Sound and vision blog

78 posts categorized "Accents & dialects"

20 March 2017

Recording of the week: can you guess what it is yet?

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

Capturing authentic dialect and slang presents a considerable challenge, but documenting nonce-words is almost impossible. We have all probably coined a nonce-word on the spur of the moment – either intentionally or accidentally – to describe an action, object or phenomenon for which no conventional term readily springs to mind. If sufficiently amusing or apposite, the term may subsequently be adopted within a family or among a group of close friends, but evidence of this linguistic creativity is hard to find and even harder to evaluate as nonce-words are by their nature restricted to private use and typically short-lived. But surely English would benefit from a word like chubble?

The meaning of Chubble


This recording was just one of the words and phrases contributed to the Evolving English WordBank by visitors to the British Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11.  People were invited to submit a word or phrase they felt was somehow ‘special’ in their variety of English. Contributions to the WordBank include local, regional and vernacular forms and idiolectal expressions used within families or friendship groups, creating a snapshot of spoken English at the start of the 21st century. 

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26 January 2017

PhD Placement Opportunity: Developing Access to the Evolving English VoiceBank

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The Evolving English VoiceBank is an audio archive of approximately 15,000 voices created by visitors to the Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11. This collection is only partly catalogued and a new placement opportunity at the British Library offers a PhD student the chance to work on this unique and so-far unexplored archive.

During the three-month placement (or part-time equivalent) the student will audit VoiceBank and WordBank audio files and prepare cataloguing metadata for about 500 to 750 files for the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. The student will receive training in audio editing software and in preparing cataloguing records, and will also be able to use the collection for original research or potentially to support their own doctoral project. The content will be particularly relevant for students of dialectology, sociolinguistics, phonetics or language variation and change.

The placement student will be a full member of the Spoken English team, which sits within the British Library’s Sound & Vision team, and participate in the department’s core activities. This may involve taking part in workshops or conferences, writing blog posts, and preparing content for online resources. The placement will support the development of transferrable skills in areas such as public engagement, team-working, and project planning and delivery. It will be an opportunity to engage in the work of a world-class research Library and to understand its content, structure and remit.

The placement would suit someone studying for a PhD in linguistics or English Language. They would be expected to have a thorough grounding in dialectology, sociolinguistics and/or phonetics. Familiarity with British accents would also be desirable. View a detailed placement profile.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placements offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact

A note to interested applicants

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current (or very recent) PhD researchers only. To apply, you need to have the approval of your PhD supervisor and your department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager).

Our PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Anyone applying for a placement at the Library is expected to consult their university or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to universities that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.

05 December 2016

Recording of the week: UCL word list

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

It’s not clear what the purpose of this word list is, but it’s one of ten created by linguists at UCL, probably in the 1950s. It might be a prompt for phonetic transcription practice or possibly a pronunciation guide to English vowel sounds. In the 1980s UCL phonetician Professor Wells established his ‘lexical sets’ – a list of key words used by linguists to capture and describe English pronunciation in a variety of accents. The first words in this list would be represented in Wells’ lexical sets as TRAP, STRUT and DRESS.

UCL Word List 10


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24 October 2016

Treasures of the Black Country

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

We were delighted recently to welcome acclaimed novelist, scriptwriter and actor, Meera Syal, to the Library to explore the accents and dialects of the Black Country for a forthcoming episode of Treasures of the British Library (Sky Arts, 21.00 Tuesdays). Born in Wolverhampton, Meera grew up in Essington, a small mining village in Staffordshire and went to school in nearby Walsall, my mom’s home town (hence she’s my mom, not my mum, mam or ma). So it was a particular pleasure to introduce Meera to the Library’s unique sound recordings that capture the distinctive voices of the area.

Meera Syal

Like me, Meera has moved away from the West Midlands, but we’ve all probably experienced the way in which language or a familiar accent immediately re-connects us with a favourite place or childhood home. The Library holds several collections that capture regional speech across the UK and across time as demonstrated by a remarkable recording of a World War One soldier born in Wolverhampton and recorded in a German Prisoner of War camp in 1916, an interview with a farm worker recorded as part of the acclaimed Survey of English Dialects in Lapley in 1955 and a conversation with Black Country poets and dialect enthusiasts recorded in Dudley in 2005.

