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112 posts categorized "Accents & dialects"

07 November 2018

When the cows come home - a mooving translation

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British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

Have you ever had trouble explaining the definition of a word, and even more so, conveying an idiom in literal language? An idiom is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as:

a form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety; spec. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.

It is clear from this submission to the Library’s WordBank, and many like it, that thinking about how to deconstruct idioms can take us further and further out to sea. One London-based contributor, born in 1972, who defined her accent as belonging to Wigan in the North West of England, and who had also lived in the Midlands, explains Bun Tuesday. Appropriately enough, while listening to her recording, we avoid ever arriving:  

Cow

and I’ve also used the phrase Bun Tuesday as in never gonna happen as in when the cows come home that’s never gonna happen that’s Bun Tuesday so I imagine it’s got something to do with Easter time but I don’t know again the phrases are from the north-west

C1442X7237 WHEN THE COWS COME HOME 

 

 

I encountered my favourite equivalent of when the cows come home when visiting my friends Dana and Mike in Albuquerque. For this bilingual (Spanish-English) Coloradan-Nebraskan household based in New Mexico, an event that is never gonna happen is foretold with the kind counsel don’t hang your hat on it. This metaphor draws on the same idea that connects arrival, millinery and belonging in the phrase (and famous song lyric) wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home. The advice to not hang my hat on it conveyed the same message as don’t count your chickens, because the promised event we were discussing would happen when the cows come home.

Of course, for those of us who grew up on the Isle of Wight, there are certainly times in the year both when the cows come home and when they can be found further afield. Cows may not hibernate, but they do ‘winter’. This is why every year, at the start of autumn, the cattle population of Culver Down increases. The western side of the Down hosts a visiting herd, which comes from a nearby farm to enjoy its gentler southern—albeit extremely blustery—climes. (Some of us even remember the seasons years ago during which the Island’s resident highland herd could be found on the clifftop.) When the cows come on holiday is a good time for islander bovine enthusiasts. Domestic cattle are skilled at recognising individual animal and human faces over long stretches of time, so they have a sense of those who feed and, like me, visit them both home and away.

Cows are also highly intelligent animals. Tours of the American poet Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire, recount how he trained his dairy herd to be milked at midnight rather than at dawn and dusk, so as to accommodate the writing schedule that he maintained alongside his other labours. Whatever time of day it is, and however familiar their human might be, cows rarely rush for anyone. Therein lies the origin of the phrase when the cows come home: the splendidly unhurried pace of a cow.  

If we agree, then, that like many idioms, when the cows come home enjoys the “poetic licence” of exaggeration, we can start to understand some of the issues involved in defining the phrase and its equivalents. Furthermore, that which is temporally ambiguous and indeed never going to transpire is in essence a challenge to pin down. There is poetry in this too, because poetic language from north to south makes similar demands: poet-translators have for centuries agreed that the full content of a poetic line is rarely, if ever, encapsulated entirely when grafted across to another language via definition, syntax and form only. The task of defining or explaining an idiom involves a similarly challenging ‘translation’ of sorts, from poetic language to literal terminology.

Although recordings preserved in the WordBank capture what linguists call the elicited speech (invited verbal information) of our contributors, rather than spontaneous speech (overheard conversations, as in the Listening Project and much of the Library’s Oral History collections), and the latter typically provides an unfettered example of accent and verbal patterns, the former is interesting in terms of what we might term spontaneous definition: our contributors became unscripted dialect translators. While thinking from the top of their heads, many naturally resist undoing the original dialectical structure to the very end.

The following definition-by-chain-of-similes stays true to its poetic form and takes us into more and more interestingly specialist territory:

Hemlock

 

right dry as whumlicks which means dry as oatcakes or dry as hemlock or dry as a member of the umbelliferæ it derives from the Scottish I believe 

C1442X1684 DRY AS WHUMLICKS

 

 

The contributor is a man, born in 1933 in Newcastle upon Tyne, who grew up in Ashington, Northumberland, and lived in Consett, County Durham at the time he made the recording. As he chews the cud [= ‘ponders’] over how to define his phrase, he moves from non-standard dialect to botanical Latin. Either side of oatcakes and poison are two less familiar words: the English Dialect Dictionary records whumlick as another name for hemlock, a highly poisonous plant of the parsley family. Umbelliferae, from the Latin umbella [= ‘parasol’] plus -fer [= ‘bearing’], are plants that bear umbels [= ‘flower clusters’], in which stalks of a similar length spring from a common centre – such as cow parsley. In some ways, his recording could itself be described as umbelliferous!

