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88 posts categorized "Accents & dialects"

06 September 2017

Peng Tings on my WhatsApp

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

If you’re a school teacher, or in fact if you know any British human aged under 18, you’ll also be aware that the best word to describe someone you fancy these days is peng. It used to be fit. Before that there was hot, cute, and gorgeous. But right now, it’s peng.

C1442 Peng: speaker b.1994

Um, a word me and my friends use a lot is peng. Um, it it it genuinely means like good-looking, and you can use it for people, like if you saw a boy or a girl that you thought was good-looking, a lot of my friends would say ah she’s peng or he’s peng. You can use it for food, you can use it for anything. Um, I I genuinely, I have no idea where it’s come from, but it’s it’s funny to see reactions of generations before mine to listen to it, cause when I said it, my grandma had absolutely no idea what it meant! {LG} And you do – yeah. That’s it really.

School-yard buzz-words pop up all the time – sometimes only fleetingly, while others stick around and enter our mainstream vocabulary (just think of how new cool seemed a few years ago – and even my Dad says minging now!). This process can’t be controlled – what does or doesn’t catch on depends on factors such as frequency of usage and power dynamics between speakers. An awareness of this is at play when Mean Girls’ character Regina George cruelly tells her schoolmate Gretchen: ‘Stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.’ But peng is definitely happening. And so, for that matter, is piff – another current favourite for ‘attractive,’ as explained by the speaker below. Tony Thorne’s 2014 Dictionary of Contemporary Slang dates this term to ‘mid-2000s.’

C1442 Piff: speaker b.1994

Um, well a slang word we use is piff, which is like, say like if you see someone who’s good-looking, or some – a girl that’s good-looking or a boy who’s good-looking it’s like ah, she’s piff! Like, or ah he’s so piff look at him sort of thing. Don’t know where it comes from cause we have quite a lot of words to describe people and how they look like peng, which also means the same thing. I don’t have a clue where it comes from, to be honest I think they’re quite stupid but they’re just really catchy and everybody uses them. So yeah that’s the slang we use. Piff! P. I. F. F.

Peng appears to have first become a part of spoken British English around 2004-5. It had a slow start in life; BBC Voices, a dialect project which surveyed over 1200 speakers in the UK, recorded only two instances of the word, both in young British Caribbean speakers in the East Midlands. It took off between 2005 and 2010, it seems, since peng was the single most popular vernacular word contributed by under-18s in the recording booths at the Evolving English exhibition in 2010-11. Cambridge Dictionaries included peng in their New Words blog in 2011. And its 2015 appearance in English grime artist Stormzy’s track ‘Know Me From’ (‘Peng tings on my WhatsApp and my iPhone too’) places it firmly at the core of the youth slang lexicon.

As suggested by the BBC Voices data, it’s likely that peng entered English by way of contact with speakers of Caribbean varieties. It may be related to Kushung peng, a word used in Jamaica for marijuana (as in Frankie Paul’s 1985 ‘Pass the Kushung Peng’). Of course, linguistic borrowing is nothing new, but is the way in which English has acquired a great many of its words – from Latin and French right through to German (rucksack), Yiddish (schmuck), and Hindi (pyjamas); very often this is related to English having been forced on others under colonial rule.

In more recent times, a new variety of English called Multicultural London English (MLE) has evolved at home, in diverse multilingual and multicultural environments, and peng is part of this picture. The exchange here is very much two-way; the same BBC Voices speakers who were early users of peng also use ‘brassic’ for broke or ‘lacking money’ – Cockney rhyming slang for skint (brassic lint).

Like it or loathe it, teens and tweens are our richest source of new coinages and language practices, and no doubt there'll be some new competition for peng in the playground this year as well as plenty of other new slang terms. Try testing your own knowledge in this BBC back-to-school slang quiz, and you can get up to speed with more young language on the Evolving English WordBank.

 

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

04 September 2017

Recording of the week: Epic

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This week's selection comes from Rosy Hall, an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections.

Epic 3. b. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Particularly impressive or remarkable; excellent, outstanding. (www.oed.com)

According to one Urban Dictionary entry, the birth of ‘epic’ as a popular catchphrase has its origins among ‘avid gamers and pretentious English majors’. This fits with the WordBank contribution of one of our speakers (b.1991), who attributes it to ‘video gamer culture’ and his gaming friends.

Um, I think that ‘epic’ is a very interesting word that I constantly hear my friends use, because, it’s interesting because it’s, I feel it comes from like some kind of like video gamer culture, cause my friends are like ((bay kid)) gamers, I mean I’m not so much, but they always use the word ‘epic,’ ‘that was epic’, or like ‘epic fail’ and {cough} I just, where, what does it mean? I guess it’s kind of like…uh like ‘amazing’, like it just sort of emphasizes something. You know what I mean? Yeah. It’s like a lot of emphasis on something it’s epic, it’s not just s- -- you know ordinary, it’s epic. I don’t know, maybe it’s rooted from the actual word epic where you know, like, I don’t know the Odyssey? Who knows? Who knows. But yeah. Bye!

