Tuesday 26 November 2013

On Accent Week

On Monday 14 November I was asked to comment on BBC Radio 4's PM programme about the case of a schoolteacher in Berkshire whose Cumbrian regional accent had been criticised by a school inspector. Although it was acknowledged by her school that her speech was perfectly intelligible, it seems she was told she should nonetheless adopt something more southern. The story was picked up by the media, and the PM discussion was one of the consequences.

I was horrified that this kind of comment might still be being made. It was common enough a few decades ago, but times have changed, and people value regional accents so much more these days. The BBC itself had its wonderful 'Voices' project in August 2005, when a whole week was devoted to celebrating English accents in the UK, with every local radio station contributing, along with several specially commissioned programmes on national radio and TV. And we do hear regional accents on air much more these days. Listen to Susan Rae's lovely Scottish tones when she reads the news on Radio 4, for example. Or Huw Edwards' Welsh accent on BBC 1.

Anyway... after talking about this and a few other things, and listening to an extract from Dickens read in three regional accents, I ended my contribution with a flip remark to Eddie Mair. 'Why not do the whole of PM in regional accents one day?' 'Well there's a challenge', he replied. And I thought no more about it.

But what do I hear this week on PM? The challenge is taken up, in a small but significant way. They're calling it 'Accents Week'. Every day the 5.30 news is being read out in a regional accent - one that would not normally be heard on national radio (though common enough in local radio stations, of course). Yesterday (Monday) it was a male presenter with a fairly mild Cumbrian accent, notable for its pure 'o' vowels in words like 'go' - very Shakespearean! Today it was a female presenter from Merseyside, with a much stronger accent - 'work' pronounced as 'weark', and suchlike. I found it all enthralling, and all praise I say to PM for engaging in the experiment. I've no idea what accents will be chosen for the remaining three programmes. Listen in at 5.30 each day (or to Listen Again online) and you'll find out.

When you do listen, make sure you make a distinction between accent and professional style. To my ear, the Merseyside presenter wasn't as familiar with the formal Radio 4 news-reading style as her Cumbrian predecessor. A few words were produced a little too rapidly, and the various items of news weren't as intonationally separate as they ought to be in a news summary, tending to run into each other a bit. This is nothing to do with the accent, of course, and it's important not to 'blame' an accent for an issue that is to do with other factors, such as speed of delivery. Even RP presenters swallow their words at times, or drop their voices at a crucial moment so that you can't hear what's being said.

But these presenters, and the PM producers, have made an important contribution to the evolution of a climate of accent tolerance, in which organizations such as the BBC play a hugely important role. I'm delighted that the programme has taken this small step, and I hope it will be repeated - and not just by PM.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

On language celebrations

A correspondent has sent me a very welcome present. Long-time readers of this blog will know that a recurring theme is my concern to get language, languages, and especially endangered and minority languages, the recognition they deserve. For a decade now, I've been arguing that the domain needs three things: a suitably prominent prize (a sort of Nobel Prize or Templeton Prize - but for language); a House of Languages in every major city (doing for languages what Natural History and Science Museums do for science and Art Galleries do for the arts); and, at an everyday level, the introduction of a language dimension to annual celebrations, such as Christmas, anniversaries, and birthdays.

I don't know of anything happening in relation to the first. There are several low-level national awards, but nothing yet on a major and truly international scale.

The second has had a chequered history. The front-runner was the Casa de les Llengües (House of Languages) in Barcelona, which was due to open soon, but the plug was pulled last year following the Spanish economic crisis. That was eight years of planning down the drain. I was chair of its international scientific advisory committee, and I can testify to the enormous amount of work and enthusiasm that the Catalans put into this project. They mounted a very successful touring exhibition on the languages of the Mediterranean, and they had even found a building and were beginning to refurbish it. I went to the opening. All history now. Maybe, when the economy improves...

In the meantime, other new 'museum' projects continue to bubble away, on a smaller scale. The National Museum of Languages in Maryland, USA - has big plans and is very active, but needs as many members as it can get to take these plans forward. 'Our mission is to inspire an appreciation for the magic and beauty of language'. Excellent. And several other language spaces already exist, such as in Germany, Belgium, Lithuania, Canada, and Iceland.

There are promising signs. Mundolingua opened in Paris last month. The Humbolt-Forum in Berlin is in its early stages of planning a major Welt der Sprachen (World of Languages). And people have written telling me of similar ideas in the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. When the economy improves. The important thing in all these cases is the focus on language and languages in general, not just on an individual local or national language. Several countries of course have museums celebrating the history of their own language (e.g. in Hungary, Norway, Brazil).

Did you notice the place that was missing, in all of this? The UK. There have been a couple of successful local initiatives, but nothing national and permanent. I've written about the sorry saga of The World of Languages project elsewhere (see the article on 'A London Language Museum' on my website.

