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Guest Andrew Moore

English varieties of the British Isles

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Graham's last comment is more in tune with a descriptive approach - and that allows for more sophisticated (and truthful) models of language, that can accommodate the varieties in the systems of different localities, or of other kinds of social grouping.

I always adopted a descriptive approach when teaching German. German, like English, has a wide range of dialects. The dialects that diverge most from the accepted standard form - are which non-locals find most difficult to understand - are spoken in the areas most likely to be visited by tourists: Bavaria, the Black Forest, Austria, Switzerland. Many learners of German who visit these areas are therefore disappointed when attempting to use the language that they have learned at school, because it has not prepared them for the strange sounds and words that they hear.

I introduced a module entitled "Varieties of German" on a humanities degree course on which I taught at an HE college in the 1980s. It included historical varieties, different text types (literary, propaganda, advertising, etc) and regional dialects. The module was one of several that offered an alternative to the traditional literature-based modules that were on offer. It was very popular.

Not all students of language - including their mother tongue - are interested in literature. But in in the 1960s, when I entered university, there were very few courses that were not based on literature. A friend of mine entered university round about the same time as I did in order to study Russian. He is probably the most gifted linguist that I have ever met – an amazing polyglot - but he failed his first-year Russian literature exams miserably and was advised to leave the course. Later on in life he studied at a college that offered language courses that were skills-oriented and included options such as politics, economics and ICT. He passed his finals with flying colours. The native Russian external examiner who attended his oral examination wanted to give him a mark of 100% on the grounds that he could not fault my friend's Russian. "This man would make a good spy", he said. In fact, he did make a good spy, but it was a rather boring job with GCHQ. It was only later, after the Cold War came to an end, that my friend was able to use his Russian in a way that he enjoyed, working for a firm of export consultants, travelling to Russia and meeting people.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Your story, Graham, of the Dane in the pub makes a lot of sense. I've recently had occasion to get to know Norwegian (Bokmål, which is very close to Danish - as it only made a break for linguistic independence in 1814).

The written forms often seem closer to German, so in both we find qualifiers that end in -ig. (Norwegian uses the same form both as adverb and adjective.) But in Norwegian the sound is the long [ i ] vowel, which sounds close enough to our -y ending on silly, pretty, very and so on.

Pronouns and modal verbs, and some prepositions all look and sound familiar to English speakers. If you ask for a glass of beer, you would say: Kan jeg har et glas øl?. I can imagine that many northern bartenders would understand that, though they might want to know what kind of ale you wanted.

There are some vowel sounds heard on the east coast, changing slightly from Hull, through North Yorkshire up to Tyneside, that are not found in RP, but are present in modern Norwegian, such as the vowel in words like "hvor" (where) and "kom" (come).

In Helsinki the street signs appear in Finnish and Swedish, so for every "katu" there is an equivalent "gata". In Oslo, the sound is the same as the Swedish, but the spelling is "gate", as it is in York, Leeds and Beverley.

A list of street names in Beverley, East Yorkshire, reveals Scandinavian influences in, among others: Beckside, Cherry Garth, Flemingate, Hengate, Highgate, Hall Garth, Way, Holgate, Keldgate, Ladygate and Lairgate. We see a modern use of the form in Walkergate and New Walkergate - which are named after Admiral Walker (a 19th century deputy lieutenant of the East Riding). Street names from the Viking period do not use people's surnames.

Many family names or surnames contain Scandinavian elements - these may be names of places, Viking personalities, trades or occupations, and Norse gods. Examples include: Airey, Appleby, Asquith (Askwith), Beckwith, Brandreth, Chippendale, Fotherby, Fothergill, Grimshaw, Hague, Heseltine, Heslop, Hislop, Hogarth, Holmes, Kendal(l), Lofthouse, Pickersgill, Rowntree, Scargill, Schofield, Stockdale, Sykes, Thackeray, Thorpe, Threllfall, Thwaite(s), Willoughby, Wolstenholme and York.

From the name of the god, Thor we get such forms as Thorburn, Thurkettle, Thurstans, Thurston, Turpin and Turtle.

I recall, in Hamburg, reading the column in a local newspaper, written in Hamburger Platt, which you probably know better than I do. It looks closer to Dutch or Vlaams than modern high German. The column I recall (from 1972, on a brief student exchange, so it must have stuck fast) began: De Heid blüht, de Immen sund dor (Die Heide blüht, die Bienen sind da). That dialect word for bees explained the name of the eponymous Immensee in Theodor Storm's novella, which I had met some time before, but without realizing what the name meant.

