Feature Image: Liverpool’s Skyline from New Brighton Beach
The Liverpool accent, most famously dubbed the ‘Scouse’ accent, is one of the most noticeable and varied speech patterns in England – and in the British Isles. But have Liverpudlians always talked like they have a blocked nose? Have they always spoken in a higher pitch towards the end of a sentence? Have they always finished sentences with the word ‘like’? This post looks at how the famous twang of Liverpudlians has developed over the years.
Is it an accent or a dialect?
First of all, it’s important to look at the distinction between accent and dialect, and which one the Liverpool way of speaking falls into. Andrew Hamer is a lecturer of English Language at the University of Liverpool and defines the two as such:
Dialect: “this includes the vocabulary you use, the grammar that you use and lots of local expressions as well. Dialects are defined socially – depending on your social background, and regionally – in terms of the area that you come from.”
Accent: ‘The sounds that people produce – it can involve the tunes that people use when they are speaking, and also the individual sounds of speech. So ‘accent’ is a more narrow term than dialect.’
Hamer defines the Liverpool speech as an accent, stating that although there are a number of deviations on slang and local expression., i’s the way it is spoken and sounds in how it really deviates, which is why it can be defined as an accent.
Where does it come from?
It’s generally agreed the Liverpudlian accent was much the same or similar as other Lancashire accents up until the mid-nineteenth century and only really began to develop into its famous twang from then. In correlation with other events it’s easy to see why. In the 1840s and early 50s, the Irish Potato Famine had caused mass starvation across the country, and many emigrated to Liverpool to escape and start new lives. As many as 1.3 million Irish moved to Liverpool during the famine, and as early as 1851 one in five people in Liverpool were born in Ireland.
Irish migration, of course, has a long history in Liverpool. Its proximity to Ireland had led to this, but its development as a port really accelerated the movement towards the city. This huge shift, and through becoming a huge proportion of the population, had an impact on Liverpool, not only in making Liverpool the great port city it became, with their work on the docks, but also on the way the Lancastrian scousers spoke.
Welsh migration also had an impact on the city and its accent. Liverpool is very close to the border of North Wales and its connections made movement very easy. This movement came a little later than the Irish, towards the end of the nineteenth century. Around 80,000 Welsh-born people lived in North West England in 1892, with many concentrated in Liverpool. Historian Merfyn Jones notes that many Welsh migrants were forced to move due to economic collapse, mainly from the northern counties. A main driver, he underlines, was the collapse of large-scale copper mining in Anglesey, an island off North Wales. But Welsh influence had been there from much earlier, with a migration influx starting in 1760. By 1900, there were 90 Welsh-speaking chapels, churches and mission halls. Therefore, it was not just the Welsh accent influencing the city, but the language itself.
Has it changed?
Accents and dialects are continuously changing, whether due outside influences or personal choices. The influx of American influences in Britain has caused an Americanized way of speaking in younger generations, and also a heavy focus on the capital of the country and its own cockney slang has influenced speech patterns across the country. The Liverpool Museums website has underlined how the accent has been under constant development, and this can be seen with the shift in speech patterns since the mid-nineteenth century.
Overall, Liverpool’s distinctive accent can be compared in comparison with its neighbouring city and also a giant of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester. Only thirty miles away, Manchester’s immigration also included Irish and Welsh, but mostly relied on that on surrounding Lancashire areas, forming its own way of speaking into a Lancastrain dialect, whereas Liverpool’s can really only be described as Scouse.