Help us put the Bristol dialect on the map!

By Katiuska Ferrer Portillo

An intuitive description of the term Bristolian would define it as, the linguistic variety of English spoken in the Bristol area. However, the homogeneity and scope of this dialect’s strongholds within the city, if any, are a far more complex and understudied matter, which constitutes the central focus of my PhD research at the School of Modern Languages, and will reflect critically on what Bristolian really is, both in the way it is perceived, in its use across the city, and perhaps even further afield.

Bristol Suspension Bridge. Photo by James Hawkey

Variations in accent, vocabulary and grammar, are key elements which differentiate dialects from each other. However, since the same differences apply to distinguish one language from another, the question of whether we are faced with a dialect or a language often comes to mind.

Every language is actually a dialect, and from a linguistic point of view, regional dialects do not have lower status than standard languages. All dialects are equally effective and grammatically correct. They differ only in their level of prestige, directly proportional to the endorsement of national state powers. Standard English holds an element of prestige over other dialects within the UK. The reason for this is simple, standard English is the dialect of the establishment, the dialect used and disseminated by the most powerful, educated and affluent members of the UK population.

According to the renowned sociolinguist, Peter Trudgill, probably less than 15% of the population of England are native speakers of Standard English. The misguided and widespread belief that non-standard varieties are incorrect variations of an errorless and unadulterated standard English, entails a constant threat of stigmatisation of most regional dialects in the UK. which translates into a linguistic discrimination directed towards their speakers.

The lack of prestige that Bristolian holds amongst British people, according to a 2005 study on accent prejudice in the UK[1], therefore comes as no surprise, and is in line with a1970 paper on reactions to British accents[2]. Bristolian can also be perceived as a rural rather than urban dialect, which is  a common stereotype associated with all West-Country dialects[3].
The rusticity linked to the Bristolian dialect, together with its lack of prestige, has meant it has been absent from works of literature, and an accentuated humorous outlook towards this dialect which often verges on mockery and disdain.

Bark at ee Gromit, Wills Memorial Building. Photo by Katiuska Ferrer Portillo

Yet, do the countrified and discredited labels correspond to an accurate identification of the Bristol dialect? In other words, can most British distinguish Bristolian from other West Country dialects?
The dialect recognition survey contained in Montgomery’s study[4], indicates that a precise knowledge of Bristolian is rather limited. This survey provides evidence on the minimum level of recognition of Bristolian amongst non-West Country speakers (1.8%), as opposed to the high level of recognition that dialects of other salient cities of England have. This leads us to deduce that, although Bristolian is seldom recognized, it is highly stereotyped and disregarded, and this state of affairs has been consolidated by the publication of non-specialist dictionaries and the production of clichéd Bristolian merchandise.

Also, despite the importance of the city of Bristol, its dialect has never been the subject of much academic study. A clear statement about the need to amend this situation was made three decades ago by Martyn F. Wakelin, a principal authority in Southwestern dialects, although the continuing absence of academic studies on Bristolian is still a major concern. Aside from the discrimination shown to Bristolian in working and educational environments, the fact that it is a very under researched linguistic variety adds an extra layer of linguistic injustice to this dialect’s situation. Therefore, the negative impact of the lack of academic studies about Bristolian, causes a reinforcement of this dialect’s conscious and unconscious stigmatization, as well as to its invisibility as an autonomous variety, which had led to its current ostracism and unfamiliarity.

Blackbeard. Street art in Bristol. Photo by Katiuska Ferrer Portillo

Alternatively, there is a clear lay interest in this dialect within the Bristolian speaking community, as evidenced by numerous articles in local newspapers about Bristolians’ concern over the loss of their distinctive regional features. This linguistic anxiety was raised since the Southwest became the UK’s highest recipient of internal migration, as evidenced by the 2015 Statistical Bulletin on Internal migration for England and Wales of the Office for National Statistics[5]. Nevertheless, the ongoing changes in the Bristol dialect, their contributory factors, as well as the perceptual identification of Bristol’s dialect areas and the scope of Bristolian, are far less well-studied. For this reason, at the School of Modern Languages, we are addressing these topics using empirical evidence from sources overlooked by British academia, namely, the non-linguists’ perception of the Bristol dialect, bringing community expertise to academia.
This research aims to provide a publicly accessible study using ‘speaker-focused’ evidence to demonstrate the diversity, limits and extension of Bristol dialect areas, as well as the scope and urbanity of this dialect. With this evidence, sociolinguists will be able to raise awareness on the inaccurate perception of Bristolian, which is clearly far more urban than its rural stereotype.
Academically, this research will contribute to the study of language changes in the South West UK from a ‘speaker-focussed’ viewpoint, and it will also incorporate a thorough analysis on Bristolian speakers’ prejudices and attitudes towards their own dialect. This will lead to determine if stigmatization of West Country dialects has an impact on Bristolians’ perception of their own speech, and subsequently, their own identity.

The significance of this project to Bristol’s population is reflected by related articles in local press and interviews on BBC Radio Bristol and ITV West News. Also, the interest shown by the Head of Collections of Bristol Museums, the curator of the M Shed, and organisers of the annual Research without Borders event, will grant public access to these findings, effectively narrowing a gap between academia and the local community.

Although linguistic discrimination and prejudice are still extended, particularly in the UK, it is important to raise awareness on this issue and combat the colloquial and uneducated stereotypes associated to regional dialects in general, and Bristolian in particular.

Peter Trudgill, in his work ‘Accent, dialect and the school’ (1975), set the argument for many teachers and educationalists, advising on the implementation of a bi-dialect approach to education, based on the principle of appropriateness rather than correctness, as an effective way of tackling linguistic injustice. Trudgill’s recommendations consist in limiting the teaching of written standard English to certain spheres. He also indicates that in order to improve school achievement and reach a fitted and adaptable communication in school children, definite progress on the ‘appreciation of dialect differences view’ should be made, as well as a genuine encouragement of children to speak and write in their own native dialects, together with a utilitarian learning of standard English.
Evidence of the above, are studies by Osterberg (1961) and Bull (1990), in Sweden and Norway respectively[6]. Both featured an intertwined teaching of local dialects together with standard Swedish and Norse to a group of students, whereas an entirely different set of students were each taught only in standard Swedish and Norse. After 35 weeks, the students on the bi-dialect learning group, showed an increased reading and comprehension ability, as well as a better capability to read quickly and assimilating new matter.

Equally important is the implementation of Trudgill’s advice in the UK, to end the unfair treatment of individuals based solely on their use of language. A successful accomplishment in this regard can be found in Switzerland, where the speaking of local dialects enjoys considerable prestige at national level[7]. The Alemannic dialects spoken in the Helvetic nation, enjoy a customary and unobjectionable use, as well as constitutional protection. This egalitarian approach to the use of regional dialects prevents a divisive viewpoint, as is the case in the UK, in the Swiss linguistic panorama. However, Swiss Germans laid solid foundations for their connection to the rest of the world by teaching Standard German at schools, and using it in the media, literature and most official situations.

[1] Bishop, Coupland and Garrett



[4] Ibid