Doing language analysis

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This analysis of an interview looks at accents, use of vocabulary and grammar, style, the origins of words and how we talk about language

By: The OpenLearn team (Programme and web teams)

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Two women on a beach Copyrighted image Copyright: Production team

It is possible to analyse any stretch of language from a number of perspectives.

The three most basic levels of linguistic ‘raw material’ are respectively accent, vocabulary and grammar.

For the purposes of this project, our focus is clearly on the choice of words, but it is important to remember that the same piece of evidence can be subjected to various different kinds of analysis.

Accent

The analysis of accent is a technical matter which requires specific training in sound description and the use of a special script called the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Phonetics is beyond the scope of this project but, if you are interested, you can find out more from the IPA’s website. If you are particularly interested in the Liverpudlian accent, you might like to listen to the Doyle family talking about accents:

Listen

Copyright The Open University

Read

PETER: If someone from like Widnes coming to Speke, God help them.

JODIE: Why why, Ok why would you say that?

PETER: Because, they just, they just, they don’t like us and we don’t like them.

KAREN: They’d call us “Woolliebacks” wouldn’t they. Woolliebacks.

PETER: Yeah Woollies.

LYNNIE: That’s only like three miles down the road by the way.

PETER: They call us Scousers and we just call them Woolliebacks but when they call us Scousers they just start laughing just like “What are you laughing at?”

JODIE: Would you say that people from Widnes or people obviously here in Speke or people that are in the centre of Liverpool or in Birkenhead, do you feel that you’ve all got a similar accent even though, you know, you live in different areas?

PETER: No not at all.

KAREN: Different parts of it, like Scotland Road has a real broad Scouse accent…and Birkenhead is even worse.

LYNNIE: and Birkenhead Jesus Christ!

KAREN: They’re really deep aren’t they and they have different slang words to what we would.

LYNNIE: They say “Thrun”, instead of “Thrown” or chuck, they say “Thrun”. And they say “E’elostens” instead of “Eccleostens”, so I reckon we’re posher than Speke than they are up there cos they do say “E’els”. Who says “E’els” but they do in the Dingle say “E’els”.

JODIE: Do you think there’s like kind of quite a big difference not only between the two of you but obviously like whenever you go away on holiday or you know… because to me you do have a distinguished accent, I mean it is completely different to mine. I don’t know what I would class my accent as, I don’t even know if it would be an accent. But…

KAREN: Are you from Liverpool?

JODIE: No I’m not, I’m from Lancashire.

KAREN: But you haven’t got an accent.

JODIE: But I haven’t got an accent you see. Now when I go away on holiday you know I don’t say anything, or you know like I don’t feel that there is anything like that. Do you feel whenever you go away…?

KAREN: Where you are from hasn’t got a broad accent.

LYNNIE: Lancashire got a really broad accent.

JODIE: My sister talks “Right like that” “Right like that” I mean like you know, really, really broad.

KAREN: So why don’t you?

JODIE: But I don’t but probably only because obviously with the training that I have had to be on radio and stuff I’ve changed my accent probably to talk the way…

PETER: You just get used to it, you just can’t help it. Say if I went to a different part of town I might change me voice in a couple of years like but.

KAREN: You wouldn’t because me Grandad was from Bolton and lived in Liverpool for 40, 50 years and never ever changed his accent. He still spoke as if he still lived in Bolton.

LYNNIE: It’s like Josie and Pat our friends, they’ve lived here for 50 years but she’s still as Irish as they come, and she’s like a pensioner now but hasn’t lost her accent at all. So I think even like, we lived in Runcorn and loads of our friends spoke “Woollieback” but because our mum was a Scouser, we were Scouse. I just think it is how…. What’s about your Mum and Dad are they broad Lancashire like you?

JODIE: Quite yeah. Quite broad, quite broad. LAUGHS. Quite broad but then, I mean, how would you identify yourselves, how would you identify yourself?

STEPHEN: As a Scouser, Scouser yeah. Anywhere you go people can just notice a Scouser.

JODIE: Would you, would all of you ever change your accent in different company?

KAREN: No not at all. Never.

LYNNIE: Never. Never.

STEPHEN: Never.

PETER: Why would I do something like that, it’s so stupid, it’s the way you were brought up. It’s the way you’re going to talk.

