Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Black Country Dialect II

I have been thinking about the revival in the Black Country dialect in the 1980's. Of course the theory is that it is a residue from before the Great Vowel Shift and its persistence is due to a sense of isolation, lack of social mobility and the small number of educational opportunities for what is a region of a million people.
After all Wolverhampton has had its City status for a very short time and a University for only a little while longer. Economically the sub-region was probably in economic decline from the end of the First World War. With larger scale industry developing in the North West, Birmingham and places like Coventry. The Black Country today is still a place of small firms and family owned businesses.

Well in the sixties and seventies the Black Country had been undergoing a marked change in its fortunes with high levels of development. With relatively progressive local authorities improving education and the communications of the place, an area notoriously difficult to get around.

Then came Mrs Thatcher and more importantly Geoffrey Howe, his budget put paid almost overnight to large swathes of Black Country industry. Much of which was admittedly fairly low in terms of skills, technology and therefore productivity. The scale of the disaster was such that the area is only now beginning to recover from the devastation that the almost total collapse of manufacturing had on the area.

Culturally this political polarisation lead to alternative comedy and punk rock. The Black Country was no exception to this but something else also happened. The culture fell back on itself. There was a renaissance in the Black Country variety show, The Black Country Night Out. It was almost as if we fell back on the old gags, monologues and songs to keep our spirits up.

This variety show, made local stars of Dolly Allen, "Hello, me luvers!" and Tommy Mundon, and others like the king of dialect doggerel, Harry Harrison, well known for his dialect verse in the Black Country Bugle and Jon Raven, folk singer and collector of traditional Black Country ballads.

I remember Dolly Allen telling the joke about the westkit or waistcoat in around 1987, forty years after it was mentioned in Ingram’s book about the North Midlands. She I have no doubt had never heard it from a book but was part of the oral tradition.

This variety show toured almost continually with various changes in personnel although the very dark days of that recession. A cheap way to go out and keep up your spirit and make you feel good about who you where and where you came from and about the resilience which had kept the place going. This was I think why the close social fabric held the place together through these dark days. Whether it has also held us back as times have change is another matter!

But I have no doubt that the dialect revival a badge of local pride was revived thanks to Mrs Thatcher.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Yo cor spake roit!

I had the chance to do a lecture on the sociolinguistics of the Black Country.

Here are the materials I used to explain the place to people unfortunate enough not to know the plerce.

Basically the dialect of the Black Country seems to preserve the way people in England spoke before the great vowel shift!

The The Great Vowel Shift was a gradual process which began in Chaucer's time (early 15th Century) and was continuing through the time of Shakespeare (early 17th Century). Speakers of English gradually changed the parts of their mouth used to articulate the long vowels. Simply put, the articulation point moved upward in the mouth. The vowels, which began being pronounced at the top, could not be moved farther up (without poking into the nose); they became diphthongs1. The upshot has been that the Anglo-Saxons lived (like the Scottish still do) in a 'hoose', and the English live in a 'house'; the Anglo-Saxons (like the Scottish) milked a 'coo', and the English milk a 'cow'; an Anglo-Saxon had a 'gode' day and the English have a 'good' one; an Anglo-Saxon had 'feef' fingers on each hand and the English have 'five'; they wore 'boats' on their 'fate' while the English wear 'boots' on our 'feet'. The Great Vowel Shift is still continuing today in regional dialects; many speakers are now trying to move the topmost articulation points farther up, producing new diphthongs.

So we do genuinely spake Shakespeares english!

“There is nothing throughout the length and breadth of England to compare with the Black Country. It is unique. Much of its appearance is due to a man-made landscape created during the last two centuries, in a ruthless exploitation of its mineral riches. It is a separate and distinct area and not, as often supposed, an extension of Birmingham.”

Louise Wright, The Heart of England, Robert Hale, 1973.

“Iron, coal, limestone and clay, has made the Black Country what it is today.”

Richard Traves, Keeper of Industrial Archaeology Dudley Museum, 1977.

“You have to walk through the Black Country to feel its visual impact. For a start, some of is most fascinating places have no road: it is a region of continual surprises, hidden oddities, sudden, astonishing views. People who have not seen it for themselves will imagine that I am being absurdly romantic to say that it can be indescribably beautiful.”

