OU on the BBC: Word4Word - A Word About The Series

Have you ever wondered how and why people from around the British Isles have different ways of saying the same thing? Word4Word on BBC Radio 4 talks in tongues as part of a nationwide language project.

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Thursday 28th July 2005
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Radio, Word4Word
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Dermot Murnaghan Copyrighted image Copyright: BBC

Have you ever taken part in one of those impassioned conversations when people from different parts of the British Isles compare their different ways of saying things? What, for example, did you call those soft shoes with laces that you wore for school sports: was it pumps or plimsolls or perhaps daps or tackies? Would you be more likely to say ‘Have you any bairns?’ or ‘Do you have any children?’ And how would you describe ‘a young person in cheap, trendy clothes and jewellery’? The answer will probably depend a lot on your age and gender, as well as the place where you grew up!

It's these differences - and similarities - in the way we talk to each other every day, defining and revealing our backgrounds and allegiances Word4Word sets out to explore. Presenter Dermot Murnaghan was born in Ulster and raised in Yorkshire, he's more than familiar with two of the nation's most distinctive local variants of the language; it makes him the perfect choice to chair these discussions about how we say who we are. He'll be joined by a panel of experts in the nuances of the English language, and the programme will draw on over 300 hours of interviews carried out around the country by the Voices team.

Word4Word has access to this unique library of local speech as Radio 4's major contribution to the Voices project, a collaboration between the BBC, the Survey of Regional English (based at the University of Leeds) and the Open University. Voices is the most extensive attempt to map the nation’s speech since the Survey of English Dialects was conducted from Leeds in the 1940s. It was as a result of the 1940s study that The University of Leeds holds an unparalleled collection of material on regional dialects of English.

Northumberland: Burn; Cumbria, North Yorkshire, the North East and northern East Anglia: Beck; the rest of England: Brook or Stream Copyrighted image Copyright: Used with permission

English past: dominant words for a 'stream' recorded in the 1940s

BBC local radio stations were involved, each one carrying out interviews in their area for the new survey; people were also invited to add their own contributions through the Voices website.

An up-to-date linguistic resource such as this provides invaluable source material for students on the OU course The English Language: past, present and future, and is particularly timely in a year which sees the launch of the new OU BA (Hons) English Language and Literature as well as the new third-level course English Grammar in Context.

Word4Word is on BBC Radio 4, Wednesdays from August 3rd.

Word4Word in more depth: