Tag Archives: dialects

The English language: a hodgepodge from the start

At Bede's World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

At Bede’s World in Jarrow, UK, a staff member dressed as a monk poses in front of a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon animal shelter. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Set among the call centers and storage facilities of Jarrow in the northeast of England is a farm, of sorts.

There are pigs, sheep and goats here. Some are ancient varieties, more popular 1,400 years ago than they are today. Like a shaggy-haired pig described my guide, John Sadler, as “half a ton of very grumpy animal … only interested if you feed it, or if you fall in — in which case you are food.”

A pig at Bede's World: "Half a ton of very grumpy animal." (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A pig at Bede’s World: “Half a ton of very grumpy animal.” (Photo: Patrick Cox)

The animals are part of a re-creation of an Anglo-Saxon village, with timber-framed buildings and turf-covered sheds. The farm is called Gyrwe, Old English for Jarrow. It’s part of a museum called Bedesworld.

Even with jets flying overhead and container ships unloading nearby, Bede’s World brings to life a time and place when the English language was in its infancy. The monk who Bede’s World is named after, the Venerable Bede, lived in the monastery next door in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

“He’s famous as a writer and a teacher,” says Sadler, the living history coordinator at Bede’s World. “And he has this keen interest in history and language.”

Bede wrote an ecclesiastical history of the nation at the time.

“He’s the first person to actually write down who it was that actually came to the British Isles,” says linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors:The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain. “He talks about the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes, and discusses the range of languages that were spoken around the country.”

These languages arrived in Britain after the Romans had left. The newcomers found themselves in a place already heaving with languages — various Celtic tongues, as well as bits and pieces of languages left behind by Roman mercenaries who came from all over the empire.

Which explains why English, from its very beginnings, has been a mongrel tongue — a Frisian word here, a Latin one there, and so on. Pure English? It never existed.

These waves of migrants also helped form the dialects that you can still hear in Britain. On average, you can hear a different dialect every 25 miles you travel.

Crystal says it all goes back to those original days when people from one part of northern Europe settled in one part of England, and people from another part of northern Europe settled nearby.

“You only have to settle on the other side of a river or a mountain range,” says Crystal. “Before you know it, within a few years you’re starting to speak in a slightly different way. After a hundred years, it’s very different.”

Bede's Chair, St Paul's Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Bede’s Chair, St Paul’s Church, Jarrow, UK (Photo: Patrick Cox)

This is one of the reasons Bede’s writings are so valuable: they’ve helped linguists trace the origins of today’s dialects. Of course, that early migration didn’t stop. Vikings, Normans and, much later, Indians, Irish and Jamaicans have all left their stamp on Britain’s dialects.

Inside Bede’s church, there’s a small section that dates back to the seventh century. John Sadler shows me his favourite item there is the chair the Bede supposedly sat on.

“It’s actually impossible to say whether it’s original or…a copy,” says Sadler with a shrug.

If it’s a copy, so be it. The monk who may — or may not — have sat on it was documenting a language that itself copied, and liberally borrowed and stole, from many other languages.


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English rules in America, except in a few French pockets of Maine

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Le Rencontre, a French-speaking meetup at the Franco-American Heritage Center, Lewiston, Maine (Annie Murphy)


Here’s a guest post from reporter Annie Murphy who divides her time between Peru and Maine.

On a Thursday afternoon at the Franco American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine, a few hundred people fill an old church converted into a concert hall.

Musicians play guitar and accordion, and sing French-Canadian songs, while the crowd watches. It’s the last part of a monthly meetup – known as Le Rencontre – where locals gather together, and speak in French.

Most of the crowd grew up in Lewiston, or neighboring Auburn. They have French-speaking families, many of whom migrated from Quebec, and other parts of Canada. And even though, until a few decades ago, French speakers faced a lot of discrimination – including being punished in school for speaking French – the language has managed to hang on.

Louise Bolduc is a regular. She’s sixty-six, with long gray-blond hair, and a spotless white baseball hat that says C’est bon. I ask her if she speaks French a lot.

“Oui, c’est ma première langue,” she says. “That means it’s my first language. When I started school, I didn’t know any English.

The director of the center, Louis Morin, is standing beside her. His parents migrated from Canada shortly before he was born. He and Bolduc continue talking, in French.

“It was the same thing for me,” he says to her. “I didn’t start speaking English until I was six years old. Before, I spoke only French at home.”

Louise Bolduc adds that for her, it’s easy to keep up the language, because her family still speaks it. They’re actually waiting nearby, and she runs off to join her sister and cousins.

Today, Franco-Americans make up 20% of the population in Maine. In Lewiston-Auburn, some officials say it’s closer to 70%. And a lot of them still speak French, as Bowdoin College Professor Chris Potholm found when he was doing a study.

“28% of Franco Americans are fluent in French. Now, when you think about that, that wouldn’t be surprising if you were interviewing recent immigrants. But if you think of the Franco-Americans as being here for 250 years, that’s an astonishingly high number.”

But many Franco-Americans worry that that number is only going to decrease. And some are skeptical about kids picking up French once their families have stopped speaking it at home.

