21 February 2022
Recording of the week: Dialect in children's play
This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.
One of the fascinating aspects of children’s imaginative play, as celebrated on the Library’s Playtimes website, is how games and rhymes evolve and adapt to reflect time and place. Two British Library recordings of thumb war, for instance, demonstrate how dialect permeates children’s play. Folklorist Steve Roud (2010: 124) notes a reference to thumb wrestling in the USA in Time magazine in 1973 and has evidence that this duelling contest has been played by British children since the 1990s or earlier. Now sufficiently established to prompt annual men’s and women’s national and international championships, the impromptu children’s version invariably features a rhyme to accompany the duel.
Recording made at Christopher Hatton School in 2010 [BL REF C1614/136]
It’s interesting that the researcher here (an American) initially struggles to understand the exact wording so asks the participants for clarification. Like many young Londoners, these children exhibit TH-fronting – the substitution of a <f> or <v> sound for <th> in words like thing (i.e. ‘fing’) and with (i.e. ‘wiv’) – and they use a distinctively London <u> vowel in the word thumb. Hence the researcher understandably, albeit mistakenly, interprets their pronunciation of thumb war ([fɐm wɔː] i.e. ‘fam war’) as farm war. She may even be influenced by subconscious associations with the social network role-playing game, FarmVille, which was extremely popular at the time.
By contrast, this sound recording of schoolchildren playing the same game in Sheffield shows a slightly different rhyme that’s equally revealing – again featuring a localised pronunciation:
The children here count from one to eight to initiate the duel and change the final declaration to prompt a thumb fight. Crucially, this only works as a rhyming couplet in the local dialect, as eight rhymes with fight [fɛɪʔ] only if both words have the vowel sound in ‘say’ rather than ‘sigh’.
Sadly I don’t know enough about the various national competitions for adults, but it would be interesting to know if a rhyme is used, and even more intriguing to discover if the rhyme varies according to where the contest is held.
Roud, S. 2010. The Lore of the Playground. London: Cornerstone Digital.