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Guest Andrew Moore

You are being helpful and patient with this stuff, so here's the next lump...

Social factors affecting variations within dialects

Do dialect forms have any relation to social attitudes? William Labov’s study of language use on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard suggests that they do. Labov linked this use to subjective attitudes and showed that variation was not random, but correlated with age, attitude and social situation.

One social factor that affects variation within dialects is the sex of a speaker – where women will be more likely to use forms that are seen as correct, while men will often choose to use a non-standard form and seek the covert prestige of resisting the ideas of respectability associated with Standard English.

This is one possible explanation of the findings of Peter Trudgill in research in Norwich. In the late 1970s Trudgill interviewed people, whom he categorized by their social class and sex. He observed a number of variables against this (say the use of a particular speech sound in pronouncing a specific word) and recorded the data.

Peter Trudgill - gender, social class and speech sounds

Peter Trudgill's 1970s research into language and social class showed some interesting differences between men and women. This research is described in various studies and often quoted in language teaching textbooks. You can find more in Professor Trudgill's Social Differentiation in Norwich (1974, Cambridge University Press) and various subsequent works on dialect.

Trudgill made a detailed study in which subjects were grouped by social class and sex. He invited them to speak in a variety of situations, before asking them to read a passage that contained words where the speaker might use one or other of two speech sounds. An example would be verbs ending in -ing, where Trudgill wanted to see whether the speaker dropped the final g and pronounced this as -in'.

In phonetic terms, Trudgill observed whether, in, for example, the final sound of "singing", the speaker used the alveolar consonant /n/ or the velar consonant /ŋ/.

Note: you will only see the phonetic symbols if you have the Lucida Sans Unicode font installed and if your computer system and browser support display of this font.

Trudgill found that men were less likely and women more likely to use the prestige pronunciation of certain speech sounds. It appeared that, in aiming for higher prestige (above that of their observed social class) the women tended towards hypercorrectness. The men would often use a low prestige pronunciation - thereby seeking covert (hidden) prestige by appearing “tough” or “down to earth”. This is a plausible explanation of the results that Trudgill reported. But there may be others. Further observation may tend to support Trudgill’s explanation, but with some further qualifications.

Trudgill followed up the direct observation by asking his subjects about their speech. This supported the view of men as more secure or less socially aspirational. The men claimed to use lower prestige forms even more than the observation showed they really did. Women, too, claimed to use high prestige forms more than they were observed to do.

This may be a case of objective evidence supporting a traditional view of women as being more likely to have social class aspirations than men. But it may also be that, as social rôles change, this may become less common - as women can gain prestige through work or other activities. Trudgill's observations are quite easy to replicate - you could do so as part of language research or a language investigation. The value of this research is considerable.

· First (if we accept the explanation of Peter Trudgill’s method of investigation), then we have an extensive set of findings that remain as worthy of study today as they ever were. (Students and teachers need to look at some of the information, as presented in tabular form.)

· Second, it remains open to interpretation – you might, for example, study the findings both before and after reading Trudgill’s own explanations of the differences. This might lead you to challenge or to support the ideas of hypercorrectness among women and covert prestige among men.

Moreover, you can then think of further research that you could carry out, to see if Trudgill’s findings (from Norwich) would be repeated in other places.

Barrie Rhodes (in an unpublished research paper from 1998) suggests that generalisations about sex, age and social differentiation in non-standard speech may sometimes need to be re-evaluated along locally-specific, historical, occupational, socio-economic and lexical choice dimensions. He argues that, in the West Yorkshire community he researched, social networks influenced by changes in the once dominant textile industry have had a particular effect, especially on women's speech.

Sex-differentiated speech was shown to be less predictable than is sometimes claimed; in this study the youngest females emerged as proportionately significant conservers and users of the non-standard lexicon. Knowledge and use of non-standard words amongst some age/sex groups was shown to rise rather than fall with increasing social status. A lexical analysis revealed a matrix of differential trends and patterns in non-standard word knowledge and use; attrition appeared to be not simply a quantitative function but to be lexically selective in a complex way.

