The Way We Speak Now

Professor Henry Higgins famously claimed that he could tell to within a few yards where people lived from the way they spoke. His creator George Bernard Shaw said that an Englishman had only to open his mouth for another to hate or despise him. A century later you might think it would be impossible for a latterday Higgins to practise his craft, now that the forces of mobility and the media have supposedly wiped out regional variation. You might also think this would herald the beginning of the end of the instant, voice-led class resentment that hung on for so long after the death of the high Edwardian England which the playwright was analysing. Both these assumptions would be wrong.

Rumours of the end of all dialects seem to be depressingly valid when you hear that East Enders inflections have found their way into the speech west of Penzance, then cock your ear in Newlyn and find it to be true. At the same time you can still find people from this corner of the country who are able to stand in the square on market day and instantly identify a Mousehole voice, or a St. Just voice or a Sennen voice. It’s partly the words themselves, partly the constructions and partly the accent. Until quite recently a Sennen man, or woman, might be distinguished by at least two speech characteristics – the high pitch and the stammer. There are various explanations: one is that it was a community of tin miners and that you had to literally raise your voice to be heard underground. Another is that the stammer was an imitation of a genetic trait in the family at the local manor. Both were held in place by the long isolation of Sennen at the base of a steep coast.

Whatever the truth of these surmises, this is a microcosm of how highly localised manners of speech can be developed, preserved – and ultimately lost. It is of course one of many thousand examples in a densely populated island with a mighty variety of trades and locations. And it contains what many experts regard as the essential ingredient – the one that has to be present for a given use of language to prosper and survive. Call it leadership, or influence, or charisma, or fashion. If they speak like this at the big house, then that’s how you have to speak as well. This sense of having-to can be subconscious or taught. And the Big House doesn’t have to be a house at all. It can, and most frequently is, the parents, but it can equally be a dominant child in the class, a powerful member of the community, the rise of a group, a political leader, a rock star.

For example, it is the influence of West Indian music and culture that has led to some young white Londoners sounding as Caribbean as their black peers. It is not only in the use of words like bro or blood, for friend, or murk, for destroy, but also in the inversion of s and k that turns ask into aks. Look more closely at the long history of speech variation in England and you learn that aks is not quite the West Indian innovation it appears to be, but a bringing back of the form that migrated two and three centuries ago from our own south-western counties. It took the long way round from Cornwall, but it got there. "Human language is human language," says Professor Peter Trudgill, one of Britain’s most emmiment sociolinguists. "It means that some of the same sorts of things will go on happening, even if we can never quite predict how that will happen."

Whatever comes to replace them, the old dialects are on the way out. No-one disputes the fact, and it is this certainty that has given rise to dozens of preservation societies throughout the country. They range in character from rueful nostalgia to militant anger. On the opposite side of the country from Cornwall is the Friends of Norfolk Dialect, or FOND, or which Professor Trudgill, a native of the county, is president. One of the reasons the group was set up was the sense that the whole of the region was being badly misrepresented by the national media. As co-founder Keith Skipper of Cromer, on the North Norfolk coast, explains: "There were soaps like The Newcomers, set in a place they called Angleton. But everyone had these dreadful, hybrid, all-purpose Mummerzet accents. The latest one to give offence is Kingdom, with Stephen Fry. I’d have thought, as an actor and a bright lad, who happens to have a house in Norfolk, he should know better. The characters just don’t sound right." The broadcasters want advice, he says, but they don’t always wnt to follow it. One of the problems, he concedes, is that if you want to get everyone’s voice absolutely right, you might be hard pushed to find enough actors.

A question of accent rather than content, but the two are indivisible. Words unique to Norfolk dialect, or Suffolk, have never been used and never will be with a Cumbrian or Northumbrian accent. Both Skipper and Professor Trudgill are adamant that Norfolk people will always be speaking in a way that distinguishes them from London and the Midlands. And yet throughout England, in all but the most remote rural areas, the local accents are said to be not as strong as they used to be. Similarly, much of the dialect vocabulary is passing from usage. To stay with the example of Norfolk, this means that such words as beezlins, meaning a cow’s first milk after calving, or beggary, meaning a large growth of weeds in a field of corn or root vegetables, are under threat of extinction.

