In the Spoken English department we love dialects in all their varieties. Dialects are made up of accent, grammatical forms and vocabulary, and are often specific to or associated with a particular geographical location. As populations change, so do dialects, and therefore many people might think of these as a relic from the past, and even mourn their disappearance. But change is not loss, and so we’re always happy to find and share examples of dialect words in the wild – alive and well!
This conversation from The Listening Project was recorded in 2021, between two strangers in different parts of England. They were brought together to discuss their shared interest in a topic they both have different names for: gennels and alleys.
Katie, a mature student in Sheffield, spent her daily exercise time during the Covid-19 lockdowns exploring new areas in her local community. This sparked an interest in the gennels that she and her family discovered. After setting up social media accounts to document their expeditions, she received lots of positive feedback. Katie’s photos were so popular, that she has since produced a charity calendar to showcase some of her favourite gennels around Sheffield.
Over in Tewkesbury, Bill set up a similar activity - Project Alleycat - five years ago, aiming to instil local pride and promote the preservation of the alleys near to him. This has involved working with local artists and creatives, and the project has so far produced calendars, tea towels, maps and a phone app. In this first clip he explains how it all started, from concerns about big developments, to pro-active plans to help improve the environment.
Traditionally, people where I live call these passageways “twittens”, but there are a range of names for these in different dialects – snicket, jitty, cut-through, vennel, jigger, tenfoot, ope... Katie’s favoured term “gennel” also has spelling and pronunciation variants - is it ginnel or gennel? A hard or a soft G sound? There’s also some debate about the subtle differences between these words – do they run between or behind houses? Do they always connect roads, or can they have a dead-end? In this clip, Katie and Bill compare some of the definitions and pronunciations that they have heard, and the long conversations that these can inspire.
Despite these differences, one of the things that both speakers agree on is how these gennels and alleyways bring local people together - beyond just connecting neighbours geographically. They have seen a number of community-wide benefits growing out of their hobby, from public artworks to charity fundraising and a strong sense of ownership for people’s favourite locations. In this final clip they discuss what the very local focus of their projects means to them, and some of the positive outcomes.
You can explore more about the differences between dialects on the Sounds website. A good place to start is the BBC Voices project (2004-2005), where groups of people across the UK spoke about their local language, based on given prompts. These conversations were then analysed to create an inventory of linguistic features for different dialects, and you will find a wide range of variants for “passageways” included. It’s also possible to explore back further, with large linguistic survey collections from the 1950s, plus recordings from the early twentieth century. Today, from The Listening Project, I was pleased to hear that the use (and popularity of use) of “gennels” has not diminished over time.
The Listening Project is an audio archive of personal conversations, collected by local and national BBC radio stations. From 2012 to 2022, people were invited to have a conversation recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC, and archived by the British Library. The full collection includes over two thousand recordings, preserved in full. You can listen to these through the Sounds website, and learn more about the project at the BBC.
All three audio clips are excerpts of 'Conversation between strangers Katie and Bill about passageways' (C1500/2202). You can listen to the full recording on our Sounds website.
Today's post was written by Sarah Kirk-Browne, Digital Multimedia Collections Cataloguer.
Image credits: Jonnie Robinson, Curator of Spoken English.