Sound and vision blog

18 March 2011

Berliner Lautarchiv recordings from 1915-18: the voices of British prisoners of war

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Education and Sociolinguistics, writes:

You might be intrigued by John Hickman’s Oxfordshire pronunciation of father [as ‘vaather’], recorded in Sennelager Prisoner of War camp in Germany in 1918, but probably less surprised to hear John Townend, from Huddersfield, recorded in Güstrow in 1917, pronounce it to rhyme with ‘gather’. We’re delighted this week to publish a set of early dialect recordings recorded in extraordinary circumstances that allow you to compare English dialects at the start, middle and end of the 20th century. In some cases the contrast is marked – compare, for instance, John Hickman with Evelyn Johnson, recorded in Oxford in 1998. Elsewhere traditional features persist – Steven Elsden, recorded in Bradford in 1999, shares John Townend’s distinctive pronunciation of father.

The Berliner Lautarchiv British & Commonwealth Recordings is a subset of an audio archive made between 1915 and 1938 by German sound pioneer, Wilhelm Doegen. The British Library acquired digital copies of the recordings in 2008. The 66 recordings available here feature British POWs recorded in captivity on German soil between 1915 and 1918 reading from the Parable of the Prodigal Son. They differ from the other collections available on the site in that they represent ‘performances’ rather than spontaneous speech and thus inevitably prompt questions about the authenticity of the voices. Nonetheless they are some of the earliest known recordings of ‘ordinary’ English speakers and it’s reassuring to note that many of the words, pronunciations and grammatical constructions elicited are confirmed by later, more naturalistic recordings.


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