LYNNIE: I’ve been asked, I’ve been asked to change my accent before by certain bosses… when I’ve been like on the radio or doing something for the television, and I’ve said “No, I’m not doing it, because I’m me”, and I think when you start trying to change your accent then you’re not yourself, you’re nervous, you forget what you are trying to say and it’s all too false, so just be yourself.

PETER: I could talk like a Woollieback, but I wouldn’t want to.

KAREN: You could try to be posh.

PETER: It’s quite hard but it’s easier just talking like the way I am now.

LYNNIE: When I’ve been on holiday with my kids, they’ve only spent a week or something with like a kid from Manchester (or Shaw ?) and Chamonix starts like talking American or she’ll start picking up their accent or talking like them. In America, within like the minute we got there Chamonix was, you know, lived there all her life after 5 minutes and was talking American and we was like, “Talk properly”, and she was like “Hey Mom”, and I’m like, “No you don’t speak like that Chamonix, talk properly!”.

JODIE: Do you think it easier for kids to pick up accents, or change your accent, than it is for, for, obviously either, I mean what about yourself, I mean, to me you are only 19, do you think there is a difference?

STEPHEN: What do you mean? In the accent?

JODIE: Yeah for that kids can pick up accents a little bit differently or change the way that they speak rather than adults doing it?

STEPHEN: Yeah I think it is easier for kids cos I could do it. I could change me accent. I don’t know many older people that could change their accents.

JODIE: Would you change it if you went to the pub, if you saw, like kind of a girl that you fancied or anything like that?

STEPHEN: No, No. I’m me. This is me. I’m a Scouser. I’m proud to be a Scouser.

JODIE: Do you think there’s a case, it’s a case of being, you know, Scousers or people from Liverpool or from the Merseyside area, they seem very proud about where they are from, more so obviously than, you know, it’s not a case of being proud to be, you know, like kind of from Lancashire or proud to be from Scotland but there is this sense of being proud, you know.

PETER: I’m quite proud to be a Scouser. It’s just…

LYNNIE: I think that all goes on the individual doesn’t it because basically it depends on how the person is and whether they are proud to be who they are collectively or, it doesn’t matter where they are from, and it’s about if you have seen someone from Liverpool who had really bad self esteem issues, then they’re not going to go “I’m proud to be a Scouser”, because they’re not proud to be themselves so it’s about the individual more than everyone going, “Oh well, I’m proud to be from Liverpool” or, it’s about just basically how they feel about themselves.

PETER: It’s more, say if you’re arguing with someone or you’re talking to one of your mates, you talk different or you talk the way a Scouser normally talks.

JODIE: Well, how would you describe the way a Scouser normally talks?

PETER: All right lad? How’s it going? What’s happening kid? Where’ve ya been, and stuff.

JODIE: What about yourself? How would…? Like, if I was one of your mates now and you’ve just kind of just met me and we’ve just done this interview, how would you describe it? How would you talk to them?

STEPHEN: About this interview?

JODIE: Yeah, what would you say?

STEPHEN: I’d say, ah, I was sitting in this house with this bird and she had a microphone and she was nattering on asking me all these questions and I was just saying like, for instance, “What would you say for hot?” “Roasting”. And, ah, it was mad you know lah, you’d just say stuff like that. Get on the same wavelength. (Laughs)

JODIE: Is there a certain either a code or a certain way that you speak with them, you conduct yourself with them?

STEPHEN: No not really, it’s… in, like in the workplace I’ll speak different to what I do with me mates. With your mates, it’s just completely different to the way you speak with anyone else.

JODIE: Just one last question to you all. What does local mean to you? Do you feel that you have a local identity? What is local?

STEPHEN: What is local? Me boozer.

JODIE: You what?

STEPHEN: Me boozer. That’s me local. What do you mean like?

PETER: Playing football.

JODIE: Well like kind of if I said to you the word local, does that mean your accent, does that mean the area that you live in, does it mean your friends, you said boozer so I mean that’s a good answer, what does local mean to you?

STEPHEN: Where I live, me neighbourhood, the people in it, and me boozer.

KAREN: The community, the community that you are in and the people that you know in your community

LYNNIE: I’d go with that, local - community, anywhere walking distance.

JODIE: What about you, what does local mean to you, does it mean your mates?

PETER: Me mates, hanging around, playing footie, stuff like that.

Both vocabulary and grammar, on the other hand, are reasonably accessible even to the amateur linguist.

