Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

48 posts categorized "Voices of the UK"

04 September 2017

Recording of the week: Epic

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. (

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.


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

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

11 December 2015

Audio-Visual Resources and The Academic Book of the Future

In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Bex Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future. This is a research project sponsored by the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by a research team led by Dr Samantha Rayner at UCL. The project seeks to explore the future of academic books in the context of open access publishing and digital change.


Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.

The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here 

Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish. (image:

The Save Our Sounds project

Professional reel-to-reel player being maintainedMany of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.

As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research and engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future project becomes very exciting.

At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.

So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?

In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?

We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.

If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research do please complete our short survey. The closing date is Friday 1st April.

A symposium has been arranged to discuss the findings of the survey & hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will address and encourage discussing ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future. Save the date – 23rd May 2016 at The British Library, London.

Find out more about Save our Sounds at, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist 

23 October 2015

Africa Writes vox pops: What’s new about West African Literature?

Africa Writes blog

Africa Writes vox pops is a new collection of 32 video interviews made at the Africa Writes festival 4-5 June, 2015. See BL reference C1705.

Africa Writes is an annual literature and book festival organized by the Royal African Society in partnership with the British Library. 

The interviews were filmed by the British Library in collaboration with Afrikult to produce a short film now on show at the British Library's new exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song co-curated by Marion Wallace and Janet Topp Fargion.

The collection comprises the raw unedited footage of 32 five-to-ten minute interviews, including set-ups, tests for focus, cutaway shots etc. Highlights can be viewed in the exhibition. The videos capture Africa Writes’ international audience of readers discussing contemporary trends in West African literature.

Participants were asked what is new and exciting about West African literature; how West African literature has changed since Chinua Achebe’s generation of writers; how West African literature connects with people's experiences in Africa and the diaspora today; what role do women play in West African literature; and how could West African literature be described in just three words. The results of the final question are expressed in the word cloud shown below.

Wordle 3__

The interviewees agreed unanimously that West African literature has contributed to their lives by helping them to shape their identities and to make sense of their experiences of migration, diaspora and transculturation. Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie topped the list of recommended authors.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is seen as great empowerer of women and an inspiration for the young. Women are considered more prominent in West African literature than ever, not just as characters, but as writers too.

The value of this collection goes beyond the subject of West African literature, delving into what literature means, how it resonates with its readers and how it has helped Africans to reclaim their own history and to engage with the diaspora.

Several interviewees touched on how social media helps to connect writers, publishers and audiences, making African literature more visible and internationally accessible.

The digital space has also helped to circumvent restrictions on publishing in languages besides the hegemonic English and French, providing opportunities to authors who write in West African languages. Furthermore it has expanded the possibilities for online publishing in general and for multilingual and multimedia e-publications such as the Valentine's Day Anthology 2015  of short stories, published by Ankara Press, which includes audio readings by the authors and can be downloaded for free.

When asked what would they like to see more of in the future interviewees' thematic concerns were heterogeneous, including topics and genres such as queer, different gender dynamics and disability stories, thrillers, crime fiction, romance, pop culture, traditional stories, science fiction and non-fiction.

If you haven't read much West African literature and don't know where to start this vox pops collection will set you up. And if you were already into West African literature it will probably help you to expand your reading list until the next Africa Writes festival in 2016. 

A big thanks to the 33 interviewees and Afrikult members: Zaahida Nalumoso, Henry Brefo and Marcelle Akita. And please come to the exhibition which is on until 16 February 2015.

Is Derbyshire 'the best of all dialects'?

