Sound and vision blog

10 posts from June 2010

30 June 2010

Voices of the UK - They've gone and put it in the Oxford English Dictionary, innit.

As we listen through the recordings, we have a list of linguistic features that we index when we hear them used by one of the speakers in a particular interview. With pronunciation, we listen out for things such as: do the speakers use glottal stops (marked by the phonetic symbol [ʔ]) for /t/ ? And if so, is it only at the end of words (I like it [ɪʔ]) or is it also in the middle as well (I'm better [bɛʔə]) ? We have about 330 of these pronunciation related features, some very common like the T-glottaling just mentioned, others much rarer.

The features we listen out for under ‘grammar’ include things like how singular and plural are marked on nouns and verbs, and whether they appear to match. For example, in all parts of the UK (and other English-speaking countries) it’s common to hear that cost six pound_ or I drove six mile_ last night. In Standard English, it’s expected that because six is more than one, this is a plural construction and you would say six pounds or six miles.

Note that we’re not saying which is “correct”. If native speakers of a language use such constructions then that is valid data for us. What we’re interested in is how this usage varies, be it geographically, socially or by gender, and whether the variation is also leading to change in English.

This week I’ve been writing the linguistic commentary for an interview with three teenage males in Sheffield. One of the constructions they use very frequently is the tag innit. In the clip that’s available on the BBC Voices site (you can listen here) there are three instances (the time stamp in minutes and seconds is included):

I just get that from my friends, innit (0:23)
we always looked out for everybody on... you know soldiers, warriors, innit (0:42)
say that about each other, innit (0:48)

The first interesting thing about the way they use this tag is that it doesn’t correspond to Standard English, given that these end-of-sentence tags usually echo or agree with the form of the verb that’s gone before. So Standard English would have:

I just get that from my friends, don't I
you know soldiers, warriors, aren't they
say that about each other, don't we

The second interesting thing is that this construction (its spelling innit and the way it is currently used invariantly by young speakers) is now included in the September 2009 online update of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The lexicographers note that it is a particular feature of Anglo-Welsh dialects and include this quotation from a journal article by J. G. Wolff: “Many Welsh people … say and accept as correct, such expressions as …‘Shall we go out, is it?’, or even: ‘Like you know innit see, me mother, see, do always like tell me to do the washing up, innit see?’.” On the British Library Sounds Familiar? website (here) there is a five minute audio clip with lots of examples of this kind of i(s)n('t) it from an older speaker in Aberhosan in Powys.

The OED also notes that this modern use of innit is associated with the speech of young British Asians. This comedy sketch from the BBC series “Goodness Gracious Me” below includes some nice examples (even though they are exaggerated for effect!).

24 June 2010

Sheffield mapped by sound

Today sees the beta release of our new interactive sound mapping project, showing Sheffield soundscape recordings contributed by members of the public: The project arose from collaboration between the British Library, led by my colleague Isobel Clouter, and the Noise Futures Network, an interdisciplinary network of UK academic researchers interested in our acoustic landscape. Coupled with the opportunities that improvements in mobile phone and web technologies now offer, the survey will aggregate useful research data in a cost effective and innovative way.


Another key component in this crowdsourcing venture is the use of the free Audioboo application for smartphones.  With a large online user community, Audioboo provides a simple tool to capture and publish raw research data of sufficient quality for later analysis by acoustic ecologists and urban planners.

The beta version of UK SoundMap is focused on Sheffield, where some of the Noise Futures Network participants are based; the survey will be extended nationwide later in 2010.  Sheffield-based Audioboo users are now being encouraged to tag their ambient recordings with ‘uksm’ and add supporting comments.  Recordings will then appear on the interactive map, which anyone can listen to. 

Sound Archive staff Chris Clark and Ian Rawes will be working with me over the coming months to help make this a truly participatory project. To find out more and see the map developing as sounds are contributed, visit:

Hashtag: uksm

Richard Ranft
Head of Sound Archive

23 June 2010

Voices of the UK - Poppy-show and kiss-teeth

One of the recordings we’ve been working on this month is of a group from the British Caribbean community in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Of the four speakers, the two younger ones were in their late thirties at the time of the recording and were born and bred in Huddersfield, while the two older ones were in their mid fifties and had been born in Jamaica but moved to Yorkshire in the 1960s. They speak quite a bit about patwa (Jamaican Creole) and how many of the younger generation they know don’t really use it any more, even though it’s heard a lot in lyrics to songs, and so on.

As part of the interview, the group are asked if they have any particular word that is shorthand for ‘a young person in cheap trendy clothes and jewellery’ – this is an item that is known to vary a lot across the UK. One of the men, Keith, says that he’d use ‘poppy-show’ which combines elements of foolishness or ridicule but also ostentation and a kind of vanity. ‘Poppy-show’ is in the Oxford English Dictionary and is believed to have originated in Scots English, but shown to be widely used in the way Keith suggests in Caribbean varieties of English.

