NORTHERNERS sound stupid. At least to some ears. This, very crudely, is the finding of a gold-standard four-year study in to accent bias in England published this week.

Researchers uncovered widespread prejudice about people based on nothing more than the way they talked. And this bigotry, the experts found, was stronger, more extreme, when it was unconscious.

“People do think that speakers in the north of England are less intelligent, less ambitious, less educated and so on, solely from the way they speak,” said Robert McKenzie, the scholar at Northumbria University who led the study “On the other hand, people in the south are thought to be more ambitious, more intelligent.”

The academic had a consolation of sorts for northern speakers. They were, he said, seen as “friendly, outgoing and trustworthy salt-of-the-earth folk”.

So those English speakers whose septentrional accents stray from a supposed “standard” are not just demeaned, they are patronised too.

Grim, but maybe not surprising. I mean, like, wow, yeah, language, and even its harmless little tics, really triggers some folk. Take MLE. Or Multi-cultural London English, the new hybrid variety – or sociolect, as linguists would call it – that is bursting out of places where once Cockney reigned supreme. Some sticklers are horrified, displaying the same kind of prejudices against inner city youth as those exposed against northerners in this week’s study.

Me? I think MLE, the language of Grime music, is glorious.

We all have feelings – sometimes deeply buried – about the speech of others

But, perhaps ironically, we are not very good at articulating them. Why? Well, I suspect a lot of us just do not know the language of language, the basic vocabulary of linguistics.

We conflate and confuse even the most basic of terms such as “slang”, "dialect” or “accent”. Hey, a surprising number of people do not seem to know what a language is. It is hard to blame them: many of us were never taught this stuff at school. And the answer is far from straight-forward or even uncontested.

Confusion over what does – and does not – constitute a language pervades social media debate over the status of Scots.

I say “debate” but, as often as not, what we are talking about here is just hyper-partisan unionists vomiting ignorant bile at those – especially women such as the poet Len Pennie – who post online in their mither leid.

Is Scots a language? Well, the answer to that depends on who you are. If you’re a Scottish linguist, then, yes, doh, of course it is. If you’re an angry man with a Union Jack as your Twitter picture, then, huff, puff, scoff, splutter, no, what nationalist nonsense.

I’ll declare an interest here: I take the side of the lingo nerds against the flag avatars. And so should you: scholarship and lived experience always trump internet ire, especially when politically motivated.

Let’s be honest, Scotland’s online language wars are never going to be very edifying. Which is a shame because both sides skirt around some properly curious and tricky questions.

Such as: what is the difference between a dialect and a language? The classic groan-out-loud linguist joke answer is that the latter has an army and navy. Politics, innit, as you might say in MLE.

Mind you, Scots is distinctive and pretty coherent – even if it is as yet unstandardised. Its language status is long established, and is protected by the Scottish and British Governments under international convention. It has a corpus of literature, libraries full dictionaries and textbooks, and universities brimming with scholars devoted to its study.

A language, then.

Yet, it is also probably fine to call Scots a dialect, if you really must. But it does not make any more sense to say that Scots is a dialect “of” English than it is to say that English is a dialect “of” Scots.

Both varieties – linguists prefer this word – sit on the same language continuum. A west Germanic one to be exact. And they are not alone.

Not least because between them there is Northumbrian. The speech of North-east England, not just of Tynesiders, but of the entire region, is instantly recognisable, distinct, different.

The other day I saw one of the angry stupid people of Twitter spit that Scots was no different than “Geordie”, just another “dialect of English”.

In a way they were right, just not as they were suggesting. Why? Well, because, while Northumbrian is not universally recognised as a language, there are some strong academic arguments to be made that it should be. Just like Scots.

The Northumbrian Language Society, or NLS, a registered charity, has been championing local speech for yonks. It is pretty sanguine about status.

“Northumbrian is a language because it satisfies the comprehensibility test, which states that related dialects become separate languages when they are no longer mutually comprehensible, like Spanish and Portuguese,” it says on its website. “Speakers of Northumbrian are not very bothered about whether their speech is regarded as a language or a dialect, because it can be both. The important point to grasp, however, is that while Northumbrian is an English dialect, it is not a dialect of standard English, because Northumbrian came into existence centuries before standard English was created.”

I guess this what the Scots language “debate" might sound like without the added niggle of constitutional politics, of rival nationalisms.

Northumbrian – with the Anglic roots it shares with English and Scots – reminds us that languages can serve both as barriers and as bridges, as ways of underlining both difference and similarity. It also helps Scottish speakers understand the history, the place among Europe’s families of languages of our own two main tongues, Scots and English.

So we should give Northumbrian more of a listen. Because these northerners do not sound stupid at all, not to my ears anyway.