Caroline Hillier, A Journey to the Heart of England, Paladin, 1978.

When Satan stood on Brierley Hill
And far around he gazed,
He said, ‘I never shall again,
At Hell’s flames be amazed.’

Traditional Ballad.

“I spent the better part of two days staring at this Black Country. The first day was fine and fairly bright. I went from Birmingham through Smethwick and Oldbury to Dudley, which seemed to me a fantastic place. You climb a hill, past innumerable grim works and unpleasant brick dwellings, and then suddenly a ridiculous terracotta music-hall comes into sight, perched on the steep roadside as if a giant had plucked it out of one of the neighbouring valleys and carelessly left it there; and above this music hall (its attraction that week was Parisian Follies) were the ruins of Dudley Castle. I climbed a steep little hillside, and then smoked a pipe or two sitting by the remains of the keep. The view from there is colossal. On the Dudley side, you look down and across the roofs and steeply mounting streets and pointing factory chimneys. It looked as if a great slab of Birmingham had been torn away and titled up there at an angle of forty-five degrees. The view from the other side, roughly I suppose to the north-east, was even more impressive. There was the Black Country unrolled before you like some smouldering carpet. You looked into an immense hollow of smoke and blurred buildings and factory chimneys. There seemed to be no end to it.”

J.B.Priestley, English Journey, William Heinemann, 1934.

“The walks of my childhood were treeless and smoke blighted: they lead me by black canals and among huge slag heaps where no grass could grow, where the sun rarely shone, where a man at night could read his newspaper by the glare of the blast furnaces, lividly reflected in the dense low sky. There was not much to choose in those days between the dingy town and the dingy landscape outside it, except the town abounded in stirring rough-and-independent speech, while the country showed hardly a sign of life and was apparently the habitation of an underground race.”

Henry Newbolt, Letter to the people of Bilston, 1927.

“Black Country people are like their landscape, unbeautiful, unsentimental, with no time for the trimmings of life, but often a warm, if rough, hospitality hides behind the forbidding exterior. Black Country speech is hard for an outsider to understand. It contains inflexions no longer used in everyday English. I bin, thee bist, we bist, yo bin, they bin are declensions of the verb to be. Will becomes woon or woot and a is often sounded as o. Can you translate these? “We `day arf goo coming back in that theer chara.” “Poor owd Alf’s jed, let’s ‘ope ‘e’s gone were we think he ain’t.” Black Country humour is also characteristic, “What are you looking for , Ned?” a collier was asked by his friends . “I’ve lost me weskit,” Ned replied. “Why, y’ foo’ y’ gotten it on!” “Ah, so I have,” exclaimed Ned. Now if yo hadn’y tode me I’d a gone wiaht it.”

J,H.Ingram, North Midland Country, Batsford, 1947-8.

“But let me say before it has to go,
It’s the most lovely country that I know;
Clearer than Scafell Pike, my heart has stamped on
The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.

Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is my ideal scenery.”

W.H. Auden, from, A Letter to Lord Byron, Collected Longer Poems, Faber and Faber, 1968.

“Then we have the evidence of the Black Country dialect, which local historians stoutly maintain is basically Anglo-Saxon and not the refined ‘Kings English’ of the early universities. The dialect is hard for strangers to understand. …the dialect is more genuinely Old English than can be found elsewhere in England, and since Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth century using a version of the Mercian dialect, Black Country readers can identify with parts of his writing because they speak or ‘spaken it’ The suffix ‘en’ is one example, for older Black Country people especially will talk ‘of gooin up the housen’. ‘Dun yo knowen who’s got old Ayli’s place?’ they might enquire, whilst ‘Just watch the folken all go by’ appears in an ancient rhyme. ‘Aferd’ for ‘Afraid’ and ‘keche’ for ‘catch, are other Chaucerian examples. …..No commentary on the Black Country would be complete without examples of the hundreds of dialect jokes frequently based, oddly enough, on death and funerals but not indicative of undue morbidity.”

Harold Parsons, The Black Country, Robert Hale, 1986.