OneMonkey and I have been listening to Journeys in English this weekend courtesy of Leeds library’s audiobooks download service. It’s Bill Bryson’s BBC series from 20 years ago about the history, use and future of the English language. The time lapse since the series was made was interesting in itself, with the (then) new word cyberspace having already fallen out of favour for instance. The programme also talked about the fears of dialect loss, the ultra-standardisation of English (possibly along American lines, but that’s another story) from people moving around and being influenced by the TV etc. It generated a lot of discussion between us, we paused the thing so often it took about half an hour to listen to the final five minutes, but I’ll try and stick to a couple of topics over the next couple of posts.
One of those was how much our speech had changed in twenty years. We now live a few miles from where most of my family’s from, coincidentally directly across the valley from the hamlet one of my great-great-grandfathers left 160 years ago to find work in the slightly more built-up and industrial bit I’ve left behind. Nevertheless, twenty years of OneMonkey and I influencing each other’s accents, not to mention stints at 3 universities surrounded by staff and students from different backgrounds, and we both sound different from our teenage selves, particularly OneMonkey whose Geordie accent has all but gone as he’s slowed down and enunciated to allow non-native speakers a chance to understand him. He never uses the word ‘geet’ (here rendered for the well-spoken Yorkshireman as usual) whereas in 1997 it was in practically every sentence – for those unfamiliar with the word, imagine using it for emphasis as you would ‘dead’ i.e. dead good, dead late, dead hungry. My grilled bread sounds much more like ‘toe-st’ than ‘turst’, which not everyone will see as a bad thing.
Have a think about how your speech has changed in the last twenty years. You probably say tweeting and texting a lot more than you did then. Have you lost any dialect phrases? Learnt any new ones? Has your accent got stronger from moving back home, or weaker from moving away, or been influenced by your favourite TV programme? (Notice I didn’t say ‘TV show’ there but I did use TV not telly. I find myself saying movies instead of pictures sometimes…) Is the change gratifying, worrying, or just interesting? Feel free to answer some or all of these questions in the comments below. Or tweet me @JYSaville
An invaluable guide. Well, quite entertaining anyway.
A few years ago in a post about rendering accent in writing, I mentioned that after 10 years of living among Geordies I’d attempted to write a Geordie character, only for OneMonkey to recoil in horror at my ineptitude. Well, a couple of weeks ago I had another go (completely different story, and characters) and this one passed muster. I’m not saying it would fool a native, just that OneMonkey judged it bearable.
I had a feeling I might do better this time, I can now read and interpret the whole of the 1960s educational pamphlet Larn Yersel’ Geordie, even if I can’t say most of it out loud. I have understood each one of OneMonkey’s uncles in normal conversation, and barely notice that his dad speaks a completely different dialect from me. Despite living back in West Yorkshire (‘the South’ as OneMonkey calls it) for years, I appear to be morphing slowly into a North East native, scoring 100% on the Chronicle’s How Geordie Are You? quiz (though I’m not convinced of its scientific accuracy…) and recognising more than half of these You know you’re a Geordie when… signs in myself. Time to go recalibrate myself with some Yorkshire dialect poems.
Following on from my earlier post on accents (and if you haven’t read that, this might not make much sense)…
Reginald Hill has his Yorkshire detective Dalziel saying ‘thyself’ from time to time, but I’m willing to bet that that character would pronounce it, in his own phonetic rendering, as ‘thissenn’ (that’s how I say it), so why the standard English spelling? The assumption here would be that most people don’t use the word so wouldn’t recognise it in disguise and wouldn’t understand what he was getting at. At least there was a standard English spelling to fall back on; most dialect words are rarely written down because (unless you’re north of the border, where Scots is championed as a separate language) we’re all taught to use standard English when we write, no matter what words we use when we speak (and at my school and probably many others we were taught not to speak dialect in public in case anyone thought we were thick…). Sadly, fewer people seem to be speaking them, too.
Previously I gave OneMonkey’s example of “going home” becoming “gan’n yem” (in my standard rendering into well-spoken Yorkshire. Which probably differs widely across the county, but never mind). You could see that as a stretching of the standard English words by a strong accent, but if you’re interested in languages like OneMonkey, and possess a 1919 textbook on Anglo-Saxon as he does (I know, not that likely, but stay with me) you’ll notice that what’s actually going on is that Geordies have a better grasp of Anglo-Saxon than the rest of us. So just as the Yorkshire use of thee, thou and thy (however you want to pronounce them) harks back to a bygone age in the national tongue, the Geordie use of a whole long list of words reaches even further back: in Anglo-Saxon gan=go, ham=home (OneMonkey points out that “yem” as I’ve written it could have had “h” before it), bearn=child, wif=woman. The more you look, the more similarities you find. And in fact OneMonkey has just pointed me at this informative webpage on the origins of Geordie.
I don’t think I’d write dialect in any story, partly because I wouldn’t know how to spell it (because I’m unlikely to have seen it written down, and because of that difficulty I mentioned last time about phonetic spellings) and partly because I’ve been conditioned to write in ‘proper’ English. Both OneMonkey and I are concerned about the loss of accents and dialect though, and our accents have slowly begun to meld together (presumably they’ll meet at Middlesborough in a couple of years): dialect is the key to our distinct vocal identities. Though we both feel slightly self-conscious using dialect aloud after years of suppression for the sake of communication with outsiders, we’re trying to reclaim it in a small way; at least with no children we don’t have to decide on those important things like whether a stream is really a beck or a burn.