Barrie Rhodes elaborates on some of these factors:

…I feel it is important to distinguish between “knowledge” and “use” of the dialect lexicon…in a West Yorkshire community, the substantially greatest knowledge was vested in women over 50 years of age – and they had also been the greatest users in the past. However, men in the 40-59 year old category were today's greatest users – though their level of use was markedly less than the older women's had been in the past. Furthermore, today's younger women (in the under 20 year-old category) were superior in both knowledge and use than their male peers. I was able to account for this variation from the “classic” view by showing that local social, occupational and economic history and modern dynamic developments need to be brought into the equation. 

In the first instance, women in my study were the greatest users of non-standard language because they overwhelmingly worked in the textile industry, where women outnumbered the men by a large factor.  Their occupational environment was relatively closed and female-dominated; they lived in the same streets, alongside the mills, and did not travel very far or socialise with others in the wider geographical or occupational sense.  At the same time, men had more opportunity for social and linguistic intercourse with a wider range of people.  Only with the virtual extinction of the textile trade did women start to move in other occupational and social circles and feel compelled to abandon the use of the many dialect words they were familiar with and used habitually.  Nothing much changed for the men. 

As far as today's younger women are concerned, I see this as part of the social liberation of their sex. In the past, women have tended to be judged by how they appeared (and men by what they did) and their use of language was part of this “appearance”. Young women are now largely free of many of the constraints they were subject to and, at least in my study, seem to have “discovered” a range of “traditional dialect” words and expressions, which they can delight in using. This range, of course, is nowhere near as great as that of their mothers and grandmothers but, nevertheless, their knowledge and use is still greater than those of their male age counterparts. 

Thus, these younger women can be seen to be the relatively most potent conservers of their local speech variety. The important lesson in all this is that language researchers need to pay greater attention to local social, occupational and economic historical factors, together with modern developments, rather than arriving at broad generalisations about men's and women's non-standard speech.

Barrie Rhodes has stated that he does not see his study as contradicting Peter Trudgill’s pioneering work. But by changing the focus somewhat, he has perhaps suggested the importance of some social factors with which Trudgill’s Norwich study was not concerned. It appears that we cannot say that either men or women are, on the whole, more likely to use a traditional or archaic dialect form – sex is one factor among many, and there are reasons why both men and women, in different contexts and for different reasons, will conserve or drop features of traditional regional language varieties.

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I am reading all this with great interest and I know this is not adding anything erudite to the discussion, but couldn't help telling you that my maiden (Huddersfield origin) name was Turpin and had no idea it was from Thor. When I looked it up some years ago it was suggested it was from the Norman French because there was a bishop called de Turpinne, but can now see that it goes back further than that. My parents will be very interested. They are the only people in Tasmania on electoral rolls with that name, but it has disappeared with me.

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Have you come across the idea of Majority English? You'll find a description of it on Joel Miller's site (http://www.bentarz.se).

As a teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I have to confront what the question of what kind of English I'm going to teach. Shall I pick the English spoken by about 20 million people in the South-East of England, or the language spoken by around 230 million of the inhabitants of the USA, or the one spoken daily by around 300 million people on the Indian subcontinent? Or perhaps the one spoken by up to 1,000 million people worldwide?

It's clear to me that if you're going to set your standard according to majority practice, then Indian English is really the standard to use! However, there are much more sensible standards to use, such as beauty and clarity of expression, fun or just plain functionality. I think that the 'problem' with standards like these is that they don't belong to any specific national grouping … but, so what?

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I recall, in Hamburg, reading the column in a local newspaper, written in Hamburger Platt, which you probably know better than I do.

I studied at Hamburg University. My landlady spoke a variety of German that was closer to Platt than High German. Yes, it sounds more like Dutch or Vlaams.

Regarding language and gender, I’ve told this story before: When I was working on a project in Hungary in the early 1990s a Californian feminist was touring the country giving lectures on sexism in language. She gave a lecture at the college where I was teaching, pointing out the necessity for avoiding words like “actress” and always writing “he/she”. He lecture went down like a lead balloon. The Hungarians were puzzled, as they don’t distinguish between “he” and “she” in their language. The have one word for “he and “she”, and gender is not indicated unless it is essential for avoiding ambiguity. Finnish is very similar – and they have a very high proportion of female members of parliament.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Turpin, coming through Norman French, makes sense. That is, they are Normans - originally Norwegian Vikings, the descendants and buddies of Gangerhrolf, whom the Victorians dubbed Rollo the Rover. They (the Victorians, not the Vikings) also made William the Bastard into William the Conqueror. I am grateful to C.S. Lewis for alerting me to the older form - he always calls William "the Bastard". There are Turpins in the East Riding (I have taught some), and, of course, the infamous Dick Turpin was from around here.