Finite definitions that emerge when the cows (or the cow parsley) come home are some of my favourite contributions to the WordBank collection. It is through listening to these that we can revel in the irreducible inventiveness of spoken communication. What about ewe? Are there idioms of the never-never that you find moove further and further away as you follow? Either way, we hope that you have enjoyed this deliberately labyrinthine set of recordings!

 

30 October 2018

The words we live by

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British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

The Library’s Evolving English WordBank holds many imperatives, sage warnings and pick-me-ups. These reveal a strong relationship between idiomatic language and our behaviour, even our emotional responses, which is passed down through generations via spoken codes of conduct. While reflecting on this, I created a prose poem that envisages life with an altogether different set of instructions and reassurances. If you like riddles or puzzles, you may quickly spot the provenance of each rebellious little unit! I wish you all a stubbornly contrary day.

Idiom Undone

Shoot the messenger. Count your chickens. But me buts. It’s over ’til the fat lady sings. Look a gift horse in the mouth. Bet on it.

Look at me like that. Forget. Mention it. Stress. Dilly-dally on the way. This is the length of a piece of string.

People in glass houses throw stones. Look. Home, Jane and spare the horses. TOUCH. Be late. Delay. Despair.

Ever do that again. Show me up. Shit where you eat. Stay up late. Leave your vegetables. Leave the table. Come back. You worry. You dare.

At all. In my house. In my name. If I can help it. That I heard. That I know. That you’d know. NOW. For you. Again. In a month of Sundays.

Say never. Give up. I know whether I’m coming or going. I knew that. I could tell. Well I. Before seen. Used. Worn. Ending story. Land.

BALL GAMES. Way. Brainer. More. Worry, be happy. Offence. Taken. Tread on the grass. Enough. More. EXIT. 

Amy’s most recent chapbook of sound poems is PASS PORT (Shearsman, 2018).

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20 August 2018

Recording of the week: working 9 while 5

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This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

The Oxford English Dictionary categorises the use of while [= ‘until’] as northern dialect and, as this contributor to the Evolving English WordBank explains enthusiastically, such subtle distinctions in the way dialects assign prepositions can cause both confusion and amusement.

WHILE (C1442, uncatalogued)

We say nine while five and when I go to other places no one ever really knows what this means and what it means is nine until five o'clock. I remember I worked in a multinational company once and I left on my, well, it was a voicemail that said this, "office hours are nine while five", and I got so many complaints because nobody knew what the hell was going, what was meant to be said. "Nine while five, what does this mean?" I've no idea where it comes from, but when I say it where I come from in Yorkshire people understand it, but when I go out of the area people never really seem to understand it and I think it's quite funny."

I was a student in Leeds in the 1980s and frequently grateful that corner shops stayed open eight while late and delighted when, in 1985, the Leeds band The Sisters of Mercy released Nine While Nine, a song that includes the line nine while nine I’m waiting for the train.

9 WHILE 5

My favourite encounter with the Yorkshire meaning of while, however, was the road sign (presumably still there) on the Otley Road in Headingley which advised drivers of the correct procedure at a filter lane for turning right: the sign read 'Do not turn whilst light is red' – presumably while would send completely the wrong message locally.

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06 August 2018

Recording of the week: Lancashire pride

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This week's selection comes from Rowan Campbell, former PhD placement student who worked on the VoiceBank collection.

Cataloguers shouldn't have favourites... but it's hard when one person sums up so beautifully what a collection is about! That's how I feel about this woman from Oldham, who contributed the following words at the Evolving English exhibition in 2011:

Lancashire dialect (C1442/6017)

As well as preserving some of her father's dialect words for future generations, she draws a link between modern English and that used 600 years ago in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight - words such as 'layke' are still used in Northern dialects today.

SirGawainandthecottonmsneroax2f129v
Image from Four Anonymous Poems in Middle English: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (BL Shelfmark Cotton Nero MS A X) 

I also love how proud she is of her accent and identity, and that she refused to change this despite being told that she had to in order to be a teacher in the South of England:

Lancashire accent (C1442/6017)

Unfortunately, this type of accentism is still alive and well in the 21st century, but this collection shows how important and valid all accents and dialects are.

This recording comes from the Evolving English Wordbank, an extensive collection of recordings that capture English dialect and slang from around the world. The collection was created between November 2010 and April 2011 by visitors to the British Library exhibition, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices and includes local, regional and vernacular forms and idiolectal expressions used within families or friendship groups.

Follow @VoicesofEnglish and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

16 July 2018

Recording of the week: have you eaten yet?

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This week's selection comes from Rowan Campbell, former PhD placement student who worked on the VoiceBank collection.

