"The most stereotypical feature of northern British English dialects, especially those of Yorkshire and Lancashire [is] the occurrence of vowel-less forms of the definite article." Jones (2002: 325)

Before examining the phenomenon of vowel-less articles it might be appropriate to consider the definite article as it exists in standard British English.

 

The Standard English form

Barry (1972) makes the point that, in Standard English, the accentuated definite article takes the form [] and that there are two principle allophones

[] when an initial vowel immediately follows (e.g. "the evening").

[] when followed by an initial consonant (e.g. "the car").

The origins of these forms are thought to lie in Old English (OE) sē, originally employed as a demonstrative but which subsequently came to be used an article sometime prior to the commencement of the Middle English (ME) period. e

As can be seen from Table 1, within the demonstrative paradigm the oblique cases all possessed initial þ or . Both are believed to have been generally realized as [] (see below) and it is supposed that the [s] of s came to be pronounced as [] through the process of levelling.

Table 1

Case
Singular
Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter All genders
Nominative sēo t ā
Accusative one t ā
Genitive s ǣre s āra
Dative ǣm ǣre ǣm ǣm
Instrumental y, on -- y, on --

After Baugh and Cable 1993: 57, 15

Jones (2000) supports the notion concerning the pronunciation of þ and on the grounds that:

With regard to the evolution of the SE unstressed varieties ([] and []), Barry suggests that these arose from changes to the stressed form [] in the following way:

The vowel [e(:)] of s (subsequently þe) became ME (realized as [e:] as in German zehn) and thereafter [i:]. Consequently, with the eventual reduction of all ME vowels to either or in initial unaccentuated syllables, [] became [] when immediately preceding a vowel but [] prior to a consonant.

 

Definite Article Reduction

Although not investigated to any great depth, Barry claims that it may be generally accepted that the voicing of OE þ mentioned above failed to occur in the north, and the pronunciation thus remained as [] The evolution of the [t] form (see below) subsequently followed, though the timing of this development is uncertain. However, whilst in some districts it occurred before both a vowel and a consonant in others it appeared only before a vowel. A more detailed discussion of the origins of DAR can be found in the Evolution page.

The following map is based on the findings of Ellis (1889) and illustrates the distribution of the varying forms of DAR.

 


After Barry (1972: 168)

Barry, however, opines that this map is a very much a "broad generalisation" noting, inter alia, that Ellis:

These aspects are examined in greater detail under Variation of the Definite Article in Northern English.

It is important to note that the majority of dialects employ more than one reduced form. The examples in Table 2 have been drawn from the material accumulated during the Survey of English Dialects (SED).

Table 2

Form  
Supralaryngeal forms [], [], [], [], [], [].
Laryngeal * [].
Affricated [], [].
Hybrid (laryngeal and supralaryngeal) [], [], [], [], [], [].
After Jones 2002: 326
*Jones explains his use of this term as opposed to 'glottal stop' on the grounds that realization does not necessarily involve solely the glottis or even total closure

 

The Future

Jones (2004) states that it is evident from the comparison of the Ellis (1889) material with that of the SED that the area of DAR has contracted and that the southern boundary of this region has shifted slightly to the north. Whilst it is clear that all DAR speakers thus far encountered in the recordings to date use both the standard form the as well as the DAR variety, it is uncertain why the reduced forms fall out of use. Nevertheless, Jones (2004) is of the opinion that DAR is likely to remain in use in the North for the foreseeable future.

 

Sources

Barry, M. V. (1972) The Morphemic Distribution of the Definite Article in Contemporary Regional English. In M. F. Wakelin (Ed) Patterns in the Folk Speech of the British Isles, (1972) London: The Athlone Press.

Dobson, E. J. (1968) English Pronunciation, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, A. J. (1889) On Early English Pronunciation, vol. V. Early English Text Society. London: Trübner and Co.

Jones, M. J. (2000) An acoustic study of definite article reduction (DAR) in Sheffield dialect. Unpublished paper presented at the VIEW 2000 conference, University of Essex, September 2000.

Jones, M. J. (2002) The origin of Definite Article Reduction in northern English dialects: evidence from dialect allomorphy. English Language and Linguistics 6.2: 325-345.

Jones, Mark J. (2004). The phonetics and phonology of Definite Article Reduction in northern English dialects. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Cambridge

Jones, W. E. (1950) An investigation into the Phonetics of the Definite Article in Yorkshire. Unpublished MA Thesis, University of |Leeds.