Author: By Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
If you do not know your stithurum from your knur-and-spell then help is at hand. A giant new archive of regional accents and dialects is preserving the linguistic diversity of England for future generations.
Hundreds of recordings of ordinary people from Cornwall to Northumberland have been put online by the British Library Sound Archive, in a project that combines a pioneering survey of speech patterns half a century ago with interviews that the BBC conducted for the Millennium.
At the core of the archive is the work of Harold Orton of Leeds University who, with a Swiss colleague Eugen Dieth in the 1940s, decided it was vital to save examples of dialects before social change wiped them out.
Under their leadership, fieldworkers collected data in 313 localities between 1950 to 1961 for the Survey of English Dialects which remains the only systematic survey carried out of the country’s native dialects.
Yet when the BBC recorded people’s everyday experiences in their own words for a series to mark the Millennium, it transpired that although regional accents were often weaker, the charm of variations in vocabulary remained remarkably intact.
Now it is possible to compare the “By gum!” of Les Oakes in Staffordshire in 1999 with the “clouts” of Miss Dibnah, of Welwick, Yorkshire, in 1955, on the website – collectbritain.co.uk – launched yesterday.
Jonathan Robinson, the archive’s curator of English accents and dialects, said: “The way people speak in England has changed over the past half a century. But there is still an incredible amount of regional diversity and the recordings on this website illustrate elements of continuity and of change.”
Mr Robinson said that some of Orton’s examples were from communities so remote they no longer exist while cities were excluded because he never secured the funding to extend the project beyond the countryside.
By contrast, the BBC’s Millennium Memory Bank project made a determined effort to record the words of a broad cross-section of the population, aged from five to 107 and from backgrounds including urban and ethnic communities not recorded in the original sample.
Yet in nearly 270 cases, a comparison of sorts can be made between the speech of half a century ago and that of today.
Mr Robinson said it was clear that certain dialect words and patterns of pronunciation had been lost over the decades. “But hopefully people will be able to see that it is a popular myth that everything has become vaguely homogenised.”
In many ways, people were much happier with regional accents today and less embarrassed by them than when Alf Ramsey had elocution lessons in the 1960s to prepare himself to manage the England football team, Mr Robinson said.
The new website has recordings of 681 people. Words saved for posterity include stithurum, which is a long-winded, dull tale in Lincolnshire, a barton-linhay, which is a cart-shed in Devon and knur-and-spell, a traditional game played with a stick and bat in Yorkshire.
Local names for food taken to eat at work include bait in the North-west and North-east, bever in the South, docky in East Anglia and snap in the North and Midlands.
Dick Gilbert, a retired farm labourer recorded at Weare Giffard in Devon in 1958, used barton for farmyard and mow for haystack. Bryan Tungate, a garage clerk recorded at Mulbarton, Norfolk in 1998, spoke of the broach, or peg used to fasten thatch onto stack.
HOW WE USED TO SPEAK
The Devon farmer
Dick Gilbert, a retired farm labourer born in 1879, was recorded in 1958
barton = farmyard; aside of = next to, beside; bide = to stay; butt = heavy, two-wheeled horse-drawn cart; hackney = a horse of middle size and quality, used for ordinary riding; fore = before; grub = food; mow = haystack
“They was plenty tight on ye back they there days.”
“I’ve sent hine to the shop, her said, after groceries, her said, he won’t be home, her said, for a few minutes.”
“I bide there waiting about for he.”
The Norfolk garage clerk
Bryan Tungate, who was born in 1939, was recorded in 1998 at Mulbarton
broach = peg used to fasten thatch on to stack; pea-stick = stake upon which pea-plant is trained
“There’s all various estates what’ve been built in the last 30-odd years.”
The Yorkshire housekeeper
Miss Dibnah, who was born in 1890, was recorded in 1955 at Welwick, explaining how to make white bread, brown bread and spice bread.
clout = cloth; intiv = to (plus verb); over = too; gan = to go; nobbut = only; meal = wholemeal flour; folks = people; spice bread = currant loaf; body = person; siche = such
“When it had gotten risen.”
“I leaves it another 20 minutes.”
“You have it to weigh.”
“When you get that baken.”
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