THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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47 posts categorized "Save our Sounds"

16 December 2017

Christmas carols from Turing's computer

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Following the viral response on the internet to Jack Copeland and Jason Long's 2016 blog concerning their restoration of the world's earliest surviving computer music recording, the pair's follow up is in two parts: (1) they explain how they resurrected the authentic sound of Turing's long since dismantled Manchester computer, by reconstructing two Christmas carols that the computer played in a BBC Radio broadcast in December 1951, and (2) they examine and clarify the competing international claims to the title of World's First Computer Music.

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write:

Listeners to BBC radio heard an utterly new sound in 1951 — a computer playing music. Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth. They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory, in Manchester.

According to Ferranti’s marketing supremo, Vivian Bowden, it was "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised". Bowden may have kicked himself for predicting, at this seminal moment, that computer-generated music had no future.  

Turing (standing) at the Ferranti Mark I console (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)
Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

Seemingly nothing remained of the computer's short Christmas concert, apart from Bowden's brief description in his 1953 book Faster Than Thought. We realized, though, that we had everything needed to recreate the computer's historic performance of these carols, thanks to our recent research into other music played by the Ferranti computer.

Previously we restored a 1951 BBC recording of the Ferranti playing three pieces of music. One of the engineers present at that long-ago recording session, Frank Cooper, had squirrelled away a BBC disc, and this is believed to be the earliest surviving recording of computer-generated music. The three pieces on the disc were God Save the King, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and In the Mood.

The performances on Cooper's disc contained between them a total of 152 individual computer-generated notes. By manually chopping up the audio, we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego: endless new structures could be produced from these basic building blocks. The process of recreating the carols was not always straightforward, however. Sometimes the notes we needed were missing from the palette, since they did not appear in the three reference pieces. Missing notes had to be manufactured, first by calculating the closest frequency that the Ferranti computer could generate — it wasn't always able to hit a note exactly — and then shifting the frequency of one of the specimens in the palette to achieve a match (while trying, moreover, to keep the specimen's spectral signature the same, so as to maintain a natural sound). Another problem was duration: sometimes a note needed to be shorter or longer than the specimen in the palette, so we either pared the specimen down, or pieced together copies of it by hand.

We had to re-score each carol to fit the computer's needs, especially in terms of key and complexity; and our scores mirrored the three reference pieces in length and tempo. Then we selected notes from the palette and pieced them together to fit the scores. Some handcrafting was required to create a realistic performance. For instance, a fake-sounding "machine gun effect" was liable to set in if the score required the same note to be repeated several times, so we achieved a natural sound by piecing together different specimens of the same note, taken from different places in the restored recording. Every time we stitched a new note into the melody, we cross-faded manually: fading out one element while fading in the next gave the optimum sound quality when piecing the notes together.

Slowly, the computer's gutsy renditions of the carols reappeared. Play them and enjoy! But beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible. It's a charming feature of this early music — even if it does in places make your ears cringe.

At about this time, other primeval mammoth computers were also starting to find their voices. Bowden mentions that the Whirlwind computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology played Bach fugues at Christmas time — 'much more highbrow' than the Ferranti's carols, he said.  

The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London, 1952
The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London in 1952. © Crown Copyright and reproduced with permission of the National Physical Laboratory

In London, too, the pilot model of Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) played Bach, possibly earlier than Whirlwind, using a loudspeaker set into its control panel. The pilot model ACE first came to life in May 1950, and by about February 1952 it was also "composing" — in a sense — its own music, using some special equipment designed by engineer David Clayden. The rising arpeggios of ACE's atonal music "gradually became more complex and faster, like a developing  

David Clayden
David Clayden. Photo courtesy of The Turing Archive for the History of Computing

fugue", until they "dissolved into coloured noise as the complexity went beyond human understanding", explained Donald Davies.[1] (Davies, originally Turing's assistant, was a driving force in the ACE project after Turing went to Manchester.)

