TT: Dialectful

JANE: Yesterday, I talked about The Secret Garden, a novel that had a great

Land of Many Dialects

influence on my life. One of the main elements in the novel is Mary’s desire to learn the Yorkshire dialect which is spoken by the people in the area where she is now living.

So, Alan, as our resident Yorkshireman, what did you think about the use of your native tongue?

ALAN: The Yorkshire aspects in the novel were very authentic and added a lot to the atmosphere of the story.

One curious thing that struck me – not very far into the book, Mrs. Medlock uses the word “marred” and then there is an authorial intrusion which says “Marred is a Yorkshire word which means spoiled and pettish”. I would have used the word “mardy” (or possibly “marredy” — I honestly don’t know how to spell it) instead of “marred.” However I’m quite happy to accept “marred.” Words do vary across Yorkshire; even villages right next door to each other will often have slightly different vocabularies. When I walk down an alleyway I’m never sure if I’m walking down a ginnel, a snicket, or a twitchell…

One thing I *did* object to. Throughout the book, the word “the” is rendered as “th'”. That’s just plain wrong. A much more accurate rendering would be the simple “t'” I’ve just jumped to a random page where I see the dialogue:

“One o’ th’ kitchen gardens.”

Just try saying that out loud. One of two things will happen. Either you will elide the “th” into “the” or you will say “th” and then pause before you say “kitchen”. Both are wrong and both give far too much emphasis to “th”. A much better depiction of how it would sound is:

“One o’ t’ kitchen gardens.”

Even that is not quite right, but it’s much closer. The “o'” and the “t'” would actually be slurred together and the “t'” would be barely pronounced. The “t'” is actually more of an absence than a presence. It’s not pronounced with the tip of the tongue (which gives an unwanted emphasis). It’s more at the back of the throat, and you slide over it rather than say it out loud. It’s easy to demonstrate, but very hard to describe…

JANE: From watching episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I have the impression that different dialects go with different British stereotypes. So, what is the stereotype attached to Yorkshire?

ALAN: Gruff and self-contained but with a heart of gold and a certain dry, mocking wit. How can you tell if a Yorkshireman is teasing you? His lips are moving…

There’s also a myth that Yorkshire people are just like the Scots, but without the generosity! We have a saying: “If tha’ does owt for nowt, do it for thysen.” And while there’s a superficial truth to that, there’s obviously much more to it.

Do you have dialects in America? You obviously have regional accents, but a dialect is more than just an accent. It has its own vocabulary and grammar. For example, did you know that when I were nobbut a lad I’d oft go laikin’ taws on’t causey?

JANE: You lost me somewhere around “laikin.” Do I get a translation?

ALAN: Nobbut a lad — nothing but a child (i.e. just a child). Oft go laikin’ – often go playing (the verb to laik means to play). Taws – marbles (I vaguely recall Tom Sawyer using this word in Mark Twain’s novel. Was Mark Twain a secret Yorkshireman?). On’t causey – literally on the causeway. A causeway is a footpath (you’d probably call it a sidewalk). So, when I was just a little boy I’d often play marbles on the footpath. Easy, eh?

JANE: Easy when you translate it, maybe…

By the way, I think we distinguish between “footpaths” or simply “paths” as unpaved, while “sidewalks” are paved. Both, however, are established walkways, so if you cut across a field, even if you leave a trail, this is not a “path.” It only becomes a “path” when lots of people use it.

As for dialects… No. I don’t think we Americans have them to the same extent. (By the way, if a reader wants to disagree, I’d welcome comments!)

That doesn’t mean that strong regional accents don’t lead to different speech patterns. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but summered in an area in southern Maryland called Shady Side. The two areas were within about an hour’s drive of each other, but in Shady Side there was a distinct local accent. “Baltimore, Maryland,” for example, came out much closer to “Balmer, Merlin.”

Another marked difference was that in Shady Side “y’all” functioned neatly as a second person plural, a part of speech I think English – British or American – is sorely lacking. However, when I went to college in the Bronx, New York, the more common second person plural was “youse” or “youse guys.”

ALAN: I agree that we need a second person plural and don’t have a convenient one. I’ve noticed “youse” occasionally in Antipodean speech patterns, but I don’t think British English (or Yorkshire!) has one. On the other hand, Yorkshire does often use the second person singular thee/thou.

JANE: Another regional difference in speech patterns is speed. A friend of mine loved to tell tales of how when, after college, she moved from New York to Tennessee, she had trouble making herself understood – and understanding. She simply spoke – and “heard” – too quickly, so that even though the words were the same, she couldn’t understand them.

Here in New Mexico, there’s a lot of Spanish mixed into daily use, but I don’t think locals think about it much. You just pick it up. After a while if someone suggests you might want to go take a seat on the banco near the horno, you just do so. It would actually sound weird if someone said “go take a seat on the built-in bench near the traditional-style oven.”

