The North South Divide
The North-South divide is something which is widely discussed in the media, and by linguists. Socially, this term refers to people’s perceptions of a line separating the country according to social, economic and political factors. Linguistically, it can be applied to differences in pronunciation, grammatical constructions and how accents vary depending on the region in which the speakers live.
Linguist Katie Wales, who has extensively studied Northern English, states that there is a global perception of ‘a North-South divide based on temperature’ such as the ‘frozen North’ or ‘warm South’. She goes on to state that this can be applied to the British Isles as the North generally tends to be colder (and wetter!) than the South due to its geography.
A look at the factors determining the divide
People judge varieties on a variety of features, not all of them linguistic. Below is a brief look at some of the factors.
A linguistic divide
The difference in phonological features of accents in the north and south is constantly discussed. WELL’S LEXICAL SETS (see How Is Dialectology studied?), are often used as markers of the divide.
For example, the STRUT/FOOT set shows the alternating productions of the phoneme /u/, either articulated as [ʊ] or [ʌ] depending on region. [ʊ] is the symbol for the IPA sound which is a near-close, near-back vowel. This would be in a word such as hook – [hʊk]. On the other hand, [ʌ] is an open-mid, back unrounded vowel. This would be in a word such as plus – [plʌs] – Wales suggests that ‘the southern pronunciation is central [ʌ] and the northern more rounded [ʊ]’ 
The second factor used to determine a linguistic split is the comparison between a short and long vowel sound in a word such as bath. This is known as Bath broadening. It is typically suggested that the short /æ/ is heard in Northern varieties and the long /ɑː/ in Southern. Imagine the Northern production of the word ’bath’ being similar to the vowel sound in ’cat’. Alternatively, it is suggested that Southern speakers would use a long /ɑː/ sound to produce ’bath’ like in the pronunciation of ’art’.
(If you’re not sure what we mean by these terms, learn about the IPA in our Phonetics section.)
A geographical divide
Geographically the divide is still difficult to identify. Is the line really as clear cut as the North at the top and South at the bottom? And where do you separate the two? Stereotypically, the divide is often thought of as separating rich from poor. Often North is seen as being highly industrialised and therefore, working class. The South on the other hand, is stereotypically considered more sophisticated because it contains the capital London and its links with the ‘aristocracy, power and cultural prestige.’
Chris Montgomery (2012) found that proximity was an important factor in how speakers saw the North-South Divide. Speakers who identified themselves as Northern ensured that they placed a physical North-South divide below their location. Participants further North were less specific when drawing a divide line because they were comfortable in their Northern identity. This shows that linguists consider how accent and dialect contributes to a Northern or Southern identity within speakers.
A political divide
Politics is always a hot topic, guaranteed to polarise opinion and get people talking. Traditionally, the left-wing Labour Party have fared better in the North, while the right-wing Conservative Party tend to win more seats in the South. After the 2012 local elections, a BBC Online News report suggested these trends are still occurring. For example, ‘Labour support is at a low ebb in the south, but equally we know that the Conservatives are still struggling to break through in large expanses of the north.’ The report also claims that ‘this polarisation could produce inconclusive election results and more coalitions.’ More recently, though, these patterns are less clear cut.
A historical divide
The north south divide can be traced back in literature for almost two centuries. Benjamin Disraeli (1845) portrayed the existence of two nations in his book; The Two Nations. He suggests that there is ‘two nations; no intercourse and no sympathy, formed by different breeding, fed by different foods and ordered by different manners‘. Disraeli believed that there was a strong line, where no integration can occur. This line has has historical grounding when we look at settlement within the two areas – originally the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia (The North and Midlands) were settled by Anglian tribes, whilst the Kingdoms of the South were settled by Saxon tribes. This resulted in dialect differentiation which could explain the modern-day North-South Divide.
In modern terms
University is the perfect example of an environment where accents meet from all across the UK. Living together with people from different regions and different backgrounds is both a rewarding and educational experience. However, it is also a situation bound to result in conversation about identity and which regions are better!
