Thursday 2 August 2007

On Pitmatic

A Radio 4 listener writes to ask if I can provide details of the dictionary which has been compiled on Pitmatic. She heard me talking about this on the Today programme this morning, and didn't catch the title - which was hardly surprising, as the Today presenter, curiously, didn't bother to give it! It's by Bill Griffiths, and it's called Pitmatic: the Talk of the North East Coalfield, and it's published by Northumbria University Press at £9.99.

Pitmatic is the name given to the dialect which was used by the miners. It was originally called Pitmatical - someone, doutbless thinking of the craftsmanship and precision involved in the work, thought up an analogy with mathematical. It's a fascinating dialect, all right, preserving usages that have been lost in the standard language and illustrating coinages from the miners themselves. I suppose pits everywhere developed their own dialects in this way, but it's rare to see someone bothering to document them, and there's something about the north-east which is special - after all, we talk about 'carrying coals to Newcastle' and not to any other part of the country.

The publicity surrounding Bill's dictionary says it's the first compilation of this dialect. First modern compilation, certainly - but it's always dangerous to claim a first in anything to do with the lexicon, given the thousands of word-buffs who made collections of words in the 18th and 19th centuries. And indeed, I found a few years ago in a Hay bookshop an earlier collection - A Glossary of Terms used in the Coal Trade of Northumberland and Durham, published by John Bell in Newcastle in 1849. It'll be interesting to compare this with Bill's collection, to see what sort of changes have taken place. Here are some examples from the 1849 booklet:

kenner an expression signifying time to give up work, shouted down the shaft
kibble a wooden tub used in conveying rubbish
kirving a wedge-shaped excavation
kist a chest
kitty a piece of straw filled with gunpowder

It's nice to see dialect collections given such publicity - in the press, radio, and television this week. And doubtless this is not the only blog to refer to it.

Mind you, having said that, I know it doesn't take much for a language item to be dropped from a programme. Readers of this blog might be interested to know how interviews of this kind are set up. It usually starts with a phone call from a programme's researcher, who wants to talk about a possible topic for inclusion. Usually these people have spotted a media piece and think it's good for radio or tv treatment. That's what happened in this case, for a piece on Pitmatic appeared in the Guardian on Monday. (It often happens the other way round. I'm sure that in some papers tomorrow there will be a reference to Pitmatic as a result of some journalists having heard the item on Today. The media are always stealing from each other.) This preliminary discussion is often a complete waste of time, because in my experience for every initial contact that turns into a piece on air there are five which don't. Still, it's part of the job, if you're a language popularizer.

The researchers explore the topic with you, basically trying to get an angle which would be of interest to the programme, working out what kind of contribution it might be, who else might be involved, the sort of questions that the programme presenter might ask, and seeing if you are available. They then take the information to a production planning meeting and promise to phone back. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. In this case they did, and the result was an early-morning call. I have a radio studio at home, so I didn't have the problem getting to a studio. (That's why I invested in an ISDN line and reporter's box years ago, to allow easy access. Previously, it would have meant an hour's trek over to the nearest BBC studio, in Bangor.)

Even so, despite all the preliminaries, you have to be ready for changes of plan. For instance, I was told that Bill would be on the programme first, talking about his book - but (I learned later) he was on breakfast tv instead. So when the item was introduced I was taken aback when the presenter came immediately to me. Nobody had bothered to tell me he wasn't going to be on. And then a couple of minutes in there was some interference from another channel (this sometimes happens when you do something down the line), so the interview came to a premature end, and Thought for the Day started early. Hey ho.

Fortunately this morning we didn't have a major piece of news (such as Paris Hilton breaking a fingernail) taking up all the time available. I've lost track of the number of times I've been asked to do a radio piece, and then the producer calls and says sorry, but something more important has cropped up. 'Drop the dead donkey' is the expression. I remember being stopped in full flow when a local radio station decided that covering the start of Mr Blair's resignation speech live was much more important. Really! In this case, I had a feeling that they would keep the item, as they had found an archive piece of Geordie miners talking to each other, and radio loves to present that kind of thing. But still, I have fantasies that, one day, language will take priority as a media topic. 'Postpone that interview with George Bush announcing his resignation because we have DC talking about dialects.' Yeah, right.

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