Sound and vision blog

04 August 2010

Voices of the UK - We call it a ‘to bach’

I was excited and delighted to spend some time analysing the recording from Bethesda in Northwest Wales, because it is the village I was living in before I moved to London last year (to come and work for the Voices of the UK project). Proust wrote of scents evoking hidden memories, and I believe that there can also be something about a certain pronunciation of a vowel or the almost unconscious recognition of previously unnoticed intonation that, if you haven't heard it for a while, brings back memories of other times and places.

The recording is of a group of sixth formers at the main school in my old town. Unlike most of the recordings made by Radio Wales, the students give their responses to the stimulus words in the survey ("what's your word for 'unattractive?'"; "what's your word for when it rains lightly?") in Welsh rather than in English. In fact there are a set of BBC Voices recordings made by Radio Wales's sister station, Radio Cymru, which took place "yn gymraeg" (in Welsh). The insistence of the students in providing their words in Welsh chimed with my experience of living in the town. I understand quite a lot of the language, attended Welsh classes all the time that I lived and worked there and could chat, shakily, with the staff in the local supermarket. Bethesda is, along with Caernarfon and Blaenau, a real stronghold of Welsh language speaking. One of the students says: "but um… we’re one of the like ... the little communities that actually are pure Welsh".

However one of the striking features of Bethesda (and Bangor and Caernarfon - I'm not sure about Blaenau) Welsh is the amount of code-switching going on in natural speech. The same student says: "uh they [the teachers at school] don’t think I speak um very good Welsh because I do it [codeswitch]". She is referring to the habit of inserting English words into Welsh clauses. It's a shame that we don't have any examples of this in the recording. The oral historian conducting the interview was from the South and a monolingual English speaker, so there aren't any Welsh sentences with English words switched into them.

What we do have are a few instances of the reverse situation: inserting the odd Welsh word into an English sentence. The title of this post refers to the circumflex accent used to mark vowel length in Welsh, as in gêm the word for "game". To means "roof" in Welsh, so when Jenna says, "we call it a ‘to bach’ I don’t know… it’s like a little triangle on top of the word," she means that the Welsh word links the shape of the circumflex to the shape of a little (triangular) roof.

Perhaps the most discussed aspect of mixing Welsh and English by this group is the tendency in their language community to create verbs by adding a Welsh suffix onto a borrowed English word. For example, they talk about how in Welsh there is a word lluchio which means "fling" or "throw" but which they use for "hitting someone hard". Then another speaker comments that he'd say slapio when talking about hitting someone. This shows the practice of taking an English word and adding the "verbal suffix" -io (analagous to, say, the infinitive ending -er in French). Jenna again comments: "but then I say ‘climbio’ instead of ‘dringo’ which means um climbing a mountain really". When asked why she says, "it’s just we have so many like English influences around us [...] we do know the Welsh… correct Welsh word for the words, just we use them [the English ones] because it sounds more cool". Have a listen to their discussion about other -io words on the BBC Voices site here.

There has been a lot of great research into Welsh-English code-switching over the past 10 years at Bangor University. My friend and colleague Jonathan Stammers did his PhD there (2009) on "The Integration of English-Origin Verbs in Welsh" (see LinguistList announcement at http://bit.ly/dvqf06 and links there to conference presentations and an abstract of Jon's thesis).

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