THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

46 posts categorized "Voices of the UK"

06 October 2020

What if your home had ears?

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We have all spent much more time at home since coronavirus abruptly changed our daily lives this spring. Perhaps, like me, you’ve paid more attention to the sounds within your house - the whistle of the kettle, the clack of the keyboard, the grumble of bored children, the chirp of birds outside. I’ve also been contemplating how we occupy our domestic space: who cooks and washes up, where do children play, which creatures live in and near our home and how has this changed within our own lifetimes? For the new British Library web resource, If Homes Had Ears we have delved into the vast treasures of the Library’s Sound Archive to explore the sonic landscape of the home. Key to this resource are the voices and memories of people speaking about home life over the last 140 years. We invite you to open your ears, draw back the curtains, and listen, discuss and reflect upon what makes a home.

If Homes Had Ears is grouped into five areas found in most homes: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and the garden. There are three discursive and thought-provoking articles for each space, and the web resource features over 70 fascinating audio clips to intrigue the listener. We hope the sound clips we will be a springboard for reflection and discussion and will provoke the listener to think of their own experiences.

Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list
Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list

No web resource on the home can ever cover all types of experience, but we have worked hard to try and ensure a variety of voices and sounds from different UK regions and nations, and stories from people who have migrated to the UK. We have included examples of different social-economic situations, ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders and time periods. The oldest recording is a 1911 edition of the popular song ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’, but we also explore the memories of a Welsh seamstress recalling her childhood in the 1880s. The most recent material was recorded in spring 2020 on memories of gardening.

I love this clip of Marjorie Atkinson describing the scullery in her family’s home in the North East of England in the 1920s:

Marjorie Atkinson describes the scullery

Download Transcript – Marjorie Atkinson on the scullery in her childhood home

What would children today make of the scullery in Marjorie’s home? In contrast, what might be the reaction of listeners from older generations to sisters Yasmin and Lana speaking in 2015 about sharing a bedroom?

Yasmin and Lana on sharing a bedroom

Download Transcript – Yasmin and Lana Coe describe sharing a bedroom

In this extract Immunologist Dr Donald Palmer recalls the front room of his family’s home in London, a space of great importance to his parents who had migrated from Jamaica in the 1960s:

Donald Palmer describes the front room

Download Transcript – Donald Palmer describes the front room

For each room we have created a short montage of audio clips, brilliantly animated by students from the London College of Communication, who have responded to these audio soundscapes creatively and with sensitivity. Here is Jachym’s animation of the sounds of the kitchen:

Download Transcript – The Kitchen

There is plenty of family friendly material (my children have been singing ‘Beans, beans good for the heart’ for weeks!), but we have not shied away from difficult topics too – as the home is not always a place of happy memories. In this extract Tricia Thorpe describes an incident when she was resident in a psychiatric unit as a teenager in the 1980s:

Tricia Thorpe describes an incident in the psychiatric unit

Download Transcript – Tricia Thorpe's experience of living in High Royds Psychiatric Hospital

There are also clips discussing menstruation, abortion, aging, family structures in the LGTBQ communities and funeral rites. Where we feature this more challenging content, this is flagged in both the introduction to the clips and the audio item descriptions, so that listeners (and their teachers or caregivers) can decide whether listening is appropriate.

This resource has been over two years in the making and is part of the 5 year Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It has been a true collaboration led by Mary Stewart (Oral History), Holly Gilbert (Digital and Multimedia Collections), Harriet Roden and Charmaine Wong (both from the Learning Team) with invaluable input from Megan Steinberg (former Learning Assistant), Chandan Mahal (Learning Projects Manager) and latterly Yrja Thorsdottir (Learning Team). Enormous thanks to colleagues from all across the Sound Archive for content suggestions and the support of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Intellectual Property Team, Web and Learning Teams. The greatest thanks, as always, must go to the speakers, sound recordists, performers and musicians – as without them there would no sounds in our archive to unlock.

Blogpost by Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History.

13 January 2020

Recording of the week: Pinglish code-switching

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

Hot Chapati
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Adam Cohn

Many bilingual speakers demonstrate a fascinating tendency to code-switch – that is they alternate between different languages as circumstance dictates, generally subconsciously and often within the same utterance.

