People and words

How we experience war

(September 2021)

A new study, conducted by linguist Natalie Braber and me, has found that people in Nottingham experienced the First World War (1914-1918) differently from the rest of the UK population. For this study we worked with students and teachers of secondary schools in Nottingham to examine language used in local newspapers in the years between 1905 and 1925.

Reading back-issues of the Nottingham Evening Post and Nottingham Journal, we discovered a remarkable difference between these two papers and other British publications. UK papers conjured up an image of the endearing Tommy, a gallant fighter defending British democracy against brutal Germans – the Hun – and shielding women and children at home from Prussian militarism that resulted in German atrocities. But Nottingham papers deviated from the national script. At first, for example, the Post and the Journal were more reluctant to use the derogatory ‘Hun’ and the sinister ‘Prussian militarism’. However, during the final three war years these terms appeared relatively more often in the Post and the Journal than in other UK papers. The Nottingham press also showed special affection for local servicemen, calling them lovingly ‘Robin Hoods’.


The study concludes that these differences were most likely the result of specific attitudes and events, such as views moulded and voiced by local journalists and editors, and incidents that directly affected the city’s population, such as a Zeppelin attack on 24 September 1916 that killed civilians and destroyed homes in the Meadows and Broadmarsh (see photo above) and an explosion in a munition factory in Chilwell on 1 July 1918 that killed well over a hundred workers, many of them women.

It’s a good reminder that we experience war in diverse ways. Our experience is influenced by local factors as well as group traits, personal characteristics and the manner of involvement in a conflict, for example as combatants, their relatives, innocent bystanders or remote onlookers.


The study is one of the outcomes of a four-year Hidden History project. Students from Rushcliffe Spencer Academy, Arnold Hill Academy and The Farnborough Academy took part. One of them wrote in a school magazine about this “excellent opportunity” to bring history to life. A student who took part in the first year said: “Honestly, it really inspired me to take history further.” She has now a History degree at the University of Newcastle. Another outcome is a lesson plan on what happened to residents of Nottingham during the war, which is used in Year 9 classes, for example at Farnborough.

The study – From Tangier to Locarno: The Experience of War in Nottingham and Language Use in Local Newspapers, 1905-1925 – is published in the journal Midland History and available here.

People and words

Why do we have so many accents?

This post about language and identity was written in January 2018 by linguist Natalie Braber, Associate Professor in the School of Arts & Humanities of Nottingham Trent University. Versions of this article have also been published by The Conservation and The Scotsman.

Where we come from matters. Our origins form an important part of a distinctive personality, which can become a group identity when we share these origins. More often than not, our use of language, especially our dialect, is an expression of that distinctiveness. In addition to using distinctive words and grammatical patterns, which may not follow the rules of Standard English, people have accents, related to their pronunciation when they speak, which can articulate their identity.

Where they come from

Dialects and accents developed historically when groups of language users lived in relative isolation, without regular contact with other people using the same language. This was more pronounced in the past due to the lack of fast transport and mass media. People tended to hear only the language used in their own location, and when their language use changed (as language by its nature always evolves) their dialect and accent adopted a particular character, leading to national, regional and local variation.

Invasion and migration also helped to influence dialect development at a regional level. Just take the Midlands in England, for example. The East Midlands were ruled by the Danes in the ninth century. This resulted, for instance, in the creation of place names ending in “by” (a suffix thought to originate from the Danish word for “town”), such as Thoresby and Derby, and “thorpe” (meaning “settlement”), such as Ullesthorpe. The Danes, however, did not rule the West Midlands, where the Saxons continued to hold sway, and words of Danish origin are largely absent from that region.

Where they appear

Dialects and accents are not restricted to English or UK English for that matter. In the US, Australia and New Zealand, where English has been spoken for a much shorter period of time than in the UK, you would expect less variation as English has been spoken there for a shorter period of time. But even there, dialects and accents occur and the linguistic influence of settlers who came from certain parts of the UK such as Scotland or Lancashire helped to determine local varieties.

A similar phenomenon appears in the UK. During the 1930s, Corby in Northamptonshire received a big influx of Scottish steelworkers. Here, there are features in the local language – for example, pronunciation of vowels in words such as “goat” or “thought” – which we think of as typically Scottish that are still used even by townsfolk who have never been to Scotland.

Other influences on language use

Other factors influence language use, too. One of them is social class. Very many local accents are now associated with working-class speakers, while middle and upper-class speakers tend to use a more standardised English. But this is a relatively recent development. Indeed, until the standardisation of English from the 16th century – when one variety of English came to be used in official situations and by printing presses for the wider publication of books – it was acceptable for speakers of different social classes to speak and write in their own dialects. Then, Latin and French were regarded as prestigious languages, applied by the elite in education, law and literature.

Changes, for example through music

Dialects and accents are changing and will continue to change. After all, language never stands still. Some traditional dialects are disappearing, but new urban and multicultural varieties continue to arise. Some accents are deemed “better” than others and certain features may become fashionable.

This can be influenced by music. At the moment, linguistic features of “black English”, associated with hip hop, grime, R&B and rap music – such as “bae”, “blood” or “brother”, which can all be used as forms of address – are regarded as “cool” and are adopted by other speakers.

Why people vary their language use

In addition, people change the language they use depending on who they are talking to, and why they are talking, for example formally in a job interview or casually to friends and family at home. People also change the way they speak to make themselves understood more easily, a phenomenon called linguistic accommodation.

Ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and age can all affect language usage. And there are also personal reasons for using dialects and accents to identify yourself. I have lived in England for 16 years, but you can still hear my Scottish accent and that is unlikely to change.

Or will we speak all the same?

Speakers’ language varieties can converge (become more similar) or diverge (become more different). And as the modern world becomes increasingly connected, linguists have wondered whether dialects and accents in general are bound to disappear.

There is certainly such a thing as “dialect levelling” – differences between dialects appear to be vanishing, which could be a consequence of the rise of mass and social media. But while there is much discussion about the disappearance of dialects and accents, public interest in the subject is growing.

They are here to stay

A consensus has not yet been reached. In UK English, some features may be spreading like wildfire through the country, such as people saying “free” instead of “three” – a linguistic change known as th-fronting. But differences persist, and speakers in Liverpool still sound very different to speakers in Plymouth.

In my opinion, dialects and accents are here to stay. Humans enjoy being part of groups, and we can consider language as a key means of expressing the perceived differences between “us” and “them”.