In my post entitled A Bit of Bio, I sort of promised to tackle some of the features of Derbyshire speech and language. Well, here is one.
The vowel of the NURSE lexical set [ɜː] in words like shirt, work turns up in traditional dialect pronunciation as [ɒ]. So we get [ʃɒt, wɒk] and the like. Let’s call this NURSE-Backing (NB). This seems a fairly simple affair at first, but when one looks into it a little more, it gets more interesting.
Words where the NURSE vowel is spelled <ir>, <or> or <ur> can undergo NB, although there seems to be an effect whereby the voicing of the following consonant(s) favours or disfavours it. Voiceless consonants in the syllable coda favour the change, voiced ones do not. NB never occurs in open syllables, nor in syllables closed by the addition of a morpheme.
What is perhaps more interesting is that words spelled with <er>, e.g berth, or <ear>, e.g. earth are never affected. There are a number of reasons why this might be, I suppose, but I have time to go into only one of them briefly here.
We can fairly safely assume that all the spellings <er, ir, or, ur> represented different vowels at some stage of the development of modern English accents. At some stage they began to merge. It seems likely that <ir, or, ur> merged first, giving a pronunciation something like [ʌr], which is still the pronunciation they have in many Scottish accents. <er> was still distinct at this stage. Then the vowel of [ʌr] moved forward to the central reɡion, ɡivinɡ [ɜr]. At this stage, in some accents of the East Midlands (and perhaps beyond) the vowel in some words got left behind. Then <er> merged with the rest, and finally, in some accents coda-r disappeared, resulting in the pronunciations we get in modern Southern British standard accents and quite a few others. The remaining [ʌ] back vowel in those East Midlands accents that retained it eventually merged with the vowel of the LOT lexical set.
It would be interesting to speculate on why certain words, or words of a certain structure, did not undergo the fronting that affected the [ʌr] sequence. Maybe this has something to do with the history of the loss of coda-r. That, however, is another story altogether.
That is only a very sketchy presentation of what, admittedly, is only a hypothesis. For further information, if you are interested, you could look at a paper I wrote on the subject quite a time ago now:
Maidment, J A (1995) ‘A neglected feature of British East Midlands accents and its possible implications for the history of a vowel merger in English’ in Studies in General and English Phonetics: Essays in Honour of Professor J. D. O’Connor ed. Jack Windsor Lewis, pp. 379-384. London: Routledge.
Derbyshire accents seem very fond of [ɒ], by the way. One, none, mother, and brother all have/had the vowel in place of [ʊ] found in most northern English accents. Any used be pronounced [ɒni] and the word home was [ɒm]. The latter gives rise to the hoary old joke about the Derbyshire man who took his cat to the vet.
Man: Me cat’s raight poorly.
Vet: Is a tom?
Man: Nay, lad, dunna be so daft! Ah’ve gorrit in this ‘ere basket!
Is it a tom?