A Norwegian today is a Nordmann - the "d" is silent, as in Norman...

Language and gender? That reminds me. A few weeks back, I sat on a train, travelling between Brussels and Bruges. (Between Brussels and an intermediate station the information is displayed in two languages on the scrolling digital display; but after that, in the Flemish region, the French disappears - which makes even the Welsh look broad-minded, as they at least give the English version after the Welsh one.) And into my carriage came three research chemists, on their way to a symposium in Bruges. They were organic chemists, two from Spain and one from Italy. So they used English as the lingua franca. Their very fluent and controlled speech was peppered with special lexis (dichlorobenzine, and so on). One of the chemists was researching the toxicity of synthetic materials (plastics) by treating them with artificial saliva - research of great interest to toy manufacturers, needing to know what is safe in the mouths of babies.

I told this story afterwards to a group of sixth form students, then asked them to form a mental picture of the chemists. By now, you may have done the same.

All three were women, two very young (though old enough to have done some very interesting and serious research). If you managed to see them as women, or to avoid seeing some middle-aged blokes in white coats, then you are maybe less prone to gender assumptions than many people, certainly in the UK.

There is some irony, Graham, in your story of the lecturer. There are still some linguists who support Dale Spender's and Robin Lakoff's views about men's dominance, though Deborah Tannen's theory of difference seems to be more widely accepted. The irony is that, while making a case for the way a female perspective has been overlooked, the lecturer should be so inattentive to, or ignorant of, the characteristics of the language of her audience. I am often embarrassed to attend meetings where British colleagues speak to an international audience, and refer, without explanation, to the arcane details of our education system from OFSTED to QCA, from GCSE to GNVQ, of Becta and of Baker Days, of SATs and National Strategies. Those who are easily infected by ephemeral metaphor can now be heard, in any meeting, referring to causes or influences as "drivers".

To end close to where I began, the three research chemists, far from struggling with a foreign tongue, were speaking their own, and the world's, common language. The evidence of their clarity, coherence and control comes in the ease with which I can recall so much of the conversation. Oh, and being women, they were very good at taking, and yielding, turns to speak.

Edited by andrewmoore1955

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All three were women, two very young (though old enough to have done some very interesting and serious research). If you managed to see them as women, or to avoid seeing some middle-aged blokes in white coats, then you are maybe less prone to gender assumptions than many people, certainly in the UK.

I've just had some serious dental work done today - by a young female Brazilian dental surgeon with a perfect command of English...

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Guest Andrew Moore

Here's a bit more on dialect...

Representations of dialect in writing

Some of the earliest representations are found in literary works. Novelists such as Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence all depict speakers of dialect, in ways that show their grammar, lexis and accent. In the case of some dialects, we have more than one representation – so we can compare Hardy’s rustics with the poems of William Barnes (who wrote in a Dorset dialect). Here is a fairly early example, from the second chapter of Wuthering Heights (1847), in which the servant Joseph refuses to admit Mr. Lockwood into the house:

" ‘T’ maister’s dahn I’t’ fowld. Goa rahnd by the end ut’ laith, if yah went to spake tull him."

Tennyson (1809-1892) has a similar approach in his poem, Northern Farmer, Old Style:

“What atta stannin’ theer fur, and doesn’ bring me the aäle? / Doctor’s a ‘toättler, lass, and ‘e’s allus i’ the owd taäle…”

Joseph comes from what is now West Yorkshire, while Tennyson’s farmer is supposedly from the north of Lincolnshire. Here is an earlier example, from Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian (1830), which shows some phonetic qualities of the lowlands Scots accent. In this passage the Laird of Dumbiedikes (from the country near Edinburgh) is on his deathbed. He advises his son about how to take his drink:

“My father tauld me sae forty years sin’, but I never fand time to mind him. – Jock, ne’er drink brandy in the morning, it files the stamach sair…"

George Bernard Shaw, in Pygmalion (1914), uses one phonetic character (schwa) in his attempt to represent the accent of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl:

“There’s menners f’ yer! T*-oo banches o voylets trod into the mad…Will ye-oo py me f’them.”

