THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

11 posts from August 2017

31 August 2017

Mr Tickle in a Newcastle accent

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

At the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library (2010-11), we asked visitors to submit recordings of their voices in specially designed telephone booths. Around 15,000 speakers took part, and the outcome is the Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – a collection of accents and dialect words from over the UK, and all around the world.

One of the things we asked participants to do was to read us a story, so that we could compare different voices saying the same thing. We went for Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Tickle; it’s a useful text because it includes plenty of words that give us clues as to where people are from, like fast and laugh, for instance (do you say yours with a short or a long ‘a’?). We also hoped its light-hearted tone would put the readers at ease so that they wouldn’t change their ‘normal’ voice too much, since sometimes reading out loud can cause people to switch into a more formal register.

In this recording, however, the speaker was so at ease that he put on a performance, exaggerating features of his Newcastle accent to give us the full Geordie experience. He even ‘translates’ some of the words into dialect terms, such as ‘starving’ for ‘hungry,’ ‘pack it in’ for ‘stop it,’ and ‘arms as long as you’d like’ to refer to Mr Tickle’s ‘extraordinarily long arms.’ Then there’s ‘out for the count’ instead of ‘fast asleep,’ and ‘upset’ for ‘terrible pandemonium.’ And of course the speaker adds ‘man’ at the end of a few sentences for good measure.

Our Newcastle speaker also beautifully demonstrates some Geordie vowel sounds for us. Notice the way he pronounces words like ‘house, ‘out,’ and ‘down’ – this ‘oo’ sound is where the Toon gets its nickname from! There’s the ‘oo’ in ‘book,’ too, and the characteristically Newcastle vowel sound in ‘long’ (‘lang’). You can find out more about Newcastle English on the Sounds Familiar website.

Perhaps the theatricality of this reading task makes it inauthentic in some way – it’s hard to say whether the participant really speaks like this in everyday life. But, we have more ‘natural’ recordings elsewhere of these features (check out this other Geordie example in the VoiceBank), so we know they can be ‘real Newcastle’ too. What’s more, recordings like this can be incredibly useful to us as sociolinguists, because they tell us something about the dialect words and features that are most salient to speakers as markers of their local identity. And, of course, they are evidence of the delight and pride speakers take in their linguistic heritage.

Continue the conversation with us @Voicesof English.

28 August 2017

Recording of the week: bringing Batwa voices back to life in Uganda

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Dr Peter Cooke has been researching music in Uganda since the 1960s. In 1968 he was in the Kisoro area in western Uganda where he recorded a few songs performed by members of the Batwa community. The recordings now form part of his collection at the British Library (BL reference: C23) and can be listened to on the British Library Sounds website.

In 1991, the Batwa in Uganda were evicted from their historic homelands and their presence in the country was decimated. In 2006-7 Christopher Kidd, then an anthropology PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow who had been working amongst the Batwa communities, took the Cooke recordings back and played them to local colleagues at the offices of the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda. On hearing them, one of the staff members was able to identify his own grandfather, a man called Kiyovu, as the sole performer of these two songs. Furthermore, he reported that Kiyovu’s only surviving son, Jeremiah Bunjagare, was still living in the area although he had been relocated, as part of a development project, to Gitebe beside Echuya Forest.

Dr Kidd went to Gitebe and played the recordings to Jeremiah. He immediately picked out his father's voice and was visibly emotional at hearing his father after all these years. With much pride he explained that the man they were listening to was a man who sat beside kings [Kiyovu was indeed a performer for Mwami Rubugiri, the king of Rwanda]. Later he danced to show his thanks for bringing his father back into his life. Dr Kidd reported: "Listening to these recordings was a time when Jeremiah and other Batwa remembered not their powerlessness but a time in which they ‘sat beside kings’ and were respected as a people and a culture."

Urwasabahizi_Innanga zither song performed by Kiyovu

Jeremiah Bunjagare listening to recording of his father from 1968 - Photo Chris Kidd 2007Jeremiah Bunjagare listening to recording of his father from 1968 - Photo Chris Kidd 2007

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

25 August 2017

It's all in the tail

Tails are probably not the first things that spring to mind when thinking about animal sounds. Beautiful songs or spine-chilling cries, sure, but tails? It's unlikely.

