BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 24: March 1996

Talking Shop

Brian J Ford

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Speech has evolved to facilitate communication, we are taught. There may be a deeper significance to the plethora of languages, accents and dialects we use - namely, their use to hinder communication, and to disenfranchise the outsider. If languages existed solely to ease dialogue, the natural tendency would be towards convergence. The diversity of languages shows that diversity is fundamental to the evolution of speech. Even within the span of a generation we can hear changes arising between groups. These new shades of language are there to mark out social groups, and to keep strangers at bay.

There was a sudden upsurge of ‘okay, yah’ a decade ago, marking out a pretentious schism of the middle classes. That was followed by the spread of Estuary English, the mark of a rebellious generation who rejected polite conventions.

Many grammarians teach that changes in accents come about because of anatomical laziness. A new way of speaking is an easier was of speaking. That’s unlikely to be the reason. The dam on the river Amstel, in the Netherlands, became known as Amsteldam. But the Dutch tend to drop the ‘L’, so the word became the Amsterdam it is today. It has been argued that this is because dropping the letter makes the word easier to say. However, travel across the channel to that other maritime centre, Bristol and the converse has occurred. This town began as Bristow, and the ‘L’ was added because of local custom. Bristolians tend to speak of the ‘areal of a field’ rather than the area. They call Sara ‘Saral’ and go to ‘Majorcal’ for their holidays. Laziness cannot account for these changes. In the North they say ‘glass’ with a short ‘A’, whilst in the south we prefer the more languid ‘gl-ah-ss’. Are short vowels easier to use? Hardly. The north has a long ‘U’ in bus, which in the south has the vowel shortened.

Southern English (also known as ‘Oxford’ or ‘BBC’ English, but formally described as ‘received pronunciation’) began as an affectation. The accents of the north are closer to the way English originally evolved. Are there affectations arising now? Indeed, and it is with the Australian soap operas on television with which most youngsters now like to identify.

The influence of the Australian accent was tellingly exemplified in a recent costume drama. The scene was misted, glimpsed through spun silk and softly focussed. The Victorian mother was garbed in black, lace-trimmed, severe; the little child in knicker-bockers, immaculately groomed, refined and obedient. Mother leant low, and said - in a crystalline accent like polished quartz - 'Well, dwalling, we must decide what to do. Shell we stay heah, in the countreigh? Or should we return to our house in the town?'

The little one looked up, crisply caught in cut-away, and answered in an accent of which Danni Minogue would have been proud. 'Stay in the countryside? Oh no, mama; I want to guy hime.' With introductions from the other end of the earth offering youngsters their own distinctive brand of speech, the future of English will be just as interesting as its past.

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