* - I cannot show the character here, as the forum does not allow the extended character set.

However, after a few sentences of phonetic dialogue, Shaw reverts to standard spelling, noting:

“Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London”.

The pioneering work in linguistics of the brothers Grimm led to a more scientific approach – and a great bout of activity as researchers began to make records of regional dialects. The emergence of a phonetic alphabet enabled researchers to produce accurate transcriptions of speech sounds.

Dialects are non-standard forms. They do not, therefore, normally have a standard spelling system. If one wishes to represent dialect in a way that shows the speech sounds, then use of phonetic transcription would be helpful. (The alternative is the kind of invented “phonetic” spelling that one sees in D.H. Lawrence: “ ‘Asna ‘e come whoam yit?” – which is still common in literary works.)

For some kinds of study (where the focus is not on speech sounds), an approximation to Standard English forms is acceptable. Thus the Yorkshire adverb happen (=maybe) sometimes appears in the same written form as the Standard English verb to happen – even if we know that for some speakers the dialect word begins with the [æ] vowel. (Barrie Rhodes suggests that we should write it as appen, since there is no initial consonant for Yorkshire dialect speakers; the use of an apostrophe, as in ‘appen, suggests that the dialect form is somehow a mistaken or inferior variation of happen, even though appen is a different part of speech [adverb, where happen, in Standard English, is a verb] in the lexicon of the regional variety.

There are some modern authors who write novels, using (for dialogue alone, or both narrative and dialogue) an approximate transcription of a regional variety of English or a creole, and this tendency is widespread in published poetry (which sometimes indicates the speech sounds used by the poet in performance).

For an example of the former, consider this extract from James Kelman’s 1994 novel How Late It Was, How Late, which is written in modern Scots:

They shook hands.

Didnay take ye long, said Boab.

Naw it was just a wee footery job. Good saw by the way, good feel to it.

Aye like I says it was my fayther's. It's been in the family for donkeys'. I think it was my grandfayther's.

Is that right? Hh! Heh ye wouldnay have a bit of sandpaper?

Naw son sorry, ye're unlucky; I had some but it's away.

Just thought I'd ask.

The narrative also uses this variety of English – in this passage of dialogue we note the regional lexis (wee, footery, didnay, wouldnay) or variant meanings for standard lexis (away), as well as a representation of the Scots speech sounds (fayther’s, naw, and perhaps Boab, of which the usual spelling is Bob).

In Sozaboy the Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa explains that it is written in “rotten English” – this is “a mixture of Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English.”

Some of the poems of James Berry, John Agard and Linton Kwesi Johnson resemble transcripts, using a simple “phonetic” representation, of urban black English varieties or Caribbean creoles. Here is an excerpt from one of Mr. Johnson’s poems, Di Anfinish Revalueshan:

soh mi a beg yu mistah man

please come out a yu shell

yu cyaan dwell inna di paas

cat laas fi evah yu know mi bredda

now dat di sun a shine brite

please come out a di doldrums a di daak nite

It is as well to remember that these are literary examples – otherwise one may find people claiming these writers as the authentic voices of Black Britain (as if this were one uniform thing), or moving from an evaluation of the merits of the verse as art, and political comment, to its quality as a representation of the speech of a community. (In a symbolic sense, it may well be taken as representative, but we would need to see a lot more evidence, as linguists, before we could draw any conclusions about how typical or widespread this is as any kind of scientific or descriptive representation of the everyday speech of people in any part of Britain. In the same way, we would not readily accept the rustic characters in Thomas Hardy’s novels as an objective representation of the speech of Dorset in the mid to late 19th century.)

You may also see comical pseudo-phonetic or punning transcriptions to illustrate regional accent – on the analogy of Afferbeck Lauder’s 1965 guide to Australian English, Let Stalk Strine. A series of postcards entitled Learn to Speak Hull, Speak More Hull! and Speak Hull Again! contains “transcriptions” such as “fern curls” (phone calls) along with glosses – for “fern curls” it is “telecommunications”. So we find, among others:

· Erk (=a type of wood; oak)

· Meolidiz (=my annual vacation; my holidays [also yurolidiz])

· Nerz kern (=the pointed end of a rocket; nose cone)

· Nerth Pearl (=the most northerly point on earth; North Pole)

· Pearl Tax (=the Community Charge; Poll Tax)

· Perm (=a composition in verse; poem)

· Perp, the (=head of the Roman Catholic Church; Pope)

· Surfer (=posh name for a settee; sofa)

Most of these examples exploit the peculiarity of a vowel used by speakers in Hull and some parts of the East Riding.

