Lots of planets have a north

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We're about 29 minutes into the first episode, Rose, of the series featuring the ninth Doctor Who, played by Christopher Eccleston. Rose Tyler, a London department-store  clerk who's been caught up in an interdimensional adventure by accident, realizes that her boyfriend — turned into a plastic replica by the Nestene Consciousness — is probably dead.

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Rose: Mickey! I'll have to tell his mother he's dead, and you just went and forgot him, again! You were right. You ARE alien.
The_Doctor: Look, if I DID forget some kid called Mickey, …
Rose: Yeah, he's not a "kid"!
The_Doctor: … it's because I'm busy trying to save the life of every stupid ape blundering about on top on this planet. All right?
Rose: All right!?
The_Doctor: Yes. It is.
Rose: [pause] If you ARE an alien, how comes you sound like you're from the North?
The_Doctor: Lots of planets have a north!


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    Astronomically, north is defined as the direction at any point on the surface most nearly parallel to the planet's angular-velocity vector (that is, on the left as the observer faces parallel to the tangential velocity), or the region in which /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are merged.

  2. Lazar said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Lots of planets have a north!

    In Earth's case, though, the north is the south.

  3. Eric P Smith said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    I like it!

    the region in which /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are merged

    or never split in the first place.

  4. Brett said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    This becomes a running gag, repeated several times during the season. And apparently, when these were first broadcast, the BBC promoted Eccleston as the first Doctor Who from the North. However, that provoked an outcry from fans of Tom Baker, who was from Liverpool (even though he didn't sound like it on television).

  5. Joe Kessler said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:13 pm

    Adding on to what Brett said, I believe Eccleston was the first actor (of nine, at that point) to hold the role of the Doctor who was allowed to use his native dialect in portraying the character. I've always interpreted this line as a rather tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that this character — who is supposed to be the same person with the same life history from actor to actor — really shouldn't have his speech patterns change so dramatically from time to time, but that the producers have elected to hang a lampshade on that little detail.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:36 pm

    @Eric P Smith: Ah, I suppose that's how it happened on the majority of the planets studied by linguists.

    Is there a simple criterion for "the north" in America like the lack of STRUT-FOOT split for Britain?

  7. Soller said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:43 pm

    Resonances in the UK:

    Rose = Sarf London = inferior

    Doctor = North of England = even more inferior

  8. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Canadian raising, perhaps?

  9. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    In America, the North is the South. Everyone probably has their favourite isogloss for this (since arguments over "where the South begins" are endless). The pin-pen merger is a popular one, but this puts "the South" too far North for many.

  10. Glen Gordon said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 4:26 pm

    In Canada, being that we're a funny, topsy-turvy bunch as it is, our "North" is eastward. God knows, dem Newfies are as alien as dey come! :o) Aliens make life more interesting.

  11. George Corley said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    I was more interested in the phrase "on top of this planet". Very curious thing to say.

  12. Q. Pheevr said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 5:26 pm

    @George Corley: Well, the Silurians blundering about under the surface didn't need saving at the time.

  13. Eric P Smith said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 6:14 pm


    I’m interested in your “resonances”. I’m Scottish. I’m not a Dr Who fan and I don’t recall hearing the voice of either actor before. I agree with your geographical placement of the accents. I hope I don’t come across as condescending if I translate "Sarf" as "South" for the benefit of readers on the west side of the pond. But, to my ears, Christopher Eccleston has a much, much more desirable accent than Billie Piper. That may be partly because of his stage experience and partly because of his age. Christopher Eccleston was born in 1964, Billie Piper in 1982, and I find the modern accents of many young people increasingly alien as I grow older.

  14. Army1987 said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    the region in which /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are merged

    In Ireland that'd be the west, though. (In Dublin the astronomical definition would likely be accurate, though, as the southern part of the city is more upper-class.)

  15. maidhc said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

    Didn't Sylvester McCoy qualify as having a regional accent?

