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Feather's Miscellany: Dialect And Accent

...Priestley and I spent a very pleasant hour or two at his home hosted by his lovely wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, who made me very much at home. Just why, I don’t know, but Priestley and I switched into dialect for a few moments, because we came from the same area of Yorkshire; he from Bradford and myself from Keighley a few miles away. Suddenly Priestley realised his wife was looking blankly at us. She didn’t understand a word of what we were saying. He apologised and she remarked she’d never heard her husband speak like that before...

John Waddington-Feather, a former secretary of The Yorkshire Dialect Society, recalls a pleasant encounter with one of England’s famous writers. J B Priestley.

Dialects and accents nurture the roots of England and enrich her shires. The way we speak denotes our background and character. It tells others who we are at once and where we come from; that is unless we have had our accent ironed out at school or elsewhere. For some reason middle and upper class women, more than their menfolk, take great pains to iron out their speech and speak ‘proper’.

I was very lucky to be reared in a dialect-speaking community, in a dialect which has almost died out. We spoke dialect at home and so did all our neighbours. In their clubs in Keighley, well heeled businessmen spoke in dialect among themselves and familiars, but as soon as a stranger entered the room they switched to some form of Standard English.

Going back another generation into my grandparents’ era, they spoke in dialect all the time. My grandmother, Mary Dixon, was a hill-farmer’s widow who took over the farm on her husband’s early death. She spoke always in dialect and never moved beyond the area where she grew up. I can’t recall her ever going on holiday and I doubt if she ever saw the sea.

Having lived for most of her life at Haworth on the Pennine moors, seeing the sea was something Anne Brontë dearly yearned for when she was dying, so her sister Emily and a servant struggled to Scarborough with her where she died and is buried. I mention this for dialect appears in most of if not all of the Brontë sisters’ novels. They were very familiar with it even if they didn’t always speak it themselves, though I suspect they did on occasions.

Whole sections of dialogue in ‘Wuthering Heights’ contain Haworth dialect spoken by old Joseph; dialect used to good literary effect. She brings in old Joseph, a grimly comic character, usually before an episode of intense emotion involving Heathcliff; lowering as it were the dramatic atmosphere before raising it again on Heathcliff’s appearance. (Shakespeare employs the same ploy in the drunken porter scene in ‘Macbeth’)

In Charlotte Brontë’s novel ‘Shirley’, the well educated and bi-lingual Yorkshire mill-owner, Mr Yorke, always uses dialect at home and among friends ‘…preferring his native Doric to a more refined vocabulary.’ And that trait still continues. The vocabulary of Yorkshire men and women may not be as traditional as it used to be, but the same strong regional speech is there at all levels. Simon Armitage and Alan Bennett, eminent Yorkshire writers, still have strong Yorkshire accents. And one very well known international Yorkshire actor, whom I shall not name, who has a beautiful voice on stage and on the screen when he speaks Standard English, becomes more regional in his speech the longer he’s in Yorkshire company socially off-stage.

As Secretary of The Yorkshire Dialect Society in the 1960s, I corresponded on various topics at times with another well known Yorkshire writer, J.B.Priestley, who was a vice-president of the YDS. Priestley had a deep rich voice and spoke with a marked Yorkshire accent, which he used to good effect during the 1939-45 war to boost the nation’s morale in his weekly broadcasts just after the nine o’clock news. In 1940-1, it was a time of great danger when invasion threatened and the nation needed bolstering. Priestley and Churchill’s voices were just the right sort to rally the country and hold it together.

When he was an old man in his eighties I had the privilege of meeting Priestley at his home in Alveston, near Stratford-on-Avon in 1983. By that time I was ordained and staying at a Church of England retreat house in the village for the weekend. Priestley and I spent a very pleasant hour or two at his home hosted by his lovely wife, Jacquetta Hawkes, who made me very much at home. Just why, I don’t know, but Priestley and I switched into dialect for a few moments, because we came from the same area of Yorkshire; he from Bradford and myself from Keighley a few miles away. Suddenly Priestley realised his wife was looking blankly at us. She didn’t understand a word of what we were saying. He apologised and she remarked she’d never heard her husband speak like that before. To which he replied in dialect, “Ah nivver get chance mich to speyk like this an’ Ah’m makking t’ mooast on it.”

We talked about the use of dialect in literature and agreed that dialect had to be modified if it were to be used to good effect. (The Brontës didn’t modify dialect in their novels and consequently footnotes have to be used explaining it.) So in his novels like “The Good Companions” and his play, “When We Were Married” Priestley uses modified types of regional speech. I followed suit in my own work; indeed, I learned much from Priestley in the way of writing.

Dialect is not slang, but I’m afraid much sloppy speech is called dialect. Dialect is an older form of speech which has evolved into our own time. When I studied Old and Middle English at university, I came across words still being used in my native dialect which had dropped out of use in Standard English; and that would have been true in dialects across the country. This process of regionalising speech is still going on. In the north “telly” is used for television, whereas further south “T.V.” is the regional word. Similarly, “wireless” is used in the north and “radio” in the south. What will happen in the future to all the new terms of computerese like ‘podcast’ and ‘blog’ I don’t know. I hardly understand them now!

Dialects and regional speech will always survive even though some of the southern dialects have been swamped by Estuary English, the accent of the Essex whine which has become widespread in the Home Counties. In England we are rich in regional diversity. Accent and local speech change every few miles, whereas you can travel hundreds of miles in the States and elsewhere abroad before an accent changes.

My home county of Yorkshire is lucky in having a dialect literary tradition which goes back centuries to the Anglo-Saxon poet Caedmon in the 8th century. And it is still alive and thriving today. The Yorkshire Dialect Society still publishes a wide variety of writing in dialect and was founded by an Oxford Scholar, Professor Joseph Wright, a remarkable man who began work at the age of four in the mid-19th century in a Bradford quarry, carrying tools for the workmen. Eventually after a long haul academically he became the first Professor of Modern Languages at Oxford and compiled his massive six volume “Dictionary of English Dialects” which he paid for himself! One of his pupils was my own professor at Leeds University, Harold Orton, who continued the process of dialect research, ably assisted by Stanley Ellis who died recently. Stanley devoted his whole life to collecting recordings of English dialects before they died out. He also achieved fame by pioneering aural forensic science, helping the police track down criminals through recordings of their voices.

Wherever people live they will evolve their own particular style of speech; so will each generation; and those of us brought up speaking dialect know where our roots are. Like our mother’s milk it nurtures us and sustains us in our early lives and often beyond.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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