Film and TV drama

Dramatists who write for film and TV (or the stage) may attempt to show the lexis and grammar of a dialect speaker, but their work is not authentic data in illustrating dialect in live use. (It may be instructive and worthy of study for other reasons.) And actors are not typical speakers – they are highly trained in the physical articulation of speech sounds, which they articulate with greater clarity (by exaggeration, distortion and amplification of speech as it might naturally occur).

Film studios often employ special voice coaches (who may be expert phonologists) to assist performers in learning a regional accent, in a work where naturalistic authenticity is important. By comparing apparently inauthentic and authentic film accents, we may learn something about the real-life original. Barrie Rhodes notes of some popular TV dramas:

Take Heartbeat – it is supposed to be set on the North York Moors, just a few miles inland from Whitby. Yet the characters tend to use a sort of generic “Yorkshire” accent that has more to do with Leeds/Bradford (if anywhere) than where the series is supposed to be set. In Emmerdale, there is more 'Lancashire' (and south-eastern England) accent in evidence than 'Yorkshire Dales'.  And if you're going to have actors try to speak 'Yorkshire', at least make sure they can properly glottal stop the definite article – it's a dead giveaway!

To be fair, few such dramas aspire to local authenticity – and there are probably as many offending examples of generalized London speech in film and TV, as there are false northern accents.

From the language students’ point of view, the value of such dramas as evidence for genuine local or regional speech sounds and language forms is nil. But they do have value as evidence of people’s mistaken or inexact ideas about speech sounds and language forms that they do not know. If you want to study speech sounds in Peckham, you have to listen to the natives, not the cast of Only Fools and Horses.

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Andrew writes:

You may also see comical pseudo-phonetic or punning transcriptions to illustrate regional accent – on the analogy of Afferbeck Lauder’s 1965 guide to Australian English, Let Stalk Strine. A series of postcards entitled Learn to Speak Hull, Speak More Hull! and Speak Hull Again! contains “transcriptions” such as “fern curls” (phone calls) along with glosses – for “fern curls” it is “telecommunications”.

I remember Afferbeck Lauder's Let stalk Strine and Fraffly well spoken very well. I still have copies on my shelves.

I paid a tribute to Afferbeck Lauder's humour in my keynote paper at the WorldCALL 1998 conference, University of Melbourne. You'll find a couple of references and examples in the paper, which was entitled "True creativity often starts where language ends". It's on the Web at:


Here's the relevant extract:

I would like to conclude this paper by paying tribute to an Australian humorist. I could have chosen Clive James or Barry Humphries, both of whom I find funny, but I finally settled for Alistair Morrison, who is better known by his pseudonym, Afferbeck Lauder. I became acquainted with Lauder’s humour in the 1960s while hanging around with Australian students in Earls Court, many of whom spoke a variety of English that I found difficult to understand. The solution to my problems was Lauder’s book Let stalk Strine ("Let’s talk Australian", Lauder 1965). The idea for the book arose as result of a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1964. The British novelist Monica Dickens was signing copies of her latest book in a Sydney bookstore. A woman handed a copy of the book, saying "Emma Chisit". Monica Dickens dutifully wrote "To Emma Chisit" on the flyleaf. The woman responded, "No. Emma Chisit?", stressing that she was asking "How much is it?". This demonstrated to Afferbeck Lauder that there was a need for an Australian-English phrasebook.

Consider the following transcript of a conversation between two Australians:

A. "Sarn’s calmer nairt. Scona beer gloria sty. Mine jute still scold zephyr. Cheat was scold la snite."

B. "Weller corset Saul-wye school linnermore ninx. Buttered swarm nuddite-time. Spewffle climb a treely." (Lauder 1965:37)

If you read this aloud, all should become clear. The (English) translation follows:

A. "Sun’s coming out. It’s going to be a glorious day. Mind you, it’s still as cold as ever. Gee, it was cold last night."