However, in explaining to the BBC reporter how it’s used, Keith reveals that it would often be accompanied by ‘kissing your teeth’, which we abbreviate to (KST) in the extract below:

first you kiss your teeth you go, “(kst) look like poppy-show” you have to kiss your teeth first though “(kst)”

This sound is made by placing the front ‘blade’ of your tongue against the hard palate behind your top teeth, and drawing air inwards from the back of your mouth (more from the mouth than actually the lungs). It’s a little bit like one of the clicks found in the south African language Xhosa (video example here), but kiss-teeth is more drawn out. It’s also like the marker of disapproval or disappointment in English that is often represented as ‘tsk’ or ‘tut tut’ in the written language.

(KST) is actually a much more complex phenomenon than a mere ‘marker of disapproval’ for speakers of patwa, though. Peter Patrick and Esther Figueroa have written a serious linguistic appraisal of kiss-teeth exploring how it serves to “negotiate and enact moral standing” and express a wide variety of physical and emotional feeling. You can access their article on Peter Patrick’s webpage here.

21 June 2010

Recording of the Week: David Gale talking at the ICA in 1988

A Cambridge contemporary and friend of Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, David Gale began his career as a performer and writer in the early days of fringe theatre, co-founding the theatre company Lumiere & Son in 1973. Recent theatrical initiatives have included his Peachy Coochy nights - where guest speakers each give a talk lasting precisely six minutes and 40 seconds, illustrated by precisely 20 images displayed for precisely 20 seconds each - and the writing and directing of six 25-minute plays (one a month) for Battersea Arts Centre. In this ICA Talk, from 14 September 1988, Adam Mars-Jones quizzes Gale on his debut novel ‘A Diet of Holes’.

ICA-talks Recording of the Week highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Institute of Contemporary Arts talks collection by Stephen Cleary, Curator of Drama & Literature recordings at the British Library Sound Archive. The ICA talks collection has 1,000 hours of recordings of events held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in the Mall, London, recorded over the period 1981-1994.

19 June 2010

Archives and beyond


Empty mobile film shelves, from

The British Comparative Literature Association's conference takes place 5-8 July at the University of Kent, Canterbury. The theme of the conference is Archive, and over the three days an extraordinary array of speakers will tackle the theme of archives from every conceivable angle.

It is interesting that if you go to any large bookshop you will find at least a shelf dedicated to museology, but not a volume dedicated to archives. Museums have got their act together, academically and politically speaking. They have a high profile and consequent understanding on a public and intellectual level, so that they are comfortably placed as central to issues of representation, commemoration, nation, and a host of other tions.

Archives, on the other hand, lurk in the background, fretting about what little attention they receive and how much perceptions of them seem to revolve around dust. They get used handsomely by the public and by scholars, but they don't seem to be part of debates in quite the same way - hence their absence on the bookshelves. This has a knock-on effect in terms of profile and funding. There is some literature on archives, as this Amazon listmania list proves (compiled by yours truly), but it remains for the most part marginal - and frequently abstruse - with Derrida's Archive Fever as (arguably) the one canonical text.

Maybe the Archive conference will start to raise the profile, because the variety of topics on offer is considerable, even if some of it ties itself into hopelessly intellectual knots. You can judge from the programme yourselves what might appeal - the purpose of this post is to highlight those papers on a moving image theme, because film archives are seldom considered when it comes to archive policy, nor have they featured much in general debates (film archivists debate heartily among themselves, of course). These are the relevant abstracts:

  • Sanja Bahun and Heidi Wilkins, ‘Woolf, Potter, Us: Sparking Knowledge (SP-ARK)’ (on filmmaker Sally Potter's personal archive)
  • Amanda Egbe, ‘Approaches to Representing the Unrepresentable in Moving Image Archives’ (on three artist-led moving image archives and their attempts to 'represent the unrepresentable')
  • Paul Jackson, ‘“To Begin with, a City ...”: Dylan Thomas and Propaganda Film’ (on the poet's work in documentary film)
  • Irene Lottini, ‘Early Italian Cinema across the Ocean: The George Kleine Collection in the ibrary of Congress’ (what it says on the can)
  • Irinia Marchesini, ‘A Carnival of Objects: Collections in Konstantin Vaginov, Jan Švankmajer and Sergei Parajanov’ (on the role played by collections and everyday objects in their films)
  • Luke McKernan, ‘Moving Images at the British Library: Building the Archive beyond the Archive’
  • Claudy Op Den Kamp, 'Digitization, Copyright Legislation and the Audiovisual Archive’(on orphan moving image works and their re-use)
So I'm there too, and here's the full abstract on the paper I'm giving on how we're establishing a moving image presence at the British Library:
The British Library recently decided to extend its representation to the moving image. The British Library Act (1972) stated that it should hold a ‘comprehensive collection of books, manuscripts, periodicals, films and other recorded matter, whether printed or otherwise’, but, despite this, film has never been actively collected. The moving image collection within the Library’s Sound Archive was built up for the sounds that it contains. The Library recognizes that research is becoming increasingly ‘media agnostic’, so that what matters is not the medium but the subject, and that all media that relates to a subject ought to be accessible to the researcher of the future. The solution is not to build a moving image archive per se, but rather to work synergistically with other collections to ensure that as comprehensive a resource as possible can be created, one that is integrated with the other kinds of resource held by the Library. As the British Library’s first moving image curator, I will describe the rationale behind building the archive beyond the archive, arguing that what is being developed for the moving image has implications for all media used in research and for how research institutions work together in the future.
Is the solution for an archive not to be an archive? What lies beyond the archive, and is that what we're building here? Well, I won't know until I've written the paper, so I'd better start doing so.

