The Brogue Meridian

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The Brogue Meridian -

This is the second in the blog/podcast series Accent Through the Keyhole: small views of big pictures. Scroll down for the mp3 podcast.

Brogue: 1. rough shoes made of untanned leather formerly worn in Scotland and Ireland; nowadays, a strong outdoor shoe with ornamental patterns in the leather.  2. a marked accent from Scotland, Ireland, or sometimes the West Country.

I’ve heard the word ‘brogue’ before, but what is it exactly?

Hard to say. Guttural, twang, lilt, singsong, far back and brogue are all words which have been used to describe accents, but their exact meanings are not always easy to discern - and brogue is particularly opaque in this regard. But because it collocates with Irish and Scottish, and sometimes West Country (ie, from the peninsula in the south west extreme of England), one might speculate that ‘brogue’ has something to do with what accents of those three places have in common. I’m inclined to go for the quality of the ‘r’. It is noticeable that these are the three parts of the British Isles where this letter is pronounced after a vowel (ie, at the end of a syllable). In the remainder of the British Isles, the ‘r’ disappears in words like beer, heard, sport, cart and pear, while in the brogue parts it is clearly audible.

So it’s just a thing about British accents, then?

No, it’s wider than that. Let’s say we draw a north-south meridian through the British Isles (admittedly a wobbly one, like the international date line), with the brogue accents to the west and non-brogue to the east. This imaginary line can be continued to divide the world into the brogue hemisphere, which will include North America, and the non-brogue hemisphere, which will include Australia. What this amounts to is that all accents of English can be classified as being either among those where the ‘r’ is sounded after a vowel and those where it is not. ‘Broguishness’ (or more properly, ‘rhoticity’) is a major, cross-cutting distinction transcending all accents.

But that’s a bit tricky – which one are we going to tell our students is correct?

Ah, the problem’s already there in the question. What can it possibly mean to say that a feature of an accent is correct or not? People speak one way in the brogue hemisphere and the other way in the non-brogue hemisphere, and that’s just a neutral fact with no right or wrong about it. As regards our teaching, I guess our students will need to be able to cope with both accent types receptively. Productively – well, I don’t suppose it matters which way they go, because they’ll most likely be understood either way.

So how do you deal with it in your teaching?

Well, my own accent is non-brogue. But interestingly, it doesn’t seem to rub off on my students, who usually pronounce the ‘r’ wherever they see it. They don’t even seem to notice the missing ‘r’ when I say words like beer, heard, sport, cart and pear unless I specifically point it out. But perhaps that’s not so strange if we consider the genesis of non-brogue pronunciation: it evolved out of brogue. In England at some time in the past, the ‘r’ after a vowel grew less and less marked until there came a point at which speakers realised they didn’t even have to make the effort to pronounce it at all – it could be implied in the vowel that came before it. The five vowel sounds in beer, heard, sport, cart and pear have a very strong relationship to the ‘r’ – they are somehow ‘coloured’ by it (on the PronPack Sound Chart, the r-coloured vowels have a superscript (r) next to the phonemic symbol). This is clear when you compare the vowel sounds in these words with the vowel sounds in words with identical spelling, but minus the ‘r’: bee, head, spot, cat and pea. So whether or not you pronounce that ‘r’, it still affects the vowel sound.

But returning to my students: I have no problem if they prefer to put an /r/ there where I don’t.

So you’re saying it’s ok for our students to pronounce the ‘r’?

Not only is it ok, it might actually be better. Because if most students in the world are like mine and pronounce the ‘r’ wherever it’s written, then globally speaking, the brogue hemisphere is going to expand as these students join the pool of world English speakers. In which case, there will be a brogue tide and it would be foolish to stand on the beach and demand that it turn back.

Last week: Either will do

Next week: The Reverse Lisp

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