Perhaps best known for her comedy, Meera rose to fame as co‐writer and star of Goodness Gracious Me, a series credited with popularising the British Asian word chuddies [= ‘underpants’] as confirmed by the dictionary entry below:


Dalzell & T. Victor (eds.) 2015. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

so she was, I hope, reassured to discover the Library’s sound archives document the emergence of new voices and fresh influences on British English as demonstrated by this explanation that locals have adopted a Punjabi word, thandā [= ‘cold’], albeit wonderfully anglicised to a Black Country pronunciation, and by a conversation recorded by BBC Asian Network in Birmingham in 2005. Alongside this story of evolution and change, the Library has numerous recordings that capture the endurance of established dialects as confirmed by a recording of Mr Tickle (© Roger Hargreaves) submitted by a visitor to the Library's Evolving English exhibition in 2010, in which you can clearly hear a real sense of pride in the local accent.

Evolving English VoiceBank [C1442X1477] Mr Tickle in a Dudley accent

30 September 2016

Dialects not only connect, they sometimes divide

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Towards the end of the 1980s a close northern friend once confided in me his disappointment at being consistently overlooked for international honours in cricket and rugby due to perceived selectorial bias towards players based in the south of England. The fact he hadn’t played either sport for a recognised club since leaving school seemed irrelevant: there was a principle at stake. There are constant debates in sport about the relative likelihood of selection for national squads depending on which school or club a player represents, but until this week I hadn’t considered the possibility that quizzes might be anything other than geographically impartial.

As a fan of Only Connect I was intrigued this week to see a question which required contestants to predict the final element of a sequence given the following stimulus:

Only Connect Clue
The sequence required contestants to solve a mathematical and linguistic puzzle by recognising that a descending mathematical sequence of 2 to the power of the given number produced an answer supposedly homophonous with a synonym of the corresponding word or phrase:

23 = consumed (i.e. ‘eight = ate’)

22 = in favour of (i.e. ‘four = for’)

21 = also (i.e. ‘two = too’)

20 = was victorious in a quiz (i.e. ‘one = won’)

Only Connect Solution

The first problem here is that, for many speakers, eight and ate are not homophones. For most speakers in the UK eight rhymes with ‘gate’, but for many ate rhymes with ‘get’. Both words were included in the questionnaire of the Survey of English Dialects – a nationwide study of regional speech in England carried out in the 1950s and 1960s. For the vast majority of informants the simple past tense of the verb ‘to eat’ rhymed with ‘get’ and there are very few unambiguous examples of rhymes with ‘gate’. The only examples of an apparent past form rhyming with ‘gate’ were in places like Yorkshire, Lancashire, Devon and Cornwall where, historically, the local dialect makes no distinction between present and past tense – i.e. eat is unmarked for tense but is pronounced to rhyme with ‘gate’ regardless. This reflects a middle English vowel sound that survives in a small set of similar words – meat still occasionally sounds like an RP pronunciation of ‘mate’ in these dialects. Interestingly, despite only fleeting glimpses in this survey of ate rhyming with ‘gate’, we increasingly hear this pronunciation nowadays, presumably as a result of a pronunciation falling in line with spelling – a trend confirmed by data published in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Wells, 2008:54). A similar process is happening with says so that, as with your pronunciation of ate, whether you pronounce says to rhyme with ‘fez’ or with ‘phase’ may reveal a good deal about your age.

Four and for and two and too indisputably rhyme in most varieties of British English (if we exclude for convenience the Scots preference for twa), but one and won present a similar problem. If you speak RP – the regionally neutral middle-class accent of England – you probably rhyme one with won and chances are if you’re from the south of England you will, too. If, like my sister-in-law, you come from Leeds you might also do so, but with a completely different vowel to the one used by RP speakers and southerners. For many speakers in the UK, however, one rhymes with ‘gone’ while won rhymes with ‘gun’. Data from the Survey of English Dialects suggests that one was almost universally rhymed with ‘gone’ in the north and Midlands, apart from a small pocket of West Yorkshire (cf. my sister-in-law’s pronunciation in Leeds) and the far north, where the dialect form yan competed with one.  In contrast, speakers in the south of England varied between a rhyme with ‘gone’ and a rhyme with ‘gun’ with the latter more common. According to a survey conducted for the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary roughly 70% of British English speakers favour a rhyme with ‘gone’ meaning that one and won are homophonous for a minority of speakers (Wells, 2008:563). Thankfully the captain of the team presented with this clue was a young RP speaker, but I wonder if contestants from the north (or older speakers) subconsciously struggled to make the connection between the mathematical and linguistic clues, as for them the link may not be immediately apparent for either the first or fourth item in the sequence (or both).

