Children put an accent on Milton Keynes: Will Bennett finds playground talk has proved a great leveller in a new town whose adults come from all over Britain

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The Independent Online
MILTON KEYNES, the new town once hailed as the future for urban living, may be leading a revolution in how people speak.

Children whose parents arrived in the Buckinghamshire new town from all over Britain have evolved their own accent. Linguists believe that one day most people in southern and eastern England will speak the Milton Keynes way.

A survey has discovered that youngsters in Milton Keynes have developed an accent unlike either their parents' or that of the original pre-new town population of Buckinghamshire.

The four-year study, by Dr Paul Kerswill and Dr Ann Williams of the linguistics department at Reading University, reveals that children in Milton Keynes are at the cutting edge of changes that will eventually see the death of local accents.

Dr Williams interviewed 48 children, half boys and half girls, from three age groups on two adjacent housing estates. A parent or other 'care giver' for each child was recorded, as were elderly people who had been living in the area before the new town was built.

They were asked to read from a list, given pronunciation tests, interviewed and recorded talking to their friends.

Researchers listened for such things as vowel sounds, dropping of the 'h' and the pronunciation of 'th'. What emerged is that the children of Milton Keynes, which has a population of 180,000 only 27 years after it was designated a new town, have adopted their own accent regardless of whether their parents came from London or Glasgow.

Dr Williams said: 'In the four year-old age group they sounded quite like their parents because they had not started school, but by the time they were eight they sounded less like them, and by 12 they had few things in common with them linguistically.'

One child arrived in the town aged one, spoke with his parents' Scottish accent at four, but two years later sounded like a typical Milton Keynes boy.

But the accent which the older children have arrived at through adaptability and peer group pressure does not resemble the traditional Buckinghamshire way of speaking of elderly people who pronounce arm as 'arrm' and night as 'noit'.

Instead the youngsters say 'ahm' and 'naa-it', both similar to London accents. The glottal stop by which letter becomes 'le'er' is widely used.

Dr Williams said: 'If you listen to the children and the elderly people talking together, then you would not think that they came from the same area at all.'

The study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, says that Milton Keynes could be 'regarded as a microcosm of developments in the south-east of England'. A levelling out of accents is taking place all over the region.

Kent, Norfolk and Devon have different accents but the variations are being eroded and in the future people in Dover, Norwich and Exeter will sound similar to one another.

Dr Kerswill and Dr Williams emphasise that this is dialect levelling and not what has become known as 'Estuary English'. The latter is a new form of English in the south-east created by middle-class people moderating their accents and upwardly mobile working-class people refining theirs.

Dr Kerswill believes that population mobility is the main reason for dialect levelling. In their school playgrounds the 12- year-olds of Milton Keynes, whose parents came from elsewhere, are the pathfinders.

(Photograph omitted)