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The relationship between dialect and identity

old couple talking

By Clive Upton
Professor of Modern English Language, University of Leeds

At this year's Christmas celebration of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, the poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan - the Bard of Barnsley - was asked if dialects were dying out. Not surprisingly, he said he doubted it and the substance of his talk - firmly rooted in today's everyday language - said as much too.

Although younger people today do not speak like their grandparents - who in turn do not speak the way their grandparents did - we can still place a person of any age by region or social group, or by both. Loosely copying Mark Twain... we can safely say that reports of the death of non-standard dialects are greatly exaggerated.

Note I have said non-standard dialects, distinguishing them from standard dialect, or "standard English".

Though we reserve it for special practical and social purposes, standard English is not special in any structural sense, since all dialects have complicated rules.

Having both standard and non-standard ways of talking is a real asset to a speaker - smoothing their way through a variety of situations.

A West Country child who describes being absent from school without permission as "playing truant", while their peers say "mitching", can expect a hard time in the playground. But using "mitch" outside their area can lead to incomprehension at best and a negative assessment at worst.

A Yorkshireman telling someone to "wait while five o'clock", using "while" for standard "until" (historically very correct, incidentally), declares his own local credentials and puts the other at their ease—unless, that is, the other is an outsider, in which case they are either accidentally baffled or intentionally excluded... both possibilities in the exercise that is dialect selection.

This matter of inclusion or exclusion - movement towards someone or erection of a barrier against them - is at the heart of our maintaining differences in speech.

The big word here is "identity".

We each have a sense of who we are and equally, of who we want to be. (These might not be the same thing, of course.) So we choose, from situation to situation, and even from second to second, how to express ourselves.

Usually this is unintentional, triggered by a place, or a subject of conversation, or the company we are in - or even maybe the changing look on someone's face.

Sense of belonging

If you are at all sensitive to language you have probably caught yourself doing this at times, like I do when on the streets of my native Birmingham - removed from my now-habitual West Yorkshire surroundings.

I'd typically say "aah" for "yes" in Birmingham, but have caught myself quite automatically saying "aye" in Yorkshire!

But we might make the switch fairly deliberately too.

Geordies who do not usually preserve the historical "oo" sound in a word like "house" might well refer to Newcastle United as "The Toon", or their favourite drink as "broon ale". Doing so can assert their right to local status, make them part of the club.

If a butcher asked 'what's the eecrip of the feeb?' he wanted to know the price of the beef

Social dialect, what we might loosely call slang, frequently operates at this more conscious level of speech. To fit in or to join the tribe, the speaker has to master the language - usually words, sometimes grammar, pronunciation, rhythms - of the in-group.

Here playfulness really has free rein, and any group that wants to mark itself out as distinct, invents its signals. There is no point, as an outsider, in trying to break in or keep up, because that defeats the object and the in-group will create something else to defeat you.

The ephemeral nature of much of this is obvious - a group's speakers moving on in time and taking their slang with them, usually into oblivion, sometimes into the historical record. Just a few big slang-types persist across generations - their practical use (often trading-related) declining, but their social use remaining to some degree.

The most famous of these must be the slang once found in many urban centres but so popularly associated with London that it is frequently called "cockney rhyming slang".

Far less well-known, but equally inventive and originally purposeful, is "back slang", once well-known to butchers and similar traders.

If a butcher asked: "What's the eecrip of the feeb?" he wanted to know the price of the beef. If he told a mate to 'vatch a cool at the elrig", he was advising him to have a look at the girl.

Not all slangs are short-lived, but might pass on across generations as marks of group identity, just as regional speech does.

The BBC's great Voices project of 2005, which saw the corporation engaged in unparalleled exploration of everyday speech across the UK, loudly proclaims the cause of language variation. There is a wealth of information to gladden the heart of anyone who revels in speech differences.

The best place to start is with the "word map" section of the site, which features words contributed to the project on a series of themes. To take just one set of maps, for "narrow walkway", you will find "close" and "lane" with special concentrations in Scotland, "ginnel" and "snicket" in Lancashire/Yorkshire, "jitty" in the north Midlands, "pavement" in London... and "twitten" on the south coast.

Agree or disagree. Find gaps in the picture. Be surprised. Above all, be prompted to listen to yourself and to those around you, and revel in the wonderful medley of 21st Century English speech.


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