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OU on the BBC: Word4Word - Programme Summaries

Updated Thursday 28th July 2005

Discover more about BBC Radio 4's series on the development of language

A young woman talks to an older flower seller Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Programme One: New Kids on the Block?

They’re trobos, trevs, neds, spides, scallies, pikeys, chavs, wannabes and townies. In cities throughout the UK, from Newcastle to Newtonards, from Bradford-on-Avon to Bolton, they know what they are. The Voices survey has brought to light a whole raft of names for a phenomenon that is now a fixture throughout the country and is explained in the Voices programme New Kids on the Block?

The Voices survey asked individuals, ‘what do you call a young person in cheap trendy clothes and jewellery? Both elements of the question are significant, young (these are not ageing swingers), trendy clothes (they make a point of dressing sharply) but their outfits are also ‘cheap’. What they represent is a certain threat – a disaffected group who ‘hang around outside McDonalds’ according to the youngsters in Barrow-in-Furness; while the young fans of Leicester City football club, say ‘they stand around on street corners smoking their fags with skirts up to their arses’. In Newcastle, the students recognised them (here they’re called ‘charvers’), people trying to cadge money and cigarettes from them outside the off-licence, while in rural Wiltshire, youngsters keep firm hold of their mobile phones when the Trobos are in town (Trobos from Trowbridge, the county town). In rural Lancashire, just outside Blackburn, they represent ‘the opposition’, they’re the town-dwellers who come and make trouble – they’re called ‘townies’, though it’s not just because they’re not from the country that they carry this name.

New Kids on the Block? looks at the way each area of the country has a word for this very particular figure of social distinctiveness, the roots of many of these words and their connection with other socially marginalised groups. ‘Charver’ for example, is related to chava the Romany term for child and this association with travellers, viewed by the prejudiced as social undesirables, is seen in another name for young people, Pikeys. Pikey is of course a thoroughly disliked and racist term (relating to ‘turnpike’) for the travelling community.

Vernacular terms for socially marginalised individuals have changed, in the Second World War they were ‘spivs’ and ‘drones’, in the 1920s, ‘young sparks’. Using archive material to demonstrate the historical dimension, New Kids on the Block? explores the way contemporary language is being spread and fuelled by the constant flood of traffic on MSN, via dozens of Internet chat rooms and message boards where these undesirable youngsters are a favourite topic of conversation and dislike. Yet through Charver Central and many other websites that celebrate their views, these youngsters are themselves making their voices heard. New Kids on the Block? questions how immigration and new diversity has affected both terminology and attitudes towards these young people

Using recordings from traveller communities in Kent and Northern Ireland, there are illustrations how a sense of being marginalised is played out in both language and lifestyle, through traveller cant and the Romany language.

Programme Two: Contains Strong Language

Contains Strong Language uses two traditions of regional language where there is little sign of language standardisation. It demonstrates the strength of language on a more detached community. Examining in detail the reasons for language change, or conversely, resistance to such change, Contains Strong Language, also looks at why some groups of speakers who use their older more distinctive forms, in the face of the pressures towards standardisation, which are strongly affecting some of the older forms of regional speech elsewhere in the country.

In Northern Ireland at Kilwaughter on the north Antrim coast and on Rathlin Island, two contrasting groups of Ulstermen and women speak in varying degrees different strands of traditional Northern Ireland dialect. The Rathlin group as an island community find themselves much more cut off from the mainstream of linguistic evolution, though emigration for employment has meant certain rounding out of local characteristics. In Kilwaughter a group of older Ulster Scots speakers demonstrate audibly and memorably both the resilience of their old rural dialect and their centuries-old connection with the Scottish mainland a few short miles across the water. In addition, the particular sectarian and social issues that have meant the sustained place of Ulster Scots within the northern linguistic landscape and is compared with the very different language arena of urban Dundee, where a mix of modern slang and old rich Scots dialect are fostered by the closed communities of the ‘schemes’ (housing estates).

Contains Strong Language looks the way young and old address dialect, what fosters it and what dilutes it? Is it inevitable that pressures such as fashion and social (upward) mobility, physical mobility and the new connectedness via mobile phones, the Internet and broadcast media are going to change the shape of vernacular? Why is it that in Dundee there are conditions that foster a form of vernacular that is indigenous, local and distinctive? In contrast there is evidence from the Salford group where new vernacular is driven by the closed community of school and friends.

Programme Three: London and the World?

David Rosewarne in 1984 maintained there was a spreading uniformity affecting the way people in the south and east of England speak. ‘Cockney’ continued to exist but there was another form of London speech which he called Estuary English. This has some of the flavours of the old style but in a much watered-down form and it was spreading. Some of the sounds were substantially changing too, but the whole was moving out from the capital like a tide into the everyday speech of fashionable, articulate men and women across the UK.

London and the World? explores the influence of London and of the Estuarial phenomenon – using recordings from as far afield as Cornwall and Manchester, rural Lancashire, Cambridge and Newcastle. There are those who hotly contest the idea of an estuarial tide and maintain that the well known features of London vernacular pronunciation, for example, TH-fronting, glottal stops - are to be found in traditional regional forms too.