So my friend may have been deluded all those years ago about his chances of ever playing for England, but he might genuinely have a case to argue about his relative chances of winning TV quiz shows.  The British Library holds the entire set of recordings made for the Survey of English Dialects thus allowing researchers to explore and enjoy these fine distinctions between dialects.

Only Connect Series 12 Episode 12, Genealogists v Surrealists. 2016. BBC2. 26 September, 20.30.

09 September 2016

Sheffield dialect in pop music

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Spoken English writes:

During the recent international cricket series between England and Pakistan I was amused to hear an exchange between former England cricketers Graeme Swann and Michael Vaughan while commentating on BBC Radio 5 Live. In response to Graeme Swann’s appearance the previous week on BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics, Michael Vaughan claimed his top five musical moments would all involve Sheffield artists like Jarvis Cocker. The understandable affection in which the Pulp lead singer is held locally (and, I sense, nationally) was underlined earlier this year when he was invited to record the travel announcements on board Sheffield trams. It probably came as an even greater surprise to visitors at the British Library to hear Jarvis’s voice over the British Library’s public address system following his live radio broadcast here at St Pancras this time last year:

The building will close in ten minutes

There’s clearly something about Sheffield that inspires such pride in local speech and ten years ago the Steel City’s other great contemporary musical icons, Arctic Monkeys, released their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not, to widespread acclaim. Arctic MonkeysThe album title is inspired by a line from Allan Sillitoe’s portrayal of working-class life in Nottingham in the 1950s, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Transported some forty miles north and fifty years later, Alex Turner’s lyrics explore the same theme and echo Sillitoe’s celebration of vernacular speech. The use of dialect is well-established in literature, but is curiously absent from mainstream popular music (though often central to traditional and/or folk music). Pop lyricists make liberal use of slang, but dialect is comparatively rare, so Arctic Monkey’s 2004 single, Mardy Bum, immediately stood out. The word mardy crops up regularly in Sillitoe’s novel and was also supplied by several contributors to the British Library’s WordBank from an area extending roughly from Leicestershire via Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to South Yorkshire, including this example:

C1442X1283 MARDY

Captured in dictionaries from 1874 mardy [= ‘moody, sullen, spoilt (esp. of child)’] is characterised by the OED as ‘regional (chiefly north)’. What’s perhaps more remarkable than Turner’s use of dialect words and grammar here is that he also sings in a Sheffield accent as illustrated by the line:

remember cuddles in the kitchen yeah to get things off the ground and it was up up and away oh but it’s right hard to remember that on a day like today when you’re all argumentative and you’ve got the face on

Arctic Monkeys Mardy Bum

Turner, A. 2006. Mardy Bum. Arctic Monkeys. Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not. [CD]. UK: Domino, WIGCD 162. BL Shelfmark: 1CD0256061

His use of the intensifier right [= ‘very, really’] and his pronunciation (rhyming with ‘eight’) is typical of Sheffield dialect, but arguably extremely unusual for a commercial pop/rock singer.

The most striking and consistent use of Sheffield dialect on the album occurs in From the Ritz to the Rubble:

well last night these two bouncers and one of them’s all right the other one’s a scary one his way or no way totalitarian he’s got no time for you looking or breathing how he doesn’t want you to so step out the queue he makes examples of you and there’s nowt you can say behind they go through to the bit where you pay and you realise then that it’s finally the time to walk back past ten thousand eyes in the line and you can swap jumpers and make another move instilled in your brain you’ve got something to prove

Arctic Monkeys From the Ritz to the Rubble

Turner, A. 2006. From The Ritz To The Rubble. Arctic Monkeys. Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not. [CD]. UK: Domino, WIGCD 162. BL Shelfmark: 1CD0256061

