The head of a Teesside school asked parents to correct children’s local accents and grammar; David Almond responds in a lovely Guardian essay:

Now Am a rita and A rite books that teechas reed to bairns in skools and the books is filld with words like spuggy and clarts and aye and nowt. Aav rit won book that’s aal misspelt and aal rit in the langwij of the Tyne. It’s telt by a lad that cannit spell but he trys to do the best he can and he trys to make the langwij make sum sens, as bairns do, and he trys to make it sing, as evry rita must.
Langwij has to ecko on the air and it has to dyve doon to the hart an sole. The rite langwij can be the rang langwij for sum books. Sum ov the grate books of the world is rit qwite rong. Books by them lyk Billy Forkna, Russil Hoban, Jimmy Joyce. And the rong words is wot the aynshent tales were telt in, and how aal the songs woz sung.
Aye, ye hav to knaa the words the world thinks is rite and ye have to knaa how to spel them rite an speek them rite. Othawize sum misgiyded folk mite think yor just a dope.
But ye neva hav to put the otha words away. Yev got to yoos them and speek them and rite them and keep them in the world. Aav gorra digree in English, Am a rita, and these daze Am even a professa so Aav lernd sumthin abowt how to diy things rite. But thers still nee thrill lyk the thrill of knowing wot the so-caaled rite word is and how to rite it rite, but still to yoos the word the world considas rong. Nee thrill at aal like ritin aye, bairn, clarts, spuggy, hadaway and nowt. Thas nae thrill lyk the thrill of speakin the words, feelin the vybrashon of the sownds they make, feelin them dancin on yor lips and tung and breth.

Thanks, Maureen!
Update. Stan Carey has an excellent discussion, with more links.


  1. To save others looking-up: yes, child, clumps of mud, house sparrow, go away (beat it), nothing.

  2. Here’s a comment I thought you should see, Hat:

    “Bairn” is a word, as is “clart” and “spuggy”, and they’re all words I use (I’m from County Durham) when I talk. That’s when I talk, T.A.L.K. The word “talk” sounds different in my mouth than in the mouth of someone from the “Home Counties”, but I’ll be damned if I’ll therefore spell it differently, to show that I’m the one who’s getting it wrong. Let them spell it as “torque” if a differentiation has to be made.

    I love the stroppiness of this!

  3. I love to see words like bairn and yem, current in Norway (barn, hjem), being used nearly a thousand years after the Vikings left.
    That’s a good one, John (I read the piece earlier and was depressed by the comments). People in Britain always warn that you’re going to look really bad if you can’t imitate RP, but really I wonder if there’s any evidence for that. It would be nice if a linguist would find an acceptable way to write different dialects in English. For any social stigma to be removed its use would have to be enforced by law, as nynorsk – bokmål is in Norway. Perhaps it would be something to look forward to in Scotland if they declare independence.

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    Teesside is apparently not the same region as Tayside, even though it seems like one ought to be an eye-dialect alternate spelling of the other.

  5. I don’t know why people read the comments on newspaper pieces. I never do.

  6. ‘Cos they like getting het up.

  7. I don’t know why people read the comments on newspaper pieces. I never do.
    Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten once wrote that reading the comments to an article is like being served a sirloin steak with a side of maggots.

  8. I don’t know why people read the comments on newspaper pieces.
    Hey, Hat, if you like you can hide in your ivory tower world where factual accuracy, logic, civility and good humour reign but I prefer to “keep it real” in the ghetto of the newspaper comments pages. Don’t you know these people have solutions to all life’s problems? But, sadly, the world won’t listen (*sigh*). Also, scientific studies have proved that nobody in history has been more hard done by than the average 21st-century newspaper commenter, although they rarely like to talk about it.

  9. The request to parents, as described in another report, was to make the point to their children that while it was fine to talk to their friends in the local dialect (sorry if that’s not the right word), they also needed to be able to use standard English (not necessarily RP) when applying for jobs. Ditto spelling.
    One may not like it, but it remains a fact that most UK employers prefer job applicants who can use standard English, and that’s what the head teacher in question is concerned about. She is trying to help the students’ futures, not denigrate their local usages.

  10. They aren’t completely uninteresting. I hadn’t realised that the average Guardian reader hates architects almost as much as they hate bankers, though it could be just the average Guardian commenter who hates us. They aren’t too keen on Damien Hirst or the government, either.

  11. des von bladet says

    I’m just wondering if he really pronounces the k in “knaa”.

  12. I know you don’t, and occasionally you miss a diamond in the shite, as in this case. I read them until I’ve had my fill of them, which sometimes happens before #1 and sometimes not for a while.
    Let me again recommend Peter Trudgill’s article “Standard English: what it isn’t”, particularly with reference this time to the appendix that shows how idiosyncratic Standard English is, compared to other more sensible and better-organized dialects.

  13. John: Trudgill’s very interesting article is a scholarly discussion of “Standard English”. I was using it in the everyday context in which it is usually used by non-experts, and I think would be by the head teacher in question: in writing, correct spelling and grammar; in speech, avoidance of local dialect or slang words, correct grammar, (no “he ain’t done it”, “we was going”, etc) and moderating the extremes of a local accent.
    These “correct” usages are again not the scholarly ones. There is a broad consensus in the business world here, for example, of what they are. It doesn’t matter much if you are hiring bricklayers, but if it’s call centre workers, clerks, salespeople or a host of other jobs, it does matter. That is what the headteacher is trying to get across.

