Sound and vision blog

4 posts from March 2015

13 March 2015

Dial a dialect for your mam this Mother’s Day: crowdsourcing English dialect, slang and vernacular lingo at the British Library

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

'Me mam '– it means ‘your mum’ or summat like that. These are the words of a twelve-year-old girl from Hull recorded at the British Library’s ‘Evolving English’ exhibition in 2010. ‘Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices’ was a major exhibition that explored the evolution of the English Language over 1,500 years through the Library’s extensive collection of manuscripts, printed books, newspapers, sound recordings, digital media and ephemera. The exhibition celebrated historic and contemporary diversity by presenting examples of English usage across time and space. Specially designed telephone booths were installed in the Library’s Paccar gallery in St Pancras and at six partner libraries across England, in which visitors were encouraged to contribute a voice recording to create a snapshot of spoken English at the start of the 21st century. They could either submit a word or phrase they felt was somehow ‘special’ in their variety of English (the ‘WordBank’) or recite a reading passage designed to capture their accent (the ‘VoiceBank’).

Evolving English VoiceBank booths

The public and media response to the exhibition confirmed enormous enthusiasm for debate about many aspects of the English Language, but above all demonstrated our fascination with, and affection for, features of English with which we connect on a personal level – the dialects, accents, slang and nonce-words that express our sense of individual and shared identities. The exhibition attracted over 147,000 visitors, approximately 15,000 of whom submitted recordings that resulted in a substantial audio archive. As with previous surveys of vernacular speech, the Evolving English WordBank is testament to this multidimensional diversity and, moreover, proof of enormous popular interest in the English language. This Sunday speakers all over the world - like our speaker from Hull, for exzmple - will be sending messages to their aged P, bibi, M, ma, mam, mamma, mammy, marge, marmie, mater, mom, mommy, mother, mum, muma, mummy, mummy-ji, muv or old dear and their preference for one form or another will reveal subtle clues about social status, gender, ethnicity, geographic background and/or age.

Contributions to the WordBank were made by speakers aged between six and ninety from a variety of social and geographic backgrounds all over the world, making it a uniquely inclusive and wide-ranging archive of spoken words and phrases. The Library has uploaded an initial set of contributions to the Sounds website and a selection of British English submissions are published this week in ‘Evolving English WordBank: a Glossary of Present-Day English Dialect and Slang’ (Bradwells Books, 2015). Selecting entries for inclusion has been both enjoyable and enlightening and I have regularly smirked, winced and raised a quizzical eye in reacquainting myself with familiar favourites, encountering amusing banter, discovering terms I was previously unaware of and marvelling at originality and inventiveness. The WordBank is a rich resource for academic linguists that offers a variety of research enquiries, from dialectology to lexicography, but is above all a treasure trove for enthusiasts of the English language.

Evolving English WordBank Glossary

Although not a comprehensive record of the entire WordBank data set, the selections online and in the book provide a snapshot of vernacular English at the start of the 21st century, chosen to give a sense of variation according to a range of geographical and social factors. The book focuses exclusively on British English so it is gratifying to report, for instance, that historic local forms such as jiffle [= ‘to fidget, wriggle about’] and puggle [= ‘to prod, poke about in e.g. hole to clear obstruction’] – both contributed by young speakers from the south of England, where the apparent demise of local dialect is most frequently asserted – prove our regional dialects remain robust. Conversely, forms like bubbe [= ‘grandmother’] and thanda [= ‘cold’] reveal the influence of successive waves of migration to the UK by speakers of heritage languages from all four corners of the world, thereby enriching our language and ensuring its continued diversity. Inspired neologisms like ding [= ‘to microwave’] and squirgle [= ‘sausage’] bear witness to our linguistic playfulness and sheer love of the sounds of words, while fashionable terms such as mint [= ‘great, excellent’] and buff ting [= ‘attractive person’] reflect our desire to identify linguistically with our peers. Above all the detailed observations provided by so many speakers clearly demonstrate the importance we attach to certain words and the affection we feel for phrases and expressions that convey a sense of self, location, friendship or family bonds. A bit like Mother’s Day, really.

The WordBank is one of a number of unique audio collections held at the British Library. Through the Library's Save Our Sounds programme, you can help us preserve the nation's sound heritage.


05 March 2015

Gardens, tunnels and the riverbanks of Oxford: sourcing sounds for Alice's Adventures Off the Map

For the third year running, the British Library has teamed up with the wonderful people at GameCity to offer students in UK Higher Education the chance to create digital games inspired by some of our collection items. The theme for this year's Off the Map competition is Alice in Wonderland, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2015. This fantastical tale of a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a world populated by speaking animals and peculiar characters lends itself nicely to the gaming genre. Such is the richness of the novel however, that student teams could have struggled to decide which scenarios to focus on and develop further. With that in mind, three overarching themes were selected - Oxford, Underground and Gardens - and curators from across the library chose items from their respective collections to help students concentrate their efforts.

Illustration from The Nursery Alice (Cup.410.g.74.) 

Maps, text and illustrations relating to the three chosen themes were put together for students to pour over. Wanting to encourage our student teams to think beyond the visual, and appreciate the importance of sound to the gaming experience, a selection of wildlife, environmental and mechanical recordings were selected from the library's vast sound archive.



Illustration from The Railway Traveller's Walk through Oxford, by John Henry Parker, published 1860 (RB.23.a.20274)

The city of Oxford is synonymous with Lewis Carroll, for it was here that Carroll lived, worked and created the imaginery world of Alice in Wonderland, conceived one summer's day in 1862 during a lazy boat trip along The Isis. From a recreated Victorian street scene to a gently flowing river, the sounds selected for this theme were chosen to evoke the soundscape of Carroll's everyday life.