In this opening verse, for instance, Turner rhymes totalitarian with scary one (pronounced ‘scary ’un’), reduces doesn’t to ‘dunt’ – a process, known as secondary contraction, that’s typical of negative marking in Sheffield – and sings you can swap jumpers and make (pronounced ‘meck’) another move. He also uses the northern dialect form nowt [= ‘nothing’] and, crucially, pronounces it to rhyme with ‘oat’ not ‘out’. As noted in a previous blog, research carried out in the 1950s established the northern pair owt [= ‘anything’] and nowt [= ‘nothing’] invariably rhymed with ‘oat’ in much of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lancashire (despite a nationwide tendency to assume it rhymes with ‘out’). This recording clearly confirms this historic local pronunciation persists in present-day Sheffield dialect.

The British Library has several wonderful recordings of Sheffield dialect created for linguistic research, but our popular music collections also represent a rich repository of vernacular speech. Sadly, Turner no longer sounds quite so Sheffield when he sings (he now lives in LA after all), but I assume Michael Vaughan would wholeheartedly approve of his promotion of all things Sheffield.

25 August 2016

The Great British Bread-Cake Debate

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

As a Castleford fan and dialectologist I was doubly excited this week to see a tweet by Mike McMeeken prompted a heated debate among his fellow Cas players and fans about the 'correct' word for a bread roll. As with many professional team sports these days the mixture of languages, dialects and accents must prompt similar discussions on a regular basis. The issue here revolves around bread-cake - regularly elicited in dialect surveys in West Yorkshire - and the more mainstream bread roll - as advocated by Basingstoke-born, Mike McMeeken, and Aussie, Luke Dorn. The third variant suggested - barm - also crops up in dialect surveys in the north of England, especially in Lancashire in the form barm cake.

It's perhaps not surprising that Luke Dorn objects to the word cake in reference to bread as we tend to use cake nowadays to refer to 'sweet baked goods' in contrast to bread for a 'savoury baked item'. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that bread (recorded from c.950) was historically a generic term for any baked item, while cake (first recorded in 1230) and loaf (recorded from c.950) originally referred to the shape of 'bread' - with cake usually being smaller and loaf larger.  Crucially cake only acquired the sense of sweet ingredients relatively recently. The Survey of English Dialects (SED), conducted by the University of Leeds in the 1950s, elicited numerous examples of this earlier sense of loaf meaning 'large bread' and cake meaning 'small bread' - e.g. spice loaf was (possibly still is) widely used in the north for what we know call 'Christmas cake', while conversely haver-bread and riddle-bread commonly referred to 'oat-cake'. This suggests the continued use in Castleford of bread-cake reflects a useful historic distinction and also explains why teacake often causes confusion as in some parts of the country (and in most supermarkets) it now refers to a sweet bread with e.g. currants, but in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the north it's a savoury bake. Other terms like barm cake (North West) and lardy cake (South West) also become clearer and simply refer to 'small bread' baked with barm or lard. The SED established a north-south divide in the use of barm (north) and yeast (south) to refer to the same vital ingredient used in baking bread. Lardy cakes are still popular in the South West and West Country and the English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) confirms lardy cake was known in Oxfordshire and Berkshire in the 19th century.

We can observe a present-day parallel in this gradual change of meaning of the word cake with other contemporary baking terms: in the UK muffin (first recorded by OED in 1703) has traditionally been used to refer to a small flat bread usually served toasted with butter and/or jam, but in the USA it has for some time referred to what we in the UK more commonly call a cup-cake. Ask someone in the UK now to describe a muffin and it can reveal a great deal about their age and/or geographic location. A similar test could be applied to biscuit (OED definition: 'kind of crisp dry bread more or less hard, prepared generally in thin flat cakes' first recorded in 1330), which now competes in the UK, particularly among younger speakers, with cookie (OED definition: 'in U.S. usually a small flat sweet cake [a biscuit in U.K.], but locally a name for small cakes of various form with or without sweetening' first recorded in 1754).

