Who rhymes ‘foot’ and ‘cut’?

Previous findings

Wells states that the foot-strut split is one of the biggest characteristics setting Northern and Southern dialects apart, with speakers from the North rhyming the words, and speakers from the South not (i.e., Southern speakers have picked up the split and now pronounce words like strut and cut with a different vowel, /ʌ/, instead of /ʊ/) (1982: 351). Wells puts the boundary between foot-strut rhymers and non-rhymers at an imaginary line running from “the Severn estuary in the West to the Wash in the East” (351), which puts towns such as Leicester, Worcester, and Birmingham in the non-rhyming half of the country.

Our findings

One glance at the map and the geographical distribution of this particular case of phonological variation becomes clear. As previous research has attested, there is a distinct split between the North and the South, with foot and cut rhyming for 82% of Northern speakers, 48% of speakers in the Midlands (many of whom, in our data, live in Sheffield on the very northern border of the Midlands), and just 6% of Southern speakers. Speakers from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales also tend not to rhyme the two words.

Contrary to Wells’ reports, however, we find a considerable number of speakers north of the imaginary line from the Severn to the Wash who report that the words foot and cut do not rhyme. Of our 13 respondents with a WR (Worcester) postcode, for instance, only one reports a rhyme. Birmingham is particularly heterogeneous, with a 39%-61% rhyme-don’t rhyme split. This finding, that the foot-strut split has moved further north, has received considerable media attention.