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Mother Tongues

As the article on Regional Identities has already shown in this issue, accent and dialect is very important in helping to define a sense of identity. And the United Kingdom is rich in the diversity of both. This article by Clare Roberts, reproduced with the permission of 'In Britain', the magazine of the British Tourist Authority, (May 2000 edition), investigates dialects and regional accents, looking at their historical origins.

If you hear someone in central Scotland saying, "it gars ye fash", you'd better mind your step - something is eating at their nerves. But then again, when it comes to British dialects, it helps to he constantly on your toes. Ask for directions in Leeds and you might be pointed down a ginnel (a narrow passage between houses). In Cumbria, the same route would be a lonning or went - and in Halifax, it's a snicket.

These are all British expressions, yet the uninitiated can often barely identify the language, let alone comprehend what's said. With all their grammatical intricacies, dialects can be just like a foreign tongue. The leading contender for this status is Scots (also called Lallans), which is used in the Scottish lowlands (and not to be confused with Scottish Gaelic - which really is another language). Lallans has its own dictionary (The Concise Scots Dictionary), its own body of literature (mainly written by Robert Burns) and is full of baffling words like swithering (hesitating), niffle-naffle (wasting time), shuggle (shake), and the fabulous gontrum niddles (cry of joy).

As if different vocabulary and grammar weren't enough to contend with, even ordinary English words spoken in outlying (or central) regions can be unfathomable, simply because they are spoken with a different accent, or sound system. For example, many Scottish accents rhyme father and gather and fall to distinguish between cot and caught or pool and pull. Some north English accents sound cud and could alike, and a Cockney pronounces thing like fing.

You might have thought it would be easy enough to guess what someone is saying by the tone of their voice. If so, think again. The way in which meaning is conveyed by loudness, tempo and melody is a little-studied aspect of dialects, but it's true to say that you can't always rely on tone. Questions in one region can sound like statements in another. And slow, melodious accents, such as those in East Anglia or Devon, are usually thought to indicate a more relaxed and easy-going nature.

Various estimates have been made as to the number of British dialects. One specialist says there are 13, another 42- but even that is probably an underestimate. Professor Higgins in Pigmalion boasted that he could place any Londoner within two miles. Others have claimed to know which end of a dale someone is from. In the six northernmost English counties, 17 separate pronunciations for the word "house" have been recorded - and Yorkshire folk can tell instantly whether you come from Bradford or Leeds, even though the two cities are contiguous.

Why are there so many differences in dialect? One reason is the human fondness for novelty. If there isn't a suitable word for the occasion, why not make one up? If a word catches the popular imagination, it sticks - even if it doesn't always spread. Words for donkey around the country include cuddy (a shortened form of Cuthbert), neddy (Edward), dicky (Richard), moke, fussock, pronkus and nirrup. In other cases, the same word has quite a different meaning. Dinner means the midday meal to some, the evening meal to others, while a bucket in parts of Scotland is a dustbin, not a vessel for carrying.

Although people sometimes say things because they are easier or more sensible, it's also a matter of fashion. As Bill Bryson says in Mother Tongue, "Language is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines." Take, for example, the sudden tendency in 18th-century upper class southern England to pronounce dance, bath, castle etc with a broad a - as if they were spelled dahnce, bahth and cahstle. The pronunciations stuck, helping to underscore social and cultural differences.

In case you haven't guessed by now, British forms of speech are no laughing matter. To complicate things further, dialects are not just regional. Oh no. There are also occupational dialects, ethnic dialects and class dialects. In practice, dialects vary from house to house and there are as many dialects as there are speakers.

Accent refers simply to pronunciation - everyone has an accent - while dialect is to do with grammar and vocabulary. That means it's possible to speak Standard English (the written form of English we all know, love -and understand!) with a regional accent. Only three to five per cent of the population speak Standard English with the totally regionless accent sometimes called Received Pronunciation - or a "BBC accent". Received Pronunciation, which developed during the 19th century, had such social prestige that anyone with ambition tried to acquire it. Things are changing - it can work as much against as for you nowadays, depending on the sphere you're in.

All this might sound complicated - but don't forget that dialects, accents and jargon (often borrowed from English) do exist in other languages too. It's just strange that in Britain where people from a common heritage have been living together in a small area for thousands of years, there's such a variety. And it is this very variety that is one of the charms and fascinations of this country.