Illustration from Mundus Subterraneus, by Athanasius Kircher, published 1665 (

The underground theme provided the perfect opportunity to present some of the library's mechanical recordings. The sounds of factories, coal mines and subterranean lift shafts were selected alongside cavernous recordings of dripping water. Rather than simply using one recording from a set, students are encouraged to experiment with the layering of audio to create more elaborate soundtracks for their explorable environments.


"Een der Schoonste Gesigten t'Vermaarde Perk van Sorgvliet", Nicolaes Visscher II (C.9.d.9.)

The final theme of gardens references Alice's encounter with the infamous Queen of Hearts. Gentle birdsong is complemented by a number of cleaner, more isolated songs from common garden species such as the Mistle Thrush. 

Though recordings have been selected based on the three themes, no restrictions have been put in place, so those team members responsible for constructing the sound pieces can mix and match to their heart's content.

Entries for this year's competition need to be submitted by close of play on 22 June, so there's still time if you're interested in taking part! Full details can be found on GameCity's dedicated Alice's Adventures Off the Map website.

(Best viewed in Google Chrome)

04 March 2015

Authors' Lives: an oral history

Last Thursday night, here at the British Library, Tony Harrison was announced as the 2015 winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature. The accolade is given biennially, and rewards a lifetime’s achievement in writing. It considers all branches of literature, from novels, poetry and drama to essays, history and biography. Former winners include V S Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and Hilary Mantel. 

Listeners won’t be able to hear Hilary Mantel’s recording for the British Library’s Authors' Lives oral history project for a while yet (it’s closed until 2029 at the author’s request) but extracts from it can be found on our CD, published in 2011, The Writing Life: Authors’ Speak which is now available on British Library Sounds.  Search by ‘Interviewee’, and you can hear Mantel talking about how her imagination was shaped by the Catholic faith she grew up with, how reading helps you to write, how and when she began writing her first novel, where her ideas come from, the experience of living with Thomas Cromwell whilst writing Wolf Hall and many other facets of her creative life.

Hilary Mantel describes her experience of living with Thomas Cromwell whilst writing Wolf Hall

The David Cohen Prize rewards a lifetime’s work. Our Authors’ Lives recordings look at that life and work in all its fascinating detail. As readers we know what it is to live with – or should that be through? – a book, but we often lack an awareness of the creative process that brought that book into being. It’s this perspective that the Authors’ Lives recordings focus on, illuminating the way in which a writer’s experience, emotion and intellect are put into the service of their work. We have sixty recordings in the collection at present; more are being added all the time.

The Writing Life CD cover

If you want to hear more about Authors’ Lives, come along to an evening with interviewee Howard Jacobson in conversation with The Guardian’s Alex Clark at the British Library at 6.30pm on the 19th March.  Buy tickets here.   

Howard Jacobson reflects on wanting to be a writer

If you can’t make it, we hope you’ll enjoy listening to Mantel and others on The Writing Life: Authors’ Speak and search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for more details of the Authors’ Lives interviews – a National Life Stories project. 

Sarah O'Reilly

02 March 2015

Chacking to hear some Cornish dialects?

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Warleggan, Penzance, Mawla, St Feock and Truro. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cornwall. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Mawla, St Feock and Truro, also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

St Feock Methodist Church
St Feock Methodist Church

A distinctive feature of established accents in Cornwall is rhoticity - that is speakers pronounce the <r> sound after a vowel in words like better, hard and first. This was at one time a feature of speech throughout the UK and indeed, until relatively recently was still widely heard across much of southern England. Nowadays it is most commonly associated with speech in the West Country and South West, a small area of Lancashire and most of Scotland and Northern Ireland. All five recordings here include speakers who are rhotic to varying degrees, although it is immediately apparent that the speakers in Warleggan, Penzance, Mawla and St Feock are much more consistent in their use of 'postvocalic R' than their younger counterparts in Truro, whose speech is predominantly non-rhotic except for a few isolated examples.

You can also hear several examples of the distinctive Cornish dialect pronoun system:

Mawla - [0:31:00] adder'll bite you even if he's in a good mood, won't her, if you step on he he'll bite you

St Feock - [0:16:47] if they're lying prostrate, need a operation, don't them

Penzance - give en a clout; Warleggan - give en a good hiding [= 'to hit hard']

The form of the pronoun contrasts here with Standard English conventions for subject and object position - a phenomenon known as pronoun exchange - and some speakers also use an archaic form en, a reflex of the Old English masculine object pronoun hine. Individual speakers vary in terms of the frequency with which they use these dialectal grammatical features, and they are absent from the younger contributors from Truro.

Mawla Methodist Church
Mawla Methodist Church

It would be wrong, though, to conclude that the younger speakers in Truro sound in any way less Cornish. They use a number of local vowel sounds and occasional 'broader' dialectal pronunciations, such as idn [= isn't] and, like the speakers in the other recordings, offer several local dialect words like teasy [= 'moody'], and enting down [= 'raining heavily']. One young Truro hairdresser even supplies the historic Cornish term old Tuss (a local form of address) and admits she often says she's chacking for a piss [= 'dying to go to the toilet']. No lesser authority than the English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) records the verb chack, including a citation from Cornwall in 1808: I'm chacking with hunger.

This evidence of older and present-day Cornish dialect continuity and change is one of a number of unique audio collections held at the British Library. Through the Library's Save Our Sounds programme, you can help us preserve the nation's sound heritage.