    I had a theory that the South is that part of the country that has the highest frequency of dogs being transported in the back of pickup trucks (or utes or bakkies). So Queensland would be the South of Australia. But more research is needed.

    Is there a short catchy word for "nearer to the equator"?

  16. Brett said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

    The next Doctor, David Tennant, has an estuary English accent, which the producers explained that he picked up from spending so much time with Rose. So he doesn't speak traditional "BBC English," but he doesn't use is natural accent either. He's actually Scottish, and does use his pronounced Scottish accent in one episode when he's in disguise.

  17. Evan said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:42 pm


  18. Aidan said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    @Eric P Smith: "I find the modern accents of many young people increasingly alien as I grow older"

    Your "north" is the future?

  19. Nathan Livingston said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 7:47 pm


    Are you sure that wouldn't be the east, i.e., Dublin and the surrounding area? It may be the case that the FOOT-STRUT split never occurred there, like in the north of England.

  20. Robert said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 4:32 am


    Inferior to who? Millions of people speak with these accents. And "North" is such a nebulous classification covering an area with numerous accents.

  21. Army1987 said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 4:37 am

    Yeah I meant east. Ought to proof-read my comments more often…

  22. Ed said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 4:49 am

    If the book Urban Voices is to be believed, these phonemes are also merged in Derry, where they are [ɔ].

  23. Ed said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 5:39 am

    @ Eric P Smith: Christopher Eccleston is from Salford. People from this area don't seem to have very distinctive accents. I find it odd that such a working-class area has an accent that sounds a bit like a middle-class Yorkshire one.

  24. Laura said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 5:43 am

    I thought the transcription showed Rose using 'it' for a human ("it's not a kid", obviously meaning Mickey). However, on listening to the clip, I'm pretty sure she says "he's not a kid", but "he's" is pronounced like [iz] (ie with dropped h), as is usual for her accent. The accent she uses is not her own either, really – she's putting it on strong for the character, who is a bit of a charva (that's chav to the non-Geordie UK folks out there, and I don't know what to the non-UK folks).

    Listening to it again after so many years (first broadcast 2005, and I haven't watched it since then), it struck me how much Billie Piper improved as the series went on. And it's also quite a coincidence that I was watching Nestene episodes from 1970 just this week.

    [(myl) You're obviously right about "he's not a kid" instead of "it's not a kid". But Rose doesn't always drop her h's in similar contexts — at the start of the clip, she says "I'll have to tell his mother he's dead", and she has a pretty clear [h] in that "he's".]

  25. Ray Girvan said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 6:04 am

    This is peripherally on-topic; there may be other linguistic jokes in Dr Who.

    I particularly liked the running joke in The Fires of Pompeii, where the English of the Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate) was changed to Latin via the TARDIS's translator, but if they actually spoke Latin, the Romans perceived it as Welsh:

    Doctor: "Ah, well. Caveat emptor."
    CAECILIUS: "Oh, you're Celtic. (Welsh accent) There's lovely."

    Doctor: "Ipso facto."
    Caecilis: (doubtfully) "Look you."

    Doctor: (as guards draw swords): "Oh, morituri te salutant."
    Dextrus: "Celtic prayers won't help you now."

  26. pj said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 6:59 am

    Laura's right, Rose says 'he's not', not 'it's not'. But has the Doctor's Northernness infected her 'how comes'?

  27. peterv said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    maidhc said (April 13, 2012 @ 7:01 pm):

    " . . . the South is that part of the country that has the highest frequency of dogs being transported in the back of pickup trucks (or utes or bakkies)."

    or tillies.

  28. Jess Tauber said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 11:59 am

    You're all a bunch of (re Tardis)…

  29. Mr Punch said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    The classic separation of north and south in the US at the Mason-Dixon line (Pennsylvania-Maryland border) has a linguistic dimension. It's where the "Southern drawl" begins (on the east coast); Philadelphia is a middle ground of rhotic territory between non-rhotic cities to the north and south.