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Burton upon Trent, Belper, Two Dales, Heanor and Swadlincote. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Derby. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Two Dales, Heanor and Swadlincote also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

These linguistic descriptions, created by researchers in the Library’s Voices of the UK project, identify and celebrate the fascinating combination of local, vernacular and archaic vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar that make up our regional accents and dialects. The following passage, recorded in Swadlincote, illustrates a number of intriguing features of broad dialect:

and that’s why I cudna spell at school they said teacher used say to me sound it and write it how you sound it well (so we did) if I was if I was calling my next door a gel and I’d got write girl I cudna write ’cause hoo were a gel to me so I wrote G E L gel (gel gel) so I cudna spell never could spell and I canna now cause I were always taught the wrong teacher used tell me off for not not sounding it and when I sounded it I sounded it as I said it (yeah) and I were wrong (that’s right) so whichever road I did it I were wrong

There are a number of grammatical constructions here that are typical of speech in the area. Firstly, the speaker forms negative statements by adding the suffix <na> to the verb rather than the more common variant <n’t> that occurs in most parts of England. In an area centred on the Peak District and the Potteries some speakers say, for instance, dunna for ‘don’t/doesn’t’; inna for ‘isn’t’; anna for ‘hasn’t/haven’t’ ; and adna for hadn’t and – as here – canna and cudna for ‘can’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ respectively. Derbyshire dialect also exhibits the so-called bare infinitive – that is the word ‘to’ is omitted with verbs such as ‘want to’, ‘have to’ and – as here – got write [= ‘got to write’] and used say [= ‘used to say’]. This construction occurs more widely in dialects across the East Midlands and North West England and crops up regularly, for instance, in the dialogue of the BBC sitcom Peter Kay’s Car Share. In the final episode (22 May 2015) John, played by Bolton’s Peter Kay, presents Kayleigh with a novelty lamp to mark their last car-share trip together, explaining how he’d struggled to find one but ‘I managed _ track one down in Preston’.

Perhaps the most intriguing item here, though, is this speaker’s use of the feminine pronoun hoo [= ‘she’] (like many speakers in England he drops the initial <h> sound so it sounds like he says ‘oo were a gel’). Research carried out for the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s uncovered a handful of examples of ‘hoo’ in a similar area of the North West Midlands. An extraordinary example of the survival of the Old English pronoun ‘heo’, it was considered extremely rare even then and most observers expected it to disappear within a generation. Yet here we are at the start of the 21st century and a Derbyshire dialect speaker is using a historic form perfectly naturally and spontaneously.

Maybe Mrs. Gardiner was right when reassuring Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that ‘Derbyshire is the best of all counties.’

09 September 2015

Listening Project Workshop

Holly Gilbert writes:

Join us on Monday 12 October at the British Library Conference Centre to reflect on the first three years of the Listening Project: an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC in which people are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative.

These one-to-one conversations, modelled on the US StoryCorps project, last up to an hour and take a topic of the speakers' choice, collectively forming a picture of our lives and relationships today. The conversations so far gathered cover a huge range of life experiences told from the perspective of the people who have lived them, from birth to death and everything in between. The collection currently consists of 650 conversations made by contributors from 7 to 101 years old, recorded in all four corners of the UK and includes people who have moved here from across the globe.

The conversations can be listened to in full on the Library's Sounds website while the edited BBC radio programmes are available on the BBC Listening Project website.

The event includes a panel discussion chaired by presenter Fi Glover in which BBC producers reflect on the process of making the recordings and the impact of broadcasting excerpts, Listening Project participants discuss their experience of contributing to the collection and library curators and researchers explore the potential for using the online Listening Project archive for a variety of research purposes as it continues to grow.

The Listening Project booth will be making a stop at the Library especially for the event as part of its nationwide tour.

Listening Project booth

Tickets are free and can be booked via the British Library Box Office.