Listen to Code Switching (BL reference C1442/1578)

Listen to this young British Asian female from Leeds describe her use of gunnhnā [= ‘to knead’], āttā [= ‘flour’], seknā [= ‘to toast’] and rotī [= ‘chapati’]. What is particularly interesting is the way she instinctively applies English grammar to Punjabi words by, for instance, adding the conventional English plural suffix <-s> to form rotīs, the regular past tense suffix <-ed> to create gunned and a more typically English sounding infinitive form sek: “I’ve gunned the āttā and I’ll sek the rotīs later”.

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

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.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish

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

23 April 2018

The Evolving English collection – what’s in it?

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PhD placement student Rowan Campbell writes:

By 3rd April 2018 – which is, incidentally, seven years after the closing day of the exhibition – the Evolving English VoiceBank has reached 7,914 catalogued items. The last 2,100 of these have been accessioned by Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell as part of their three-month PhD placement. While there are many records still to be catalogued, as today is English Language Day it seemed like an opportune moment to sketch out an overview of what we have in the collection and who is represented in it.

Visitors to the Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11 could record themselves reading the children’s book Mr Tickle (© Hargreaves, 1971) or donating a dialect word or phrase to the WordBank – and we now have 5,471 recordings of Mr Tickle, and 2,796 WordBank contributions catalogued. 1,462 visitors did both; 842 simply gave us their personal information such as location and year of birth; and some recorded themselves multiple times – perhaps they remembered new words, or decided that they did want to read Mr Tickle after all.

Our oldest speaker was born in 1914 and the youngest in 2006 – meaning that the age of participants ranges from 5 to 97! Interestingly, the gender of our contributors is heavily skewed towards female (65%). This may be in line with the gender split of those who are interested in linguistics or who visit British Library exhibitions (for example, the VoiceBank’s @VoicesofEnglish Twitter followers are 61% female), but it is still an unexpectedly large bias.


As would be expected, most participants were from the British Isles – that is, England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, Northern Ireland and Ireland. However, nearly 25% were from outside the British Isles, with 87 other countries represented! The twenty least represented countries had only one speaker each, and include Guyana, an English-speaking country in South America with a population about the size ofLeeds.

Top 20 countries World cities

The United States had the biggest representation, making up 44% of international contributions, but we are sadly lacking voices from five states – Idaho, Maine, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming. If you are from one of these places and want to record a contribution for us, please get in touch!

Unsurprisingly due to the locations of the recording booths, England was the most represented region of the British Isles, making up 91% of the collection. RP speakers (mainly from the British Isles but some from other countries) make up 25% of the collection overall, and are proportionately at their highest in Wales (40%) and lowest in the Republic of Ireland (1%).

Pie chart

In terms of representation within the British Isles, England is very well-covered, with speakers from every county except Rutland (the heat map shows no data around the Stockton-on-Tees area due to different regional classifications – we do have a number of speakers from here). As can be seen, Scotland and Wales have patchier representation but they also have far fewer contributors in general than England – around 250 and 100 respectively, compared to the 5,400 from England.

Heat map

There are also some surprises in the most-represented cities. The table below shows the top 16 British and Irish cities in the collection, with at least  20 contributions each – numbers in brackets refer to the city’s ranking in terms of population size*.

British and Irish cities

Immediately noticeable is the higher occurrence of Northern cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Hull and Derby, and the non-appearance of large cities such as Bristol and Cardiff, 6th and 11th most populous cities respectively. The first explanation for this is likely to be simply that there are fewer large cities in the South – in fact, only Bristol and Cardiff are in the top 20 at all. A second explanation could be that there were recording booths in some other cities outside London – Norfolk, Birmingham, Plymouth, Newcastle and Liverpool.

However, this does not explain the large difference in ranking of the Northern cities that did not have a recording booth. Instead, dialect levelling might be a concept to consider. Due to factors such as geographical proximity, greater mobility and fewer major accent differences between South West England, South East Wales and the South East and Greater London area, we might expect these areas to be more susceptible to dialect levelling towards RP. This has the potential to over-represent RP in these areas and thus obscure the location of contributors: while someone with an RP accent may have been ‘born and bred’ in Devon, their accent would be categorised as RP rather than Devon. Conversely, phonetic, geographical and social factors such as covert prestige and strong regional identity mean that fewer Northerners orientate to the South East and thus to RP – which could help to explain why Northern cities have climbed the rankings in our dataset respective to their actual population.

*It has not always been possible to be consistent regarding whether figures used are for greater metropolitan areas, urban areas, etc., as these are not always comparable, but this ranking has been arrived at based on the distinctions made in the collection categorisation system. Thus why we have Greater London and Greater Manchester, but not West Yorkshire (Leeds-Bradford) as this would require merging two cities.

