20 July, 2011

You May Need a Translator

You're getting ready to come to London by packing, getting your money in order, finding flatmates and thinking about housing.  But have you been brushing up on the language?  Yes, we all speak English, but in the UK the way people talk says something about them. 

Not only do people from Wales sound different from people from England who sound different from people from Scotland who sound different from people from Northern Ireland, but accents vary from city to city within the same country.  Part of the reason for this is probably that English started off as a second language for everyone but the Angles, in the vaguest sense of that unresearched sentence.  William the Conqueror can't strictly be blamed for this because he came over speaking French.  And not Parisian French, it was Norman French.  So there may have been a little Danish and Norwegian mixed up in what William the Bastard was saying (seriously, that was what he was called before he was called the Conqueror, it's not an insult, just a descriptive title.  Thank you, Stephen Fry!)  When William arrived in 1066 English was already being spoken in much of what is now modern England, though in The North (as the signs on the M1 say in capital letters) people were speaking a language that more resembled Danish than English.  In Wales they spoke Welsh, in Scotland they spoke Scottish Gaelic, in Ireland they spoke Irish Gaelic and on the Isle of Man they spoke Manx.  To the conquering Normans English was a low language spoken by conquered people.  As the Normans settled into England and Wales the English evolved and picked up words from French.  Language exposed the class difference between the conquering and land-owning Normans and the natives who were working on the land or displaced.  That's why in Modern English we are served pork (from the French word), but farmers raise pigs.  The same goes for eating beef and farming cows.

The English language eventually conquered the Norman nobility, and they brought the language into Wales, Ireland and Scotland.  And that's where the comedy comes in.  A lot of subject matter has a geographical basis, because a comedian's place of origin can be quickly discerned from their accent.  Manchester and Liverpool are about 37 miles apart, and yet they have developed distinctly different accents.  If you can understand them, listen to Liverpudlian, John Bishop, talk about temperature control and Jason Manford talk about being Mancunian visiting Liverpool.  Did these men really learn to talk within such close proximity to each other?  Similarly, Sarah Millican, representing the east side of The North coming from a place called South Shields, doesn't sound anything like these two men talking in her Geordie accent (as a note, since we are talking about linguistic differences, when Sarah Millican mentions a jumper, she means a large sweater, not a little girl's dress).  I have a mid western accent, and that description fits people from a mass of land that is more than 7 times the size of England (thank you Wikipedia). 

And then you cross into Scotland.  If you watched the clips of the Northerners a few times to figure out what they said, brace yourself for Glasgow.  Scotland was difficult for the English to get into.  Partly because the Scots didn't want them to come in, and partly because the Romans didn't build many roads past York, so it was a difficult journey to make.  As Kevin Bridges points out, language continues to be a barrier.  Listen to how he pronounces Glasgow.  Sear it into your memory.  This word doesn't rhyme with meow.

Traveling south, here's another border comparison.  Bristol, from whence hails Russell Howard, on the east side of the Severn in England and Swansea, birthplace of Rob Brydon, on the west in Wales.  The distance this time is wider, at approximately 80 miles, and I would venture to say the difference in accent is, too.  The clip of Rob Brydon is from a show called QI (that stands for Quite Interesting), hosted by Stephen Fry.  This show has been a source for much of the research that went into this blog post.  Having heard a little bit of Stephen Fry's accent in Rob Brydon's clip, I will lastly introduce you to a posh accent.  To put an exact location on a posh accent you need to know where the person went to private school.  Have a listen to Michael McIntyre explain when to drink coffee.

Revisit the links on this post in December and see if you can understand these comedians any better than in July!

-Claire

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