One of the main reasons for Britain's proliferation of dialects is its colourful history and the fact that the British variety of expression and language has never been suppressed. Surprisingly, despite their long existence on the island, the Romans contributed little to modern English. In Spain and Gaul they left Spanish and French; in England, there are barely five words of everyday vocabulary. Nor did the Celts (about 20 words). What they did leave behind, however, were place names (Avon and Thames are Celtic, while -chester and -caster come from the Roman word for camp)

In contrast, in northern corners of Holland and Germany, you'll find evidence of one of English's biggest linguistic influences. These are the homelands of the Frisians and Angles (after whom England was named), who invaded Britain with the Saxons and Jutes in about AD450. Their language sounds like an eerie English dialect - it has hardly changed over 1000 years.

The Anglo-Saxons' culture may have been somewhat impoverished but their language was rich in subtlety. When St Augustine brought Christianity (and literacy) to England in 597 and the Anglo-Saxons learned to write, their literary outpouring was immediate and astonishingly assured. In Beowuf alone there are 36 words for hero and 12 for battle. England soon became a centre of learning and, although 85 per cent of Anglo-Saxon words died out under the influence of the Vikings, the 4,500 that did survive are vital. Although constituting only one per cent of the total in the Oxford English Dictionary, Anglo-Saxon words like man, wife, child, live, fight, love and eat are fundamental.

Scandinavian invaders followed hot on the heels of this Anglo-Saxon cultural flowering, leaving many Old Norse traces. In 878 a treaty was signed establishing the Danelaw - a line running between London and Chester, dividing control between the English in the south and the Danes in the north, which to this day remains an important linguistic dividing line. In southern Scotland and northern England, people attend the kirk (Old Norse: kirkja) whereas elsewhere they go to church (Old English: cirice). Northerners make butter in a "kirn" (Old Norse: kirna) while southerners use a churn (Old English: cyren). As well as over 1,400 place names, Norse terms stuck alongside Old English ones, so creating a profusion of synonyms, such as craft and skill, wish and want. English would certainly be poorer without the Norse words freckle, leg, skull, meek, dazzle and husband.

One final cataclysm awaited the language - the Norman conquest of 1066 which bequeathed 10,000 words (70 per cent of which are still in use). It's astonishing that English survived when no king spoke the native tongue for the next 300 years! It had no official status, so it drifted, with regional differences becoming more and more pronounced. By the 14th century, English existed only as a continuum of dialects. The variation was so considerable that individuals could be understood by only a minority of their countrymen.

Meanwhile, French flourished at court, creating a French-speaking aristocracy and an English-speaking peasantry. This meant that the influence of French was concentrated in matters of government, fashion and fine living, while the peasants continued to eat, drink, work and sleep in English. Humble trades (baker, miller) tend to have Anglo-Saxon names, while the more skilled (mason, painter, tailor) have French ones. Animals in the field are good old cows or sheep but once cooked they're beef or mutton.

After the loss of Normandy to the French in 1204, the Norman rulers started thinking of themselves as English. They had never been hostile to English - and the language gradually reasserted itself. In the 15th century, English finally replaced French and Latin for official business, most of which was conducted in London. By the early 16th century even documents originating elsewhere were usually written in the London dialect, and a written standard emerged.

Scholars argue that Standard English is itself a dialect. However, it is fundamentally different from other dialects, not least in having its own writing system. Dialect, characteristically spoken, has to adapt the conventions of the Standard English writing system. Dialects tend to be more vigorous and lively than Standard English, and are currently hugely fashionable in the media. And the joy of a living language is that the influences from other countries and cultures never cease. The "Mother Tongue" in Britain has now come full circle and currently absorbs Australian and American expressions. Meanwhile, technological advances not only increase the internationalisation of the English language but give it a whole new vocabulary of its own.

What's important, at the end of the day, is that it doesn't matter which area of Britain you choose to visit because, whatever the dialect spoken, you'll find "welcome" is the same everywhere.


  • Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. A wonderfully entertaining and informative read about the vibrant nature of the English language, from Australian to American, and Creole to Cockney rhyming slang. A fascinating and endlessly stimulating paperback. (Published by Penguin, 1991.)
  • Atlas of English Dialect by John Widowson and Clive Upton at the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition at Sheffield University. Based on the findings of the Survey of English Dialects, this is the most extensive record of English regional speech in the mid-2Oth century. Maps, commentary, guide to strange words, etc. (Published by Oxford University Press.)
  • The Dialects of England by Peter Trudgill. This book includes grammar, vocabulary and pronunciations. (Published by Blackwell, 1990.)
  • English Accents and Dialect by Arthur Hughes and Peter Trudgill. This is more technical and includes a tape. (Edward Arnold 1987.)

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