The British Library has some wonderful examples of dialect speakers describing traditional ways of baking bread, including Miss Dibnah, recorded in 1955 in Welwick in the East Riding and recent surveys confirm several regional variants for 'small bread', many of which are captured in the Library's dialect recordings including:

batch in Coventry

C1442 uncatalogued [Coventry] BATCH

cob in the East Midlands

C1442X2810 [Midlands] COB

rowie (i.e. Scots diminutive for 'roll') in Aberdeen

C1442X448 [Aberdeen] ROWIE

stotty in the North East

C1442X83 [Teesside] STOTTY

and my own personal favourite, also not known much beyond Castleford: scuffler - a triangular bread-cake that even merits its own twitter hashtag and is discussed by a family from Castleford:

C1190X19X01 [Castleford] SCUFFLER

Congratulations to Mike McMeeken, Ben Crooks, Luke Dorn et al for their perfect timing - surely it's no coincidence this debate erupted just in time for the return of The Great British Bake Off?

05 May 2016

Jamie Vardy: I bet he ain't mardy ... dilly dong dilly dong

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

In the immediate aftermath of Leicester City's incredible achievement in securing their first Premier League title, I thought of this BBC Voices Recording with Foxes fans in 2004. This conversation will underline to all football fans quite what Leicester City have achieved, but equally importantly it celebrates another previously underestimated East Midland cultural phenomenon: the Leicester dialect. In what has been rightly acknowledged as a concerted team effort, Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kanté have nonetheless been singled out for special praise. By way of tribute I'd like to select 3 items of Leicester dialect from this recording for the British Library's dialect team of the season:

  1. the word mardy [= 'moody, sullen, grumpy, spoilt, esp. of  child']
  2. the local pronunciation of the word Leicester (and other words ending in <-er>)
  3. the bare infinitive (e.g. do you want  _ play football)

The sheer number of contributors who wanted to ensure mardy was included in the British Library's WordBank - a user generated audio archive of vernacular English - testifies to the continued vitality of this much-loved dialect term. Recorded in the OED from 1874 and categorised as 'regional, chiefly north', several contributors claimed it is exclusively a Leicester word, but it actually occurs over a wide area of the North and Midlands. As a Sheffield lad I suspect it will be extremely familiar to Jamie Vardy and, as you now hear youngsters all over the world singing along to Arctic Monkeys’ 2004 single ‘Mardy Bum’, this nineteenth-century dialect word now probably enjoys international currency. Nonetheless its heartland is the East Midlands as confirmed by this WordBank contributor, who describes wonderfully how much the word epitomises her Leicester identity:

C1442X2502 MARDY

An instantly recognisable feature of the Leicester accent is the tendency to use a much stronger vowel - almost like the <o> sound in the word lot - on words that end in <-a> such as comma or <-er> such as letter. This is a highly distinctive pronunciation that provides a clear contrast with broad local speech in the West Midlands where such words are typically realised with a final <a> sound – thus better ('betta') in Birmingham but better ('betto') in Leicester. Indeed locals are often caricatured as referring to their home town as e.g. Loughborough ('lufbro') or Leicester ('lesto') as demonstrated convincingly by a contributor to the British Library's VoiceBank - a collection of recordings created by visitors to the Library’s ‘Evolving English’ exhibition in 2010/11. Prompted to provide detailed information about where his accent came from one contributor simply supplied the response Leicester:

C1442Xuncatalogued Leicester

Finally, in Standard English modal verbs combine with a bare infinitive to create an infinitive phrase – e.g. I can read and we might come. This also applies to a small set of verbs (e.g. feel, hear, help, let, make, see and watch) when combined with a direct object – she watched him fall or we heard them shout, but other verbs and adjectives require a to-infinitive – e.g. she decided to drive or we are happy to help. In East Midlands English bare infinitives extend to all environments and are especially common with use [= ‘be accustomed’] and want, as in I used _ think we'd lose. By extension many speakers also favour zero habitual to - i.e. the preposition to is deleted with common destinations such as I'm gonna go _ King Power. There are numerous examples in this BBC Voices Recording with Leicester fans, including:

they kept us inside for fifteen minutes after the game and all we want _ do was go to the coaches which were right over the road

there’s a lot more women who go _ football now I mean I think women know more about football than men anyway

As a Sky Blues fan this is something I never thought I'd hear myself saying, but hats off to Leicester City and, more especially, to Leicester English: dilly dong dilly dong, as they may well say in Leicester for many years to come.