Whatever level of language you are working at, it is important look out for any regular patterns of difference between speakers and, wherever possible, to compare your own data with the broader evidence available from dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary or a language bank such as the Bank of English at the University of Birmingham.

A collection of Oxford Dictionaries [Image: sergis blog under CC-BY licence] Creative commons image sergisblogs via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
A collection of dictionaries [Image: sergis blog under CC-BY licence]

Vocabulary and Grammar

Here are some of the things you might look out for in your own data:

  1. Any regular differences in the way that different groups of people speak, such as:
    • younger and older people?
    • males and females?
    • different social classes?
    • different ethnic groups?

    Because the particular members of the Doyle family that we interviewed were drawn from the same social class and ethnic group, we were only able to consider differences of age and gender and, because the two sisters were both of a different generation from the two teenage boys, these two social variables happened to coincide. However, it was still possible to record systematic differences in their choice of vocabulary by listing the different words they used in two columns. Another common way of distinguishing between the linguistic behaviour of different speakers, or groups of speakers, is to highlight their different choices in different colours. .

  2. Any shifts in the way that people use English and any other languages during the course of the recording (noting down how and perhaps trying to understand why), for example:
    • when they get excited?
    • when they are mimicking someone else?
    • when they are trying to impress someone or score a point?
    • when they are trying to include or exclude someone from the conversation?
    • when someone else joins the group?
  3. The origins of different words, including any that are obviously drawn from other languages.
  4. Any times when people talk about language or their attitudes to different speakers. .

Listen

You may also like to listen to the Doyle family Talking About Language:

Copyright The Open University

Read

JODIE: You know “chavvies, would you say that for, erm, is that like kind of a backslang word or is that something that you’ve picked up?

KAREN: That’s a backslang word for children – yeah. Your chavvies… is your children.

LYNNIE: (Overlapping) I think that might be… No, I don’t think it is… Nope, I don’t think it’s a back, backslang. You’re getting…

KAREN: You’d say it… your chavvies.

LYNNIE: No I wouldn’t! But you’re getting backslang mixed up with what’s sort, sort of common dialect for Scousers then because… or old Scouse might have said “Chavvies” because backslang is where, say, “shabbite” is shite and “beatch” is bitch. So that it’s words that are put back to front, or whichever way something’s added on, that’s backslang. But what I think you are getting, I think, mixed up with is old Liverpool sayings

PETER: Beatch. [Laughs]

LYNNIE: Beatch, that’s one isn’t it? So like, eh, what else…? What sort of other things do they say? Like, the nippers, means the kids, doesn’t it? We would say kids, we wouldn’t say children.

PETER: Sprogs.

KAREN: Sprogs yes.

STEPHEN: Bin lids.

JODIE: What’s that?

STEPHEN: Binlids.

JODIE: Where has that come from?

STEPHEN: They’re babies. But I don’t know why they call them bin lids

PETER (?): Little tramps.

LYNNIE: No, because it rhymes with kids.

STEPHEN: Oh Yeah.

LYNNIE: Kids. Kids is a baby goat isn’t it? That’s a kid so I take it, it just means kids. So bin lids are little kids as opposed to teenage kids. Bin lids are little ones.

[Aside to child]

JODIE : What about yourself? I mean obviously like what other backslang words can you think of, and did it originate from when you two were kids, I mean did you, was it something that your Dad used to say in the house when you were younger? And now do you (apart from swear!)… or is it, Karen, something that you, kind of obviously, you know, passed on or anything?

PETER: Most of it’s swearing though. Whatever you say in slang you mostly swear sometimes.

JODIE: Is that to avoid your mum knowing what you are saying or obviously your mum would probably pick on it or to avoid like kind of a teacher at school knowing what you say?

PETER: Sometimes it just slips out when you’re saying it. It’s just the way you say, just slang when you say it, some swear words come out.

JODIE: Karen?

KAREN: You’re not allowed to get away with it. But I’d be one step ahead anyway. I’ve been there and worn the T shirt! So you know exactly what they’re saying

LYNNIE: Or you think you do. Cos some of the words that kids use now, you’re like, Jesus Christ, what is all that about?

PETER: Funny how, like, when you’re skitting your mates or something and you just come out with loads of stuff.

JODIE: Say that again.

PETER: Say you’re skitting your mates, you say like “Yeah but your Dad’s toenails” and all! You just come out…

KAREN: Swearing….