  14. Maureen Brian says

    That may well have been what the head was trying to do, Paul, in which case we must judge her efforts a failure.
    What she managed to do was treat the children in her care with disrespect and tell them that they and their identity were substandard, second rate. Then tell them to go home and give that message to their parents.
    A confident child will easily learn as many variants of English as his life requires. A child who’s been told he is rubbish may find that much more difficult.

  15. Maureen: I originally saw the story elsewhere and my comments were based on that, not the Guardian story. Here is a quote from the BBC report:
    Headteacher Carol Walker said she wanted to teach standard English, not to remove the Teesside accent.
    Mrs Walker, who was born in nearby Stockton, said she wanted pupils to avoid being at a disadvantage in later life.
    She said: “I am not asking children to deny where they come from. I am saying to them there are certain situations where they need to be able to use standard English.”
    That seems to be a very straightforward position, quite contrary to your argument. I can see no disrespect for the children or their parents, no suggestion they or their parents are substandard. She appears to believe there is a need among her students to reinforce the message that in some situations, they need to use a more neutral language and correct grammar, for their own benefit. (I put it that way because my earlier use of “standard English” was criticised, even though the headteacher in question used it in the way people generally do).
    I cannot see in this any suggestion that a child is “rubbish”
    I removed the following paragraph from the quote above, as it might lead to a “she would say that” reaction, but I think it should be included in this response all the same:
    She said the response to her letter to parents had been “really positive” with no “negative reaction” at all.
    I also have to wonder if whatever confidence a child may have, it would automatically enable him or her to switch accents and grammar as you suggest. Some perhaps, but all ?

  16. I would point out that Almond does not disagree: “Aye, ye hav to knaa the words the world thinks is rite and ye have to knaa how to spel them rite an speek them rite.”

  17. Paul: I wasn’t aiming Trudgill at your comment specifically, but at Hat’s original post. However, I do think your definition is too narrow, and falls down in particular because of the international nature of the Standard English dialect.
    For example, I am a native speaker of Standard English, like some 12% of the U.K. population; I didn’t have to learn it in school or elsewhere. But I say and write sentences like I suggest that you leave at once and The government is looking into this. I use the word fall in the sense of ‘autumn’, and speak of places to park cars as parking lots. Though I write of the Labour Party, in other contexts the word is labor. And as for my accent, it is extremely remote from RP, though I note you call only for a moderated (i.e. accommodated to RP) accent, not a specifically RP one. In short, Standard English, though certainly non-local even in the U.K., is even less local than you make it out to be.
    Now there may be excellent sociolinguistic reasons not to hire me as a call centre worker, clerk, or salesperson in the U.K. But not, I think, for want of standardness in my English.

  18. John: I think the essense of this is not in the slight variations between UK and US spelling of e.g. labour/labor or in accents which are widely accepted, general Scots, estuary, etc. It is to try to convince children whose whole speech and grammar is very widely at variance with what is broadly accepted as a norm that they need to have alternatives to improve their chances in the job market.
    I’m afraid I can’t express it very well, but I can see exactly what the head teacher is aiming at, and why, and personally admire it.
    A very extreme example could be trying to point out to someone with multiple face piercings and hair dyed bright green in a gelled-up Mohican that he or she might have to change their visual image if they were trying for a job as a bank clerk. Perhaps that’s a bit silly, but I hope it gets the idea across.
    Incidentally, I grew up and started work as a journalist in Australia, where there is a complete mishmash of UK and US spelling which one just has to learn. Then I spent years translating an American news wire into English for UK papers, then years writing exclusively US style. The result is probably that I have no style at all …

  19. The lede to the BBC News story about the principal’s plea is interesting:
    Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough wants pupils to stop pronouncing “work” as “werk” and “shirt” as “shert”.
    Knowing (now) where Teesside is I’m pretty sure I understand what she means, but wouldn’t “werk” and “shert” be quite acceptable as eye-dialect for the RP pronunciations too? “Pronounce ‘work’ properly, not as if it were spelled ‘werk’!” would have completely baffled me as a child.

  20. Knowing (now) where Teesside is I’m pretty sure I understand what she means
    I, alas, have no idea. Can you explain it? For me too, werk and work, and shert and shirt, would be homonyms.

  21. John: Wikipedia explains it better than I could:
    “The accents for Teesside are sometimes grouped with Yorkshire and sometimes grouped with the North-East of England, for they share characteristics with both. … In common with the east coast of Yorkshire, words such as bird, first, nurse, etc. have an [ɛː] sound. It is difficult to represent this using the alphabet, but could be written bare-d, fare-st, nare-ss.”

  22. Maureen Brian says

    I apologise if I misjudged you , Paul, Or, indeed, the teacher in this case but I am still not wholly convinced.
    Perhaps a London-based media is incapable of keeping its biases in check while it reports such stories fairly.
    Perhaps I am battle weary from fighting off those who imagine that their holy English was stolen one night in the fifteenth century from an Oxford cloister and taken North to be butchered or the non-academic variant of that which has the leftists and trades unionists of that land deliberately filling up their speech with Old Norse just to annoy the Home Counties.
    OK, I surrender! Hyperbole, but only just.
    As for “like Yorkshire” not so much. There is shared voccabulary as an Idiot’s Guide to Immigrations would explain but the textures and the rhythms are entirely different. (I’m in Yorkshire.)

  23. Maureen. Thank you for the gracious apology – but absolutely not necessary ! You were putting your point of view, and I, mine. I didn’t realize that you were talking from a North-South viewpoint. I imagined it was more from that strand of UK education theory that urges no interference with children’s regional or local accents or grammar as, it claims, it restricts their development (as I understand it, I am quite likely to be mangling the theory!)

Speak Your Mind