Several animal groups use their tails to generate sound. One of the most famous of these are rattlesnakes, a group of venomous reptiles found across North and South America. As their name suggests, rattlesnakes possess a rattle at the end of their tail. Its function is to warn potential predators to keep their distance or face the prospect of a deadly bite. The rattle is made up of small pieces of keratin that bang together when the tail is rapidly vibrated. Rattlesnakes aren’t the only reptiles to use a bit of tail-shaking when confronted by danger. Many other types of snake use the same, albeit much quieter, method to send a warning to other animals on the lookout for a quick dinner. Why evolution graced rattlesnakes with a sound-producing tail has been the subject of scientific positing for decades but, whatever the reason, the rapid shake of a rattlesnake’s rattle has proven to be a highly effective messenger.

Rattlesnake tail sounds recorded at London Zoo by Richard Ranft (BL ref 21461) 

Snake-751722_1920

Birds can usually make themselves understood with their voices alone, however some species also bring their tails into the mix. The Indian Peafowl is one such species. For a long time the majesty of the male's tail display was thought to be a purely visual cue to woo nearby females and deter potential rivals. As well as producing a feast for the eyes, a peacock's tail display also creates a distinctive rustling sound which was initially thought to be an inert byproduct of the main spectacle. When researchers at the University of Manitoba investigated this further however, they discovered that the sound also had infrasonic properties which, though inaudible to humans, can be detected by other birds. But what message does this sound actually convey? It's thought that the infransonic rustling acts as a sonic reinforcement to the tail display, helping other individuals assess the quality and strength of the performer. Indian Peafowls naturally occur in dense forests across the Indian Subcontinent, so being able to utilise low frequencies, which travel further than high frequency sounds, is particularly useful when individuals can't always be seen. Nobody wants to wade through loads of scrub only to be disappointed, so listening out for these infrasonic clues can save both males and females a whole lot of hassle.

Peacock tail feather display recorded in England by John Paterson (BL ref 62061)

Peacock-2254989_1920

Another bird that uses its tail feathers to communicate is the Common Snipe. Males possess modified outer tail feathers which, when held at right angles to the body, produce a drumming sound during their dramatic aerial display flights. As snipe are crepuscular, these flamboyant performances normally take place at twilight and sit in stark contrast with the bird's usually shy and retiring demeanour.

In May 1943, RAF Flying Officer R.A. Carr-Lewty published a paper in British Birds which included this eloquent description of the drumming display:

"When drumming, the Snipe descends with the two outer tail-feathers widely extended, and in this position they are free to vibrate without interference from the other rectrices. Once the requisite speed has been attained, these feathers, by reason of this extension and their peculiar shape and structure, commence to vibrate and continue to do so as long as the speed is maintained; the Snipe attains this speed by diving. In normal flight, the outer tail-feathers, being supported by contact with the other rectrices, have no tendency to vibrate."

Common Snipe drumming display recorded in Scotland by Richard Margoschis (BL ref 22497)

Common Snipe (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)Common Snipe (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Moving across to mammals, the North American Beaver uses its flat, paddle-like tail to alert nearby individuals to the presence of danger. When things just don't seem right, beavers will slap their scaly tails on the surface of the water as an alarm signal to other beavers. As these animals are timid and nocturnal, a meaty tail slap may be your only clue that a beaver is nearby.

North American Beaver tail slap recorded in Ontario by Tom Cosburn (BL ref 69781)

  Tail of a Beaver (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)Illustration of a beaver's tail (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Though songs and calls often dominate our perception of what the natural world sounds like, animals across the world have evolved many other ways to communicate with each other. So the next time you think about wildlife sounds, spare a thought for the tails out there.

24 August 2017

Made-up words and coded sweet-talk

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

When cataloguing the Evolving English WordBank, we often come across speakers donating words which they have invented themselves. This privileged access to speakers’ privately meaningful coinages is not only fun, but also a great reminder of how creative we can be with language when words fail us.

