Thursday 3 June 2010

Local dialects – long live the difference

Do you have a regional accent, with words that are peculiar to where you live?

Do you enjoy reading a book with characters who have regional accents, or does it get in the way of the story?

There was a time when you could walk through Leicester market and every other stall holder would be saying ‘Ey up, me duck’ which roughly translated means ‘Good day, fine Sir.’ There are people who have taken exception to being called ‘me duck’ but I can assure any ruffled readers that no offence is ever intended. It’s just our local way of talking, or at least it was. I don’t hear the phrase anywhere near as much as I used to.

Dialect dictionariesWords fascinate me and dialects are just an addition to this fascination. Take the word for an alley. I walk Josh-the-dog down our local jitty when I’m going to the park but if I lived in York I’d go along a snickleway. In Hull I might cut through a ten-foot and then there’s a snicket, a ginnel, a jennel and they all mean the same. Good, isn’t it! I love regional accents too. When I was a child Liverpudlian was so unusual that it made me giggle and then the Beatles came along and turned it into the sexiest accent ever.

I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between characters in a novel. I’m hopeless at remembering names and so I need some other way of differentiating them. A book I read recently had all the characters speaking with the same voice. I’m guessing that this was the author’s voice too. Needless to say it wasn’t a riveting read. One way of bringing a character to life is to get them speaking with a local dialect. It has to be a mere sprinkling otherwise it would get in the way of the story, but it’s a useful addition to all those ‘creating your character’ prompts for writers.

I don’t think it’s my imagination that regional accents are far less pronounced these days (although I still can’t understand a Glaswegian when he’s talking at full tilt). I blame the TV. Yes, I know, I blame the TV for a lot of things but only the TV and radio has the power to destroy regional differences. Accents are so easy to pick up. Within months of my cousin moving to London she sounded like a Londoner. She didn’t even realise that her speech had changed. So if we’re listening to a certain sort of BBC English a lot of the time then we’re all at risk of sounding the same which would be a shame.

On the radio the other day they were talking about language in Singapore. English is encouraged as the language of business but there is a dialect called Singlish. This is spoken on the streets but banned by Singapore TV. I hope nothing like that would ever happen here. The BBC has relaxed its rules since the 1950s days of clipped Queen’s English but I can’t help feeling that there are subtle influences towards centralised uniformity. Here’s hoping that we can fight them off and retain local dialects and accents. They’re part of what’s good about being English. Long live the difference.

I just wondered: Accents can denote class as well as regional differences, less now than in the past, but there is still a certain upper-class way of talking. Is it the same in the US, or in Australia or New Zealand? Or is this just a UK characteristic?