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, Maine (Annie Murphy)

Teacher Jacynthe Jacques leads an after-school French class in Auburn, MaineAcross the river, in the city of Auburn, one after-school program is trying revive local French. In a space at Sherwood Heights Elementary School, over a dozen students repeat the class rules, in French. One of the teachers behind the program, Doris Bonneau, translates for me.

“Raise your hand to speak, to move from your space. Follow directions. Be polite. The golden rule, is do your best. And the last one was: pay attention!”

Bonneau – who seems both patient and enthusiastic, especially when it comes to French – says that program is part of an effort to bring the language to younger generations. And rather than focusing on so-called “classic” French from France, kids are exposed to all sorts of dialects, particularly local ones that make up the French specific to Maine.

One of Bonneau’s students is 10-year-old Lucas Pushard. He says his grandmother speaks French, and that now, he can actually talk to her a little bit. He also mentions picking up on more French being spoken around town.

“It’s kind of like a secret language,” he says. “You can finally find out what people are saying, you’re finally in on it. It’s kind of cool.”

Another teacher in the program, Jacynthe Jacques, came here from Quebec. She was surprised to meet so many local French speakers. And she also noticed that words and accents from different parts of Canada come together in Maine. For example, she says, some locals have an accent from a smaller region within Quebec, called La Beauce.

“A bench in French is a banc, and a bath is a bain. But if you’re from La BeauceFrench, you can sit on a banc and it’s almost the same pronunciation as a “bath,” says Jacques. “Little things like that.”

What’s also surprised Jacques since moving to Maine is the presence of French speakers from different parts of Africa, specifically in Lewiston-Auburn. She thinks that maybe with the new wave of immigration, French will be able to hang on here.

“I’ve noticed that, through this program, and other venues, there’s a lot of getting together between the French speaking communities in this area. And I think that’s great, because we meet in the language,” she says.

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of Maine (courtesy Pierrette Rukundo)

Pierrette Rukundo, born in Rwanda, resident of MaineBack in Lewiston, French speakers from places like Ivory Coast, Chad, and Togo have attended the monthly Le Rencontre meetup. At the one I go to, I talk to 21-year-old Pierrette Rukundo moved from Rwanda about a year ago, with her three brothers and her parents. Rukundo says she’s excited to find this community of French speakers, and that she plans on bringing her parents next time.

“They’ll be so excited. My mom will not stop talking,” says Rukundo. “I think she’ll be talking the whole time, because she’ll be with people speaking in French.”

Recent immigrants, like the Rukundo family, bring even more dialects into the mix of Maine French. They’re also likely to be key to the language staying alive.


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China’s linguistic landscape is changing as rapidly as its cities and lifestyles

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don't speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

The children of migrant workers are taught Mandarin at a school in Shanghai. Many speak a regional dialect at home, and some don’t speak Mandarin at all when they arrive for the first day of class. (Photo/Ruth Morris)

Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris…

As it stands, Mandarin is the language of government, commerce and pop songs in China. But not everyone is excited about learning it.

While the government insists Mandarin is necessary for social cohesion, some of China’s ethnic minorities have pushed back. Tibetans students, for example, have protested plans to shift nearly all their classes into Mandarin—a policy they say represents a larger campaign by Beijing to dilute Tibetan culture and assert political control.

There have been protests in Cantonese-speaking parts of China too. People there are worried their native dialect is being forced out of public places and into the home.

But the general trend points in the opposite direction. Despite protests and lagging investment in rural education, not to mention the prevalence of regional dialects, Mandarin usage is growing at a breakneck pace.

Just seven years ago, state media reported only about half of China’s population spoke Mandarin, compared with about 70 percent today.

Government policy lags social desire

Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker are the founders of Phonemica, an Internet project that invites people to upload stories in dialects derived from old Chinese. They say China’s staggering economic growth is playing a big role in Mandarin’s expansion. Increasingly, Mandarin is the language of survival, and opportunity.

“I think honestly, in many areas of China, government policy is lagging social desire,” Hansen said.

China’s unruly linguistic landscape is known for its groupings of wildly different dialects that go back hundreds of years, spread over a vast geography.

“The reason it’s so diverse it because it’s so huge. I mean, you have hundreds of millions of people,” said Hansen. “Many of these people, for hundreds of years, they grow up in the same valley. They stay in the same valley. And what’s interesting about China is a lot of them, up until now… have not moved around a lot.”

Menial jobs

Now that’s all changing, fast. Bullet trains crisscross the country. And migrant workers shuttle between home villages and factory floors hundreds of miles away.

On a recent morning in Shanghai, 60 kindergartners—the children of migrant workers from all over China–repeated phrases in Mandarin while their teacher rewarded them with stickers.

School administrator Lai Zherong said many of the school’s students don’t speak Mandarin when they arrive. But they pick it up quickly. Without Mandarin, she said, they risk being slotted into menial jobs when they grow up, on construction sites or factory lines.

Beijing says about 400 million Chinese cannot speak the national language. But Parker, of Phonemica, says: don’t blink.