It could hardly be otherwise in a country in which fewer than four per cent work in agriculture, (compared with nearly thirty per cent at the end of the nineteenth century) from which so many of these venerable and descriptive words were drawn. It’s a land leaving the land. You might still hear swallacking – from the lacking of swale, or shade - meaning very hot, or stuggy meaning stocky, or slantendicular, meaning not quite perpendicular; you will certainly see staithe, meaning landing stage because it is automatically preserved in place names, but what of spreed, for muck-spreading time, or roaring boys for herring-salters, or pishamire for ant, or rorping for the sound of a bull bellowing?

Graham Cole, a Suffolk musician and former lorry driver, reckons he can still locate many East Anglians' place of origin to within a few miles just by catching a few words of their conversation.

On the same latitude, a hundred miles to the west, the same thing is happening in Northamptonshire. The village of Helpston has more reason than most to cherish its linguistic heritage as it is where the great John Clare, a sort of peasant laureate of English verse, was born in 1793 and buried 70 years later. He not only used words from the local dialect in his stanzas, he even invented the odd one, like sutering for the action of a rising heron, when he couldn’t find what he wanted in the existing vocabulary. A nearby piece of woodland whose name he wrote as Royce, is spellt and pronounced Rice. Next to his cottage, in the Blue Bell Inn where he once worked as a pot-boy, there is a bar bearing his name. But ask the customers if they know the meaning of some of the local words he used, and they can only guess. Good guesses some of them, including frumity as a drink of some kind, and suggesting a link with the Wessex drink firmity, which gets drunk by Thomas Hardy’s characters. But cazom for cowpat, pawney for showery, dossity for life or spirit, swinkt for tired, pooty for snail – all these seem as much strangers as Clare himself felt in his changed and enclosed countryside.

However, one man recognises rawky, still current with the meaning of misty, and pettichap, meaning a long-tailed titmouse. Another pounces on the word pismire, the Northampton relation of that Norfolk word pishamire, and also meaning ant. He had recently heard a woman with a Danish accent use a word that sounded like pussemur and was Danish for ant. They pillaged us, he reflected, but they left us with bits of their language; north-east from here and the places abound with –by endings, denoting a Danelore origin.

Almost everywhere, from the far south-west to the far north-east, there is a surprising consensus that Bernard Shaw got it wrong about an Englishman only having to open his mouth to be hated or despised. Surprising because I have this friendly caution from dialects expert Professor Clive Upton, ringing in my ears. Based at the University of Leeds, he is consultant to the BBC’s Voices project, which has been monitoring changes in spoken English for the past 60 years. RP (Received Pronunciation), which is what he says I speak, is generally judged as "good" in the sense of education and social position, but "bad" in the sense of cold and unfriendly. And remember, says Prof Trudgill, that England is unusual, perhaps even unique, in having a large section of people – RP speakers – whose regional origins are not given away by their speech. This is largely down to the (continuing) influence of the residential public schools who reared young men, and not just from the south-east, for the commanding heights of public administration and the professions. You don’t get that homogenising of sound in the middle classes of other Wetsern European nations.

It’s the local boundaries, more than the big regional variations, that draw the friction. Maybe if you speak RP, you’re too remote to matter. Back in East Anglia, it’s not so much strange flatnesses of so-called Estuarian that aggravate a Norfolker – threatening though their march might be – as the peculiar sing-song quality of, say, Ipswich. "They suffolkate the language down there." The rivalry and ridicule, however good-humoured, are at their most intense when they are at their most local, as between Cromer and Sheringham. Up at England’s other end, in the small Cumbrian market town of Wigton, a haulier complains that if you go just ten miles north and over the border into Scotland, they can’t understand a word you say, whereas if you go right up to Inverness, they speak good English and there’s no problem.

"The trouble I’ve had with the electric meter at the church," he says. "Dealing with someone in Liverpool on the phone. She asked me to read the meter, I went nothing two nothing nothing and the lady burst out laughing. I said what’s the matter and she said it’s the way you’re reading the meter, you’re calling them nothings and they’re not nothings they’re zeros. Well what’s a zero? Zeros only came in two years ago. Now the kids, they think they know it all. She was quite annoyed, nearly as annoyed as I was. The TV’s to blame, and the radio before that. The commentators, they’re all foreign."

