Rick Savage: Dialect Traitor

Published June 17, 2010 by Christa Maurice

Because I’m a serial obsessionist, my obsessions occasionally overlap. I was always interested in linguistics, but 2 classes on the subject over the last year and I am now ruined. I get distracted in conversation looking for possessification and wondering why a person unvoiced or voiced a particular phoneme (and don’t let me get off on Gender Linguistic Pattern because I may never come back.) It’s sad really. Another of obsessions is Def Leppard which dovetails nicely because the band is originally from Sheffield, England. (Bear with me, I am going somewhere with this.) The Sheffield dialect is missing a phoneme and it happens to be a significant one that non-native speakers struggle with. This means I will listen to interview twice (or more) because the first time I got sidetracked on how something was being said and have to go back to listen to what was said. I said it was sad.

Let me explain the phoneme. This will require talking to yourself, but it’s all in the name of education. Focusing on the position of your tongue when you say the words ‘thin’ and ‘think’. For ‘thin’ your tongue starts between your teeth, flattens out so that the ‘i’ can rise up in the dome of your mouth and finishes with the tip of your tongue right behind your teeth. For ‘think’ (unless you are from Sheffield or are a non-native speaker of English) your tongue starts between your teeth, flattens out so that the ‘i’ can rise up in the dome of your mouth, and arches at the back of your mouth. The phoneme actually looked like this: ŋ. Now, non-native speakers struggle with this. They will start with their tongues between their teeth, flatten out for the ‘i,’ touch their tongues right behind their teeth (for the /n/) and then arch the back of the tongue for the /k/. You can try it if you want, but I’m always afraid I’m going to sprain my tongue. Yes, this means I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about the position of Rick Savage’s tongue. It’s a lot less dirty than it sounds.

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s Savage made a comment that he’d lost his accent. I was in the middle of collecting dialect data for a class project when I came across that tidbit so I was painfully aware of how far wrong that statement was. (For one, you can’t lose an accent, you can only exchange it for a different one. For another, his language was still ringing with the Sheffield dialect.)

Then at the end of April I stumbled upon a recent interview and he was trying to use the ŋ! Dialect traitor! I have no idea what the interview was about (because I was too stunned by the appearance of that phoneme) but it was him and Joe Elliott (who stayed true to his Sheffield accent, /nk/, intrusive ‘r,’ and Gender Linguistic Pattern et al) so I had a perfect control to study from. He wasn’t using it perfectly and was ending up with something more like /thinŋk/ but he was trying. I’m figuring this is coming from his wife. From what I’ve read, she was raised in London and lived for a time in Dublin so she’d have the phoneme and while I haven’t tracked where the change really started to take place (yet) I’m pretty sure it was after he met her. That means, so you’ll have the terminology, he’s applying covert prestige to her accent – which he had never bothered to do before despite the fact that every native English speaker uses /ŋ/. It makes me wonder what his sons sound like as they have lived most (if not all) of their lives in Sheffield.

I know. I need to get out more.


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