Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

24 June 2014

Lost in pronunciation

MA student Maryna Myntsykovska writes:

The British Library presents a wealth of opportunities, sometimes most unexpected ones. Fuelled by my desire to participate in an on-going linguistic project, I recently completed a three-month placement at the British Library as part of my Linguistics MA course at Queen Mary, University of London. I worked with the BBC Voices Recordings, aiming to create a detailed linguistic description according to the framework developed by the British Library’s Voices of the UK project. My task included capturing instances of lexical, grammatical as well as phonological variation in one of the recordings.

My first task was to choose a recording, in which I would look for vernacular words, pronunciation features and grammatical constructions.  Having considered recordings from Glasgow, Cardiff and Oxford, I opted for the latter, since understanding the flow of words naturally produced by British people is not a piece of cake for a non-native speaker like me. Before coming to London last September I had previously only been exposed to the socially prestigious British accent, Received Pronunciation (RP). Speakers from Scotland or Wales presented a considerable challenge, but even some varieties of southern English speech remained undecipherable for a while. One speaker, for instance, referred to [‘broid’] and [‘stroidz’] –frustratingly, corresponding entries were elusive in the Oxford English Dictionary. Only with the help of another native speaker did I learn that this was a London pronunciation feature, and the speaker was actually saying brideand strides(his preferred variant of ‘trousers’). Gradually, listening to the recording over and over again, I got used to the speakers’ accents to the extent that I stopped noticing vernacular features and could extract the meaning effortlessly.

Bizarrely, right by the time my skill at interpreting non-RP elements reached its peak, I got to the phase of the description in which I had to listen precisely for vernacular pronunciation features. All those little deviations in vowels and consonants that I was so determined to overlook in my effort to understand the meaning suddenly became the focus of my work!

The actual discussion I had chosen was built around 40 words, presented to the participants beforehand. The interviewees had to come up with words and expressions synonymic to those presented in the list (for example, clobber for ‘clothes’ or sprog for ’baby’). My objective was to note down all the instances of a single lexical item and to check for spelling precedent in printed sources, which set me exploring endless pages of slang dictionaries and enriched my vocabulary with new acquisitions, such as chucking it down (‘to rain heavily’), tesco-bombers (‘cheap trainers bought in Tesco supermarket’) and up the duff (‘pregnant’), to quote just a few.

During my time at the Library I also attended a workshop about regional variation in accents and dialects aimed at A-level students, given by the Sociolinguistics curator of the British Library. Inspired by what I had witnessed, I delivered a similar presentation at school in my home town in Ukraine, promoting the use of the BL resources about regional varieties of English, such as Sounds Familiar?. Using Sound Map, we first listened to a fragment of the children’s story ‘Mr Tickle’ (© 1971 Roger Hargreaves), recorded by speakers from Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. The pupils attempted to guess the accent of the speaker, but admitted it was a challenging task. In fact, due to their lack of exposure to regional varieties of English in the UK, the class did not identify any of the speakers, but was definitely eager to learn more about accents and dialects. In my presentation I encouraged them to make the most of the resources created by the British Library, both for learning as well as leisure purposes.

Overall, creating a linguistic description like this helped me to appreciate the differences between accents and understand the components constituting those differences. In this respect my time at the British Library was a truly invaluable experience.


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