Some of the old words are still in use, he says, but only just. A gadger’s still a chap, and a mort’s still a girl. A middle-aged woman from forty miles to the south says the words are changing all the time, even the old ones; her grandfather referred to a cowshed as a byre; then it was stedding, now it’s shippon. Another, who has come into Wigton for the cattle auctions from nearby Ireby, says that when the Wigton Players put on a show not long ago, it sounded as if they were all from Glasgow, and no-one could understand it.

Sixty miles up along the north-east, still in England but moving ever further north of south-west Scotland, the land gets as remote as any in the country. Of the dwindling English fastnesses, only the moors of the North Pennines can compare. The country to the north of the wall and south of the border still has an independent but beleaguered feel to it, dotted with the fortified homes of the old warring families. These are the debatable lands, to which order only started to arrive with the accession of King James I of England and VI of Scotland in 1603. Still, allegiances remained stronger to the line of the family than to the passage of a crown. Like the people who live here, the language has made its own accommodation between the powerful national identities on either side of them.

"If you could calve a coo and lamb a yoo, that was enough, that’s what you were expected to do," says Allan Wood, who lives a little way from the village of Thropton, near Rothbury. He is now in his sixties and started his working life as a bonded agricultural labourer fifty years ago. "If your parents spoke in the dialect, you got left behind in a way. If you spoke like them, or your grandparents, you were considered backward. The children in the village, the builders’s sons and that, they had a different point of view, they didn’t gang hame. After the war the people here were mostly working-class and they tried to better themselves. The dialect was left with the hill folk. It’s fallen away, although the accents have remained. Up at the top end of the valley it gets much broader, with the Scottish influence. They sound their rs more."

Wood now has a reputation as a fine vernacular poet. Because he writes with dialect words about the countryside in which he lives and bemoans such changes as the line of a familiar hill being lost to dull new afforestation, he is inevitably seen in the tradition of John Clare.(*Note from Alan: I’m going to insert a couple of lines from his work here) "I started when the bairns were little," he explains. "I canna write or spell, or coont very good, but the missus translates it so others can understand." Ask the Woods about the role of the TV and they reply that it’s not just what comes out of it, but the fact that it’s there, keeping people in at night instead of going up the valley to meet their friends and talk. They reckon that Geordie speech is making its way inland from Tyneside. But, like the Cumbrian who said he was understood in Inverness, they say that dialect over on Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast, is the same as here. Her accent is less broad than his and seems to bear out the popular theory that women are more able or more willing to adapt and integrate linguistically. Katrina Porteous, a poet who lives in the coastal village of Beadnell, looking across to the Farne Islands, made an extraordinary discovery about the local speech characteristics. When she was talking to the old fishermen about their lives and work, she noticed that their conversational rhythms kept falling into the seven-stress patterns that occur in the Border Ballads.

All over the country, living side by side with a sense of pride in an evolved local speech is a still-sharp rage at having been patronised. Stephen Hall, an actor and musician in St. Just, West Cornwall, talks of the "deep wound" that has resulted from being perceived by your countrymen to the east and the north as a covern of smugglers and ne’er-do-wells. It’s a class thing, he agrees; voices always are and Bernard Shaw was right about that. But it goes beyond class into something more sinister. "It is a form of internal racism," says Hall, "and it is directed against our own culture, and that is scary stuff. When I was brought up (he went away to school in the east of the county) I was almost punished if I didn’t speak ‘proper’ English. And I found myself thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why shouldn’t I be able to speak like my uncles? I shouldn’t have to pretend, it’s bloody ridiculous.’ "

It’s a triangle, explains John Wells, emeritus professor of linguistics at University College London and author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. At the top is received pronunciation and at the bottom are the extreme variations of local speech. The majority of people are located around the middle, with the vertical dimension correlating with social class and the horizontal dimension with geographical difference. "It’s another way of saying that in the working classes the differences are quite marked locally," says Professor Wells, "and the higher up you go the less of the local there is."

What seems to be happening is that ways of speaking – both the accent and the choice of words – are spreading out from the cities. In this respect language is doing as it always has done and is confirming the demography. But there are further parallels with the politics of town and country. Just as incomers and second home-owners are blamed for pricing villagers out of their own place, so they are seen as responsible for infecting local speech with outsideness. As Peter Trudgill observes, people move into the countryside because they love the look and feel of the place, but then say "If my children come home from school with an accent, I’d be vay upset." This is just the speech counterpart of the Nouveau Rurals wanting their town amenities and complaining of noise pollution when a cow moos too close. Not that they’re worse than the ones who try to go native by acquiring the deep burr of their chosen pocket.

