THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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108 posts categorized "Accents & dialects"

16 July 2018

Recording of the week: have you eaten yet?

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This week's selection comes from Rowan Campbell, former PhD placement student who worked on the VoiceBank collection.

The greetings used in different languages can reveal a lot about what is important to their respective cultures. And as someone who is always thinking about the next meal, this Singaporean phrase is close to my heart (or stomach):

汝食饱未 (lí chia̍h pá buē)? You eaten already? (C1442/6296) 

When I lived in Hong Kong, my friends would use a similar phrase in Cantonese, and variations of it it crop up in other East Asian countries too. I like how it operates on two levels: first and foremost, it allows you to immediately plan to go have dinner if you haven't already eaten! But behind that is an expression of consideration for the other person's wellbeing - because what better way to show someone you care than to share a meal with them.

Dumplings-2392893_1280

This recording comes from the Evolving English Wordbank, an extensive collection of recordings that capture English dialect and slang from around the world. The collection was created between November 2010 and April 2011 by visitors to the British Library exhibition, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices and includes local, regional and vernacular forms and idiolectal expressions used within families or friendship groups.

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

05 June 2018

London dialect in pop music

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Spoken English writes:

The mixed reception among my children and their peers to Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, is, I suspect, the equivalent of my Kid A moment. I’m probably not qualified to contribute to the debate on the album’s artistic merit, but the continued evolution in Alex Turner’s singing style struck me as linguistically significant in that he now reveals much less of his Sheffield identity.

As noted in a previous blog post it is pretty rare in mainstream pop music to detect a regional accent, but Turner was at one time a notable exception. However, in a British context, perhaps not surprisingly, London has arguably featured more prominently than elsewhere in British popular music culture from music hall (Gus Elen singing oh it really is a wery pretty garden in ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between’ [1931]), through musical theatre (Stanley Holloway singing wiv a little bit of bloomin' luck in ‘My Fair Lady’ [1964]) to contemporary pop, rock and hip hop.

Like most British acts the vast majority of London artists tend to adopt a more conventional ‘transatlantic’ pop voice when singing (listen to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ [1981] or Adele’s ‘All I Ask’ [2015] and you’ll hear dance and ask sung with a short vowel, which contrasts with the long vowel they and other Londoners use when speaking spontaneously). Unlike most British dialects, though, there is a substantial back catalogue of pop music performed in an instantly recognisable London accent and a quick glance at one example per decade since the 1960s offers glimpses of typical elements of London pronunciation and insight into change over time.

1960s: ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ by the Small Faces [1968]: contains echoes of music hall Cockney; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, TH-fronting (with pronounced as ‘wiv’) and the vowel quality in nice (‘noyce’) in the opening line oh wouldn’t it be nice to get on with my neighbours

1970s: ‘Cool for Cats’ by Squeeze [1979] is crammed full of London cultural references; notable features include H-dropping and TH-fronting (Heathrow pronounced as ‘Eafrow’) and frequent T-glottaling (the substitution of a glottal stop for the <t> in ninety, got, get and at) in the line the Sweeney's doing ninety cause they've got the word to go they get a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow

1980s: ‘Rabbit’ by Chas & Dave [1981] combines music-hall humour and pub sing-along conventions in a style affectionately dubbed ‘rockney’; notable features include H-dropping (heart pronounced as ‘art’), yod-dropping (knew pronounced as ‘noo’) and an older dialectal pronunciation of off (rhyming with ‘morph’) in the line now you was just the kind of girl to break my heart in two I knew right off when I first clapped my eyes on you

1990s: ‘Parklife’ by Blur [1994] is a portrayal of contemporary London life in which Damon Albarn adopts a more markedly London accent in his singing style, unfairly dismissed by some commentators as ‘mockney’; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, a glottalised <p> sound in cup of tea, H-dropping and the distinctive vowel sound in house (‘aahse’) in the line, delivered by actor Phil Daniels, I put my trousers on have a cup of tea and I think about leaving the house