JODIE: Say that again?

KAREN: They say stupid words, so they’re not swearing.

PETER: Or, “Your Ma stinks”, or something like that.

LYNNIE: Our kids were saying the other day, er, Toby said to Chamonix “You’re that fat you got on the scales and the scales said ‘To be continued!’ ”.

PETER: You got on the scales and they said, “One at a time!”. Yeah there’s loads of jokes, there’s…..

JODIE: You know when you’re at school and you’re obviously sat with your mates and all the rest of it, do you speak to them differently than you would speak to your mum?

PETER: Yeah. Definitely, yeah.

KAREN: He wouldn’t get away with speaking to me the way he speaks to his mates!

PETER: My Mum would like that… She just wouldn’t understand what I say.

JODIE: What because you speak either really quickly or you speak a little bit differently?

PETER: Cos I just speak, I just don’t speak to me mum like, “Yeah, that’s a beast, that”, I dunno, like that.

Differences in vocabulary

Because the Doyle family were an intimately related group of people, spanning only two generations, there was relatively little variation in their choice of vocabulary – but still plenty to be of interest! However, we have to be careful not to attribute all the differences we notice to either age or gender.

In order to make any generalised claims, we would need to explore these two variables more systematically, by interviewing some men of Karen and Lynnie’s generation and some girls of Stephen and Peter’s generation.

If you interview a more varied group of people, you will almost certainly find more variation, which might be along dimensions of age, different regional origins or different social groups etc.

It is also best to let people talk freely and listen to the words they use naturally, rather than necessarily taking their word for what they say they do! On their spidergrams, for the word ‘attractive’, Karen Doyle had written ‘pretty’ and Lynnie had written ‘nice’, Stephen had written ‘fit’, and Peter had written ‘pretty/handsome’ (interestingly chosing two terms normally used for women and men respectively).

In the following extract from the family interview, the words highlighted in pink are the ones offered by Karen and Lynnie in front of the boys, those in grey are the ones the boys initially offered in front of the older women, and those in blue are the ones they were eventually encouraged to admit to by Jodie, the interviewer.

(The very last one was smothered in embarrassed laughter, and therefore inaudible, because this was clearly not something the boys would normally say in front of women – something a linguist might refer to as a ‘taboo’ word.)

JODIE: All right then, let’s move on.... What did we say for attractive?

WOMAN: Fit.

STEPHEN: Sexy, fit, gorgeous. Can’t think of any more. Fine.

WOMAN: Pretty.

BOY: Pretty.

JODIE: What if you saw someone across the street that you really liked the look of? What would you say to your mates?

STEPHEN: She’s fit, her. I’d better not say the other thing. Yeah, she’s lovely.

JODIE: Would you really say, “She’s lovely?”.

STEPHEN: No I wouldn’t. I’d say she’s fit her. I wouldn’t half Uhmmm! [Laughs] A bit of a ?????? Can’t think of nothing else. She’s fit should get it.

Differences in grammar

Although most of us are conscious of our choice of vocabulary and continue to acquire new items of vocabulary throughout our lives, grammar is usually a more intuitive matter, fixed relatively early in our lives and relatively resistant to change beyond puberty.

However, compulsory education, as well as media exposure to speakers from many parts of the English-speaking world, mean that we are all a little more self-consious about our use of English grammar than previous generations would have been.

It may or may not come as a surprise to you to realise that, with very few exceptions, the Doyle family speak Standard British English throughout the interview. This is hardly remarkable, as - however relaxed they seem - they must have been conscious that their conversation was being recorded.

(The fact that it is impossible to observe someone ‘behaving naturally’ without affecting what they do or how they do it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Observer’s Paradox’.)

The fact that the Doyles speak a fairly standard variety of English makes it relatively easy to write down what they say. But we still face decisions about how to spell some words. For example, we may write ‘wanna’ or ‘dunno’ or ‘innit’ simply to indicate the way that the Standard English phrases ‘want to’ or ‘don’t know’ or ‘isn’t it’ are pronounced.

(Even the use of ‘me’ rather than ‘my’, or ‘meself’ rather than ‘myself’, may simply be a matter of accent rather than grammar.)

There are also features like ‘does it different than/ to’ rather than ‘does it differently from’, or ‘me and him’ rather than ‘he and I’, which might break some of the rules of written grammar that you were taught in school, but which are common to many varieties of casual speech, regardless of region or even social class.