Below are two videos showing University of Sheffield student’s opinions on their accents and the North-South divide. ….But remember, whilst individuals have very strong opinions about accents, as linguists, we cannot endorse these views.
Jenny is a 19-year-old student from Stockport in Manchester in her first year at the university.
As a linguist:
- Jenny considers herself to have a strong Mancunian accent. We could therefore infer that this links to her self-identity and her sense of belonging to Manchester as a region.
- She states that she feels her accent is ‘friendlier’ than the southern accent, proving that language attitudes spread much further than just how the accent sounds, but also how people with that accent behave and interact within society.
Amaan is 20 and comes from London. He describes his opinions based on the impact London has socially over other regions.
As a linguist:
- Amaan immediately states his ‘southern accent is better than the Northerner’s accent,’ which is typical of value judgements often made when non-linguists hear different accents.
- Furthermore, Amaan discusses how his accent gives him recognition (even internationally) and this suggests he feels a sense of security bound up in his accent, making him identifiable to a strong and cultural region such as London.
- Finally, he makes links between London and it’s connotations with ‘money and power.’ This could suggest that he likes to associate with this prestige and his accent makes him feel included in this.
Does it matter?
Any geographical divide isn’t just significant linguistically. By looking at the media, we can identify some social effects of the differences between the North and South. This shows how closely linguistic study can overlap with social issues. Below are examples of the divide in the media. These articles are not academic but do highlight that attitudes connected to accents and dialects might not come from the aesthetic qualities (how they sound) of the different varieties themselves.
- The Daily Telegraph reported on 2nd May 2012 that ‘rising beer prices are causing a north-south divide.’ The report quotes that the ‘unsuitable rise in beer taxes mean pubs are opening in affluent, well-off areas in the South’ . To read the article in full follow the reference below to The Telegraph Online.
- Still not convinced? The Daily Mail further suggests fashion is dramatically different depending on region. The article in the references below suggests ‘the word vintage up North still means second hand’ , showing not only are the fashions different visually but also in people’s minds.
On this page you have witnessed some fairly strong opinions about the linguistic competence of The North and South according to true regional speakers. Why not jump to our Language Attitudes and Opinions section, where you can listen to more regional speakers and get an idea of just why accents are so often commented on.
- North-South divide describes not only the geographical split within the UK, but also social, cultural, political and language factors which are different depending on region.
- Perception in this context is the ability to be aware of divides and differences particularly in reference to accent, regardless of there being no physical line.
- Wells lexical sets are a set of 24 sets of words organised on the basis of how the vowels in the words are pronounced and how they differ.
- BATH broadening is the lengthening on the /a/ vowel sound in words such as bath and grass.
 Wales, K., (1999). North and South: An English Linguistic divide?. English Today. 16 1. pp. 4-15. Available at: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltexttype=1&fid=2269640&jid
=ENG&volumeId=16&issueId=01&aid=1450300 [Accessed 12.05.2012].
 Montgomery, Chris (2012) The Effect of Proximity in Perceptual Dialectology. Journal of Sociolinguistics. 16(5). pp. 638-668.
 Moss, R., (2012). New report highlights north-south divide among voters. BBC [online] (Last updated 16:14 PM on 1st May 2012) Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17913413 [Accessed 16.05.2012].
 Baker, A. R. H. & Billinge, M. ed., (2004). Geographies of England: The North South divide material and imagine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Hall, J., (2012). ‘Rising Beer Prices Causing ‘North-South Divide,’ Pub Boss Warns.’ The Telegraph [online] (Last updated 12:32 PM on 2nd May 2012) Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/9240948/Rising-beer-prices-causing-north-south-divide-pub-boss-warns.html [Accessed 14.05.2012].
 Jones, L., (2007). ‘Dress Sense: The Real North South Divide’. The Mail Online [online] (Last updated 10:59 AM on 22nd January 2007) Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-430456/Dress-sense-The-real-North-South-divide.html.[Accessed 15.05.2012].
 Wales, K., (2006) Northern English: A Cultural and Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A world top-100 university
We're a world top-100 university renowned for the excellence, impact and distinctiveness of our research-led learning and teaching.