Category Archives: language

Welsh, Waxed Jackets and Close Harmony

Autumn is here. I know this because I have started wearing my waxed jacket and turning on the heating in the car during the morning drive to work. Oh, and I suppose nature is sending the obvious signals too, like turning leaves a different colour. I expect the Wye Valley will be glorious in a week or two. I don’t resent the onset of Autumn with its leaden skies and winds as I used to: the landscape around here is still beautiful.

K and I have signed up for a thirty-week course of evening classes in Welsh, on Friday nights (yes, Fridays!). Not sure why my lovely wife is doing it: probably to humour me. I’m doing it a) to get me out of the house b) to stimulate the little grey cells and c) (this is the really pretentious one) because I’m trying to make a connection with the language that used to be spoken in these islands before the Saxons arrived. My colleagues and elder daughter think I’m mad, but I insist I’m not trying to be pretentious. A possible d) might be because, as an immigrant to Wales (by quarter of a mile or so) and as a sometime linguist, I think it’s only polite to try learn the language of the country one inhabits.

Oh, and I’ve started a course in barbershop/acapella singing with a local male chorus on Tuesday nights. I am singing “bom, bo-bum-bum bom bum” so much around the house that little A. thinks that particular phrase is one she should add to her vocabulary. The latter, incidentally, has now, at K’s reckoning, about a hundred words. Little A. will soon start putting them together in two’s! Most charming is the way Little A. says “goodbye” which varies with the person concerned. “Goodbye Daddy” is “Da-da-da-da-da-da Daddy”, while “Goodbye Granny” is “Na-na-na-na-na-na-nanny”. “Finished” is “finith” and “Here, take this” has become “fankoo”.

We are looking for a place to buy in Monmouth. Hard work as we don’t want to compromise and Monmouth is pricey. British houses are so small and overpriced! If you ever visit us and you come from another country, yes, small houses with low ceilings and tiny front lawns are the norm and no, we don’t like it either.

Advertisement

Dialect prejudice?

In dramatic shorthand, a working class character in a film is often given the dialect and/or accent of English of someone from from the southwest of the country, or perhaps a Midlands or northern accent. For example, consider the dialect and accent of Sam Gamgee, the gardener and manservant to the upper-middle class (Standard English/Received Pronunciation-speaking) Frodo Baggins in the recent “The Lord of the Rings” films. The patronising implication is that the audience will associate the “provincial” accent with a less educated, working class character, lacking in “book” knowledge but making up for it in loyalty and determination. For those of you who know the Tolkien books on which the films were based, be honest: could you imagine Sam Gamgee speaking like Prince Charles?

The Received Pronunciation combined with spoken Standard English that the Prince of Wales speaks have become the dialect of Hollywood films’ baddies, a quick and easy-to-grasp code that tells the (largely American) popcorn munching masses that the one with that James Mason accent is the sinister bad guy. Our infatuation with American culture in the form of its two principle exports, film and television have conditioned much of the English speaking world to be prejudiced against this way of speaking.

Once, such a mode of speech could once have marked a person (rightly or wrongly) as educated and trustworthy, the principle being, I imagine, that it was more likely that the person concerned had been to a good school and university, where certain timeless values (Waterloo won on the playing fields of Eton bla bla bla) were instilled. Maybe there was little bit of truth in such an assumption in the era of the British Empire when public schools were the only source of an education good enough to equip a generation with the skills to run that empire. Now of course, a meritocratic democracy rightly prevails: your accent doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter.

Really?

I unashamedly (try to) speak Standard English with an accent that, while not in the same league as that of the Queen’s, nevertheless approaches it. Why? Because I was brought up in several parts of the world. I never lived anywhere long enough to permanently adopt a dialect and accent specific to a particular region. The only traces that have remained are the pronunciation of “because” as “becuzz” from my childhood years in Cornwall and a tendency to use a Barbadian accent when I get excited. I therefore adopted a style of speech that my teachers, grammar books and the BBC advocated. It was, I naïvely thought, neutral in tone and after all, was promoted as being the gold standard of English.

The trouble with Standard English and RP is that they represent the speech of the so called “upper” class whose (in most cases unearned) privilege and wealth are rightly criticised by those outside that particular socio-economic group. Those of us who have adopted RP and Standard English but are not upper class are therefore doomed to experience a sort of prejudice. The prejudice that drives film makers to give Samwise Gamgee a Gloucestershire accent and dialect because it denotes him as servile is, on occasion, matched by a prejudice against those who use RP and Standard English. “If you speak RP and Standard English”, the thinking presumably goes, “you must think you are superior, whatever your social background or your values”. How unfair.

I’m tempted to get a T-shirt printed that declares my membership of the middle class, despite my dialect and accent.

Vocabulary

Here is a sample of little A.’s current vocabulary, with meanings:

Dood – Dog
Wwwwuff – The noise a dog makes
Weeeow – Miaow – the noise a cat makes
Jhesh – Yes
Nah! – No
Mm Mm – Pick me up/Help!
Hi – Here, you take it (of toys, etc when proffered)
Shlite – Light
Daddy – Daddy, but also her older sister (really)
Oh! – Reaction to paternal flatulence
Ba Ba – What a sheep says
Pop Pop – What a fish does with its mouth
Yaay! – I want more, accompanied by the “Makaton” sign language gesture for “more”
Babby – Variously, any face or reflection, most commonly the girl in the reflective metal dustbin who copies everything little A. does.
Dit Dit – I want to listen to music on your lap while sitting at the computer. (From a song about clocks that go “tick-tock”)

Relocation and linguistic vandalism

Today a moan:

As a frequent user (and sometime manager) of recruitment websites that allow you to configure customised daily emails containing jobs filtered according to your criteria, I have become something of a connoisseur of the technology. You can appreciate then, my exasperation at receiving emails every morning from a particular site which does not allow you to exclude certain words, or more specifically, locations from the criteria. This results in an email containing jobs in other parts of the country to which you can neither commute nor wish to relocate.

The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if this is done deliberately to ensure maximum exposure to jobs in the hope that some candidates might be tempted to relocate.

Oh, and another thing. There should be a requirement for the people (agents) usually who write these job ads to have passed a course in written English with stringent demands in the areas of spelling, grammar, punctuation (especially apostrophes!) and clarity. If you read, as I do at the moment, several hundred job ads every day and appreciate the beauty of the English language, as, again, I do, you may understand my annoyance at the numerous daily acts of linguistic vandalism these ads often contain.

Apparently, bad English can lead to delinquency and violence, according to an editorial in the Nation newspaper in Barbados recently, though I may have missed the part where the scientific evidence for this claim is cited.