED informants, and like them he has a mixture of new sound changes and earlier Kentish pronunciations. Mugglestone (2003) states he ”shed the Cockney markings of his youth”. Judging by his recorded speech, he simply moved his Kentish accent up the local sociolect scale. His enunciation is clear, with hardly any syllable reductions, no intervocalic glottal stops and no vocalic /l/. But he still had uninhibited GOOSE fronting, general preglottalization of /p t k/ in various syllable-final contexts, and free yod coalescence, all unheard of in the RP of the day but typical for these Kentish informants.

Mugglestone, L. 2003. Talking Proper.

Examples from each Kentish informant are given below, arranged from the most conservative pronunciations (fewest new pronunciations, in the south and east) to the least conservative (most new pronunciations, in the north and northwest).

  • Denton1888 (northeast); farm hand (3 new out of 10):
    “At the end oˈ the year, which was Michaelmas, was gen’rally the routine, for farmers to, and the workmen to split up, from one farm to the other, if they didn’t like it, well they moved to the next farm, and agreed there, for another twelvemonth, which was, a twelve months guarantee, you ˈad to stop”
  • Appledore1880 (southeast); steam traction engine driver (3 new out of 10):
    “I biked to, ah, Newchurch, and that’s about nine mile from ˈere, you know, I’d get down to, about ˈalf past six, you know, to open the machine house, and get ready for them, see, alright for them chaps what lived there close, but I’d got to get there, but I’d got to get ˈome, see”
  • Stoke1868 (north); sheep farmer (5 new out of 10):
    “I can say they consider cattle, ah t ah t, pays better, but of course, you’ve got ˈave more men to look after sheep than you would cattle, and of course the wages’ve gone up, they, that makes a bit of difference about it, but the, the worst trouble was the dogs of a night time, we’ve ˈad, ˈad a lot of trouble”
  • Bromley1866 H. G. Wells (northwest), author, biologist, journalist (7 new out of 10):
    “On that my summing up culminates, because this I think is a thing th’t concerns us most, the five year plan is obviously staggering, the five year plan may very possibly fail, that does not mean Russia will collapse, Russia collapsed in 1917”
  • Farningham1881 (northwest); blacksmith, farrier (8 new out of 10):
    “First ya get, get yer ah, ˈammer anˈ pinchers, anˈ what we used to call a, stabbing iron, that’s to cut the clinches, where the nails’ve been turned over, cut the clinches, cut them off, then get the, pinchers, then ya, then you, pull the shoe off”
  • WarrenStreet1894 (north centre); farmer (8 new out of 10):
    “Anˈ the olˈ, big olˈ pots, they used to ˈave, they still got some oˈ the olˈ pots now, we got one now, all sixteen gallons-worth, they used to put their, put pig in it, all together they did, parsnips, turnips, ˈtatas, the ˈole lot, they used to go in, meat ‘n all”


4.2. RP for comparison

Reference recordings are also included from two RP speakers who were contem­poraries of the Kentish informants. One is Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947, Harrow School, Cambridge University, politician, Prime Minister 1923-24, earl), taken from a political broadcast (BBC Archive). The other is Daniel Jones (1881-1967, Radford College and University College School, Cambridge University and the Sorbonne, professor of phonetics), taken from published teaching material and the final (1956) cardinal vowel recording.

  • Daniel Jones (188§1-1967), professor:
    “I did a thing the other day that I’d never done before, let me see, when was it, it was last Tuesday week, no it was a week last Wednesday, yes that’s right, ten days ago, I went down to Southampton docks to see my partner off to New York on the Aquitania, one of our largest liners you know, he’s going to be away for at least three months, and I don’t expect him back till the end of August”


4.3. 20th century Kentish examples

Four 20th century Kentish recordings document the completed set of these sound changes. Two, who grew up in Gravesend and Sheerness, were the earliest among the Kentish informants to acquire the new BATH change. They are Gravesend1905 (a metal worker, recorded by the BBC Millennium Project in 1998) and William Penney (1909-1991, professor, mathema­tician and nuclear physicist, rector of Imperial College, life peer, recording from Imperial College 1971). William Penney’s only concession to RP was possibly his HAPPY vowel, while his LOT, THOUGHT, MOUTH and GOAT were not modified towards RP; Schlesinger (1965) mistakenly referred to his “broad Australian accent”; Horne (2008) recalls Prime Minister Macmillan’s “perfect imitation of William Penney’s Cockney accent”. In addition, the Kentish accent is traced into later decades by Meopham1928 (near Farningham1881, Figure 1, a dentist, recorded in 1998 by the BBC Millennium Project) and Dungeness1949 (near Appledore1880, Figure 1, a fisherman and lifeboat cox­swain, recorded in 2005 by the BBC Voices Project).

Horne. A. 2008. Macmillan – the Official Biography.
Schlesinger, A. 1965. A Thousand Days.

These four informants are roughly the first generation in their respective areas to acquire the new BATH change.

  • Gravesend1905, metal worker:
    “I was five year old when I went to school, an’ I remember my mother now, takin’ me to school, it was only down the bottom, o’, the road, not, well, about, two or three ‘undred yards from our ‘ouse, an’ she took me to school this Monday morning, and now, that time o’ day you ‘ad the infants, the girls school, and the boys school, which was up the top, o’ the street, big three storey, Church , Church Street Scho-, well it’s St George’s School, it was, but we used to call it Church Street School, an’ my mother took me to school”
  • William Penney (1909-1991), professor, interviewed by a student:
    “Yes I did, that’s right [what happened during the war years, were you still at the college?]” well I I, no, nominally I was but, in fact I wasn’t because, almost at once I got caught up in the, in the war, and I was, mmm, sent to the Ministry of Home Security, and one of the most urgent problems at that time of course was bombing and explosions, all that horrible stuff, and ah I was asked to study ah explosions and effects of explosions [yes]”
  • Meopham1928, dentist:
    “Oh no, that’s right, it was all local, it was all chaps that come home from work, go and have a wash, and come round the pub, it was a social occasion, they’d have darts an’ shove-halfp’ny an’, you know, it was all local people, you would very rarely find people arriving, well, very few cars about, an’, be arriving by cars, totally different, and of course the inside of the pub was different, in the public bar you’d have sawdust on the floor, and you’d have spittoons and things like that, which’d be unheard of today, [laugh] and ah the saloon bar, would be a little bit more upmarket, but you’d only have high stools and lino, you know, it was nothing compared with today”
  • Dungeness1949, fisherman, lifeboat coxswain:
    “mmm I went to sea with my father five or six years, ‘nd, then Pat built me a boat, ‘nd we went fishing on my own, then as my sons grew up, they mmm, got their own boats and they all went fishing, ah I s’pose my lifeboat work just followed on from that, because, to be a lifeboat coxswain you have to be voted in by the crew, but the coxswain picks the crew, so naturally he ‘as ‘is, mmm, friends and relations working with him”
©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2016