(n.) a throaty pronunciation of the ‘r’ sound, characteristic of the Northumbrian accent of English
If you were asked to name an accent from the northeast of England, the first one that would come to most people’s minds would probably be Newcastle’s Geordie accent. But head north and west from the city of Newcastle and you’ll begin to hear some striking differences in the accents of rural Northumberland—including, if you’re lucky, a peculiar regional feature called the Northumbrian burr.
Also known as a wharle, or even a curp, the Northumbrian burr is a throaty, rattling pronunciation of the ‘r’ sound, produced towards the uvula at the back of the mouth. (The excellent Sound Comparisons website has an audio library of words recorded by a man from Lindisfarne, and you can listen to his burr in words like right, red and green here.) Alas, it’s a sound that seems to be disappearing from the regional inventory, and today appears to be limited to the most isolated parts of county, and its oldest inhabitants.
In phonological terms, the Northumbrian burr is properly known as a voiced uvular fricative, /ʁ/. It’s a sound all but unheard of in native English-speaking regions of the UK; outside of Northumberland, you’re more likely to hear it in Wales than England, and outside of Britain, you’re more likely to hear it in the likes of French, Dutch, German, Danish, Portuguese, and some dialects of Swedish and Norwegian. So how did such a continental-sounding ‘r’ end up isolated in Northumberland?
As we mentioned on Twitter, linguistic folklore will have you believe that this sound emerged thanks to Sir Henry Percy, the eldest son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland, who was born in Warkworth in 1364.
According to this (very) tall tale, Henry is said to have had a speech impediment that made his Rs come across as a throaty burr. His friends and companions are said to have emulated this sound either as a means of making him less self-conscious, or (given that Henry was an exceptional and valiant fighter) in a fairly ham-fisted attempt to copy every aspect of his impressive character. Either way, the sound caught on and eventually became standard across the region.
It’s a nice tale, certainly—and there are a handful of precedents. It’s true that in the past many people have attempted to emulate nobles and other high-society figures, often in quite surprising ways—most notably Queen Alexandra of Denmark, whose limping gait (the result of a childhood rheumatic fever) led to late Victorian and Edwardian women adopting a similar shuffling walk. There’s also a similar bit of popular folklore that claims the lisping ‘z’ of Spanish comes from an attempt by the people of Spain to emulate the lisp of one of the country’s kings.
The Queen Alexandra story is certainly true—but the lisping king, and the rolling Rs of Henry Percy? Unfortunately, they’re less convincing.
For one thing, Henry fought in the Hundred Years’ War, and was killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. The earliest direct reference we have to the burr of Northumberland, however, comes from a travelogue written by Daniel Defoe more than three centuries later:
The natives of this country [Northumberland] ... are distinguished by a shibboleth upon their tongues in pronouncing the letter R, which they cannot utter without a hollow jarring in the throat, by which they are as plainly known, as a foreigner is in pronouncing the “th”: this they call the Northumberland R, or wharle; and the natives value themselves upon that imperfection, because, forsooth, it shews the antiquity of their blood.
Daniel Defoe, A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain (1727)
That enormous gap in the literature suggests that this sound might be a much more recent development than Henry’s lifetime: pinpointing its emergence to the fourteenth century, ultimately, seems like a bit of a reach.
Secondly, as one of the major players in the Plantagenet era, the Earl of Northumberland makes an appearance in a number of Shakespeare’s plays—and in Henry IV: Part 2 (II.iii), the earl’s son Henry Hotspur is described as “speaking thick, which nature made his blemish.” This “blemish”, Shakespeare goes on to explain, was then copied by those around Hotspur, “For those that could speak low, and tardily, / Would turn their own affection to abuse, / To seem like him.”
Shakespeare wrote Henry IV: Part 2 sometime around 1599, predating Defoe’s mention of the Northumbrian burr—but still coming in nearly 200 years after Henry’s death. Far from Shakespeare’s account being a realistic historical explanation of how this sound caught on across Northumberland, then, it seems likely that his direct attribution of the “thick” Northumbrian accent to Sir Henry himself may well be the origin of this entire myth.
So if this burring ‘r’ doesn’t come from Henry, where did it come from?
Northumberland is a county with a long and involved history. Relatively untouched by the Norman Conquest of 1066, its past shows greater cultural influence from the Vikings, the Irish and the Scots than the French—so perhaps this potent cocktail of outside influence may in some way be responsible.
Northumberland too is a rural and sparsely populated area, and is littered with countless separate smaller communities rather than larger interconnected towns and cities. That isolation could have provided fertile ground for considerable regional variation to develop in the local language, and that—mixed with the region’s diverse outside influences—could have been partly responsible here too.
These are just suggestions, of course—and admittedly, what is going on here remains something of a mystery.