More on what looks like it is going to be a particular interesting three days at

By the way, the key book on the practical and philosophical issues for film archiving today is Paolo Cherchi Usai, David Francis, Alexander Horwath (eds.), Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums and the Digital Marketplace (Austrian Film Museum, 2008), happily now available in the UK from Wallflower Press. Every film archivist should have a copy.

16 June 2010

Voices of the UK - The British Library’s new searchable online resource for Regional English

We have been working on the BBC Voices collection for about fifteen months now, and have been studying conversations from the South East and South West of England, Wales, and from another large segment across the North of England. This means we have listened to groups of speakers from St Albans to St Helens, from Blackpool to Blackwater (Essex) and from Worthing to Workington. Each recording is fascinating and we are constantly surprised and delighted by each group's set of words for the key concepts they were asked about, and their attitudes to English and the other languages they speak.

In each recording we not only summarise what the people talk about, but how they say it too, so that we can build our online resource for Regional English. This will be a web-based search tool allowing you to pick out different recordings according to lots of different criteria. You might want to extract and listen to clips from all the recordings of men over 50 in Northern Ireland, or all the 18-25 year-olds in the South West of England to see what they have in common and what varies across the way they speak.

But you'll also be able to search the resource in a new and (we believe!) more interesting and accurate way, because you will also be able to target recordings according to whether the speakers use specific pronunciations or structures. Want to pull out all the speakers who pronounce ‘look’ exactly the same as ‘Luke’ or who pronounce the [r] at the end of words like ‘car’ and ‘hear’? You'll be able to do that.

Or how about all the speakers who regularly use the word like to frame who's saying what in a conversation? You can do that too. Here's an example of what linguists call ‘quotative like’ from an interview recorded by BBC Coventry and Warwickshire in the collection:

I was talking English to my sister saying oh he's this he's that and he was like I do know what you're saying and I was like [laughter] oh my god I didn't actually think they'd understand it.

You can listen to this extract on the BBC Voices site by clicking here. These changes in the functions of the word like and the way that our interviewees feel about it are one of the things we'll be posting about on the blog in the coming weeks.

15 June 2010

Recording of the Week: Pied Butcherbird of Spirey Creek

The exquisite song of the Pied Butcherbird of Australia is shown off to perfection in this recording. The melodic song, interspersed with a gentle trilling, never grows tiresome and creates a soothing atmosphere that instantly relaxes the listener.

Soundscapes 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was selected from the Soundscapes collection by Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife sounds at the British Library Sound Archive. The recording was made in 1983 in Warrumbungle Range, New South Wales by Australian composer Dr David Lumsdaine.

09 June 2010

Voices of the UK - Introduction

Do you call “the long soft seat in the main room of your house” the sofa, the settee, the couch or something else? And what is your word for “a thing whose name you’ve forgotten”?

In 2005, as part of the BBC Voices project, over 1,300 people participated in a large-scale survey about the words they use, and their views and attitudes to language, accents and dialects. Journalists from every BBC Local Radio station in England, plus BBC Wales, BBC Scotland and BBC Ulster, recorded hour-long interviews with different groups of speakers in their region.

These recordings have now been deposited with the British Library so that they can be accessed and used by linguists, oral historians and the general public. Voices of the UK is a three year project at the British Library, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, to exploit and enhance the collection.

The main outcomes of this project will be:

  • an online catalogue of the contents of the 312 BBC Voices sound recordings
  • a detailed linguistic description of approximately 200 recordings
  • an innovative searchable resource of linguistic features (phonology, grammar and vocabulary) found in the recordings

In these blog posts, Jonnie Robinson, Jon Herring and Holly Gilbert, the researchers on the project, will write about the cataloguing of the collection, and highlight and discuss some of the interesting material found along the way. More details about the project are available at