THE DIRE STRAITS OF DIALECTS
As part of my English Language A-Level, I have to write editorials for all of the different topics. To practice writing in an editorial style more, and practice writing about the content I am learning, I am going to be uploading different editorials as I progress through my course.
Another part of writing editorials is stating the intended audience. For this particular one, I wrote it as if I was writing for The Guardian, for people of any gender/sex, roughly aged 18 and above
Hope you enjoy!
The Dire Straits Of Dialects
Dun’t worry if tha hasn’t got a Scooby, I’ll explain it luv.
We’ve all been there, whether you’ve been visiting family friends in another area of the country, or on holiday, where you’ve been having a conversation and the other person has no clue what you’ve just said. Sometimes this could be put down to purely an accent divide, but most of the time it’s because we forget that not everybody speaks like us. For example, someone from the North East of England asking their neighbour if they’d like any ‘ket’ (meaning sweets) has completely different connotations if they ask someone from London. But how common are these divides now? Are we reaching the end of generation’s worth of regional dialects, or is it simply a lack of research?
Arguably, the most infamous regional dialect is Cockney – more specifically Cockney Rhyming Slang – which for decades has been at the heart of Britain and what foreigners associate with and mimic when attempting a British accent. The most popular of the idiomatic phrases being “Apples and Pears” (stairs), “Lady Godiva” (a fiver), and “Haven’t got a Scooby Doo” (haven’t got a clue), but where did this vernacular come from? And is it still in circulation? Interestingly, Cockney Rhyming Slang actually began as a coded language for street-sellers, beggars, and petty criminals in the East-End of London in the early 19th Century; subsequently, as the jargon gained currency it was popularised by the rise of television in shows such as “Only Fools and Horses” and “The Sweeney” in the 20th Century. It was also influenced by the East-End’s immigrant community, therefore it’s no surprise that other forms of slang are taking over as the cultural influences over the city change. Yet, in a survey commissioned by the Museum of London, 80% of participants do not understand phrases such as “Donkey’s Ears” (years), “Mother Hubbard” (cupboard), and “Bacon and Eggs” (legs). Furthermore, just 20% of the 2000 Londoners interviewed, understood that “Rabbit and Pork” meant talk. However, not all is lost as 13% still used “Porky Pies” for lies. But, despite this, 40% of those surveyed thought that Cockney Rhyming Slang was indeed dying out, with a third admitting to feeling sad about the loss of such a quintessentially British trait. Nevertheless, this study is arguably biased and has limited scope of opinions as the population of London is nearly 9 million, with the East of London having a population nearing 3 million, having a survey of only 2000 people seems a little misleading and ill-informed.
Regardless of this, there is still the overwhelming fact that 40% of those surveyed believed it to be diminishing, there is new slang evolving. For instance, the phrase “wearing his Barack Obamas” is a relatively new idiom, meaning he’s wearing his pyjamas, therefore whatever started East-Enders impulse to rhyme words is still a trait inherited by the younger generation. Furthermore, author Mike Coles has translated many Anglican bible stories into Cockney Rhyming Slang in attempts to immerse more children in religious teachings, and in a way that they will understand. So, is Cockney Rhyming Slang dying out? Or is it simply evolving to keep up with the times? What is made apparent is that when Cockney Rhyming Slang became popular and spread throughout the country, many Cockney’s stopped using the popular phrases and started inventing new lesser known ones. Perhaps this was to signify their annoyance at the loss of secrecy the dialect now has. I mean, we all have discovered or invented something at least once in our lifetime that we wanted to keep to ourselves, and when others found out it ruined it a little. A major example of this is music artists blowing up overnight and suddenly everyone is fan, leaving original ‘stans’ of the artist disgruntled that their favourite artist is now a well-known popstar and then their music changes. Maybe this is what has happened with Cockney Rhyming Slang? Is wanting to gate-keep a dialect that bad when its formation correlates with the identity of many inhabitants?
Yet, it’s not just Cockney Rhyming Slang that appears to be taking a hit, even Received Pronunciation (RP) is! Estuary English is a mix of South-Eastern London accents and RP and is seen by many to be RP’s possible successor. David Rosewarne (1980s) found that it conforms grammatically and lexically to Standard English (SE), but has a distinct phonology, with speakers from all regions using it. Some of its key features mirror that of a Cockney accent with glottal stops (foo?ball) and L vocalisation as a W (foo?baw). This again seems to signify an evolution in the English language, and dialects evolving with society. For instance, in 1980s, the UK saw a rise in different musical artists from across the country, as well as more TV programmes with Channel 4 starting transmission in 1982. With a rise in popular culture, it’s no surprise that many people started copying their role models, and those with a platform, and then came the demise of traditional RP and BBC English. Intriguingly, linguists Orton and Deith conducted the Survey of English Dialects after the Second World War as they believed that the invention of radio, and mainly airing those who spoke in RP would reduce the amount of regional dialects and their usage. One example that their results found, was that packed lunches in mining towns in West Yorkshire were coined “snap”, but this dialectal variation is not really in circulation anymore or present in the younger generations vernacular. This lexis can still be found, but mainly by the older generation which raises the question of dialect being tied with identity and heritage.
