Learning the lingo

DO you know your pollywiggle from your tittle-me-fancy? STEVEN RUSSELL reports on another new book celebrating the rich tapestry of our regional language.

DO you know your pollywiggle from your tittle-me-fancy? STEVEN RUSSELL reports on another new book celebrating the rich tapestry of our regional language.

HOW many of us were chided as children because of something we said? Mother winced at the sound of “lounge”. It was a sitting room. Then there was toilet - a word perfectly acceptable at school, it seemed, but not at home, where we went to the loo instead.

The bizarre thing was that we didn't understand why we were being put right - and no-one ever explained it properly.

Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion captures the confusion in his childhood memoirs, In The Blood, which are published this month. His mother couldn't explain the rules. “We just do,” she told him, before reeling off a list of further examples: Looking-glass, not mirror; Christmas instead of Xmas; sorry, never pardon; sit on the sofa, not settee; and eat your pudding, not sweet.


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Britain in the 1950s was full of such traps, as society tried to re-define social relationships after its rigid class structure was fractured by the war.

Simon Elmes was another who found himself saying the wrong thing as he grew up in 1950s Bristol - “Not daps, plimsolls!” His mother was keen to make sure her son steered clear of local dialect.

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In his new book, Simon explains there was a real fear, in that era of U and non-U language, of “sinking” in class terms. Nowadays he regrets missing out on the colourful linguistic patterns of the native Bristolian, though in adulthood he's doing his best to celebrate and nurture regional quirks of the language.

Over the past 25 years he's carried out a series of investigations for the BBC on regional accents and dialects, most recently during the winter and spring of 2004/2005, when more than 50 field-workers operating from BBC local radio stations interviewed hundreds of people about the words they spoke. The findings were aired in the BBC Radio 4 Voices series, which Simon produced.

His book, Talking for Britain, pulls together much of the material, “into a sort of linguistic and social panorama of how this country is conversing with itself in the first years of the new millennium - and how it got there”.

In the flat lands of East Anglia, he says, the speech is “idiosyncratic, individual, different” and he makes the often-heard point about actors often making a lamentable stab at reproducing the accent. It emerges as “some uncomfortable imitation of stage Mummerset, and believe me, there's almost nothing that annoys a Norfolk or Suffolk local more than that”.

In East Anglia, writes Simon, “what strikes you straightaway is that despite the inroads that national standardisation is making . . . there's a huge degree of regional flavour still to be found in the talk. There's also a perhaps surprising degree of consistency across the whole region.”

Mawther was a common regional label for a young woman, for instance, and being fruzz right through was standard East Anglian-speak for being cold. “Fair shrammed”, claimed as a Suffolk phrase, was in fact found across southern England, says the author.

There's widespread concern about change: about wealthy incomers buying local homes, about the decline of traditional industries, and about the consequences of social and geographical mobility - all of which change local language, as older words are lost and are replaced by new ones.

However, “there's still a long way to go before the localness is driven from the way they (locally-born folk in Aldeburgh, for instance) talk”.

Talking for Britain, £8.99, is published by Penguin.

RESEARCHERS from the Voice project called at Aldeburgh - an “achingly picturesque port” - to talk matters dialectic with three lifeboatmen.

Steven Saint, 36, was amused to be told that Talking for Britain described him as a handsome young mechanic born and bred in Aldeburgh.

“His view of language in this corner of Suffolk is conditioned by whom he's talking to,” says the book. “When confronted by outsiders, his speech gives little away about where he's from.

“The intonation pattern is definitely not quite that of standard British English, but it's flatter and less sing-song than many an older Suffolk man. Yet when Steven gets chatting to the full-time lifeboatmen John Marjoram, 59, and Maurice Smith, who's 76 and joined the station from the Navy in 1955, the accent thickens and local words begin to appear as if by magic.”

Steve can remember sitting on the bar of the pub his parents ran in Aldeburgh and listening to the older people talk - it was, apparently, “this osmotic absorption of a lexicon that reaches back centuries that still keeps him just about in touch with the rural linguistic tradition, albeit tenuously, though one he'll today only use when he's certain he'll be understood. Words like 'yaffle' for a green woodpecker, and 'harnser'.”

He says: “There are things like that that you use just around people who you know will know what you're talking about. But then with somebody you don't know, I'd call it a 'heron' rather than a 'harnser', But talking to John or Morry, I'd say 'I saw a harnser this morn'n.'”

CLASSIC East Anglian English takes the ear on a rollercoaster ride, says Simon Elmes.