2000s: ‘Defeat You’ by N-Dubz [2006] is one of many 21st century songs that captures Multicultural London English (MLE), a distinctive blend of established London forms and features from British Asian, British Caribbean and non-native speaker varieties; ‘traditional’ Cockney features include T-glottaling and L-vocalisation (the substitution of an ‘oo’-like vowel for the <l> sound so that royalty sounds something like ‘roy-oo’y’) in the line you ain’t gonna see no royalty cheques; Caribbean English features are apparent in pronoun exchange (I for ‘me’) and word final consonant cluster reduction (vex for ‘vexed’) in the line you don’t wanna see I vex; while the invariant tag innit in the opening line listen to I innit is thought to have originated in British Asian speech communities.

2010s: The latest singer to excite my dialectologist’s ears is Croydon-born Whitgift and Brit School old boy, Loyle Carner. The single ‘No CD’ from his Mercury Award nominated debut album, Yesterday’s Gone [2017], is lyrically a fascinating mix of well-established Cockney, imported vernacular and extremely current slang that neatly reflects London’s vibrant cultural mix, delivered in an extremely authentic, contemporary accent that is relatively classless, socially and ethnically ambiguous and yet – geographically – unmistakeably London as is immediately apparent in the opening lines:

DD00006998 Loyle Carner NO CD

Loyle Carner Yesterday's Goneay ay oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

it's like oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we saying oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we got some old Jay Zs couple ODBs place ‘em up in perfect order

cause my OCD won't let me keep it I never speak it and keep it a secret

it be peak if any geezer would hear it and then repeat it

so we keep it keeping out of reach from all the eejits

if you need it best believe it you won't seek it

locked up in my room deep cocoon like you're digging in crates

already done with your digging so your digging is bait

Carner, L & R. Kleff. 2017. No CD. Loyle Carner ft. Rebel Kleff. Yesterday’s Gone. [LP]. UK: Universal, AMF 0007. BL Shelfmark: DD00006998

Loyle Carner Field DayNotable lexical items: geezer [= ‘chap/fellow’] is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1885, but is, I suspect, nowadays most closely associated with speakers from London, while eejit [= ‘fool/idiot’], listed from 1853, is categorised as ‘Anglo-Irish dialect’; this celebration of established vernacular forms blends seamlessly with current urban slang forms like P [= ‘penny/pound’ i.e. ‘money’], peak [= ‘unpleasant’] and bait [= ‘obvious’], none of which has yet made it into the OED, but all three are recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang as 21st century British coinages and included in Wikipedia’s London slang glossary.

Notable grammatical constructions: alongside lexical markers, Carner uses non-standard grammatical forms such as ain’t [= ‘have PRESENT NEGATIVE’] which he combines with no to form a double negative (we ain’t got no P’s). Although the use of ain’t as an invariant negative for both ‘be’ and ‘have’, and indeed multiple negation, exist in numerous varieties of English around the world, they are both clearly productive markers of present-day London dialect as confirmed by the analogous construction (you ain’t never seen no royalty cheques) in ‘Defeat You’ noted above. Carner also adopts a narrative device, quotative be like (it's like oh please we ain't got no P's), that is extremely common among young English speakers worldwide as a means of introducing reported speech and a phenomenon that has received considerable attention among academic linguists.

Notable pronunciation features: in common with many of the singers included here, Carner exhibits L-vocalisation (old pronounced like ‘oh-ood’ and couple pronounced like ‘cupp-oo’) and consistently uses T-glottaling in word final position (ain’t, spent, got, keep it, speak it, secret, hear it, repeat it, need it, believe it, seek it, bait).

While none of these features individually is unique to London English, the combination is typical of many young Londoners and shows how the British Library’s sound archives – spoken voice and music alike – are a wonderful linguistic resource. Our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project and investment in new technology in collaboration with the music industry to enable us to receive music in digital formats means even more London music will be available to linguists and other researchers now and in the future. Let’s hope, like Loyle Carner fans last weekend, they end up having a field day.

