Accents and Dialects

An accent is an individual mode of pronunciation often associated with a particular locale. A dialect is a form of speech peculiar to a district, usually employing colloquial vocabulary specific to that geographical area.  In fact, George Bernard Shaw once observed that, England and America are two countries separated by a common language.

For such a small geographical area, the United Kingdom has hundreds of dialects, many existing almost side by side but sounding like different languages. I come from Yorkshire, a county once divided into three Ridings; East, West and North (Riding is an old term meaning a third – the South Riding that Winifred Holtby wrote about was fictitious), where the local dialect can be very thick. I’ve lived elsewhere in the country, and in the US, and the rough edges have been smoothed, but whenever I return to Yorkshire, I fall back into the accent and dialect without a second thought.

Yet I don’t write like this. My characters sometimes hale from other parts of the country, or the world, and they can betray their origins by the nuances in the language they use. I’ll use a couple of local phrases in their dialogue to identify them as inhabitants of this county or that country. I don’t overdo it, because I don’t want my readers to be reaching for the dictionary all the time or, worse, to give up. But I think it’s very important to give a flavour of the way others speak. Our younger characters speak differently to the older ones, so why not allow the old man with the Irish brogue his moment in the sun?

A case in point: I read an awful lot, but I recently abandoned ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh because the book is set in Edinburgh and the Scots accents of the characters are written phonetically. It became a very tiring read and I eventually gave up.  Which is a shame, but it got me thinking.

If we ignore dialects altogether we risk losing this enormous variety of local idiomatic and colloquial speech.  But if we allow characters to communicate entirely in their dialect, we have to trust that outsiders will understand what they’re saying and be willing to decipher. Should we translate? Or leave it to the reader’s imagination?

For your amusement, here’s a traditional English song written in local Yorkshire dialect, with a translation for those who have absolutely no idea what it’s about. The title of the song is On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at, which, roughly translated, means ‘On Ilkley Moor without a hat.’

If you’d like to see what Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire looks like – and it’s a splendid place – go along to the Little Blue Mouse blog, where there are some stunning photographs.

The song tells of a lover courting the object of his affections, Mary Jane, on Ilkley Moor without a hat (baht ‘at). The singer chides the lover for his lack of headwear – for in the cold winds of  the moor this will mean his death from exposure. This will in turn result in his burial, the eating of his corpse by worms, the eating of the worms by ducks, and finally the eating of the ducks by everyone.

The second, fifth, sixth and seventh lines of all the verses is the same: “On Ilkley Moor baht ‘at”.

Verse 1
Wheer has tha’ bin sin I saw thee?
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at
Wheer has tha’ bin sin I saw thee?
Wheer has tha’ bin sin I saw thee?
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at
Verse 2
Ah’ve been a-courtin’ Mary Jane
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at
Ah’ve been a-courtin’ Mary Jane
Ah’ve been a-courtin’ Mary Jane
On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at (etc…..)
Verse 3 and onwards
Tha’ll go an catch thee death o’cowd….
Then we shall ‘ave to bury thee….
Then worms’ll come and eat thee up….
Then ducks’ll come and eat up t’worms….
Then we shall come and eat up t’ducks….
Then we shall all ‘ave etten thee….
That’s whear we get our oahn back….
Translation for non-Yorkshire readers:
Wheer has tha’ bin = where have you been
sin I saw thee = since I last saw you
bah’t ‘at = without a hat
death o’cowd = death of cold
etten = eaten

Well, it makes perfect sense to me….


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