London and the World? also explores what actually is happening within the confines of London. If, as some maintain, Estuary English has become a form of ‘new standard’, to what extent does old ‘Apples-and-Pears’ Cockney survive? Do people still use rhyming slang or is it now just a London publicist’s promotional tool? What are the real features of Cockney (and where for heaven’s sake did the term come from in the first place?) And what are the other dialects of the conurbation such as the new middle-class vernacular, complete with pronunciation scheme, vocabulary and lifestyle? London and the World? takes us on a linguistic journey to London and beyond.

Programme Four: You Don’t Want to Speak Like That!

You Don’t Want to Speak Like That! examines the pressures on dialect and vernacular English from social improvement, losing one’s identifiable accent and vernacular as part of a process of social adaptation and upward mobility. What is ‘good’ dialect or ‘bad grammar’? The pressure to conform looks at teaching, where many have complained about local speech being drummed out of them by teachers from outside the area, intent upon standardisation and social improvement. Where does the National Curriculum come into this issue? What are we going to be encouraging our young people to speak in the year 2010? The Welsh show what can be done to encourage and foster a different, regional speech style from the earliest age, growing a desire and a respect for a non-national speech form.

You Don’t Want to Speak Like That! looks at historical evidence, from stories of Welsh children denied their language, and more recently from Cumbria, where there has arisen a voice of resistance to conformity. Does ‘regional English’ always mean working-class, i.e. common? Is the pressure always on dialect?

You Don’t Want to Speak Like That! looks at evidence from Salford, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Wales about the national phenomenon of the ‘telephone voice’ (the way speakers adapt their manner of speaking on the phone to suit the speaker at the other end). Other evidence, for example can be found amongst public administration workers in Plymouth, who ‘posh up’ to suit their enhanced status as they move up the economic ladder, but revert down again, at the pub.

Self improvement via language is also a feature. Parents as strong influences attempt to force ‘improper’ regional speech out of children in favour of more standardised forms. Attitudes to swearing are also a factor. Still largely regarded as socially unacceptable on many levels and historically (although not necessarily accurately) associated with the behaviours of the working class. Yet upward mobility may be impeded by swearing and is thus regarded as something aspirational parents wish their children to avoid. This trend towards social improvement is shown to be rooted in an historical context, with the work of Thomas Sheridan at the end of the 18th century.

Programme Five: Under the Influence

Under the Influence examines the way that regional and national forms of language are the products of powerful and very diverse forces. Three forms of linguistic influences are contrasted. The first is the historical effects of Viking invasions along the north west and eastern coasts of England, evidenced in the range of words that are still used both in standard and older forms of regional speech. In a linguistic area that spreads as far south as Suffolk ‘beck’ for a stream; compares with ‘bek’ in modern Danish, the English word is derived from Old Norse bekkr, a stream.

Secondly is the influence of West Indian English on young people’s speech across the country. There is evidence from a group of musicians in Cambridge who are largely Estuary speakers but with strong slang (largely Jamaican). Comparisons are made of similar Afro-Caribbean groups from Reading (Barbadian English) and old and new Liverpudlian groups (Caribbean and African) where the mix is contemporary black patois and Scouse. For evidence from the white community, we have the Purley (Berks) experience and the Hackney youngster and a teenager from Wales all of whom have adopted black slang as part of their normal vernacular.

The third influence is on Scouse which was created by a mixture of Lancastrian with a component from the Viking (Norwegian) raiders. The Welsh are shown to have had an influence on the sound of ‘Scouse’. Above all one of other major influences is shown to have been the Irish who emigrated in the Great Famine of 1845.

Programme Six: Friends, Neighbours and Big Brothers

Friends, Neighbours and Big Brothers raises the vexed question of uniformity and the ways in which how we use the vernacular is being influenced, or not, by the broadcast and electronic media. Examples quoted throughout Voices of Only Fools and Horses (‘cushty’ – a Romany word for ‘good’ taken up by Del Boy and friends has now become a common slang term). In ‘Big Brother’ we measure the effect of Jade Goody on the speech of the nation – mingin’ is the standard term amongst the young for anything or anyone unattractive or unpleasant. The intonation patterns such as Upspeak, can be attributed to Neighbours, but is an influence which may just be waning.

There are many instances of words cited which are used and misused in soaps. For example ‘hanging’ spoken by a character in Coronation Street would really be spoken as 'anging' by the real-life residents of Salford. The ubiquity of words like ‘knackered’, ‘chuffed’ and ‘loaded’ in the broader community and ‘munter’, ‘dog’ and many others can be ascribed to a certain media-driven uniformity. The recent mainstream success of Asian comedies like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars have meant that a number of new sub-continental elements have become part of the national vernacular.

This Asian influence has other major impacts on mass language, through inter-community shared events like the Mela, through intermarriage and major cross-cultural phenomena like Bollywood’ and bhangra, dissemination on radio, TV and the cinema screen is beginning to put yet another linguistic element into a speech style that goes a long way beyond the West Midlands, Lancashire or Southall. The experiences of the North Leeds group of second generation Indians is very strong here and their fears are not for old English dialect which they have embraced, but for their indigenous culture which they are sad to be losing.

To what extent is this likely to affect the overall health of regional variation? What components will resist, adapt or re-emerge from this media soup? Is the fact that communication is regularly and routinely international in chat rooms and discussion a means of spreading uniformity or of emphasising an awareness of difference?

First broadcast: Wednesday 3 Aug 2005 on BBC Radio 4

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