20 April 2018

Linguistics at the Library - Episode 7

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PhD placements students, Andrew Booth and Rowan Campbell, write:

What happens when you have a collection of recordings of endangered languages but little further information about what’s actually on them? Guest speaker Dr Alice Rudge, a cataloguer in the sound archive, talks to Andrew and Rowan about the fascinating stories she has discovered through her work as part of the HLF-funded Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, and the collaborations with curator Andrea Zarza Canova and linguists Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris that enabled these stories to be heard.

Tweet us: @VoicesofEnglish and @BL_WorldTrad

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

Millennium Memory Bank Recording in Stoke-on-Trent. BBC, UK, rec. 1998 [digital audio file]. British Library, C900/16541. Available: https://sounds.bl.uk/Accents-and-dialects/Millenium-memory-bank/021M-C0900X16541X-2100V1

Interesting links:

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage: https://www.bl.uk/projects/unlocking-our-sound-heritage

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focuses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust can be found here: https://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/info/125219/modern_south_arabian_languages

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive: https://elar.soas.ac.uk/

Friends of Soqotra: http://www.friendsofsoqotra.org/

World and Traditional Music collection: https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/world-and-traditional-music

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio: https://www.nts.live/shows/british-library-sound-archive

Linguistics at the Library Episode 7

17 April 2018

Manx English Then and Now

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PhD placement student, Andrew Booth, writes:

The Library’s sound archives contain voices from all over the world and up and down the British Isles. The Isle of Man was included in the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s and 60s and the Sounds website features a fantastic recording of Amanda Crellin (b.1878) made in Ronague in 1958. For a more recently created collection, the Evolving English VoiceBank, participants recorded a reading of the children’s book, Mr Tickle (Hargreaves, 1971). Fortunately a contributor from the Isle of Man recorded their voice in 2011 so we are able to compare voices from the past and the present from the same location.

Laxey Wheel

The Manx Loaghtan sheep may not have changed since the 1950s but it seems the Manx English GOAT vowel has. When linguists describe different vowel sounds, they refer to a set of key words which contain the target vowel. Words in the GOAT set – home, open, boat, know – are likely to be pronounced with the same vowel as in the word goat.

Listen to Amanda Crellin’s GOAT vowel, recorded in 1958, in the following sentences:

all the way home; I was brought up in a very good home; and I don’t know; I was brought up in a very good home we weren’t allowed to do things like that; I went to a lady an old woman

C908X11C2 GOAT

The vowel sound is a single sound – the monophthong /o:/ – similar to what you might hear today in a typical Geordie accent and in some Yorkshire dialects.

Now listen to our modern day speaker’s GOAT vowel in the following sentences:

you didn’t know; so do you know what he did; opened the kitchen door; opened the biscuit tin; but nobody was there

C1442X6729 GOAT

This speaker does not use the single /o:/ vowel in these words, but favours a pronunciation with two vowel sounds to create a diphthong which is represented as /əʊ/ in a phonetic transcription. As you can hear, it begins with one vowel sound and ends in another.

The same process is apparent in the FACE vowel – i.e. the vowel sound in words like face, such as day, today, came, made etc. – whereby our 1958 speaker has a vowel with a single sound – a monophthong – and our modern speaker has a pronunciation with two vowel sounds – a diphthong.

Listen to Amanda Crellin’s pronunciation of the FACE vowel in these sentences:

no cinemas in them days; there were no pictures in my young days; I went to a lady an old woman; in the school there was a cane; here’s no cane there’s only learning

C908X11C2 FACE

compared to our modern speaker:

today looks very much like a tickling day he thought to himself; after Mr Tickle had made his bed; eventually Mr Tickle came

C1442X6729 FACE

Accent and dialect change is inevitable in all accents of the British Isles. The Manx English accent has changed in terms of the way the speakers pronounce the vowel in words like day and made, and know and home. You can hear changes in most accents of English over time and even though the Isle of Man is an island with a natural sea border, the accent may still be subject to influences from across the water. However, some features of the traditional Manx English have been retained over the years. There is a similarity in both speakers’ STRUT vowel, which you can hear in words such as fun, funny, up, upstairs and munched. Both speakers use a pronunciation shared by speakers in much of the north of England. Listen to Amanda:

C908X11C2 STRUT

and then to our modern speaker:

C1442X6729 STRUT

There are other features of Manx English which have been retained and make a unique and wonderful accent of English. To read more about accents on the Isle of Man, please visit my website in which I chronicle changes of Manx English today within my own field recordings.