07 May 2018

Recording of the week: Doric dialect

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This week's selection comes from Andrew Booth, PhD placement student working on the VoiceBank collection.

An intriguing and unique variety of English spoken in the British Isles is Doric dialect. Doric refers to a Scots dialect spoken in the northeast of Scotland and to the outside ear (mine), it can be a difficult one to master. My favourite Doric contributions to the Library's WordBank are given below. Could you decipher what this speaker means?

Sair forfochen (C1442, uncatalogued)

Sair forfochen [= 'tired and hassled']
Faur div ye come fae [= 'where do you come from']

This speaker from Aberdeen explains question words in the local dialect, which I find equally interesting:

Fit like, Faur, Foo (C1442/6804)

Fit like [= 'how are you']
Faur [= 'where']
Foo [= 'how']

For more information about accents and dialects in the northeast of Scotland, see this article on the British Library website.

Doric Dialect

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

27 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library - Episode 8

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PhD placement students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell write:

Have you ever wondered how linguistic researchers find people to interview? In this final episode, Andrew and Rowan discuss the methods they use to carry out their research on the Isle of Man and Cardiff, and how these are different to those used for the Evolving English: VoiceBank collection. We also talk about the Survey of English Dialects, and how to categorise speakers when they have a mixture of accent influences.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish

This week’s ‘What’s the feature?’ used a clip from:

BBC Voices Recording in Bangor. BBC, UK, rec. 2005[digital audio file]. British Library, C1190/41/13. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/BBC-Voices/021M-C1190X0041XX-1301V0

References and links:

Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Penhallurick, R. 1985. Fieldwork for the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects: North Wales 1980-81. In W. Viereck (ed.) Focus on: England and Wales. 223-234.

Spoken English collections: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/english-accents-and-dialects

Linguistics at the Library Episode 8

23 April 2018

The Evolving English collection – what’s in it?

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PhD placement student Rowan Campbell writes:

By 3rd April 2018 – which is, incidentally, seven years after the closing day of the exhibition – the Evolving English VoiceBank has reached 7,914 catalogued items. The last 2,100 of these have been accessioned by Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell as part of their three-month PhD placement. While there are many records still to be catalogued, as today is English Language Day it seemed like an opportune moment to sketch out an overview of what we have in the collection and who is represented in it.

Visitors to the Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11 could record themselves reading the children’s book Mr Tickle (© Hargreaves, 1971) or donating a dialect word or phrase to the WordBank – and we now have 5,471 recordings of Mr Tickle, and 2,796 WordBank contributions catalogued. 1,462 visitors did both; 842 simply gave us their personal information such as location and year of birth; and some recorded themselves multiple times – perhaps they remembered new words, or decided that they did want to read Mr Tickle after all.

Our oldest speaker was born in 1914 and the youngest in 2006 – meaning that the age of participants ranges from 5 to 97! Interestingly, the gender of our contributors is heavily skewed towards female (65%). This may be in line with the gender split of those who are interested in linguistics or who visit British Library exhibitions (for example, the VoiceBank’s @VoicesofEnglish Twitter followers are 61% female), but it is still an unexpectedly large bias.


As would be expected, most participants were from the British Isles – that is, England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland and Ireland. However, nearly 25% were from outside the British Isles, with 87 other countries represented! The twenty least represented countries had only one speaker each, and include Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America with a population about the size ofLeeds.

Top 20 countries World cities

The United States had the biggest representation, making up 44% of international contributions, but we are sadly lacking voices from five states – Idaho, Maine, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming. If you are from one of these places and want to record a contribution for us, please get in touch!