You can take the analogy further. Just as house price inflation could be seen as a globally fuelled phenomenon – Big Bang in the City, world comes to London, demand makes prices go crazy, companies look to the regions, suddenly young working couples in Cheshire can’t afford a starter home – so voices today can be portrayed as the victims of supra-national forces. These may be undefined, but they tend to include popular music (even though it is as bewilderingly varied as it has ever been), Hollywood and America generally. And whenever such a narrative requires a single, ultimate culprit, there it is, crouching in the corner or hanging on the wall. While the TV is routinely cited as the villain of the piece, the difficult truth is that it’s the wrong suspect. "Useful scapegoat," says Clive Upton, "but it’s a totally false perception. You only have to read the historical record that goes back way, way before the arrival of the mass media, and everyone’s already busy lamenting the decline of Good English."

None the less, the big fear is of a dull, characterless regional form of speech, Estuarian, taking over the entire south-east of England and then moving relentlessly up the map. The conservationists put everything they’ve got into keeping the old structures standing, but they fight a losing battle. The terrror of a beiging-over of the vocal landscape is as acute as the environmentalist’s dread of losing every green space to construction.

"All nonsense really," says John Wells. "One problem is that the general public has this idea that there are distinct accents – the London, the Cockney, the Estuary, when the fact is you can’t really divide up the great multi-dimensional continuum of speech variation into coherent units like this. The idea that the whole of south-east England is one great splodge of Estuary doesn’t work; Sussex, Buckingham, Surrey, Kent are all different from each other."

The term of Estuarian first appeared in an article in The Times Educational Supplement by a Surrey-based linguistics professor, David Rosewarne. This came out back in 1984, many years before the term caught on and just one year after Tony Blair, who was to be dubbed Britain’s first EE-speaking PM, had entered Parliament. Rosewarne identified EE as an "intermediate" form existing somewhere between Cockney and RP, and argued that its attraction was that it could be readily used by speakers of broadly different class origins. In an apparently mobile south-east, this gave it the makings of a lingua franca. Rosewarne knew that the process was not as new as it looked, but had been in evidence towards the end of the Middle Ages when London speech had begun to exert an influence on the Court and so affected the RP of the age.

Present EE has elements of a dialect, or at least words whose meaning it has helped to modify. Cheers moved from being what you said when you raised a glass of beer to meaning thank-you or goodbye. Basically appeared as a time-buying word and started to mean, basically, not very much. The word "like" likewise, although this has been adopted almost everywhere. As has "So I’m like…" meaning "Then I said…" Then there were the undoubtedly American imports. There You Go was the new way of saying Here You Are; Excuse Me meant Sorry; No Way meant By No Means; Right meant correct as well as OK; OK came to mean I See. And everybody, even the ones who should have known better, started saying Hopefully instead of I Hope So. (Few of them knew that they had history on their side and that the adverb was already in use with its "new" meaning in 1851.)

EE has been widely misunderstood as a debasement through Cockneyfication. This is why it gets up the noses of the middle classes. They can just about tolerate it from Norman Tebbitt, but not from Ken Livingstone or David Beckham. This is partly a question of content of course, just as it was for Henry Higgins’ guinea-pig Eliza Doolittle when she said with her classy new enunciation: "My aunt died of influenza, or so they said. But it’s my belief they done the old woman in." As Professor Wells has argued, it may have certain characteristics of Cockney, such as the glottalling out of the t sound in the middle of bottle, or the so-called yod coalescence that turns Tuesday to Choosday, tune to choon and Duke to Jook. But at the same time it has adopted none of such core Cockney sounds as the dropped h or the labiodental fricative (pronunciation of things as fings.)

If there are to be what language experts call regiolects, then EE will clearly be among the largest. This the way it is probably going: fewer dialects, but dialects none the less; bigger, more inclusive and – the good news, surely – forever evolving. A city as vast and cosmopolitan as London is not just a giver-out of existing trends but also a mighty magnet for new ones. Hence words like diss (insult) and nang (cool) make their way through London-Jamiacan into wider use. Something comparable is happening in Bradford Asian, with words like chuddies (underpants) or balti (bucket) entering the city’s vocabulary. The questioning "innit" may also have come from Asian and Caribbean sources, but some linguists suggest that it would not have gained such currency in English if a similar compression did not already exist in the south-west.