    The preferred accents for national newscasters and TV hosts have tended to be those of a mid-continental belt from the northern plains states down to Texas.

  30. Jess Tauber said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

    But then again, I'm one to Dalek

  31. Mark F. said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    In the US, the "South" (= the SE) is mainly rhotic, with non-rhotic patches. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhotic_and_non-rhotic_accents#Distribution.) Even in those patches where r-dropping is found, it's not necessarily universal.

  32. Lazar said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    Lots of non-Southerners still cling to some mythical notion of a largely non-rhotic South, though. I've heard people employ non-rhoticism when doing imitations of upland Southern dialects that couldn't be more rhotic.

  33. Ken Brown said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 2:19 pm

    Even if we forget McCoy, who used a Scottish accent as the Dr, Peter Davison used his normal middle-class London suburban accent, somewhere on the boundary between RP and so-called "estuary". So Ecclestone only counts as the first "regional" accent if the south-east is not a "region". (Or Scotland)

  34. Mark F. said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    Lazar – yeah, that was the impression I was trying to counter. I once heard an NPR interview with a dialect coach, and the interviewer played a clip of De Niro in Cape Fear, who the coach had worked with. The coach thought De Niro did pretty well, "except for the R-dropping," which to me meant he didn't do very well at all.

  35. Pi Madison said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

    As an American Southerner, De Niro's "Cape Fear" accent sounded very odd to me (my particular accent is non-rhotic, although I usually suppress it in favor of a more standard one).

    Which brings me to the question — is it equally simple for a Scottish-accented person, such as Eccleston, to switch to a "standard" British accent? Pardon my Yankee ignorance; I tend to think of England and Scotland as distinct accents, even though they are geographically much closer than me and someone in, say, Chicago and his/her accent.

  36. Eric P Smith said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

    @Pi Madison. (Disclaimer: while I am very interested in British accents I am not an expert.) I’m not sure you’d find much agreement as to what is a “standard” British accent. Traditionally the “standard” was RP but nowadays only about 2% of the UK population speak RP. A skilled ear can distinguish dozens of regional accents of England alone, never mind Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are places (Berwick upon Tweed is one) where you can cross a small river on a footbridge and people speak differently on the other side. Additionally, accents may be a function of age, upbringing and ethnic origin as much as region.

    While there is no one standard, there are many local accents that are plainly non-standard and indeed difficult for many Brits to follow. You can (conceptually!) trim off the plainly non-standard accents and call the others broadly standard. My Scottish ears hear Eccleston’s educated north-of-England accent (he is not Scottish) as clearly Lancashire but at the same time as fairly standard “English” English, solid and respectable. Those from southern England may hear it differently.

    Most British people can speak in a more-or-less “standard” British accent when formality demands it. In addition many older non-RP speakers, including some Scots like myself, can affect a passable RP because we heard so much RP on BBC television in our younger years.

    Hope this helps.

  37. Nathan Livingston said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    @ Ed: Not to be pedantic, but if you read the rest of that chapter, it doesn't look like McCafferty is actually referring to a merger of the STRUT and FOOT lexical sets in Derry (although he certainly makes it sound that way in his brief description of those sets). Rather it looks to me like he is referring to a phenomenon in Ulster English whereby a small number of words which have ʊ in other accents (often with a labial at the beginning) can instead have ʌ (or ɔ̈ to use his transcription). Some examples are pull, would and foot itself (but also look). Could kʉd and cud kɔ̈d are still distinct though. But I can't read McCafferty's mind of course.

    I enjoyed this post. I was also thinking that the North is the South in America (complete with the bad stereotypes and accents that are mocked by outsiders), but someone said it before I could. I'm sorry if the entire first paragraph is too off topic.