So, no dialects, but, who knows? If the United States had been settled as long as England without the “leveling” influence of mass communications, we might have developed distinct dialects as well.

ALAN: English seems to absorb loan words very well. There are a lot of Maori loan words in New Zealand English. I think pretty much everyone would understand you if you said something like “I’m visiting the whanau this weekend”. Whanau (pronounced far-now) means extended family. Words like this are in common everyday use – you see them in newspapers and hear them on the radio and TV and nobody thinks there’s anything odd about it at all.

JANE: Loan words would be another fascinating thing to talk about. I’d love to hear more about what words the New Zealanders have adopted from their Maori neighbors – and even more, why this has happened. After all, why not just say “extended family”? Let’s take that up next time.


18 Responses to “TT: Dialectful”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Great timing, Jane! There is (was?) a show on History Channel called “How the States Got Their Names?” that this week dealt with dialectical differences across the US. Oddly, I’ve been looking for a copy of the dialect map they used, and there are a bunch of them out there.

    Briefly, there are some extreme dialects in the US: gullah and the Okracoke “brogue” stand out most strongly. I’m off in “dude-land” here on the West Coast (if you can say “duuude” and enunciate all three U’s, then you’re a native speaker). And there are others: Long Island (pronounced Lon gIsland by native speakers, and about twice as fast), Upper Midwest (you betcha) and the Southern y’all.

    Most of the dialects in the US are less pronounced than the ones in England. They also seem to be much younger (with the most extreme ones being the oldest and most isolated). According to the show, the popular southern accent didn’t catch on until after the Civil War, and the Upper Midwestern (bubbler, pop for soda, etc) is a 20th Century phenomenon around the industrial Great Lakes Region.

    Now, “Dude-land” is spreading east out of California, presumably following the McMansions and badly built bungalows of the noughties. If you hear someone saying “rad,” “bromance,” or (of course) “duude,” blame us.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes! I thought of gullah after I’d posted this.

      However, I think it’s important to note that, as CBI said, the inability to move around was an element.

      Also, most gullah speakers came from a poor group that didn’t have access to the organs of mass media.

      I really thing the California examples are closer to regionalisms than dialects.

  2. CBI Says:

    Some observations — rather a shotgun approach.

    I suspect that one reason that dialects in the U.S. are less pronounced is that there has always been a lot more movement of people between areas. The differences which exist come mainly from who settled there. It is interesting to look at linguistic maps: one can often trace the movement of people from (say) the southeastern seaboard to points west.

    Re Yorkshire. Is the /t’/ meaning “the” that you mention more of a reflection of heavy aspiration (breathing sound): like the sound of theta in Homeric Greek (or the aspirated / ţ / in Hindi), albeit with much of the “stopped” quality reduced or lost?

    I also suspect that “laikin'” is cognate with “larking”, such as the noun in the phrase “did it for a lark”. As a kid, I recollect “taw” was a marble, usually a bit larger, with a specific use in a game of marbles — but I didn’t play, so don’t really know.

    As for “y’all”, in my dialect (basically southern) it definitely functions as a second person plural. I think it’s a very common usage here in New Mexico as well, especially east of the Rio Grande.

    Regarding “horno”: although the standard pronunciation is /OR-no/, I’ve at times hear it pronounced, especially be newcomers and younger folk, as /HOR-no/. Have you observed that as well?

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Is the /t’/ meaning “the” that you mention more of a reflection of heavy aspiration (breathing sound): like the sound of theta in Homeric Greek (or the aspirated / ţ / in Hindi), albeit with much of the “stopped” quality reduced or lost?

      I’m not familiar with either of these, so I can’t answer precisely, but your description does sound close to the kind of thing I meant.

      I also suspect that “laikin’” is cognate with “larking”, such as the noun in the phrase “did it for a lark”.

      I think the two are certainly related. The term is very old, probably dating back to the Old Norse — many of these dialect terms derive directly from the languages spoken by the various waves of invasions after the Romans left.

      Did you know that the name of the city of Nottingham (of Robin Hood fame) is actually a corruption of Snotingehame — which means “the home of the family of Snot”; the eponymous Snot being an early invader who settled there…


      • janelindskold Says:

        Actually, I did. Came up in my current RPG (run by Walter Jon Williams, who, among other things, writes excellent alternate history).

        Having Walter for a friend is an education in the odd.

      • CBI Says:

        No, that snot something I knew. But the roots are clear now that you’ve pointed them out.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Yes… I’ve definitely heard “horno” pronounced with the “h.”

    But how will people learn if they don’t screw up and get politely corrected?

    One of my favorites on this is the tale of the newscaster who had clearly been coached on Spanish pronounciations.

    In reading an announcement about an up-coming event, he said “There will be a midnight vee-heel [instead of “vigil”]….”