04 September 2017

Recording of the week: Epic

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This week's selection comes from Rosy Hall, an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections.

Epic 3. b. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Particularly impressive or remarkable; excellent, outstanding. (www.oed.com)

According to one Urban Dictionary entry, the birth of ‘epic’ as a popular catchphrase has its origins among ‘avid gamers and pretentious English majors’. This fits with the WordBank contribution of one of our speakers (b.1991), who attributes it to ‘video gamer culture’ and his gaming friends.

Um, I think that ‘epic’ is a very interesting word that I constantly hear my friends use, because, it’s interesting because it’s, I feel it comes from like some kind of like video gamer culture, cause my friends are like ((bay kid)) gamers, I mean I’m not so much, but they always use the word ‘epic,’ ‘that was epic’, or like ‘epic fail’ and {cough} I just, where, what does it mean? I guess it’s kind of like…uh like ‘amazing’, like it just sort of emphasizes something. You know what I mean? Yeah. It’s like a lot of emphasis on something it’s epic, it’s not just s- -- you know ordinary, it’s epic. I don’t know, maybe it’s rooted from the actual word epic where you know, like, I don’t know the Odyssey? Who knows? Who knows. But yeah. Bye!

Epic (C1442)

Like so many words whose meanings have evolved over time, epic is a common bugbear among prescriptivists – English language mavens who would rather the word were reserved only for Homer and Virgil. As alluded to by this speaker, epic hasn’t always been a trendy word for something like ‘really good’ or ‘extreme’; traditionally it’s a genre of lengthy heroic poetry. Scholars have pointed out, however, that even this definition is fairly fluid – the meaning of epic has changed over time to cover both oral and written forms, and extends to novels and even movies (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Language change is inevitable, after all; it seems this new epic is just the latest iteration.

Song-of-ice-and-fire-1177616_1920

And we’d better get used to it: unfortunately for the pedants, a high level of objection usually correlates to a high level of usage. Judging from the number of internet rants against it, it’s clear that epic is here to stay!

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

10 August 2017

A wigwam for a goose’s bridle

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Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

One of the joys of cataloguing the Evolving English WordBank is discovering all the weird and wonderful phrases donated to the British Library by speakers from around the world. Researching their origins and meanings inevitably leads the cataloguer down a referencing rabbit-hole – it’s all part of the fun!

This week’s recording is of a folk phrase given to us by an Australian speaker from New South Wales, about 30 years old

Wigwams for goose's bridles

There’s a phrase that our mother always used in our family…it’s wigwams for gooses bridles. She would use it whenever we asked her what something was and she didn’t want to tell us, like if she’d just bought Christmas presents or birthday presents and we were bringing them home. So we’d say, Mum what’s in the bag and her answer would always be ‘wigwams for gooses bridles’. Which was a nonsense saying, I have no idea where it came from. It could be completely peculiar to our family for all I know!

As the speaker describes, this enigmatic phrase is a handy way of responding to nagging questions from children. A little bit of digging, however, reveals that the phrase is not a new invention, but in fact it has quite a long history of its own, and a number of different iterations. It is commonly reported as a popular saying in Australia, but is also known in Lincolnshire and other parts of the UK, particularly among older speakers.

Originally the phrase seems to have referred not to ‘wigwams’ but to a ‘wim-wam’ or ‘whim-wham’ – an old word for ‘trinket’ or ‘trifle’ first occurring in 17th Century texts. Whether wims or wigs, it’s all the same; reduplication with vowel variation is a common strategy in nonsense-speak – just think of jibber-jabber, fuddy-duddy, and hocus-pocus. A slang dictionary in 1860 lists ‘wim-wam’ as being ‘synonymous with fiddle-faddle, riff-raff, etc, denoting nonsense, rubbish, etc.’ Michael Quinion, researching the phrase, even came across the alternative swinkle-swankle for a goose’s nightcap! Anything goes – as long as you fox the kids into silence!

Interestingly enough, a version of the phrase cropped up in another of our collections – BBC Voices. In an interview with speakers from Osgodby, Lincolnshire, one speaker explains that a wimwam for a mustard mill is ‘really a mild way of saying don’t be nosy’.

Nosing into other people’s phrases – that’s what we do best here at Spoken English!

Do you have an interesting word or phrase to share? Tweet it to us @VoicesofEnglish