For a long time, the history of early computer music was muddled. Reference works such as The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music stated that “the first computer to play music” was the Australian CSIRAC (pronounced "sigh-rack"). However, recent research has shown that this was most definitely not so.[2] We discovered that a predecessor of the Ferranti computer also played musical notes in Turing's Manchester Computing Machine Laboratory. This was the university-built prototype on which the Ferranti Mark I was based (and it was itself an enhanced version of Manchester's primordial "Baby" computer). Turing called it the "pilot machine", not to be confused with the pilot model of his ACE in London. The Manchester pilot machine was operational in April 1949, well ahead of the Sydney CSIRAC, which was partially operational in late 1950 — several months after Manchester's note-playing pilot machine had been switched off for the last time, in fact. 

CSIRAC: A CSIRO image
CSIRAC and its creator Trevor Pearcey in Sydney in about 1952. A CSIRO image

Unlike CSIRAC, though, the Manchester pilot machine seems never to have played a conventional melody. Turing used the synthetic musical notes as aural indicators of what was going on with the machine, like the beeps and bongs of today's mobile devices — whereas CSIRAC played honest-to-goodness tunes. It turns out, though, that CSIRAC can't even claim the distinction of being the first computer to play conventional music.

Our research has shown that an American computer called BINAC was making music before CSIRAC ran so much as a test program. BINAC, built by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, was the forerunner of the famous Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC — the Ferranti Mark I and the UNIVAC were the first electronic computers to hit the market, both in 1951. 

BINAC. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum
BINAC played music in Philadelphia in the summer of 1949. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum

When BINAC was completed, in August 1949, Pres Eckert and John Mauchly threw a party for the programmers and engineers. This featured a musical offering from BINAC itself. One eyewitness — a partying engineer named Herman Lukoff — described the event: “Someone had discovered that, by programming the right number of cycles, a predictable tone could be produced. So BINAC was outfitted with a loudspeaker … and tunes were played for the first time by program control.” 

The programmer responsible for creating BINAC's music-playing program — the first in the world, so far as we know — was Betty Snyder, later Betty Holberton. Recalling her intensive work programming BINAC, Holberton said: “I was on the machine 16 hours [with] 8 hours off and I slept in the ladies' room.” 

Betty Snyder. U.S. Army photo
Betty Snyder. U. S. Army photo 

And the title of the first music played by a computer? "Everybody was going to come to the party at the end of creating the BINAC", Holberton remembered; "Well, I thought I'd do something special for them ... an interpretive routine that would play music. All I could get out of that machine was an octave, so I played For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow."[3]

Our timeline for the origins of computer music places BINAC in the limelight, in mid 1949. The Sydney CSIRAC played its first tune a year or two later, and the Bach-playing ACE in London may have preceded it. In Manchester, the Ferranti computer performed its first melody in 1951, when Christopher Strachey wrote a program that blared out God Save the King (see our blog 'Restoring the first recording of computer music'). But as to the starting point of it all, the very first experimental computer-generated musical note was probably heard in Turing's Manchester laboratory.

References

[1] Davies, D. "Very Early Computer Music", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, vol. 10 (1994), pp. 19-21: http://www.computerconservationsociety.org/resurrection/pdfs/res10.pdf

[2] See Copeland, B. J., and Long, J. "Turing and the History of Computer Music", in Floyd, J., Bokulich, A. eds Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 2017.

[3] Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton in interview with Kathy Kleiman, part of "Oral Histories of the ENIAC Programmers", ©1997, by Kathryn Kleiman and the ENIAC Programmers Project, www.eniacprogrammers.org. Quoted by permission.

The authors

Jack Copeland

Jack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent book The Turing Guide is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Turing and his work, and it contains further information about the Manchester computer and its music (Oxford University Press, 2017, pbk).


Jason LongJason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.

 

30 November 2017

Is there such a thing as an “old” sound recording?

