Sound and vision blog

28 November 2012

there's summat about nowt as gets us goat (and that rhymes by the way)

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

I thoroughly enjoyed last night's episode of Last Tango in Halifax, which received deservedly positive reviews after its first showing last week. This BBC romantic comedy stars Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as Alan and Celia, recently widowed but presented with an unexpected opportunity to rekindle a relationship thwarted sixty years previously when teenage classmates in Halifax.

The first two episodes both ended with sufficiently convincing cliff-hangers for me to want to follow Alan and Celia's journey to its conclusion, but unfortunately I've had to wince professionally on more than one occasion about the disappointing pronunciation of those northern dialect icons, owt [= 'anything'] and nowt [= 'nothing']. There's a cleverly scripted and edited moment in the first episode (approx. 2 mins. 50 secs.) where Celia is talking to her daughter about making contact with an old school friend on the internet, while Alan is having the same conversation with his daughter. As respective daughters look at their mother/father quizzically first Celia, then Alan, insists "it's all nowt". Later on in the same episode (approx. 11 mins. 55 secs.) Gillian, Alan's daughter, shouts exasperatedly at Robbie, her brother-in-law, "you're lucky I let you have owt to do with him".

Perfectly legitimate examples, you might think, of some authentic northern flavour. Yes, but rather frustratingly all three speakers pronounce owt and nowt to rhyme with 'out' so we're in the 'wrong' north, I'm afraid. There are parts of the north of England - East Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, pockets of Lancashire - where owt and nowt rhyme with 'out'. I also sense - probably due to the widespread appeal of a recent advertising slogan (the bread with nowt taken out) - that speakers in many parts of the UK (and, sadly, middle-class northerners) have 're-adopted' the terms almost always with a pronunciation that rhymes with 'out'. In the old West Riding, however, (and in much of the East Midlands) the pronunciation is traditionally one that rhymes with 'oat'.

So how might actors (none of the three quoted above are locals) or dialect coaches know? Well, the British Library has a wonderful collection of materials that document our regional speech in minute detail. Researchers at the University of Leeds conducted the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s using a questionnaire of over 1300 items, one of which was the local word for 'nothing'. A quick glance at the published SED Basic Materials (Vol 1, Part 3, VII.8.14) shows responses from survey sites dotted around Halifax - Cawood, Golcar, Holmbridge and Skelmanthorpe - were consistently nowt and universally rhymed with 'oat'. Sound recordings from the same survey include spontaneous examples of owt and/or nowt in Cawood, Golcar and Skelmanthorpe and modern recordings capture examples in Osset and extending over the border into Lancashire in nearby places like Burnley and Colne. All of them rhyme with 'oat'.

Thankfully Robbie saves the day by using the 'right' pronunciation (approx. 43 mins. 38 secs.) when he says to Raff, Gillian's son, "this is about Gillian not wanting you to have owt to do wi me". Crucially perhaps, Robbie is played by the brilliant Dean Andrews who, as a Rotherham (i.e. West Riding) lad, wouldn't need to ask. I just wish he'd telt the others!



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