Epic (C1442)

Like so many words whose meanings have evolved over time, epic is a common bugbear among prescriptivists – English language mavens who would rather the word were reserved only for Homer and Virgil. As alluded to by this speaker, epic hasn’t always been a trendy word for something like ‘really good’ or ‘extreme’; traditionally it’s a genre of lengthy heroic poetry. Scholars have pointed out, however, that even this definition is fairly fluid – the meaning of epic has changed over time to cover both oral and written forms, and extends to novels and even movies (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Language change is inevitable, after all; it seems this new epic is just the latest iteration.

Song-of-ice-and-fire-1177616_1920

And we’d better get used to it: unfortunately for the pedants, a high level of objection usually correlates to a high level of usage. Judging from the number of internet rants against it, it’s clear that epic is here to stay!

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

01 September 2017

Dialect Where You Least Expect It

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

The recent publication of fixtures for the 2017-18 hockey season may have escaped the attention of many sports fans in the frenzy of Transfer Deadline Day, but this week’s friendly between Southgate and Durham University was a personal highlight as, with a daughter on each side, household bragging rights were at stake. A significant occasion for the family, of course, but surely not a source of professional interest: after all, hockey – in the UK anyway – is a predominantly middle-class sport so not, one might imagine, a likely focus for dialect research. Well you’d be surprised: the impressive thing about dialect is it can crop up virtually anywhere.

Take last season, for instance: watching one daughter play at Ben Rhydding I was delighted to see post-match teas included the option of a bread-cake (not to mention a chip buttie).

BREAD-CAKERegional variants for BREAD ROLL feature regularly in dialect surveys as noted in a previous blog post and, given the spectacular setting of Ben Rhydding Hockey Club, little more than a drag flick from Ilkley Moor and the famous Cow and Calf rocks, it’s perhaps not surprising to find Yorkshire dialect in this context. However, watching my younger daughter play in a school tournament at Charterhouse – an exclusive boarding school – I was equally intrigued by the wording on a noticeboard next to the astroturf hockey pitch.

BEAKSThis eminently sensible set of principles for parents and supporters includes in rule 8 an appeal to respect ‘decisions made by beaks and coaching staff’. The OED records the term beak [= ‘teacher’] from 1888 and includes four citations: two contain references to Eton College and two are by authors educated at Marlborough College. Its use is categorised as ‘schoolboy slang’, so not really an example of dialect then, although according to the OED dialect encompasses a ‘[m]anner of speaking, language, speech; esp. the mode of speech peculiar to, or characteristic of, a particular person or group’. While the distinction between dialect and slang can be a little blurred, it would be interesting to establish how widespread beak is within private schools – this recording explores the existence of a similarly idiosyncratic code at Harrow School, for instance.

So while beak might not be strictly comparable with the more overtly dialectal bread-cake, it offers a fascinating glimpse of boarding school parlance and demonstrates how localised and vernacular forms permeate even ‘official’ communication within a school and to its extended community. You would imagine, for instance, that Standard English is universally adopted by schools for written communication to parents, but as the new school term approaches and parents up and down the country check whether their children have the right school uniform it’s fascinating to see how one essential item of PE kit varies from place to place. A quick online search of primary school websites in England confirms that school brochures, newsletters and websites differ in how they refer to SOFT SHOES WORN FOR PE.

PE SHOE

The four variants shown here from Francis Askew Primary School in Hull (sand-shoes), Wylde Green Primary School in Birmingham (pumps), Howard Primary School in Croydon (plimsolls) and Hullavington C of E Primary School in Wiltshire (daps) were among the many alternatives captured in the BBC Voices survey of 2004/5 and show how we all use and encounter dialect even in the most unexpected places.

31 August 2017

Mr Tickle in a Newcastle accent

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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.

24 August 2017

Made-up words and coded sweet-talk

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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

17 August 2017

San Fairy Ann

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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

10 August 2017

A wigwam for a goose’s bridle

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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

19 June 2017

Recording of the week: language and identity

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

This short exchange during a conversation between two young females talking about life and relationships offers a fascinating glimpse into how our linguistic choices reflect our identity. One of the speakers, a British Muslim, uses the phrase bringing home the bacon which instantly sparks off giggles as, culturally and linguistically, it somehow encapsulates her reflections on her joint British and Muslim identity. The phrase she chooses could not be more quintessentially English - the first citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1924 PG Wodehouse novel, Ukridge.

Bringing home the bacon

021I-C1500X0088XX-0001A0Photograph of participants

This extract is taken from the Listening Project - a collection of over 1000 conversations contributed by members of the public on a variety of topics of their own choosing. Listen to the full conversation between Afshan and Olivia here

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