Workshop Programme

Monday 12 October 2015, British Library Conference Centre

10:30               Arrival: tea & coffee

11:00 – 11:20  Welcome & Introduction

11:20 – 12:45  Using the Listening Project Archive

  • Professor Joanna Bornat (Faculty of Health & Social Care, Open University and an editor of Oral History Journal)
  • Dr Natalie Braber (Department of English, Culture & Media, Nottingham Trent University)
  • Linda Ingham (Visual Artist-Curator, Conversations with my Mother, a book-work installation as part of the Shifting Subjects exhibition)

12:45               Lunch (not provided)

14:00 - 15:00 Creating the Listening Project Archive

  • Panel discussion with BBC Listening Project producers chaired by Fi Glover

15:00 - 15:30   Tea & coffee

15:30 - 16.30   Taking part in the Listening Project

  • Panel discussion with Listening Project participants chaired by Fi Glover

16:30                           Close

28 May 2015

It'll not take you long for to learn a lile bit Cumbrian dialect grammar

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Barrow-in-Furness, Brampton, Kirkoswald, Sedbergh and Workington. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cumbria. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Barrow, Sedbergh and Workington also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

Most of us are immediately struck by an unfamiliar dialect word - like the stereotypical use of lile [= 'little'] by speakers in Workington here or hadder [= 'to rain lightly'] in Kirkoswald. We also instantly recognise differences in pronunciation and as these recordings show Cumbria has a particularly diverse range of accents - listen, for instance, to the recordings in Barrow-in-Furness and Workington. Grammatical differences between dialects, however, are often overlooked or - in many cases - dismissed as somehow 'wrong'. Consider, though, the following negative constructions:

0:41:25 they're not getting taught at home properly (Sedbergh)

0:07:20 we're not gonna talk right neither (Workington)

1:03:02 it's not really a life-changing thing (Barrow)

In the examples above the negative particle, not, remains intact while the verb in each case is reduced. This type of construction - known as 'auxiliary contraction' - tends to occur more frequently in northern dialects and in Scotland; elsewhere these statements would be more likely to surface as they aren't, we aren't and it isn't - i.e. the verb remains intact and not is contracted. In northern English you'll hear forms like you'll not [= 'you won't'], I've not [= 'I haven't'] and she'd not [= 'she hadn't'] and the process can also extend to negative questions such as did you not [= 'didn't you'] and have they not [= 'haven't they'] as in the example below:

0:06:25 can you not sort of speak a bit more proper (Workington)

Some speakers in Cumbria and much of northern England also use a distinctive form of the verb have:

0:26:00 we had a lot of connections with people in Liverpool because I've relatives there (Sedbergh)

1:00:50 I never got married and I've no children (Workington)

Many speakers elsewhere in the UK would insert got here, as in I've got relatives and I've got no children (or even more likely I haven't got any children). Not only do some northerners use have as a finite verb in such cases, they also frequently produce a contracted form (e.g. in the second example I've relatives there is more marked than I've got relatives there or I have relatives there). This tendency to reduce have also produces idiosyncratic forms in northern English when have to is used in the sense of 'must'. A speaker in Sedbergh comments: he'd to walk it in them days (Sedbergh, 1:03:47) which would more commonly be expressed as he had to walk it in the south of England.

Clearly neither the use of a contracted form of have as a full verb nor the preference for auxiliary contraction can in any way be interpreted as 'wrong' so let's start celebrating our dialect grammar as we do our regional vocabulary and accents.

On 29 June 2015 the British Library is hosting English Grammar Day in which leading language authorities will reflect on the state of, and attitudes towards, English grammar and vocabulary. Our new programme for 2015 includes talks by university linguists, Jenny Cheshire and Charlotte Brewer; journalist and author, Harry Ritchie; teachers, Dan Clayton and Amanda Redfearn and dialect curator, Jonnie Robinson and an opportunity to put your questions about English grammar to our panel of experts. A perfect opportunity for us to enjoy those wonderful North West infinitive variants - the 'for to infinitive':

0:46:24 they just let us use whichever hand come natural for to write with (Workington)

and the 'bare infinitive', as demonstrated repeatedly in the excellent sit-com, Car Share, such as in the poignant scene at the end of this week's final episode when John (played by Peter Kay) gave Kayleigh a novelty heart lamp she thought had sold out, proudly telling her 'I managed _ track one down in Preston'.

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.

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