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Age is relative of course: Compared with Roman coins or Stonehenge, even the oldest sound recordings seem young. This matters when you are arguing for the means to preserve sound recordings, which are seen by some as being too modern to warrant the status of cultural heritage. With that in mind, we’ve just passed a small but interesting milestone.

Contemporary illustration of the recording of Israel In Egypt

The oldest surviving recording of a public musical performance dates back to 29 June 1888, made at the Handel Festival in Crystal Palace, London, held to celebrate the work of the composer who wrote for both King Georges I and II. It features an excerpt from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, performed by an orchestra and choir of literally thousands, and earlier this year was rightly added to the US National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural, artistic and historical importance. Today, the original wax cylinder resides in the hugely important Edison National Historical Park collection.

The recording was made a little over 129 years after the death of Handel, and so must have seemed at the time like a performance of music from a distant, remote age. As of right now however, an even greater period of time has passed since the recording was made. In other words, the recording itself is now closer to Handel’s time than it is to ours. As more years, decades and centuries pass, it will come to seem more representative of Handel’s era than the era of the listener. Will this change our perception of its age?

Stonehenge was only 129 years old too, once. Part of its cultural value comes from its age, and its age is a by-product of having being preserved throughout its life. Sound recordings on many legacy formats are now critically endangered, due either to degradation, or to the obsolescence of replay equipment. Funding to digitise them isn’t easy to find, and is often contingent on making them available online, which is difficult or impossible when the life of copyright is longer than the shelf life of the physical artefact. The problem is not the duration of copyright; it’s our limited ability to recognise the long-term value and vulnerability of what we have.

We can’t care for old things if we don’t care for them when they are younger. Our sound heritage deserves the chance to grow truly old.

31 October 2017

Made-up about this boss new Liverpool Dickie

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

We can all probably remember the first time we met a Scouser [= ‘person from Liverpool’] face to face. Leafing through Tony Crowley’s excellent Liverpool English Dictionary immediately transported me back to 1983 and a fellow first year student in halls of residence who regularly described himself as dead made-up [= ‘really pleased/excited’] or disdainfully proclaimed that’s last [= expression used dismissively of e.g. unpleasant drink or food/embarrassing choice of clothing/dismal taste in music]. Made-up and last are both in Crowley’s wonderful new dictionary, which is the culmination of years of research into Liverpool English. There have been countless entertaining and informative treatments of Scouse [= ‘the dialect of Liverpool’] – both in print and online – but Crowley provides a long overdue authoritative inventory of Liverpool vernacular based on evidence from published works, thus enabling a reader to trace the provenance of over 2,000 fascinating expressions.

Liverpool English DictionaryIt’s intriguing, for instance, to be able to consult his entries for items in the Library’s own Evolving English WordBank – examples of contemporary dialect and slang words and phrases submitted to the British Library by members of the public in 2010/11. The following items that feature in both resources include established Liverpool favourites such as made-up [= ‘pleased’]; forms that reflect local pronunciation, like antwack(y) [= ‘antique’]); references to local specialities, customs and folklore, such as Wet Nellie [= type of bread pudding] and Hickey the Firebobby [= bogeyman evoked to frighten children/deflect them from asking awkward questions]; and recent coinages, like jarg [= ‘fake, useless, rubbish’]. Returning to 1983, it turns out my new friend was actually from Formby, so might potentially be dismissed by sticklers as a Plastic Scouser [= ‘person from the Liverpool hinterland rather than the city itself’]. Intriguingly, there’s no entry for Plastic Scouse(r) in Crowley’s dictionary, although there are several (conflicting) definitions in Urban Dictionary and elsewhere online including this BBC Voices Recording. Opinions as to the exact geographic boundary of Scouseland [= ‘Liverpool’] inevitably vary, but towards the end of our first term my mate from Formby certainly staked a genuine claim to membership of the wider Scouse community by asking me if I was intending to put up any chrizzie dezzies [= ‘Christmas decorations’] in my room. This brilliantly playful construction is an example of a highly productive process of word formation in Liverpool English – abbreviating the stem of an existing word and adding the suffix <-y> or <-ie> (e.g. plasticplazzy) and/or changing the final consonant of the stem before adding the suffix (e.g. plasticplaccy).