“I think that number is going to be much, much smaller in 20 years,” he said, then added: “I think it’s going to be shockingly smaller in 20 years.”


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British English as it is, was, and could have been

This week’s podcast is hopelessy devoted to Brit-English. First, the story of what might be the earliest audio archive of regional British dialects. During World War One, German linguist Wilhelm Doegen recorded the voices of more than 140 British prisoners of war. His archive includes  dialects from many parts of the  UK — tows like Aberdeen, Macclesfield, Bletchington and Wolverhampton.  In those days of course, Britain’s imperial reach was global, as was its army’s linguistic reach: Doegen recorded soldiers speaking Hindi, Punjabi, Pashto and Bengali, among other languages. Until recently, the recordings languished in relative obscurity (for the British at least) at the Berliner Lautarchiv at Humboldt University in Berlin. Now, the British Library has acquired a digital copy of the archive.

Then, wine labels.  They don’t make much sense at the best of times. Now, British convenience store chain Spar has found a way to make them almost completely incomprehensible. Spar has ahem, translated them into  some of the same regional accents (though with less of an eye for accuracy) as those recorded by Herr Doegen.  The company says it’s all about making wine talk more regionally relevant. It may also be, excuse the pun, a dry comment on the pretentiousness of label literature. Never one to defer to the European palate, we at the pod add a little New World flavor with a label rendered in Bostonian English.

It’s well known that English is a co-optive language; there’s nothing it likes better than to beg, borrow and steal from anything in the vicinity. It did plenty of that in the wake of a momentous episode in British history, the Battle of Hastings in 1066. That was when William of Normandy (also known as William the Bastard) became William the Conqueror (and later King William I).  Cue the start of French and Latin’s influence over English. Well, what if the Saxons — the English as they’re sometimes called — hadn’t beaten William and his Normans at Hastings, sent them back to France? David Cowley has written a book called How We’d Talk If The English Had Won in 1066.

Finally a couple of stories related to cockney rhyming slang. These days, rhyming slang is barely in use, except in parlor game form — and of course as something to make money out of.  The first story is on an ATM company uses cockney rhyming slang to dispense cash. And then, a little something I did in 1990 for KALX, college radio in Berkeley, CA on the obsessive love that  some Americans have not just for rhyming slang but for anything British.

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Birds, urls and Glaswegians

For the latest newsy pod, Carol Hills and Clark Boyd from the Big Show help me pick our top five language-related stories from the past month:

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

White-crowned-Sparrow (Photo: Wolfgang Wander via Wikipedia)

5. Some birds develop  distinct dialects based on the decibel levels of their habitats. Dialect here is a term of art. It does not mean that birds living in say, North Carolina  chirp the avian version of  “y’all.” No, it means that over time, some bird species can change the frequency, pitch and volume of their song according to their sonic environment.  The latest study, of the white-crowned sparrow (pictured) shows that urban noise appears to have a profound impact on birdsong.

There is a BBC story from a few years ago suggesting  that cows pick up on regional human accents. But, alas, the story may have been largely bogus.

glasgow ad

4. A British translation firm is offering to provide local interpreters to companies doing business in Glasgow.  Proof that there are many, many variations of English, even on one medium-sized island. This service may be more useful at football match or a betting shop than in a boardroom: I can’t imagine that white-collar Glaswegians use terms like moroculous, laldy and maw during working hours. But it is true that Glasgow English is a massive challenge, especially for non-native English speakers. As is Newcastle, Liverpool and Swansea English.

3.The French President Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for reforms in how foreign languages are taught in schools.  Surpringly,  France lags behind many other developed countries when it comes to bilingualism and foreign language learning, as discussed in a couple of  earlier posts and podcasts. Now, doubtless spurred by The World in Words’ efforts to give this matter an airing, the French government is vowing to act. The proposed reforms  haven’t been decided upon yet, but they seem likely to favor oral skills over grammar.  Some European language-learning groups however,  are skeptical that the reforms will help much.

2. Chinese expats are doing battle over which script U.S. schools should use to teach Chinese. Schools have two options — traditional characters, favored in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, used in mainland China. Where there is a large expat Taiwanese community, as there is in certain parts of Los Angeles,  schools are more likely to use traditional characters. But that’s changing, as more Chinese communites outside of China (eg in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) switch to simplified characters. And all that trade that the U.S. does with mainland China means that it makes a lot of sense to learn the script in use there.  However, proponents of traditional characters aren’t giving up without a fight, sometimes perhaps to the detriment of the kids trying to learn the language.

1.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is going linguistically global.  This is the organization that oversees and sets certain rules for domain names. ICANN is now allowing non Latin script urls. It’s something Latin script-writers think of as a mere technicality. But if you’re not used to writing Latin script, it’s a major pain to have to. So this should make the internet accessible to even more people around the world. And who knows, the Georgian script on the banner of this blog may one day end up as part of  a domain name. (I took the photo. It’s of a billboard above a highway in central Georgia. The messages, courtesy of the government, are patriotic slogans.  Someone told me exactly what the words mean, but…sorry, I’ve forgotten.)

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