Clean Air Cleaning Up Old Beatles Accent

ByLeela Jacinto

Feb. 23, 2001 -- "Eeeight days a week," sang the Beatles. "I laaaaa-uve you."

But if the Fab Four were singing their tune today, it might sound quite different.

John Lennon's laconic nasal twang would probably not shine through, and Ringo Starr could well be saying, "They gonnaahhhh put me in the movies," without his customary 'ahhh'.

That's because the Liverpudlian accent, made world-famous by Liverpool's most famous sons, has been changing through the years.

The way English is spoken in Liverpool, a port city in northwestern England, has always been rather different from the rest of the country.

Seasoned residents of this former industrial city call their accent "Scouse," an accent one Liverpudlian wit described as "one-third Irish, one-third Welsh and one-third catarrh."

Which is not far off the mark, according to Andrew Hamer, a regional accents expert at Liverpool University. "During the potato famines [in the mid-19th century] Irish immigrants moved to Liverpool, some of whom spoke Gaelic," said Hamer. "It was their children who first spoke with a distinctive accent that was a mix of Irish accents and the accent from neighboring Manchester."

Cleaning Up Their Accent Act

But over the years, Scouse has been changing in a variety of ways, and one of the unlikely suspects for the change has been the clean Liverpool air, which is quite new in these parts.

Fritz Spiegl, a local musician and author of Scouse International, believes a particular quality of Scouse, which sounds as if the speaker were talking through blocked respiratory tracts, has been disappearing as the Liverpudlian air has gotten cleaner.

"Years ago, the Liverpudlian was known by his dirty raincoat. Anyone in a clean coat was a visiting sailor," said Spiegl. But, he notes, the air around Liverpool, one of Britain's primary ports, has improved ever since England's economy started moving from an industrial to a service base and the old factories of Manchester — the old industrial heartland of Britain — began to close down.

Environmental awareness and clean-air legislation has also contributed to the healthy Liverpool air, and possibly the loss of that adenoidal twang.

So for instance, in the old days, "fair" and "hair"' sounded like "fur" and "hur" and "brother" sounded more like "brudder."

Southward for Upward Mobility

Another harbinger of change has been good old class snobbery. Hamer claims social mobility has ushered in what he calls "estuary English," or the English accent that originated on the banks of the Thames in Essex.

Influences from the south also include the London Cockney accent, which has been made popular by British soaps such as the EastEnders. "From my observations, Scouse speakers have started to say 'fink' instead of 'tink,' and 'bruvver' instead of 'brudder,'" Hamer said. "It is the influence of the Cockney pronunciation."

Hamer believes that the ones most likely to be affected by the changes are younger Liverpudlians, an observation with which Spiegl agrees. "If you're applying for a job and you speak with a heavy Scouse, people will start having doubts," said Spiegl.

Is the loss of the old Scouse a bad thing? It's natural, says Hamer.

"All accents have to change," he said. "It's a sign that they're alive. Even the Beatles themselves lost their Scouse accent. So "Eleanor Rigby" has far less of that adenoidal twang than some of the early Beatles numbers."

Spiegl, who says he was a friend of John Lennon before stardom carried him away from his hometown, says people's accents soften when they leave their native area. "That's what happens to Liverpudlians when they become successful. You see them everywhere but in Liverpool."

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