    So even the best intentions can be mauled…

    • CBI Says:

      I’ve heard the mispronunciation of “vigil” as well. Linguists will call something like that “hypercorrection”: making an incorrect change similar to a correct change. (E.g., “Sally saw John and I” instead of “Sally saw John and me”.)

      I must admit that one of my minor pet peeves is the affected Spanish pronunciations by people who are native English speakers who don’t have a Spanish background. I’m not talking about the difference between /RO-dee-oh/ and /roh-DAY-oh/, where English phonemes are used, but where someone with one of the American English accents takes an anglicized name (it’s hard to do the phonemics using ASCII characters, but e.g., “Candalaria”: /kan-duh-LAIR-ee-yuh/) and shifts to a Spanish-type accent (e.g., /kahn-thah-LAH-ree-ah/) with an attempt at Spanish phonemes. One of the afternoon traffic reporters gets one eye-rolling at times.

      It’s not even well-pronounced Spanish most of the time. Like the English anglicized pronunciation of “horno” with the “h” silent, /orno/, such as I think we both use: it doesn’t have the Spanish phonemic flap represented by the letter “r” in “horno”, but substitutes an English /r/ phoneme. The latter’s fine but the hypercorrective mixture sound funny at best.

      Languages and people are funny — and can be very interesting.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    And sometimes you don’t need a dialect to confuse the issue…

    A friend and I were talking about what she kept calling “timed essays.” I finally figured out that I would have called these simply “essay tests” as opposed to “take home essays.”

    She grew up in Utah. I grew up in D.C.

  5. Chad Merkley Says:

    Are regional dialects in Britain starting to disappear with higher public education standards and more mass communication available? I suspect that here in the US, those are major factors in creating a more uniform national dialect.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      To a certain extent they are, though the television companies do now seem to have a conscious policy of employing reporters and talk show hosts who have regional accents. The idea of BBC “received pronounciation” appears to have been abandoned. The TV companies also seem to positively revel in making programmes that indulge themselves in dialects. The most popular soap opera in Britain is “Coronation Street” which is set in deepest, darkest Lancashire and which makes no concessions to the listener whatsoever!

      I suspect the dialect words are starting to disappear but the strong accents and weird linguistic constructions are still going strong. For example, in Yorkshire the word “until” does not exist and the word “while” is used to mean “until” (“I can only stay while tea time” means “I can only stay until tea time”). That kind of thing is certainly not disappearing.


  6. Paul Says:

    This reminds me of a piece from “My Fair Lady,” wherein Professor Higgins intones:
    “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him;
    “The moment he talks, he makes some other Englishman despise him…”

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Absolutely! It was true when Professor Higgins first said it, and it is equally true now. Also, it is perfectly possible for two English people to have a conversation where both will swear that they are talking English, but neither of them will understand a word the other one says!


  7. Katie Says:

    This should entertain everyone.

    Some of these bother me, as well (“where’s it at?” is especially prevalent in Oklahoma and extremely annoying), while others…I’m not really sure what the Brits think we’re supposed to be saying instead (“train station?” “alphabetize?”). On still others (shopping cart vs. trolley, math vs. maths), obviously the British are just wrong. 😉

    • CBI Says:

      There is never a shortage of people looking down on others because of their dialect. Some of the complaints seem to me to be of that sort. There also is the problem of not understanding the irony of some sayings (e.g., “that’ll learn you”).

      I personally find a slight difference in meaning (or at least connotation) between “where’s it at”? and “where is it?”, with the former being more emphatic.

      • Martin K Says:

        Without context, I (as a New Zealander) would have assumed that “where’s it at?” was a greeting, akin to “how’s it hanging?”

  8. Other Jane Says:

    Western Pennsylvania has a bit of a dialect called Pittsburghese. Yinz (sometimes spelled younse) is our second person plural.

    Not everyone talks like this…but I’ve sure heard many of these things in conversation!

    Here’s an example of Pittsburghese:

    “Listen, yinz, ta this story. Last Mundy, when I got home from dahntahn Picksburg, I redded up the hahse, worshed the clothes and did the arning, n’at. Then I decided ta take a break coz I was gettin’ rilly hungry. I looked ina fridge, but it needed stocked. Alls I had was butterbread and leftover city chicken. No jumbo, no chipped ham, no kolbassi.

    So I headed aht to the store. I got me a buggy and picked up a hoagie, some pop and a duzn eggs in case I wanted dippy ones in the mornin’. When I got back home, I headed aht to set by the crick ta eat in peace and quiet. Just as I was gonna take a bite a my sammich, my nebby neighbor, Shurl, shows up, wantin’ ta know how I been. Whiles we’re chattin’, I see a grinny sneak up and start nibblin’ on my mill. I tried ta chase him, but the grass was slippy, and I fell in ta the jaggerbushes. I never been so flustrated.”

    You can get the translation here:

    I’ll watch for the show on dialects from the History Channel. It sounds interesting.

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