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School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

Linguistic Seminar Series - General Northern English? Exploring regional variation in the North of England with machine learning

20 January 2021 - 18 January 2021

Time: 3:30 - 5:00pm
Speaker: Patrycja Strycharczuk
Venue: Online: https://qmul-ac-uk.zoom.us/j/89220112299

We are pleased to welcome Dr Patrycja Strycharczuk  (The University of Manchester), who will present some of her recent research.

This talk reports on joint work with Manuel López-Ibáñez, Georgina Brown and Adrian Leemann. We investigate General Northern English, as a pan-regional standard accent associated with middle-class speakers in the North of England. While this variety is occasionally referenced in the literature, it has not as yet received a systematic description. We attempt such a description, using a crowd-sourced corpus of 105 speakers from five northern UK cities: Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne and Sheffield. We compare the median vowel systems of the individual cities, with a view to describing regional variation, vis-à-vis descriptions of traditional regional distinctions. The comparison confirms previous literature reports that many traditional accent features are absent from present-day northern speech, which is consistent with a shift towards a pan regional variety. Nevertheless, some differences between each of the cities are observed, such that individual urban accents can still be identified, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy. We establish this through a novel method, which uses random-forest based classification set up to identify each individual city from a pool of other urban Northern accents. This method also allows us to objectively select features that contribute most systematically to identifying individual cities. By and large, the features identified by random forests are somewhat unexpected, which suggests they may be sociolinguistic regional indicators. Their presence also complicates a coherent description of General Northern English as a variety. We propose that some aspects of regional variation can be reconciled with the notion of a pan-regional standard if we define that standard in terms of varying ranges of possible vowel variation, modulated by sociolinguistic attitudes.