However, the following grammatical features (which all come from the transcript of the interview with the Doyles) are not classified as Standard British English.

A linguist would need to listen to many hours of natural speech to know how typical they are of the local dialect, or even of the speakers concerned (because people do vary their speech according to the situations they find themselves in), but there are systematic patterns in the way they are used by the Doyles.

i) the use of ‘them’ as a determiner

The fact that we have an electronic transcript of the interview makes it easy to search for features like this and compare the speech of different people.

It seems that the consistent use of ‘them’ before a noun (ie as a what is sometimes called a determiner) is a feature common to the whole of the Doyle family, but it is never found in the speech of the interviewer Jodie, nor in that of Barbara from the OU, who both use ‘those’ in the same circumstances.

It is interesting, though, that Stephen does use ‘these’ on one occasion, so it would seem that, at least for him, ‘these’ refers to things close at hand and ‘them’ to more remote things.

For example:
Stephen?: I think the games were different back in them days to what they are now.

Stephen: ... just talk to them... as though I’m one of them boys.

'Them business fellers' Businesspeople in Liverpool [Image:Edward Lamb under CC-BY-NC-ND licence] Creative commons image EdwardLamb via Flickr under Creative-Commons license Them business fellers' Businesspeople in Liverpool [Image:Edward Lamb under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

Lynnie?: So it’s just getting used to all them things that they say... ...them business fellers, they would have a Liverpool shirt on

ii) verb forms

In Standard British English, the verb ‘be’ behaves in an irregular way (with various inflections like ‘am’, ‘is’ ‘been’ etc), but it is interesting to see that both Karen and Lynnie sometimes, although not always, use it as a regular verb (like, for example, ‘walk’ or ‘talk’).

This is a feature shared by a number of British English dialects. It may be dying out, however, as neither Stephen nor Peter use it during the interview.

For example:
Lynnie: It doesn’t automatically be cheap, trendy clothes.

Karen: I just be meself.

In Standard English, the first person plural of the past tense of the verb to be is ‘we were’. In many British dialects, however, ‘we was’ is used, and in some dialects ‘I were’, ‘she were’ etc are found.

For example:
Karen?: We was, like, ‘Talk properly!’

In Standard English, the past tense of ‘come’ is ‘came’ but in a number of British English dialects ‘come’ is also used to indicate past events (or, as in the case below, an imaginary situation). This usage may apply to various verbs.

Evidence that it is not simply a case of the ‘historic present’ is provided by the fact that it is not normally inflected with the third person singular –s (so here we have ‘come’ rather than ‘comes’), even when the speaker would normally add the –s in the third person singular.

For example:
Peter: Say you went to work in a pub in Widnes and someone come in…

iii) the double negative

The double negative, as in ‘I haven’t got no money’, is a stigmatised feature in English, although it is the normal way of forming the negative in many other languages, including French and Spanish.

Because it may take various forms (for example, with ‘nothing’ and ‘nowhere’) and by definition crosses word boundaries, it is the kind of feature that is a little more complicated to search for with a computer.

Because it is stigmatised, people may be self-conscious of using it, and may therefore not use it consistently. In the following example, Stephen effectively says the same thing in two different ways a couple of turns later in the same part of the conversation.

For example:
Stephen: Can’t think of any more... Can’t think of nothing else.

iv) the pronoun system

As remarked above, it is hard to say whether the use of ‘me’ as opposed to ‘my’, or ‘meself’ as opposed to ‘myself’, is a matter of grammar or simply pronunciation, and forms like ‘me and him’ as opposed to ‘he and I’ are widespread in casual speech.

However, in the Doyle family interview, Peter uses one pronoun form which is only rarely heard in English English, and reflects the Irish influence on both Liverpudlian and New York speech.

It is the use of ‘youse’ to indicate the plural of ‘you’ - again, a grammatical feature shared with many other languages.

For example:
Peter: No but me mum and me Auntie Lynnie talk the same, and me and him talk, like, the same as well. It’s that youse come out with different words than us.

v) discourse particles

English has a number of ‘filler’ words, like ‘eh’ or ‘what’ or ‘innit’, which don’t necessarily mean very much in themselves, but indicate how the speaker feels or would like the hearer to respond. In some languages, like Irish and Chinese, there are even more of such expressions, known technically as ‘discourse particles’. Sinagporean English, which draws heavily on the languages of South China, is particularly distinctive in its use of the particles ‘ah’ and ‘lah’.