The greetings used in different languages can reveal a lot about what is important to their respective cultures. And as someone who is always thinking about the next meal, this Singaporean phrase is close to my heart (or stomach):

汝食饱未 (lí chia̍h pá buē)? You eaten already? (C1442/6296) 

When I lived in Hong Kong, my friends would use a similar phrase in Cantonese, and variations of it it crop up in other East Asian countries too. I like how it operates on two levels: first and foremost, it allows you to immediately plan to go have dinner if you haven't already eaten! But behind that is an expression of consideration for the other person's wellbeing - because what better way to show someone you care than to share a meal with them.

Dumplings-2392893_1280

This recording comes from the Evolving English Wordbank, an extensive collection of recordings that capture English dialect and slang from around the world. The collection was created between November 2010 and April 2011 by visitors to the British Library exhibition, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices and includes local, regional and vernacular forms and idiolectal expressions used within families or friendship groups.

Follow @VoicesofEnglish and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

05 June 2018

London dialect in pop music

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Spoken English writes:

The mixed reception among my children and their peers to Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, is, I suspect, the equivalent of my Kid A moment. I’m probably not qualified to contribute to the debate on the album’s artistic merit, but the continued evolution in Alex Turner’s singing style struck me as linguistically significant in that he now reveals much less of his Sheffield identity.

As noted in a previous blog post it is pretty rare in mainstream pop music to detect a regional accent, but Turner was at one time a notable exception. However, in a British context, perhaps not surprisingly, London has arguably featured more prominently than elsewhere in British popular music culture from music hall (Gus Elen singing oh it really is a wery pretty garden in ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between’ [1931]), through musical theatre (Stanley Holloway singing wiv a little bit of bloomin' luck in ‘My Fair Lady’ [1964]) to contemporary pop, rock and hip hop.

Like most British acts the vast majority of London artists tend to adopt a more conventional ‘transatlantic’ pop voice when singing (listen to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ [1981] or Adele’s ‘All I Ask’ [2015] and you’ll hear dance and ask sung with a short vowel, which contrasts with the long vowel they and other Londoners use when speaking spontaneously). Unlike most British dialects, though, there is a substantial back catalogue of pop music performed in an instantly recognisable London accent and a quick glance at one example per decade since the 1960s offers glimpses of typical elements of London pronunciation and insight into change over time.

1960s: ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ by the Small Faces [1968]: contains echoes of music hall Cockney; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, TH-fronting (with pronounced as ‘wiv’) and the vowel quality in nice (‘noyce’) in the opening line oh wouldn’t it be nice to get on with my neighbours

1970s: ‘Cool for Cats’ by Squeeze [1979] is crammed full of London cultural references; notable features include H-dropping and TH-fronting (Heathrow pronounced as ‘Eafrow’) and frequent T-glottaling (the substitution of a glottal stop for the <t> in ninety, got, get and at) in the line the Sweeney's doing ninety cause they've got the word to go they get a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow

1980s: ‘Rabbit’ by Chas & Dave [1981] combines music-hall humour and pub sing-along conventions in a style affectionately dubbed ‘rockney’; notable features include H-dropping (heart pronounced as ‘art’), yod-dropping (knew pronounced as ‘noo’) and an older dialectal pronunciation of off (rhyming with ‘morph’) in the line now you was just the kind of girl to break my heart in two I knew right off when I first clapped my eyes on you

1990s: ‘Parklife’ by Blur [1994] is a portrayal of contemporary London life in which Damon Albarn adopts a more markedly London accent in his singing style, unfairly dismissed by some commentators as ‘mockney’; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, a glottalised <p> sound in cup of tea, H-dropping and the distinctive vowel sound in house (‘aahse’) in the line, delivered by actor Phil Daniels, I put my trousers on have a cup of tea and I think about leaving the house

2000s: ‘Defeat You’ by N-Dubz [2006] is one of many 21st century songs that captures Multicultural London English (MLE), a distinctive blend of established London forms and features from British Asian, British Caribbean and non-native speaker varieties; ‘traditional’ Cockney features include T-glottaling and L-vocalisation (the substitution of an ‘oo’-like vowel for the <l> sound so that royalty sounds something like ‘roy-oo’y’) in the line you ain’t gonna see no royalty cheques; Caribbean English features are apparent in pronoun exchange (I for ‘me’) and word final consonant cluster reduction (vex for ‘vexed’) in the line you don’t wanna see I vex; while the invariant tag innit in the opening line listen to I innit is thought to have originated in British Asian speech communities.

