The extent of regional variation in the pronunciation of English is universally acknowledged and often remarked on. In this chapter, we shall see how an awareness of such variation can help us understand the process of change. First, however, we need to examine some general misunderstandings about the nature of pronunciation; in particular, its relationship with spelling, and the ways in which notions about correctness, and the view that some forms of pronunciation are slovenly, have been influenced by the prestigious Received Pronunciation (RP) accent. Then we shall look at sounds themselves, and see how they can be described independently of our spelling system, by describing first some of the RP consonants, and then the vowels. RP itself will be seen to vary, according to the level of formality of context, and also with respect to the age, sex, and even social attitude of its speakers: and we shall see how such variations reflect changes in the recent past. We shall then see how three consonant pronunciations, formerly common in upper- and lower-class speech, have subsequently been stigmatised, especially in urban accents. Three widely-known regional pronunciations will then be described, and their origins traced; and we shall see how in two cases they preserve sounds that were once more generally used. Finally, we shall examine the evidence for the series of momentous vowel changes known as the Great Vowel Shift, and assess the role of social factors in the adoption of the new pronunciations that resulted.
Contrary to what many people think, regional pronunciations in England are not dying out. Although in some respects they have changed quite dramatically within living memory, the direction of change has by no means always been towards RP; the accents of the big cities-London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle-have if anything intensified certain phonetic differences across the generations. Moreover, we cannot speak of the existence of a national norm of pronunci-