THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

81 posts categorized "Accents & dialects"

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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24 April 2017

Recording of the week: when is a word not a word?

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

The Evolving English: WordBank is extremely positive evidence of the robust nature of our native dialects, as demonstrated by this speaker's use of the verb puggle [= ‘to prod, poke about in e.g. a hole to clear obstruction’]. As a young, female, middle-class speaker she doesn't conform to the usual dialect stereotype and she also comes from the south of England, where the apparent demise of local speech forms is most frequently asserted. Nonetheless she expertly describes and defines a word recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'English regional (chiefly south-east)'. Puggle also features in the 6-volume English Dialect Dictionary, the most comprehensive record of 18th and 19th century English regional vocabulary, where it's attested in Hertfordshire and Essex.

PugglePuggle - as defined in Vol. 4 of the English Dialect Dictionary (1898)

To have a puggle

As a dialectologist I'm also particularly interested by her observation that 'I always thought it was a real word and it turns out it's not'. This, sadly, is frequently the fate of dialect vocabulary, but I hope she and other users of perfectly valid local forms are reassured to know that the validity of puggle is acknowledged by authoritative dictionaries and that it has been around in the Home Counties for at least 150 years and clearly still survives in the 21st century - no doubt alongside other supposedly 'long-lost' southern dialect words.

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12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

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Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

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

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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 Research.Development@bl.uk

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:


CHUDDIES

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.