Unsurprisingly due to the locations of the recording booths, England was the most represented region of the British Isles, making up 91% of the collection. RP speakers (mainly from the British Isles but some from other countries) make up 25% of the collection overall, and are proportionately at their highest in Wales (40%) and lowest in the Republic of Ireland (1%).

Pie chart

In terms of representation within the British Isles, England is very well-covered, with speakers from every county except Rutland (the heat map shows no data around the Stockton-on-Tees area due to different regional classifications – we do have a number of speakers from here). As can be seen, Scotland and Wales have patchier representation but they also have far fewer contributors in general than England – around 250 and 100 respectively, compared to the 5,400 from England.

Heat map

There are also some surprises in the most-represented cities. The table below shows the top 16 British and Irish cities in the collection, with at least  20 contributions each – numbers in brackets refer to the city’s ranking in terms of population size*.

British and Irish cities

Immediately noticeable is the higher occurrence of Northern cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Hull and Derby, and the non-appearance of large cities such as Bristol and Cardiff, 6th and 11th most populous cities respectively. The first explanation for this is likely to be simply that there are fewer large cities in the South – in fact, only Bristol and Cardiff are in the top 20 at all. A second explanation could be that there were recording booths in some other cities outside London – Norfolk, Birmingham, Plymouth, Newcastle and Liverpool.

However, this does not explain the large difference in ranking of the Northern cities that did not have a recording booth. Instead, dialect levelling might be a concept to consider. Due to factors such as geographical proximity, greater mobility and fewer major accent differences between South West England, South East Wales and the South East and Greater London area, we might expect these areas to be more susceptible to dialect levelling towards RP. This has the potential to over-represent RP in these areas and thus obscure the location of contributors: while someone with an RP accent may have been ‘born and bred’ in Devon, their accent would be categorised as RP rather than Devon. Conversely, phonetic, geographical and social factors such as covert prestige and strong regional identity mean that fewer Northerners orientate to the South East and thus to RP – which could help to explain why Northern cities have climbed the rankings in our dataset respective to their actual population.

*It has not always been possible to be consistent regarding whether figures used are for greater metropolitan areas, urban areas, etc., as these are not always comparable, but this ranking has been arrived at based on the distinctions made in the collection categorisation system. Thus why we have Greater London and Greater Manchester, but not West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford) as this would require merging two cities.

20 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library - Episode 7

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PhD placements students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell, write:

What happens when you have a collection of recordings of endangered languages but little further information about what’s actually on them? Guest speaker Dr Alice Rudge, a cataloguer in the sound archive, talks to Andrew and Rowan about the fascinating stories she has discovered through her work as part of the HLF-funded Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, and the collaborations with curator Andrea Zarza Canova and linguists Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris that enabled these stories to be heard.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish and @BL_WorldTrad

This week’s ‘What’s the feature?’ used a clip from:

Millennium Memory Bank Recording in Stoke-on-Trent. BBC, UK, rec. 1998 [digital audio file]. British Library, C900/16541. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Millenium-memory-bank/021M-C0900X16541X-2100V1

Interesting links:

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage: https://www.bl.uk/projects/unlocking-our-sound-heritage

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focuses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust can be found here: https://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/info/125219/modern_south_arabian_languages

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive: https://elar.soas.ac.uk/

Friends of Soqotra: http://www.friendsofsoqotra.org/

World and Traditional Music collection: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/world-and-traditional-music

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio: https://www.nts.live/shows/british-library-sound-archive

Linguistics at the Library Episode 7

17 April 2018

Manx English Then and Now

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PhD placement student, Andrew Booth, writes:

The Library’s sound archives contain voices from all over the world and up and down the British Isles. The Isle of Man was included in the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s and 60s and the Sounds website features a fantastic recording of Amanda Crellin (b.1878) made in Ronague in 1958. For a more recently created collection, the Evolving English VoiceBank, participants recorded a reading of the children’s book, Mr Tickle (Hargreaves, 1971). Fortunately a contributor from the Isle of Man recorded their voice in 2011 so we are able to compare voices from the past and the present from the same location.