Crowley includes several of these highly distinctive hypocoristic forms. Many are arguably universal in colloquial speech, like bevvy [= ‘drink’ (from ‘beverage’)], bezzie [= ‘best mate’], butty [= ‘sandwich’ (from ‘bread-and-butter’), chippy [= ‘chip shop’], footy [= ‘football’], offy [= ‘off-licence’], pressie [= ‘present’], sarnie [= ‘sandwich’],  trackie [= ‘tracksuit’], tranny [= ‘transistor radio’] and wellies [= ‘Wellington boots’]; others are probably more geographically and/or socially restricted, such as bezzies [= ‘best clothes’], cozzie [= ‘swimming costume’], lazzy [= ‘elastic’], lecky [= ‘electricity supply’], lippy [= ‘lipstick’], photie [= ‘photograph’] and trainies [= ‘trainers’]. Even more noteworthy, though, is the set of entries that are, if not absolutely unique to Merseyside, then much more common there than elsewhere. Several refer to significant local landmarks, such as Dellie [= ‘Adelphi cinema’], Mizzy [= ‘Wavertree Playground’ (known locally as ‘The Mystery’)], Parly [= ‘Parliament Street’], Scotty Road [= ‘Scotland Road’], Sevvy Park [= ‘Sefton Park’], Tocky [= ‘Toxteth’] and Vauxy [= ‘Vauxhall Road’ (I’ve never heard Vauxy in reference to the Vauxhall Road in London, for instance)]; others refer to municipal institutions or authority figures that have special local significance, including binnie [= ‘binman’], bizzies [= ‘the police’ (from ‘busybody’)], corpy [= ‘Liverpool Corporation’], cuzzies [= ‘customs officer’], lanny [= ‘landing stage’], ozzy [= ‘hospital’], plainee [= ‘plain-clothes detective’]; while several relate to domestic objects and/or cultural activities including food, daily routine and leisure pursuits, such as avvy [= ‘afternoon’], conny onny [= ‘condensed milk’], cowie [= ‘cowboy film’], finny addy [= ‘finnan-haddock’], loosie [= ‘cigarette sold individually’], mobie [= ‘mobile phone’], muzzy [= ‘moustache’], emmy oggie [= ‘empty house’], rollie [= ‘roll-up cigarette’], squashies [= ‘squashed/broken chocolate sold at reduced price’] and sterry milk [= ‘sterilised milk’]. As a productive form, Crowley’s dictionary cannot possibly hope to be comprehensive, but forms like conny onny and mobie demonstrate how this process applies equally to traditional and to modern household items and my mate's use of chrizzie dezzies shows how it can be used to create highly original forms that may or may not be adopted more widely – the BBC Voices Recordings captured basies [= ‘baseball boots’] and grungies [= ‘fan of grunge rock music’], for instance.

Crowley’s dictionary is a unique celebration of the extraordinary ingenuity and creativity of Scouse vocabulary. To explore the equally distinctive Scouse accent, try this recording in the Library’s Evolving English VoiceBank.

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

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Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 11 May 2018.

This exhibition also inaugurates the Library’s Season of Sound which, includes happy hour listening sessions, a series of talks and late-night shows.

What would you find?

  Gallery_blog

100 Sounds

In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.

Hand-out_blog

 Some of my favourites…

  • Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
  • Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
  • An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
  • A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
  • Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.

Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …

‘Mystery tracks’

To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.

Mystery tracks 1blog 

Timeline

For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.

Listen timeline_blog

Artefacts

The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.

Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Edison Diamond Disc phonograph_blogEdison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)

Boy Wireless

To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.

Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.

BoyWireless_B Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski

Aleks Kolkowski_blogAleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night.

Save Our Sounds

The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

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

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)

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