B. "Well, of course it’s always cool in the mornings. But it’s warm in the daytime. It’s a beautiful climate really."

A few years later, Lauder applied the same technique to Upper Class English - or the Language of London’s West End, as he called it - in a book entitled Fraffly well spoken ("Frightfully well spoken", Lauder 1968):

A. "Sholleh you compy sirius. Shears a fess lecker bet lex, end four thombs. Ay fender paw stiffleh noss yetting."

B. "Meddier boy, youm snofferget her femmlair are Bocksher people, enchies fraffly clefferetter renching flozz." (Lauder 1968:55)

Again, the trick is to read the conversation aloud. The (English) translation follows:

A. "Surely, you can’t be serious. She’s a face like a battle axe, and four thumbs. I find her positively nauseating."

B. "My dear boy, you must not forget her family are Berkshire people, and she’s frightfully clever at arranging flowers."

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More examples of pseudo-phonetic or punning transcriptions can be found in the late John Pepper’s series of books dedicated to the Ulster dialect. He used to write an entertaining column in the Belfast Telegraph, in which he picked up on some of the amusing features of local speech. In Ulster – and in Ireland as a whole – people of all social classes have a natural way with words; their speech is full of humour and they are quick with a repartee that will cut anyone down to size. Here are few examples from John Pepper’s books:

- I leff a note for the braidman to lave four snowtaps an’ a corn square. (Conveying information about a note left for the baker.)

- That fella’s not only futless he’s legless forby. (A comment on the state of intoxication of a man in a bar.)

- Hayeawlwiye? (Do you have everything with you?)

- She’s just an oul girn. (She complains a lot.)

See this page by Dick Alexander for examples of Ulster humour:



- "If he died with that face, nobody would wash him."

- "That woman would start a fight in an empty house."

As for actors, have you seen the film Divorcing Jack? It’s set in Belfast – with a script that is at least as rude and as impenetrable as that of The Commitments, which is set in Dublin. But why did they choose Robert Lindsey to play one of the leading roles? His accent slips all the time. There are dozens of Northern Irish actors who could have got it right. I guess it's all about money...

How about Gervais Phinn’s book The other side of the Dale? He was the after-dinner speaker at a conference I attended in York. It’s probably the most entertaining after-dinner speech I have ever heard, but I think the Japanese guests at my table were totally confused by his rendering of rural Yorkshire dialects!

Finally, the poetry of Robbie Burns may be worth mentioning – although it can be classified as Scots rather than English. Most English people know the phrase Auld Lang Syne but haven’t a clue what it means (Old Times Long Ago) and that it derives from one of Burns’ poems.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Thanks for those observations - I will be borrowing some of them for my guide, of that's allowed! Here's another dollop...

Regional varieties and non-regional varieties

Paul Kerswill and others contrast traditional dialects with modern dialects. The traditional dialects are varieties spoken by people in a given geographical area – in this sense we can regard the speech of the Black Country, East Yorkshire or Cardiff as a traditional, regional dialect.

The modern dialects are varieties spoken in urban areas. Kerswill notes two contrasting tendencies at work.

· On the one hand, there is a standardizing tendency, or dialect levelling – so the urban dialect shares more features with standard spoken English.

· On the other hand, the urban dialects still retain features that are distinctive to the area where they are spoken – so Hull and East Yorkshire dialect retains distinctive

- sounds (like the “er” vowel)

- lexis (non-standard forms, like beer-off for an off-licence or tenfoot for the access road behind a house, and standard forms with non-standard meanings, like the use of while in the sense of until)

- grammar (such as I aren’t for Standard English I’m not)

Dialect levelling

Kerswill argues that there is a levelling process, whereby the modern or urban dialects over time move closer to spoken standard English, while retaining their own distinctive forms. He explains dialect levelling thus:

British English in the 20th century has been characterised by dialect levelling and standardisation. It is probably useful to see this as composed of two stages, running in parallel. The first stage affects the traditional rural dialects of the country, once of course spoken by a majority of the population, but by the beginning of the 20th century probably spoken by under 50%. These dialects are very different from standard English in their pronunciation and in their grammar. What has happened is that, over one or more generations, families have abandoned these dialects in favour of a type of English that is more like the urban speech of the local town or city. These more urban ways of speaking have been labelled modern dialects or mainstream dialects by Peter Trudgill (1998). What most characterises them is that they are considerably more like standard English in phonology, grammar and vocabulary. The outcome of this first stage is that there are fewer differences between ways of speaking in different parts of the country – an example of dialect levelling. The second stage affects these urbanised varieties of English themselves. As anyone who travels round Britain quickly discovers, there are distinctive ways of speaking in each town and city. Sometimes these differences are quite large, and cause difficulties even for British people when they travel round. These dialects are subject to still further levelling, to such an extent that, in the south-east of England around London, it is now quite difficult to tell where a person comes from. The differences are very subtle, purely phonetic ones.