So it was fascinating to hear Stephen in the Doyle family interview using similar expressions in his English. Can this really be the same Chinese influence, as result of all that sea traffic to and from South Asia and Chinese migration into Liverpool. Or is there some other explanation?

For example:
Stephen: ...it was, ah, mad you know, lah.

In your own community you may spot a different set of grammatical features. Look out, for example, for the widespread use of ‘innit’ or of ‘goes’ or ‘like’ to introduce direct speech.

Here’s an example of three different uses of ‘like’ taken from one of Lynnie's speeches in the Doyle family interview:
When I’ve been on holiday with my kids, they’ve only spent a week or something with like a kid from Manchester and Chamonix starts like talking American or she’ll start picking up their accent or talking like them. In America, within like the minute we got there Chamonix was, you know, lived there all her life after just 5 minutes and was talking American and we was like, “Talk properly”, and she was like “Hey Mom”, and I’m like, “No you don’t speak like that Chamonix, talk properly!”.

The pink highlighted instances of "like" indicate a straightforward comparison, as in ‘as if’ or ‘in the same way’. This would be one of the well-established ‘dictionary meanings’ of the word.

The yellow highlighted instances of "like" are what linguists sometimes call a ‘filler’, similar to ‘umm’ or ‘er’.

The grey highlighted instances of "like" represent a relatively new phenomenon in Britain, where ‘be like’ functions to introduce direct speech in the same way as ‘say’ or ‘go’.

Noticing shifts in style

Although a recorded interview tends to make people rather self-conscious about their speech, you may still notice some shifts in their speech style when the circumstances or the mood change slightly.

This is similar to the way in which bilingual speakers may change languages in the middle of a conversation. Here are just a few examples from the Doyle family interview:

When people get excited about a particular topic

When Karen starts to talk about what happened to her daughter’s accent during their recent holiday in the USA, she clearly warms to her topic and is particularly relaxed, resulting in some forms of speech (such as the use of ‘like’ to introduce direct speech) that she doesn’t use elsewhere in the interview.

Similarly, when Stephen gets involved in talking about ‘attractive’ girls, he produces an informal double negative ‘Can’t think of nothing else’ when he has only moments previously used the more standard form ‘Can’t think of any more’.

When people are mimicking someone else’s speech

When Karen mimics her daughter saying ‘Hey Mom’, she does this in a deliberately American accent. Similarly, when Peter mimics the people in the pub in Widnes, he does does this in his his best imitation of their speech: “I don’t know what you are going on about, I don’t know what you are saying”.

When Stephen tells Jodie how he would describe the interview to his mates, he effectively mimics his own speech in a very different context: ‘I was sitting in this house with this bird and she had a microphone and she was nattering on asking me all these questions and I was just saying, like, for instance, “What would you say for hot?” “Roasting”.

And it was, ah, mad you know lah’. Apart from changes in his pronunciation and speed of speech (which is rather more drawn out than his speech elsewhere in the interview), Stephen also uses words like ‘bird’ and ‘nattering’ which do not appear elsewhere and other indicators of informal speech like the filler ‘like’ or the discourse particles ‘ah’ and ‘lah’.

When you examine your own data, be careful to consider (and keep a record of) the context in which people say things, and whether the language they use at one point in the interview is typical or atypical of what they do more generally. Good luck...

Exploring the origins of words

The most natural starting point for any analysis of the origins of words (in other words, their etymology) is dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which is a rich mine of information for anyone who has a few hours to spare!

Search time is now significantly faster as many dictionaries are available in electronic formats, such as CD-ROM or online. You may find that your local library can offer you access to such electronic dictionaries free of charge.

Till Eulenspeigel, the original owlarse Copyrighted image Copyright: BibliothekDesAllgemeinenUndPraktischenWissens via Wikimedia
Till Eulenspiegel, the original owlarse

It is surprising how many present-day dialect words turn out to have a long history. Take the word owlarse (meaning a ‘mean person’ and pronounced ‘ahlarse’ by Stephen in the Doyle family interview).

This took a bit of tracking down in the OED, but appears to be related to the old English term owl-glass, itself a corruption of the German (Till) Eulenspeigel, a classic fairy-tale trickster, and a general term of abuse in English since the sixteenth century!