He accepts some folk consider it heresy to lump together the speech of Suffolk and Norfolk - and agrees they have distinct differences - but says the region contrasts so dramatically with land to the south and west that it makes sense to deal with them together.

“Throughout the region speech has a 'tune' that swings the speaker along on a series ofrollercoaster upward inflexions, rather like the so-called 'upspeak' that's become a national standard among young people, perhaps in imitation of Neighbours . . .” he writes in Talking for Britain.

“Combine this tune with a heavier than normal stress pattern and the broadest East Anglian speech begins to resemble the vocal equivalent of cross-country skiing, with a series of swinging upward stresses that's almost melodic.

“This happens even in perfectly ordinary words . . . 'That was quite a cold day', has a strongly marked rhythm DA di DA di DA DA: 'Tha' wuz kwat uh koold dye.'”

Simon thinks “This patterning of the speech, combined with a complete game of musical chairs with the vowel sounds, is what makes the accent of this corner of England so special - and so difficult for outsiders to imitate.

“So across the region the 'ay' sound becomes like the vowel in 'eye' - 'trains' are 'trines' and a 'play' becomes a 'ply'. Short 'a' turns to short 'e', so your 'beck' in East Anglia is what lies below your shoulders . . .

“Conversely, and again we heard this right across Norfolk and Suffolk, the 'eye' vowel turns to 'oi', so the 'Isle of Wight' sounds more like the 'Oil of Woight' . . .”

Arsy varsey: Upside-down; head-over-heels

Bor: A friend, mate (from 'neighbour')

Dardledumdue: A day-dreamer

Dodman: A snail

Erriwiggle: Earwig

Hoolly: Really, fairly

Jaykie: Tadpole or young frog

Mardle: To gossip

Pollywiggle: Tadpole

Squit: Nonsense

Tittle-me-fancy: Pansy plant

We asked retired Suffolk auctioneer Neil Lanham what he thought about the book, and it was like opening a can of worms!

He said that books about dialect are often superficial “and do nothing to get to the root of the matter. In fact, they become a parody and in a way an insult to the things that traditional people hold dear”.

In the 1960s, Neil started recording the songs, sayings and memories of the county. (DVDs, videos and CDs are nowadays available from Helions Bumpstead Gramophone Company.)

“To understand dialect,” he said, “one has to understand that it is an oral phenomenon - nothing whatsoever to do with books . . . In looking at dialect, this BBC producer's is a literate's view of an oral tradition. It is an external perception.

“We really need to take note of people immersed in the oral tradition: like Adrian Bell - the former East Anglian farmer and writer. Adrian Bell said 'the unlettered mind has genius', and that, I believe, is because the unlettered thinks totally in terms of metaphor and with it country sayings, riddles, proverbs and puns.

“In looking at dialect alone we do not see meaning. We must look into the oral mindset. If we just look at dialect from an external literate view it becomes a parody: it becomes a curiosity, a worzelism which is an insult.”

Neil says the first thing he learned when collecting songs in the 1960s was that he was really collecting people - the idiom of people. “To just look at dialect, one is taking an isolated thing. One needs to look at the whole picture to understand it. That is why it becomes a parody.”

Metaphor is key, he adds.

“If you come across an 80-year-old they usually have no problem in putting a story together, but it is something that we are losing in the modern literate world. Of course, we still have some metaphor, but they seem contrived and very often media-originated.

“Speech of the modern techno literati is full of information, but all the information in the world is valueless if one cannot relate it, and the old (more) oral mind taught one to relate things, because stories pass principles of understanding.

“In short, we are losing the ability to pass wisdom, which I find is a far more important phenomenon to talk about than whether we lose our sounds.”

By the way, he thinks there are several categories of Suffolk words, including words that “literate people” believe are used - such as mardles - but in fact aren't. There are also words that were common in the '50s but are much rarer now - wholly, duzzy and bor, for instance.

Neil feels the Suffolk dialect will remain strong as long as we have indigenous people. “The young, now forcibly encouraged into universities, seem to want to travel. People want to move around and come from outside areas, which has caused many disadvantages to the indigenous,” he said.

Helions Bumpstead Gramophone Company: www.traditionsofsuffolk.com

A COUPLE of years ago Charlie Haylock took the publishing world by storm with his book Sloightly on Th' Huh! - a humorous look at Suffolk dialect.

Now he's brought out another book in similar vein, with more than 6,000 copies already sold in the first week of publication. A Rum Owd Dew! - A Koindly Look at Suffolk is, says Charlie, a serious book about Suffolk, its places, people and way of speaking, and its humour.

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