BBC VOICES.

From the BBC comes a report on how Londoners speak:

Voices is the biggest-ever survey of how we speak. From January 2005, you can take part and add your voice to the picture.

There’s a page of “facts” (some of them dubious: “Women talk ‘posher’. In every studied language of the world, females use more ‘prestige’, ‘standard’ forms of language”), one on Hackney, and others, but the most interesting one from my point of view is an essay by linguist Laura Wright:

The main regional dialect divide in London is between East and West, with the dividing line being on the eastern edge of the City of London.
This probably marks an ancient political boundary – possibly the boundary between the Middle Saxon kingdom (Middlesex) and the East Saxon kingdom (Essex), which in more recent times became separated further East by the River Lea.
Citizens who grew up East of the Tower of London may (only *may* – not necessarily) have an East End accent, regardless of whether they live north or south of the River Thames.
I’m often told by Londoners that they can tell the difference between a North Londoner and a South Londoner, but I suspect that they are thinking of specific kinds of speakers, that is, working-class ones…
Middle-class speakers don’t have a lot of variation in their accent as compared to working-class speakers. Working-class speakers vary regionally because their speech reflects the accumulation of hundreds of years’ worth of ancestors speaking on the same patch of earth.
Time-depth is reflected in accent. When you listen to an East End accent, you are listening to speakers speaking English in that neck of the woods since perhaps 500 A.D., or whenever the first speakers of what was to become Old English got out of their boats on the foreshore of what were to become the Tower Hamlets – Stepney, Blackwall, Wapping, Limehouse, Poplar, Shadwell – all the villages along the northern shore of the river.
By contrast, the middle-class London RP accent, along with its sister dialect, Standard English, first became commented upon favourably (ie, we know that it connoted a higher social register) in the seventeen-hundreds…

Thanks to Glyn for the link.

Comments

  1. “Working-class speakers vary regionally because their speech reflects the accumulation of hundreds of years’ worth of ancestors speaking on the same patch of earth.”
    In London? Has she never read any of the historical literature about the high levels of immigration, not to mention high death rates, until quite recently in the city’s history? Even in villages, demographic historians have shown considerable turnover of populations. In the city, a few generations, perhaps. Hundreds of years, extremely unlikely.

  2. John Emerson says:

    There may be someone who knows about this, but unless immigrants totally swamped an area, their children would probably pick up the local speech. (My parents came from Iowa, but all of their kids have the thick Minnesota accent heard in the movie “Fargo”.)

  3. Sharon, she goes on to talk about immigration after the bit I quoted.
    “The other great influence is one’s mother’s tongue. If a Londoner were born into a language other than English, then that accent may be preserved into later life, but it doesn’t make the speaker less of a Londoner.”

  4. “In every studied language of the world, females use more ‘prestige’, ‘standard’ forms of language”
    My understanding is that it would be more accurate to say that women tend to speak in a way that is more clearly marked as either “prestige” or non-standard. In other words, if they speak in a non-standard way it will be more noticeably nonstandard than non-standard speaking me, and if they speak in a “standard” form, it will be closer to the standard (or even over-reaching, in the case of hyper-correction) than men.

  5. Kerim, we’d like to see more of your mysterious “non-standard-speaking me”.

  6. I’m often told by Londoners that they can tell the difference between a North Londoner and a South Londoner, but I suspect that they are thinking of specific kinds of speakers, that is, working-class ones…
    No, ma’am. There is a difference. All you gotta do is listen.
    I’m not sure if I’m up to standard with this post, or which standard I’m up to. Or maybe it’s just down to my usual sub-standard.

  7. dungbeattle says:

    In my ill-gotton youth, accents change by the hour of commute i.e. shanks pony 5 miles, pre-radio/tv and Yanky flickers [now a commute be in the air]. Accents are caused by the lack of exposure to the larger community [i.e. isolation/communication , and to in house/town isolation of communication of the people populating the Area, as working stiffs only visited their betters to deliver the bacon at the tradesmens entrance, they were never exposed to the plummy tones except when told to do a bunk, but that has changed, due to the goggle box and over exposure to the Eastenders.. In the town [now City] on the Granta/cam there be two accents Town and Gown. Gown was with Plums and Town be Fennish in construck.[neither wanted to understand the other except to when it came to a few quid].

  8. It should be pointed out that the BBC is not simply highlighting language in London, but languages and dialects in all the nations of Britain. Here’s the main site:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/

  9. *wisper*
    hey, db, is “plummy tones” has anything to do with “purple prose”?

  10. Michael Farris says:

    “hey, db, is “plummy tones” has anything to do with “purple prose”?”
    I’m not db, but I don’t think so. “plummy” seems to be a british expression for a certain kind of “upper class” accent characterized by (I think) simultaneous slow and indistinct articulation (as if one had a plum in one’s mouth?)
    It’s also used to describe a kind of classical singing voice, but it’s hard for me to define it. The voices of aging mezzos often turn plummy, characterized by what sounds to me like head tones laid over chest tones (as opposed to the more integrated (in the mask) sound mezzos are supposed to shoot for).

  11. dungbeattle says:

    enunciate, enunciate, H’s must be clear, g’s be sun’. ‘untin’ fishin’ and shootin’ not be correct, etc..The Betters have the plum {victorian be best, not the damsel) the ‘oi polloi use spuds instead. Otherwise, we do the minimal possibe to get the point across. We leave the purple prose to Rochester. I be a user of language not an expert, just pert.

  12. oh, I see the regrettable error of my ways. when do I stop to see *colors* everywhere…

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