Usually, made-up words come from children’s early experiments with speaking; words invented at home – often to name new and unfamiliar objects – which have stuck as humorous and often quite useful family vocab. In the following recording, one visitor to the exhibition describes some of her own family terms:

C1442 Nonce-Words (female b.1960)

Another speaker discusses a personal nonsense word ‘amaluvaya,’ which she explains is used solely between herself and her partner in order to express affection secretly, meaning ‘I’m in love with you.’

C1442 Amaluvaya (female b.1953)

Like a lot of home-grown linguistic innovations, the idea behind ‘amaluvaya’ is to allow the speaker and hearer to communicate a message in public, but privately. Another example of a coded speech strategy is ‘Pig Latin,’ a pseudo-language with rules for re-arranging syllables, often used by school-children to conspire without their parents overhearing – or sometimes the other way around!

Occasionally, secret languages are needed for more serious purposes; being able to communicate covertly can of course be a matter of life and death, freedom and persecution. Polari, a form of cant slang used in gay sub-culture at the turn of the century, offered gay men a means of conversing without running the risk of arrest or abuse. A number of our Spoken English collections include fascinating discussions of Polari; you can listen to them here and here.

You can find out more about Polari at the current Gay UK exhibition, and in Paul Baker’s Fantabulosa: A Dictionary of Polari and Gay Slang (2002)

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

21 August 2017

Recording of the week: being the prize guinea pig

Jonathan Blake was one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV. An activist for LGBT rights and HIV and AIDS awareness, Blake remembers the circumstances around being diagnosed in the 1980s, what it was like being on of the first people to be diagnosed, his experience of losing friends, and the impact of diagnosis on his outlook on life.

Jonathan Blake on his HIV diagnosis

The interview was conducted by Margot Farnham for the Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project in 1991, when Jonathan was forty years old. His full interview (C456/104) is available on British Library Sounds in the Observing the 1980s package, alongside three other Hall-Carpenter interviews: the Greenham Common campaigners Cheryl Slack and Sue King and the feminist Roberta Henderson.

Walking after Midnight - Gay Men's Life StoriesWalking After Midnight - Gay Men's Life Stories by the Hall Carpenter Archives Oral History Group

In the four and a half hour life story interview, Jonathan discusses (among many other things) his family history, upbringing, school experiences, coming out to his parents, Kings Road in the 1960s, his involvement in Gay Pride politics in New York in the 1970s, his acting career in theatre and film, his diagnosis with HIV in 1983 and his decision to live a 'healthy' life.

Funnily enough, he doesn't talk much about his time campaigning for Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners in the years following his diagnosis. But then you can watch the film Pride to find out about that - and read Pride - The Book, just out this month. And you catch up with Jonathan's latest campaigning work over on Twitter.

Come to the British Library's free exhibition Gay UK (hurry - it's only open until 19 September) to listen to many more oral history extracts from the Hall-Carpenter oral history collection.

17 August 2017

San Fairy Ann

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

The phrase ‘San Fairy Ann’ might sound familiar, perhaps conjuring up memories of Paul McCartney's 1976 song, or Barbara Windsor's 1965 comedy of the same name. But what does it actually mean, and where does it come from?

The saying has cropped up in our WordBank collection twice so far, both times the speakers attributing it to an elderly grandparent.

C1442 San Fairy Ann (female b.1942) uncatalogued

‘My grandmother always used the phrase when she didn’t want to know about something was ‘San Fairy Ann’ which when I started to learn French at school I discovered was ‘ça ne fait rien’. I believe that this was um she probably picked it up from my grandfather when he came back from the First World War.’

C1442X3968 San Fairy Ann (female b.1962)

‘In my family we use the phrase ‘San Fairy Ann,’ which is yelled at people – usually the kids – when they’re misbehaving. Um, we think it might come from the French, ça ne fait rien, which we think means – is a phrase of dismissal. My grandmother who’s ninety-eight uses it and we’ve all picked it up from her.’

As the speakers themselves observe here, ‘San Fairy Ann’ is the result of a common process whereby a saying or word is converted by mis-hearers into something different that seems to make (at least some) sense. There’s ‘all intensive purposes,’ for example, ‘electrical votes,’ and of course ‘damp squid.’ Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman call these ‘eggcorn’ moments, after the mis-interpretation of ‘acorn’ – and explain that they are not stupid mistakes, but rather ‘imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known.’

