Somet’ to be Proud of: Everything you need to know about the Sheffield accent

Exposed’s Elliot Lucas sat down with sociolinguistics PhD student Johanna Blakey to discuss the Sheffield accent: what is unique about it, what its history is, and how it is generally perceived by others.

Hi Johanna, so for the benefit of our readers, what is it you study exactly?
I’m looking at the Sheffield dialect and in particular how it’s changed over the last 100 years. I’ve been using an archive in Weston Bank library, which has recordings of Sheffield speakers going as far back as 1901, and comparing those with recordings from the present day. I’ve also been looking at how speech is affected by social factors like age, gender, and social class.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned?
That there’s a social divide in Sheffield between east and west. In the east people tend to be more working class and in the west more middle class. That manifests in people’s language. People in the west speak something closer to ‘standard’ BBC English, while people in the east have more of a broad Sheffield accent with lots of traditionally Sheffield features.

What’s the reason for that?
It goes back years, to when Sheffield was in its prime as an industrial city. All the factories were in the east, starting at Kelham Island, going all the way back through Attercliffe etc. Working class people tended to live in the east for the job opportunities. They wanted to be closer to the steelworks. Meanwhile housing in the west was more expensive, because it was well away from all the smog and pollution from the factories.

What is unique about the Sheffield accent?
There are a lot of words that are uniquely Sheffield. Words like ‘reyt’ ‘gennel’  ‘nannan’ ‘misen’ (instead of ‘myself’). You tend to get the shortening of certain vowels too, like ‘make’ and ‘take’ becoming ‘mek’ and ‘tek’.  There’s also h-dropping, so that ‘happy’ becomes ‘appy’ and replacing ‘th’ sounds with ‘d’ which is why people call us dee-dahs.

What made you want to study accents, and the Sheffield accent in particular?
I’ve always been interested in accents. I remember being at school and being taught not to speak a certain way, the way that all teenagers in Sheffield spoke, because I would never get a job sounding like that. I was really triggered by that. Why? I thought.

Do you think that view is commonplace? How do you think the Sheffield accent is generally perceived?
I’m biased because I’m from Sheffield, and so is all my family, so I love it. But I can see why someone could be insecure about it. Northern accents are often associated with lower social class or being less educated unfortunately.

What do you think can be done about that, if anything?
As I say, a lot of that stigma starts in school, when kids are conditioned to believe that their regional way of speaking is not as valuable as ‘standard’ English. A lot of researchers right now are figuring out ways to address that.

Do you think having more role models with a Sheffield accent in the media would help?
Yeah definitely. That’s a really good point. When I put stuff out about my research people always say ‘oh yeah, that’s what Sean Bean sounds like’ or that’s how ‘Alex Turner talks’. Role models like that are a point of regional pride. I mean, if you listened to the BBC in the past, there were no regional accents. Nowadays, there’s a lot more regional accents on the BBC, and people’s attitudes about how we should speak are relaxing a bit. Prejudiced attitudes are always softened through exposure.

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