To coincide with this, in 1996 Kerswill and Williams researched Dialect Levelling. Dialect Levelling is the process in which the speech of a group of people converges towards a common norm, with extreme differences being ironed out. They studied the accents and dialects of children born and raised in Milton Keynes – a newly formulated town at the time – which consisted of people form London, the South-East, Northern-England, and Scotland. Crucially, they found that the children’s accents neither resembled their parents nor that of the surrounding areas. Accents emerge from Dialect Levelling across the UK and are often hard to place because of the lack of distinctive features and region-specific vernacular. The accent and dialect that results from this phenomenon has been coined the “University Accent”. Lesley Milroy offered an explanation for this, suggesting that due to an increase in geographical and social mobility, it is only natural for new accents and dialects to emerge, because when people are interacting they want to be understood, and one way to achieve this is to lessen one’s accent and dialectal features. For example, a student from Yorkshire studying at a London university won’t greet their Southern flatmate in dialect (e.g. “Ey ‘up mate, hars it guin’?”), they would conform to a more Standard English sentence to ensure they have been understood (e.g. “Hello, how are you?”). However, it could also be seen not as the decrease in dialect terms, but as the spreading of different dialects. Take Cockney for example, while it may be said to be dying in the specific area of the East-End, the language crafted there is popular across the United Kingdom.
To contrast with this, maybe the education system is to blame? It is considered mal-practice if a teacher doesn’t teach in Standard English, and the way that the system is structured basically quells the individuality of its students. Haven’t we all been there? Having our passion for a certain career or pathway crushed by those in power because it doesn’t conform to the traditionally (polite way of saying outdated) route? From exams only qualifications, to the lack of appreciation for the arts, the education system has hardly ever been fluid in its standing. This is not to criticise teachers, they are made to follow this flawed system, but it can hardly be ruled out as a reason for a loss in regional dialects when it’s resulted in the loss of individuality in its students. Linguists Upton and Widdowson (1996) blame the prescriptivist education system for precisely this, encouraging Standard English and refusing to accept the regional terms. A prescriptivist, by definition, is someone/an organisation that believe language is rigid and the correct way to use language is in its standard from (i.e. they don’t appreciate dialects and colloquialisms). Upton and Widdowson also deemed improved mobility and the increase in of technology has indisputably led to an increase in communications across mediums, and subsequently the “levelling out” of dialect terms. This theory cannot be contested, as this article contains at least two terms which have been derived from the media (‘stan’ and ‘gate-keeping’). Another popular example is how the Standard English material process verb “throw” has been moulded across regions and technology. In Yorkshire dialect, this verb can be found to be said as “to lob” or “to chuck”. But social media has popularised the verb “to yeet” meaning to throw. This has not been derived from a region, but has gained currency among many in the younger generations. There is potential that dialectal terms are vanishing due to synonyms.
Finally, there is a matter of identity. Many people are proud of their accent and where they come from, and consciously choose to carry their accents and dialects with them throughout life. Milroy (1987) studied speech in three inner city working class communities in Belfast and found that those who had more social connections and stronger ties within the community had a stronger accent. These ties within communities were valued traits, and were powerfully associated with one’s identity; maintain a strong accent and frequent use of dialectal terms was a way of affirming themselves. Similarly, in 1961, Labov studied dialectology of inhabitants and tourists of Martha’s Vineyard. He found that original inhabitants made use of the lexical term “in group preferencing” and so would change the pronunciations of the diphthongs /au/ and /ai/ slightly, as a marker of being an Up-Islander. It appeared there was a need for them to retain a social identity and almost propagate a ‘them and us’ mentality – a very cliquish and is almost emulated in the Mean Girl phrase ‘you can’t sit with us’ social view. Yet cliques are a way for people to craft their identities. Linguist Amy Bellows said that teenagers form their identity through their language among other things such as forming cliques and the use of in/out group preferencing.
So no, it doesn’t seem like regional dialects are in dire straits. Traditional variations? Maybe. But it is apparent that as society evolves so do dialects. Walking through the high streets of Yorkshire, you will still most likely here “you orate luv, how’s /?/ kids? Or mine rate enjoyed them breadcakes”. Similarly, in the East-End of London when shopping in Primark, you will probably hear someone asking a store assistant “Oi, swee’hear’ where can I find your Barack Obamas”. Perhaps if Elon Musk continues creating profound new technological developments which spur a new dialect, we may see a global takeover of vernacular and the ultimate death of regional dialects. However, at the minute, regional dialects are still very much thriving. Maybe in the next decade though Mr Musk?