  38. Nathan Livingston said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

    Wow…that didn't come out how I wanted it to at all. McCafferty's transcription was ɔ with the centralized diacritic above it, but I couldn't get that to work. So, without the diacritic that McCafferty used, the minimal pair above would be could kʉd and cud kɔd.

  39. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 14, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

    @Daniel von Brighoff: After looking at some maps of the pin-pen merger, I have no problem with it as defining the north in American English. Not that I've spent much time in the doubtful border region. I can't object to Ran Ari-Gur's suggestion of Canadian raising either, since as a Clevelander I have it for /aɪ/. Thanks to both for the suggestions.

  40. Chance said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 3:49 am

    Jerry F,

    In America, the North is any state that fought on the side of the USA during the civil war.

  41. Ray Girvan said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    @Eric P Smith: Traditionally the “standard” was RP but nowadays only about 2% of the UK population speak RP

    I can't at this instant find any stats for how many did historically. I strongly suspect that the prevalence of full-blown RP wasn't very high and that it seemed omnipresent only a) because it was the standard for BBC presenters and b) because TV/radio reportage focused on the types of elite (e.g. politicians and upper middle class celebrities) who spoke RP or URP sociolect.

    I grew up in a small southern town (I'm 56) and I don't recall many people in our acquaintance – doctor, headmaster, a few of the teachers, and a few families known as "posh" – who spoke strict RP. Mostly, middle-class people spoke some regionalised form of it: Hampshire-tinged RP chiefly; but despite it being nowhere near London, the predominant "town" accent was more like modern Estuary: dropped H, L-vocalization, th-fronting, and so on. (I'm generally RP, but I still can't say "milk" as anything but "mɪwk").

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    @chance: I was talking about American English, not politics or history or anything else.

  43. HP said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    @ Chance: "In America, the North is any state that fought on the side of the USA during the civil war."

    Tell that to Kentucky.

  44. Dakota said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

    Jerry F,
    Chance gave you a straight answer; south of the Mason-Dixon line is known for non-standard accents as well as various unflattering stereotypes.

  45. William Steed said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    @Ray Girvan

    Furthering the language (though not linguistic) aspect of The Fires of Pompeii, there are multiple references to the standard UK Latin textbooks all through the episode, notably with the main supporting characters.

  46. Ed said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    @ Nathan Livingston: Yes, I've had a scan over the chapter and you are correct.

    Actually the mocking of south-eastern accents in the north of England can be quite vicious at times. I wonder if there's a similar trend in the USA. Do Texans get vicious in mocking New York accents?

    [(myl) Sometimes.]

  47. Mark said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    @HP. Yeah, Kentucky is the "asterisk heavy" state of any Civil War discussion. ;-) Both Presidents (Lincoln and Davis) were born in the same state and both considered it a keystone to victory. Kentucky was the only state to declare itself neutral at the outset of the conflict. The Governor was Successionist, the legislators were Unionist, and the people were too divided to predict.

  48. Andy R said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    For some reason, this discussion brings to mind the scene in the film "The Commitments" where the band members question Jimmy Rabbitte as to why they will be playing Soul music which is Black music.
    Jimmy says: "Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud."

    [(myl) In return I can cite a post on the recursive ontology of "yankee", and various posts on "X as the Y of Z".]

  49. Dan Curtin said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    Kentucky is actually divided, linguistically and historically. I live in Northern Kentucky (I am not a native, rather a speaker of a related Great Lakes dialect) The dialect here is largely the same as Cincinnati, Ohio, which is right across the river. Most of the rest of the state (oops, I mean the commonwealth) has dialects more like Tennessee or West Virginia. Most Americans would perceive them as "southern" though I am not sure how dialecticians would classify them.

  50. Darren Gilroy said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

    I hope you enjoy the series.. I am watching the seventh serial (1964!) as I catch up on your blog.

  51. [links] Link salad looks down upon the smiling faces | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    […] Lots of planets have a north — Language Log on planetology and Dr. Who. Also, the comment section on this post is hilarious and well worth looking through. […]

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