Thursday, 14 November 2013

Language matters.

I came across a quiz in the Guardian on line today, all about knowledge concerning languages. Here’s a link for anyone who fancies having a go at it.

Apparently this is more or less in connection with The Languages Festival, a joint effort by the Guardian and the British Academy. This is part of what they say about it: “The British Academy and the Guardian are holding a national Language Festival throughout November 2013 to celebrate the UK’s diverse cultural richness and raise the profile of language learning among learners of all ages. The aim of the festival is to raise the national profile of language learning – highlighting the academic, cultural, and economic benefits.” 

They’re providing materials for schools to use and ideas for organising events to celebrate language learning. Let’s hope it does something to encourage language learning and to improve the dire state of things linguistic in this country. 

Me, I just found language learning fun from the moment I started to learn French in the first year of secondary school and I still find it fascinating now. So, it seems, do all the people who go to my Italian conversation class. Are we unusual? 

While all this is going on, a head teacher in the Black Country has been making news with his attitude to Black Country dialect. He has banned its use in his school on the grounds that teaching his pupils to speak and write standard English will improve their prospects. 

His list of banned words and phrases includes "I cor" rather than "I can't", and "I day" instead of "I didn't". Other phrases on the banned list include the more widely used "somfink" instead of "something"; "gonna" rather than "going to" and "ain't" rather than "haven't". 

Mr White, the head teacher in question, said: "We had been looking at our literacy standards and we wanted to talk to parents about some of the confusion that happens when children are talking in slang to their mates in the playground. When it comes to phonics and English lessons it can be very confusing for the children." 

He’s even produced a booklet for parents so that they can reinforce things at home. However some parents have complained and say that this is an attack on Black Country culture. 

Now, that argument sounds familiar! 

Anyway I decided to do a bit of research. 

Here’s a bit of geographical stuff. To traditionalists the Black Country is the area where the 30ft coal seam comes to the surface - so West Bromwich, Oldbury, Blackheath, Cradley Heath, Old Hill, Bilston, Dudley, Tipton, Wednesfield and parts of Halesowen, Wednesbury and Walsall but not Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Smethwick or what used to be known as Warley. 

The region was described as 'Black by day and red by night' by Elihu Burritt, the American Consul to Birmingham in 1862. Other authors, from Charles Dickens to William Shenstone refer to the intensity of manufacturing in the Black Country and its effect on the landscape and its people. 

Today the Black Country is described as most of the four Metropolitan District Council areas of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton and the term is used as a marketing tool to sell and promote the West Midlands region to the north of Birmingham. 

There are historical bits and pieces as well. The region has its celebrated links with historical events such as the restoration of Charles II to the throne and also the Gunpowder plot. On the evening of November 7,1605, a group of the fleeing plotters arrived at Holbeche House near Dudley. Holbeche was owned by the Littleton family who had been involved in many of the Catholic uprisings, and it was to be the last stand of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. 

That evening, several of the plotters were injured by an accidental explosion which occurred while they were drying powder in front of an open fire. Between this evening and morning of the following day, several members of the group fled, while others still tried valiantly to rally support from the surrounding area. Just before midday on the 8th of November, the Sheriff of Worcester arrived with a posse of men and surrounded the house. After several attempts to have the conspirators surrender, a skirmish developed. Several were fatally wounded and the remaining known conspirators were apprehended. So there you go. 

Now what about this dialect? Well, apparently it has features of Early Middle English. Think of the word pairs tay/ tea, pays/ peas. Feel your tongue as you say them. The standard pronunciation has the tongue nearly as close to the roof of the mouth as it will go. The BCD version has it a little lower. Then take the pairs fairse/ face, Crairdley/ Cradley. Standard English uses the “ay” vowel here, while BCD has the tongue less close. Now take boon/ bone, gooin/ going. In these vowels the tongue is closest at the back, but again the BCD version is less close. 

Verbs also seem to show persistent features from early Middle English. Past tenses in BCD are often made weakly, by adding –ed, where standard English has a strong past. Consider gi’d/ gave, si’d/ saw, cotch’d/ caught. Weak past tenses tended to happen in lower-class English during the couple of centuries when French was the official language, and nobody was teaching “correct English”. There may be a couple of verbs where BCD has a different strong past e.g. fun/ found. 

Black Country verbs do not seem to have a perfect tense. Think of these sentences: “the glass wuz took out o’ the frairm” and “if er’d a-knew it wuz yer birthday, er’d a-bought yer a present”. The speakers know that their teachers would have corrected them to say “the glass was taken” and “if she had known it was your birthday . . ”, but they consistently use the simple past in all such situations. 

So we’ve got a “dialect” which may be older than Standard English. I can think of people who would start calling this a “language” and set about writing down the rules for its formation. They would just need to find a poet or two and a few texts, other than Chaucer, of course, and they could start calling for it to be used as the language of the classroom for some subjects. I can see a debate that could run and run. 

Oh dear, am I sounding a little cynical? But I’m afraid I’m with Mr White in this one. Of course, we shouldn’t go around stamping out bits of regional culture but if today’s young learners are to become the successful wage earners of tomorrow and, as we keep hearing about in the news at the moment, be able to compete with those who have been expensively educated in private schools, they need to be aware that standard and (dare I say it?) correct English exists.


  1. Anthea,

    T'would seem thee & me are the last bastions in the defence of correct English. Wert that we were able to push back the deplorable young, whose acceptance of slovenly speech canst but result in the loss of all comprehension. Doth it seem good to thee that we shouldst follow as recorded in the Book of Judges, chapter 12 & put each person to a simple test?

    Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, 'Let me cross,' the men of Gilead would ask, 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he said, 'No,' they then said, 'Very well, say "Shibboleth" (שבלת).' If anyone said, "Sibboleth" (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty and two thousand Ephraimites fell on this occasion - (owing to a defect in aspiration that discovered their country & led to their deaths).

    P. S.

    A question that is often raised regarding the number of Ephramites slain at the crossing of the river Jordan is . . . 2,040 or 42,000 ? “Forty and two thousand” is a precise translation from the Hebrew, in which language ( as in, say German or English in the time of King James) compound numbers must be conjoined with “AND” . Hence, in modern English the number is correctly written as 42,000. Various ‘Standard’ editions of the Holy Bible, all agree with this figure, and using the analogy of the numbering of the tribes of Israel distinguished masonic writers concur with that reckoning. On the other hand there is the point of view, that that vast number would mean that the entire Ephramite army would have been obliterated several times over, so the 2,040 is a more reasonable estimate. Therefore the question remains unresolved: do we accept the weight of modern Biblical scholarship, or do we rely on common sense?