But to my present. I suggested to the UK's Association for Language Learning a few years ago that they have a competition to get schoolchildren to draw greetings cards celebrating languages, and that exercise resulted in some wonderful creations. It's the sort of thing any primary school can do - and why not secondary, too, with online creations? If only this kind of thing could be done professionally, I thought. And now it has.

Ilona Staples, a visual artist from Toronto in Canada, has produced a stunning collection of 28 cards for various occasions, and sent me a set. She calls the series 'Working Words'. They're a colourful and diverse collection, covering invitations, romance, birthdays, thanks, seasonal, congratulations, greetings, and sharing news. The languages are a glittering array. From Australia we have Wagiman, Mangarla, Gamilaraay, and Ngarluma. From Russia, Udege, Forest Enets, Negidal, and East Coast Yupik. From Brazil, Tariana, Cocama-Cocamilla, Kwazá, Kinikinau, and Chiquitano. From Canada and USA, Kwak'wala, Hän, Potawatomi, Eastern Aleut, Wyandot, Nuxalk, Sechelt, Tsek'ene, and Cayuga. Plus Gadaba (India) and Greater Andamanese (Andaman Is).

You want to congratulate someone? Why not in Tsek'ene - Shòwanjàh - in a joyful green? Or a 'love you' card in Mangarla - Nyunturnana pukarri mana ('I dreamt about you') - in a gentle blue? Or a happy birthday in Kwak-wala - ix kasalala xis ma'yudlamxdamus - in happy yellow?

You can see her work on her website, and obtain cards by writing to Ilona Staples.

I'm still waiting for a Google logo celebrating the two big days of the language calendar: International Mother Language Day is one, on 21 February. The European Day of Languages is another, on 26 September. One day, maybe...

Monday 11 November 2013

On tour (twice)

A blog silence always means Something Is Up. And internet time seems to move faster than time in the real world. 'It's been a lifetime since your last post', said someone at a talk the other night. Really? I looked to see. She was right. No posts in October. Even by my blogilatory standards, that's a first. I usually manage to post something each month. But this last month has been rather exceptional.

The reason. Hilary and I have been on an author tour for Oxford University Press for the book Wordsmiths and Warriors: the English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain, which came out at the end of September (in the UK - the beginning of December in the USA). In fact we're in the middle of it right now. But we have a few days off before the next leg. So: time for a post.

Why 'exceptional'? Because authors' tours are very rare these days. In fact it's been a decade since my last one, and - the general economy and the costs of publishing being the way they are these days - I thought they were a thing of the past. But OUP have breathed new life into the genre. We've been to about ten places so far and another ten or so to go, before things wind down before Christmas. Location details are on the website. The venues have been a mixture of bookshops and literary festivals, and audience numbers have varied enormously, from dozens to hundreds, but we've been delighted at the response to the book. Indeed, OUP have had to reprint after only a month.

And what have we learned from the tour? Well, in the book I make the point that the English language is always on your doorstep - in the sense that, within thirty or so miles of wherever you live in Britain, something important happened to influence the development or study of the language - and most people who live there have no idea. They know the place, of course, but they aren't aware of its linguistic significance. No reason why they should, necessarily, as hardly any of the places we visited explicitly recognize the presence of the linguistic event, in the form of a monument, a sign, a blue plaque, or whatever. There are occasional exceptions, of course - our favourite is the dialect writers' memorial in Rochdale, Lancashire - but in most places you'd never know that anything linguistic happened. That's why we made the journey in the first place, of course: to bring the landscape element to the fore. Topographical linguistics, if you like.

At one of these bookshop talks I was asked about the difference between the new book and a previous linguistic travelogue, By Hook or by Crook. Yes, there's a big difference. The subtitle of the earlier book (in the UK edition) was 'a journey in search of English'. In other words, I went around looking for interesting points to do with the language itself - accents, dialects, etymologies, or whatever, and did so in a very random way. When I began a chapter, I often didn't know where it would end, as a new train of linguistic associations would push the writing in unexpected directions. But for Wordsmiths, the choice of subject was dictated by the history, and the sequence by the chronology, and the focus was on the places and people who shaped the language rather than on the language itself. There's far more biography in here than in any of my previous writing, for example. And a huge amount of landscape description - or perhaps 'exploration' would be a better word, for finding some of these places took not a little research. Hence, at the end of each chapter, we tell you how to get there. No point in readers taking the same wrong turning that we sometimes did!

I leave our bookshop audiences with a challenge. I wrote the text for this book. Hilary took the photographs (apart from a handful of historical illustrations we had to buy in). In seven cases, she included me in the picture. You remember 'Where's Willy?' The challenge is: 'Where's David?' In six cases, the answer is obvious. But nobody has found all seven yet.