Scouse: the accent that defined an era

June 29, 2007

On the eve of a conference on identities, we take a look at the evolving cuisine of British Asians, the rise of Scouse and handwriting analysis

Pete Atkinson charts the rise of the famous sound of Liverpool

At the recent European Cup semi-final football match in which Liverpool defeated Chelsea, a banner at the Kop end of Liverpool's ground proudly proclaimed "We're not English, we are Scouse". It was an example of Liverpool apartness expressed through reference to the distinctive Liverpool accent - shaped by the city's particular history.

The name "Scouse" derives from the Scandinavian dish Labskaus , which became popular in Liverpool towards the end of the 19th century, and Liverpool historian John Belchem suggests it became a badge of identity in the city's central waterfront area. But it was in 1963-64 that Scouse entered into a modern mythology, as the result of the rise to fame of The Beatles.

Relatively little attention has been paid to the importance of The Beatles'

voice in their music or in the construction of their media image. However, their accents were crucial to the process through which they acquired a national profile and to the cultural effect they had once they became the centre of media attention. Indeed, the inflection in their voices had historical origins that were relevant to the symbolic role they would assume during the 1963 "Mersey beat" phenomenon.

In his 1973 doctoral thesis on the urban dialect of Scouse, the linguist Gerald Knowles contends that Liverpool spoke in much the same way as the rest of Lancashire until the second half of the 19th century, and that the distinctive inflection of Scouse was a consequence of the influx of famine Irish in the middle of that century.

The peculiarities of Scouse are almost entirely phonological; thanks to regular trading links with London, its grammar and vocabulary remain close to standard English. Knowles suggests that its adenoidal, nasal quality is derived from Liverpool's poor 19th-century public health - the prevalence of colds and so on. Impairment of nasal resonance for many people over a long time resulted in it becoming regarded as "the group norm" and copied by others learning the language. "Scousers do not use adenoidal quality because they or anyone else have or have had respiratory trouble, but because it makes them sound like Scousers," Knowles concludes.

This nasal, adenoidal quality was particularly noticeable in The Beatles'

music because most of their songs featured shared vocal techniques copied from American harmony and call-and-response styles. The Scouse inflection contributed to their distinctive image. It associated them with a particular location, and stories of the "Liverpool sound" and the "sound of Scouse" dominated the British media.

The Beatles' accents also helped build their media profile during their extensive involvement with BBC Radio in 1963, when they performed live on 40 different occasions on the Light Programme. Banter between The Beatles and their hosts became a common feature of these programmes - their Scouse accents sharply contrasting with the (middle-class) Received Pronunciation accents of BBC presenters.

The association between The Beatles' strong provincial accent and the fresh interpretations of American rhythm and blues they brought to BBC Radio in 1963 provided a potent symbol for England's young people.

It was no coincidence that Beatlemania erupted at precisely the time when the English Establishment's moral standards were being questioned - when the Conservative Government was rocked by the Profumo scandal that helped lead to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's resignation.

But it is ironic that Scouse should have been an influential aspect of emergent Liverpool mythology at a time of retreat from empire and when Britain's international status was dwindling, because Scouse was the product of imperial expansionism.

Liverpool grew to be "second city of the empire" through servicing trade with the colonies and acting as an entrepot serving the Lancashire factories inland. The distinctiveness of the Scouse accent is largely the result of immigration, particularly from the Celtic lands surrounding Liverpool's "quasi-inland" sea.

As the result of the colonising of the English pop music charts by the Mersey beat groups in 1963, and their later success in the international market, Liverpool provided a means through which England's post-empire crisis, a crisis that had considerable effect on the national identity, could be positively addressed. The new sound emerging from the city was both indicative of and representative of the nation adapting to the modernity of an emerging "pop" culture.

In 1963 the Liverpool playwright Alun Owen suggested that the multiracial population of the city "evolved an accent for themselves", borrowed from their Irish and Welsh grandfathers in response to the "problem of identity"

that was "exaggerated" there. The accent is representative of what has been referred to as Liverpool "exceptionalism", but its distinctive quality also mediated the shift in national identity that became evident throughout England as The Beatles opened the door to the mythical era of "the Sixties".

Pete Atkinson is senior lecturer and realistic work environment co-ordinator for film and media in the Centre for Employability through the Humanities (Ceth) at the University of Central Lancashire.

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