2010s: The latest singer to excite my dialectologist’s ears is Croydon-born Whitgift and Brit School old boy, Loyle Carner. The single ‘No CD’ from his Mercury Award nominated debut album, Yesterday’s Gone [2017], is lyrically a fascinating mix of well-established Cockney, imported vernacular and extremely current slang that neatly reflects London’s vibrant cultural mix, delivered in an extremely authentic, contemporary accent that is relatively classless, socially and ethnically ambiguous and yet – geographically – unmistakeably London as is immediately apparent in the opening lines:

DD00006998 Loyle Carner NO CD

Loyle Carner Yesterday's Goneay ay oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

it's like oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we saying oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we got some old Jay Zs couple ODBs place ‘em up in perfect order

cause my OCD won't let me keep it I never speak it and keep it a secret

it be peak if any geezer would hear it and then repeat it

so we keep it keeping out of reach from all the eejits

if you need it best believe it you won't seek it

locked up in my room deep cocoon like you're digging in crates

already done with your digging so your digging is bait

Carner, L & R. Kleff. 2017. No CD. Loyle Carner ft. Rebel Kleff. Yesterday’s Gone. [LP]. UK: Universal, AMF 0007. BL Shelfmark: DD00006998

Loyle Carner Field DayNotable lexical items: geezer [= ‘chap/fellow’] is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1885, but is, I suspect, nowadays most closely associated with speakers from London, while eejit [= ‘fool/idiot’], listed from 1853, is categorised as ‘Anglo-Irish dialect’; this celebration of established vernacular forms blends seamlessly with current urban slang forms like P [= ‘penny/pound’ i.e. ‘money’], peak [= ‘unpleasant’] and bait [= ‘obvious’], none of which has yet made it into the OED, but all three are recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang as 21st century British coinages and included in Wikipedia’s London slang glossary.

Notable grammatical constructions: alongside lexical markers, Carner uses non-standard grammatical forms such as ain’t [= ‘have PRESENT NEGATIVE’] which he combines with no to form a double negative (we ain’t got no P’s). Although the use of ain’t as an invariant negative for both ‘be’ and ‘have’, and indeed multiple negation, exist in numerous varieties of English around the world, they are both clearly productive markers of present-day London dialect as confirmed by the analogous construction (you ain’t never seen no royalty cheques) in ‘Defeat You’ noted above. Carner also adopts a narrative device, quotative be like (it's like oh please we ain't got no P's), that is extremely common among young English speakers worldwide as a means of introducing reported speech and a phenomenon that has received considerable attention among academic linguists.

Notable pronunciation features: in common with many of the singers included here, Carner exhibits L-vocalisation (old pronounced like ‘oh-ood’ and couple pronounced like ‘cupp-oo’) and consistently uses T-glottaling in word final position (ain’t, spent, got, keep it, speak it, secret, hear it, repeat it, need it, believe it, seek it, bait).

While none of these features individually is unique to London English, the combination is typical of many young Londoners and shows how the British Library’s sound archives – spoken voice and music alike – are a wonderful linguistic resource. Our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project and investment in new technology in collaboration with the music industry to enable us to receive music in digital formats means even more London music will be available to linguists and other researchers now and in the future. Let’s hope, like Loyle Carner fans last weekend, they end up having a field day.

07 May 2018

Recording of the week: Doric dialect

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This week's selection comes from Andrew Booth, PhD placement student working on the VoiceBank collection.

An intriguing and unique variety of English spoken in the British Isles is Doric dialect. Doric refers to a Scots dialect spoken in the northeast of Scotland and to the outside ear (mine), it can be a difficult one to master. My favourite Doric contributions to the Library's WordBank are given below. Could you decipher what this speaker means?

Sair forfochen (C1442, uncatalogued)

Sair forfochen [= 'tired and hassled']
Faur div ye come fae [= 'where do you come from']

This speaker from Aberdeen explains question words in the local dialect, which I find equally interesting:

Fit like, Faur, Foo (C1442/6804)

Fit like [= 'how are you']
Faur [= 'where']
Foo [= 'how']

For more information about accents and dialects in the northeast of Scotland, see this article on the British Library website.

Doric Dialect

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27 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library - Episode 8

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PhD placement students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell write:

Have you ever wondered how linguistic researchers find people to interview? In this final episode, Andrew and Rowan discuss the methods they use to carry out their research on the Isle of Man and Cardiff, and how these are different to those used for the Evolving English: VoiceBank collection. We also talk about the Survey of English Dialects, and how to categorise speakers when they have a mixture of accent influences.

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This week’s ‘What’s the feature?’ used a clip from:

BBC Voices Recording in Bangor. BBC, UK, rec. 2005[digital audio file]. British Library, C1190/41/13. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/BBC-Voices/021M-C1190X0041XX-1301V0

References and links:

Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Penhallurick, R. 1985. Fieldwork for the Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects: North Wales 1980-81. In W. Viereck (ed.) Focus on: England and Wales. 223-234.

Spoken English collections: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/english-accents-and-dialects

Linguistics at the Library Episode 8