Laxey Wheel

The Manx Loaghtan sheep may not have changed since the 1950s but it seems the Manx English GOAT vowel has. When linguists describe different vowel sounds, they refer to a set of key words which contain the target vowel. Words in the GOAT set – home, open, boat, know – are likely to be pronounced with the same vowel as in the word goat.

Listen to Amanda Crellin’s GOAT vowel, recorded in 1958, in the following sentences:

all the way home; I was brought up in a very good home; and I don’t know; I was brought up in a very good home we weren’t allowed to do things like that; I went to a lady an old woman

C908X11C2 GOAT

The vowel sound is a single sound – the monophthong /o:/ – similar to what you might hear today in a typical Geordie accent and in some Yorkshire dialects.

Now listen to our modern day speaker’s GOAT vowel in the following sentences:

you didn’t know; so do you know what he did; opened the kitchen door; opened the biscuit tin; but nobody was there

C1442X6729 GOAT

This speaker does not use the single /o:/ vowel in these words, but favours a pronunciation with two vowel sounds to create a diphthong which is represented as /əʊ/ in a phonetic transcription. As you can hear, it begins with one vowel sound and ends in another.

The same process is apparent in the FACE vowel – i.e. the vowel sound in words like face, such as day, today, came, made etc. – whereby our 1958 speaker has a vowel with a single sound – a monophthong – and our modern speaker has a pronunciation with two vowel sounds – a diphthong.

Listen to Amanda Crellin’s pronunciation of the FACE vowel in these sentences:

no cinemas in them days; there were no pictures in my young days; I went to a lady an old woman; in the school there was a cane; here’s no cane there’s only learning

C908X11C2 FACE

compared to our modern speaker:

today looks very much like a tickling day he thought to himself; after Mr Tickle had made his bed; eventually Mr Tickle came

C1442X6729 FACE

Accent and dialect change is inevitable in all accents of the British Isles. The Manx English accent has changed in terms of the way the speakers pronounce the vowel in words like day and made, and know and home. You can hear changes in most accents of English over time and even though the Isle of Man is an island with a natural sea border, the accent may still be subject to influences from across the water. However, some features of the traditional Manx English have been retained over the years. There is a similarity in both speakers’ STRUT vowel, which you can hear in words such as fun, funny, up, upstairs and munched. Both speakers use a pronunciation shared by speakers in much of the north of England. Listen to Amanda:

C908X11C2 STRUT

and then to our modern speaker:

C1442X6729 STRUT

There are other features of Manx English which have been retained and make a unique and wonderful accent of English. To read more about accents on the Isle of Man, please visit my website in which I chronicle changes of Manx English today within my own field recordings.

06 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library – Episode 6

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PhD placement students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell write:

Are there any words your family use that no one else has heard of? Can you guess what fruckle, woga, elpit and pivoed mean? This week, Andrew and Rowan look into this phenomenon, with lots of examples from visitors who donated to the Evolving English WordBank! In the process, we explain how new words are made and how they might spread, via a (very) brief history of the English language.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish

This week’s ‘What’s the feature?’ used a clip from:

Millennium Memory Bank Recording in Chelmsford, Essex. BBC, UK, rec. 1999 [digital audio file]. British Library, C900/04060. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Millenium-memory-bank/021M-C0900X04060X-0100V1

Interesting links:

Evolving English WordBank: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Evolving-English-WordBank

Back slang: http://www.victorianweb.org/history/slang2.html

Hybrid words: https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/the-monstrous-indecency-of-hybrid-etymology/

How to make up new words: http://www.slate.com/blogs/lexicon_valley/2015/06/19/neologisms_lexicon_valley_guide_to_making_up_words.html

The English Project. 2008. Kitchen Table Lingo. Lonfdon: Virgin http://englishproject.org/activities/kitchen-table-lingo

Linguistics at the Library Episode 6