Many people who use it today, however, naturally assume that it must be derived from a combination of ‘ahl’ (=old) and arse.

Scallywag (or scally) also has a long pedigree. Originally used to refer to a disruptive person or petty criminal, it travelled across the Atlantic and is recorded in in mid-19th century New York as denoting a ‘blackguard’. Meanwhile, back in the UK, its meaning softened to refer to a naughty child or, more latterly, a streetwise young person.

Like many other words favoured by Liverpudlians, kip (meaning ‘to sleep’) turns out to have nautical or military associations, being listed in Fraser and Gibbons 1925 publication Sailor and Soldier Words. It appears to be related to the Danish word for ‘brothel’, which became a ‘kip-house’ in English.

Kecks (meaning ‘trousers’) is identified by the OED as chiefly northern English and Scottish, although Partridge’s 1961 Dictionary of Slang and Shaw et al’s 1966 Lern Yerself Scouse both attribute it especially to Liverpool.

Chuffed, although described as ‘obscure’ in origin, may be connected to the word ‘chuffe’ (meaning ‘cheeks’). It has been recorded in many parts of England but with radically different meanings.

In the northern half of England, it has acquired the positive meaning of ‘pleased’, whereas in the south-west of England, it has (at least in the past) had the negative meaning of ‘surly’. (Interestingly, a similar ambiguity of meaning exists to this day in the term ‘cheeky’, which may mean ‘cheerful’ or ‘impudent’.)

The word sag, meaning ‘to play truant’, also makes it into the OED, although clearly identified as localised to Merseyside. It was singled out in the late 1950s by Iona and Peter Opie in their classic book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren as ‘definitely the prevailing term amongst delinquents in all parts of Liverpool’ (p.372)!

Other regional words never make it into a national dictionary but can be found in dialect dictionaries or on websites such as Teesspeak. Although Peter in the Doyle family interview uses Woollieback to indicate people from the Widnes area (ie ‘out of towners’), the people of the north-east also claim it as their own!

This short selection of words represents only a tiny fraction of what is available in the OED and elsewhere. But we hope to have whet your appetite for the fascinating insights that may be shed on the words you have discoved in your own community. So now have fun with your own search...!

Talking about language

Like most people, the Doyle family have a sophisticated knowledge about language, understanding the differences in the ways that different groups of people use language and how we are all capable of adapting the way we speak according to who we’re with or how we feel about ourselves. Several interlocking themes emerge from the interview:

We choose a variety of language not just to express ideas but to express our own identity and to distinguish ourselves from other groups of people.

For example:
Peter: I’m a Scouser. I’m proud to be a Scouser… I could talk like a Woollieback [a rural person], but I wouldn’t want to!

Peter: If you went to work in a pub in Widnes and someone come in and you’d say, “What would you like mate?” they’d say, “What you going on about? I don’t know what you are saying”. But, say you were in Speke and you know how to talk in Speke, then that’s easier.

Lynnie: ‘Basically it depends on how the person is and whether they are proud to be who they are…how they feel about themselves. …Josie and Pat our friends, they’ve lived here for 50 years but she’s still as Irish as they come, and she’s like a pensioner now but hasn’t lost her accent at all.

However, we can all vary our language according to the situations we find ourselves in and how much we really want to communicate.

For example:
Stephen: In the workplace I’ll speak different to what I do with me mates.

Stephen: The older generation, they haven’t got a clue about what we are talking about half the time and we haven’t got a clue about the words that they come out with.

Lynnie: Some of the things [the young people]’re going, you think, “What are they going on about”? and you have to say, “What does that mean?”

Over time, the language itself changes and some ways of speaking start to die out with the speakers.

Smalls? Underwear on a washing line [Image: Jacek.NL under CC-BY-NC licence] Creative commons image Jacekk.NL via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Smalls? Underwear on a washing line [Image: Jacek.NL under CC-BY-NC licence]

For example:
Karen: The old people say, “Me smalls”, for their underwear, don’t they? “I’m going to go and rinse me smalls”, like, and they say, “I’ve got to go and get the groceries.”, instead of the shopping. ...They wouldn’t say pants, they’d say trousers. They wouldn’t say skirt, they’d say petticoat for underskirt. ... They’d say overcoat, they’d say jacket, they wouldn’t say coat. They’d use the way they were brought up with it.

See if you can spot similar comments about language in your own interviews, or whether some additional themes emerge...

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