Young Liverpudlians, idiosyncratic as ever, are looking back to the pronunciation of their parents and grandparents in some ways, but are at the same pushing their language towards a more northern identity. "It’s a very interesting situation," says Clive Upton of the Voices project in Leeds. "Essentially their city has a north-west Midlands dialect, but now the young seem to have thrown their lot in with the pan-northern standard and are sending out messages about their own northerness. It’s happening more in the pronunciation than the words. Instead of pronouncing cook book coo(c)h boo(c)h, they now use the shorter vowel on the first word, cu(c)h. As north Midlanders, Liverpudlians have the dipthong, but now they are tending towards a longer vowel sound in a word like game, again looking to the north. These are messages from a group of people determinedly distancing themselves from southern pronunciation. Something similar is happening in Newcastle. Game used to be gey’em, and now they’re also turning towards a more northern sound. They’re more mobile than their forbears and they’re looking for new ways of presenting themselves."

What of the Queen, who speaks the English that bears her own title? Her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson, says she has detected a change over the years, but more in pitch than accent. If Diana was the People’s Princess, then Elizabeth is the uncontested Media Monarch, caught on the camera and microphone throughout her 82 years. Her speech over the past fifty has even been the subject of an academic study, published three years ago in the Journal of Phonetics. This showed that in common with others in the region of her main home the u had moved forward in the mouth. It wasn’t that she was consciously dumbing down, said the lead researcher, Professor Jonathan Harrington, rather that she was changing her accent in the light the shifts occurring in the wider community. For the record, Australians were going the same way. The previous year she had said at a party that all her grandchildren spoke Estuary English, except the Waleses. To John Wells’ ear the changes in her own accent are relatively small, but he notes that she has gone from being heppy to being happy, with a long way to go until she is huppy.

Is this Tony Blair’s true legacy? Old Labour leaves the Open University and New Labour leaves weird classless language? He certainly used it himself, and knowingly, even though it sometimes sounded shot through with foreign influences, from Scots to Australian. For professional linguists his speech, and speeches, were richly toxic with glottal-stopping, yod coalescence and labiodental fricatives. You could interpret the sound of him as a longing for universal compatibility. No wonder it was so lampoonable. Yet he was for a while a provenly popular leader, and so meets that essential condition for copying to occur.

You can hear its influence even in supposedly exclusive public schools. At Westminster, for example, some of the pupils use the interrogative upturn that makes non-questioning statements end like this? Here is a tight, independent little community based around a yard in the shadow of the abbey. It has been here for hundreds of years and it has its own vocabulary – UpSchool or UpAshburnham to denote being in the hall, or in a particular house; station meaning a given sport; Pinks the honour, and tie, you receive for excelling in it. But then there is what the pupils themselves describe as an evolving sub-vocabulary: bum-out (noun or adjective), meaning boring or lacking in substance; standard, meaning OK; poce (c pronounced like soft s) meaning possibly. Words from Grime music have also come in, most popularly slew, meaning to mock. Influence is the key thing, they agree. If someone you admire is talking in a particular way, you’ll probably start doing it too. It is now the rural, traditional boarding schools, with their far-back vowels, that run the risk of turning out vocal anachronisms. Not quite Brian Sewell, but Hugh Grant and beyond. Given the social and political dominance that such voices have enjoyed, it is worth remembering that RP is relatively new, and did not exist when Dr. Johnson was compiling his dictionary in 1755.

No-one knows what is going to happen next. Although this does not help the catastrophe theorists, it is only the present form of a traditional truth. As Peter Trudgill says, "England doesn’t sound anything like it did 500 years ago. The vowels have shifted and shifted since then and that is almost certainly what they will go on doing." In a world so full of would-be explainers, this utter uncertainty is refreshing. More than this, the best linguistic brains in the country can’t even tell us why we speak as we do. They are clever enough not to even try. They also know that to force another to speak against their natural inclinations as Higgins does in My Fair Lady (Cockney for Mayfair, remember), can be a perilous enterprise.

The closest I could come to an explanation was not close at all but lies somewhere in the debatable lands of Darwinism and Chaos Theory. The fittest words and ways of saying them survive, but we have no idea what these are going to be because we cannot predict who or what is going to wield the vital influence, or how. As to the beloved old notions of landscape determining sounds – the fens turn you flat, the hills make you lilt – they’re all caddle, kets and muckment.