In the case of ‘San Fairy Ann’, the process has taken place in translation; the phrase is recorded as becoming popular in England after British soldiers came into contact with French during the First World War. ‘Ça ne fait rien’ – meaning ‘never mind’ or ‘it doesn’t matter’ – became ‘San Fairy Ann,’ also commonly ‘san ferry Ann’ or ‘Sally Fairy Ann.’ A dictionary of ‘Soldier and Sailor Words’ from 1925 even has an entry for ‘sand for Mary-Ann.’ This type of ‘soldier slang’ is also behind French-influenced phrases like ‘mercy buckets’ (merci beaucoup) and ‘bottle of plonk’ (vin blanc).

Author Jeanette Winterson has also written about the concept, celebrating it as ‘a tribute to the exuberance and flexibility of language.’ Below she describes the evolution of ‘San Fairy Ann’ in her own family:

My father was in Ipres, (pronounced Wipers), during the War, and like many of his generation, came back with bits of French. Ce ne fait rien turned into San Fairy Ann, meaning Stuff You, and then a new character emerged in Lancashire-speak, known as Fairy Ann; a got-up creature, no better than she should be, who couldn’t give a damn. ‘San Fairy Ann to you’, morphed into, ‘Who does she think she is? Fairy Ann?’

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

14 August 2017

Recording of the week: the seabirds of Bempton Cliffs

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

If you find yourself in East Yorkshire during the summer holidays, be sure to pay a visit to the stunning seabird colonies at Bempton Cliffs. Every year nearly half a million seabirds congregate on the hard chalk cliff faces in order to breed. Numbers are at their highest between April and August, when Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Puffins and gulls jostle for the best positions along the precipitous ledges. This recording, made by Richard Margoschis in 1990, captures all the excitement of this busy community.

You can listen to more wildlife and environmental recordings in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds.

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

10 August 2017

A wigwam for a goose’s bridle

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

One of the joys of cataloguing the Evolving English WordBank is discovering all the weird and wonderful phrases donated to the British Library by speakers from around the world. Researching their origins and meanings inevitably leads the cataloguer down a referencing rabbit-hole – it’s all part of the fun!

This week’s recording is of a folk phrase given to us by an Australian speaker from New South Wales, about 30 years old

Wigwams for goose's bridles

There’s a phrase that our mother always used in our family…it’s wigwams for gooses bridles. She would use it whenever we asked her what something was and she didn’t want to tell us, like if she’d just bought Christmas presents or birthday presents and we were bringing them home. So we’d say, Mum what’s in the bag and her answer would always be ‘wigwams for gooses bridles’. Which was a nonsense saying, I have no idea where it came from. It could be completely peculiar to our family for all I know!

As the speaker describes, this enigmatic phrase is a handy way of responding to nagging questions from children. A little bit of digging, however, reveals that the phrase is not a new invention, but in fact it has quite a long history of its own, and a number of different iterations. It is commonly reported as a popular saying in Australia, but is also known in Lincolnshire and other parts of the UK, particularly among older speakers.

Originally the phrase seems to have referred not to ‘wigwams’ but to a ‘wim-wam’ or ‘whim-wham’ – an old word for ‘trinket’ or ‘trifle’ first occurring in 17th Century texts. Whether wims or wigs, it’s all the same; reduplication with vowel variation is a common strategy in nonsense-speak – just think of jibber-jabber, fuddy-duddy, and hocus-pocus. A slang dictionary in 1860 lists ‘wim-wam’ as being ‘synonymous with fiddle-faddle, riff-raff, etc, denoting nonsense, rubbish, etc.’ Michael Quinion, researching the phrase, even came across the alternative swinkle-swankle for a goose’s nightcap! Anything goes – as long as you fox the kids into silence!

Interestingly enough, a version of the phrase cropped up in another of our collections – BBC Voices. In an interview with speakers from Osgodby, Lincolnshire, one speaker explains that a wimwam for a mustard mill is ‘really a mild way of saying don’t be nosy’.

Nosing into other people’s phrases – that’s what we do best here at Spoken English!

Do you have an interesting word or phrase to share? Tweet it to us @VoicesofEnglish