One modern dialect – or perhaps this is an academic fiction based on several modern dialects – is so-called Estuary English. Here is David Rosewarne’s description:

Estuary English is a variety of modified regional speech. It is a mixture of non-regional and local south-eastern English pronunciation and intonation. If one imagines a continuum with RP and popular London speech at either end, Estuary English speakers are to be found grouped in the middle ground. They are ‘between Cockney and the Queen’, in the words of The Sunday Times. (Rosewarne 1994: Estuary English: Tomorrow's RP? English Today, 10[1], pp. 3-8.)

Rosewarne claims that people correct their speech for reasons of social aspiration. They lose grammatically non-standard features, such as

· double negatives

· the word ‘ain’t’, and

· past tense forms like writ for ‘wrote’, come for ‘came’.

They also, he claims, change accent. In the Southeast, they avoid the most stigmatised phonetic features, such as dropping of h and using /t/ instead of the glottal stop. The result has been the emergence of a new southern or south-eastern variety (some characteristics of which have spread to the midlands and the north). This variety, which we may call Estuary, has these features:

· glottal stops for /t/, including some between vowels

· vocalised /l/ as in fill, giving pronunciations sounding like ‘fiw’

· ‘Cockney’ (London) vowels (broad diphthongs, so that mace sounds like RP ‘mice’, buy sounds like RP ‘boy’, and rice has a vowel resembling that of RP ‘choice’)

· a general absence of h-dropping

· use of standard grammar

Paul Kerswill accepts the description but disputes the claim that this is a recent variety. He insists that something like “Estuary” has been around for longer than its commentators claim, but that in the 1990s its geographical spread has accelerated. This reflects tendencies in language change generally. It is perhaps rare for a new variety to arise suddenly and spontaneously. But one can see how a number of variant forms can slowly coalesce to represent a variety that becomes recognizable to language users – and when this happens they may adopt the features of this variety through accommodation.

All descriptions of regional varieties are general and approximate – individual speakers may use all or some of them, and each to a greater or less degree, which will itself vary from one situation to another.

While “Estuary English” is a loose and approximate name, the same is true of other popular names for traditional dialects, such as Cockney (supposedly spoken by people born within the sound of Bow Bells – the bells of St.Mary le Bow [Marylebone], Scouse (Liverpudlian) and Geordie (Tyneside). These popular names may also sustain inaccurate ideas. But behind these imprecise general descriptions, there are real language features that are more common in specific geographical locations. As a language student or scientist, you should look for objective evidence of this, either in published research, or in your own investigations.

More recently, Jane Setter, Director of the English Language Pronunciation Unit, gave this short description of Estuary:

“Estuary English is an umbrella term for a number of accents of (loosely) the South East of England which have some similar accent features. For example, varieties which come under Estuary tend to have a vocalised /l/ in syllable final position, which means /l/ is realised as a vowel similar to the one in foot (e.g. milk, apple), use glottal stop inter-vocalically and syllable finally (e.g. butter, cat), and so on.  But there is actually quite a lot of difference among varieties which fall under the Estuary umbrella.”

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Thanks for those observations - I will be borrowing some of them for my guide...

Be my guest!

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Have you seen the website at UCL devoted to Estuary English?

It's at http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/

I have spoken a variety of Estuary all my life - although people tell me I tend to sound "posher" when I am giving a lecture.

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Guest Andrew Moore

Hi, Graham,

Yes - I know that one. Without overdoing the navel-gazing, I can add that I have some decent articles by Peter Trudgill, Paul Kerswill and Paul Coggle on this subject, on my Web site:



Jane Setter alerted me to some excellent and more recent work by Joanna Przedlacka. You can see it at:


and get the full research paper at


The next stuff I will put on here will contain an account of Joanna's work...

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