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Why do Black Country people allow others to mock their dialect?

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: December 11, 2013

By Ian Henery, Mayor of Walsall's Poet Laureate and Poet in residence at St Matthew's Church, Walsall, replies to John White, head of Colley Lane Primary School in Cradley, who has banned pupils from talking or writing in their Black Country dialect

The cover of Ed Conduit book on the Black Country dialect

The cover of Ed Conduit book on the Black Country dialect

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MY maternal grandparents were Black Country folk and spoke dialect ("the tongue"). My Nan used to say "fetch ma puss an goo and get sum suck" (fetch my purse and buy some sweets). She went to Heaven 23 years ago but I can still hear her voice.

Grandad worked in Union Street in Wednesbury and we used to go there for a treat: faggots and grey peas. As a boy he told us about workers on strike in the iron industry in Wednesbury and Walsall (where we all lived) in 1913, the year of the Wednesbury Tube Workers' Strike, but I didn't really pay any attention.

It was 1975 and my entire interest was in the music Slade were making and in learning their new, challenging lexicon of words. Formal education went out of the window with song titles like "Coz I Luv You'', "Cum On Feel the Noize'', "Daddio" and "Did Ya Mama Ever Tell Ya?''

Not forgetting "Gud by T'Jane'', "Mama Weer All Crazee Now" or "M'Hat M'Coat".

My mother was tolerant of my learning English as per Slade but not speaking in "the tongue" like her parents because "it was common". I spent half of my life living with my beloved grandparents in Countess Street in Palfrey, Walsall. When I went to university in 1982 I became labelled as a "Brummie" and I would always protest that I was from the Black Country. There is a huge difference between both accents. In the 1980s I actively pursued a career in journalism and the media, lost the accent completely ("it was common'') and ended up as a lawyer instead.

Fast forward to 2002 and I am fortunate enough to meet the late, great Geoff Stevens (Poetry Wednesbury and the Black Country Society) and Brendan Hawthorne (poet and playwright) who are both committed to keeping the Black Country's heritage alive through public performances of song and dialect poetry. I was also fortunate enough to be invited to perform with the Alternative Black Country Night Out at The Lamp Tavern in Dudley where I met Gregg Stokes (Kates Hill Press – publishers of poetry and stories about the Black Country since 1992 -www.kateshillpress.co.uk) and Dr Brian Dakin, who performs as the Black Country character Billy Spakemon. I was amazed at how strong and deep the love is for the Black Country.

And I didn't understand any of what was being said or performed because it was all in dialect and my mother had taught me that "it was common". I have had many years to regret her lessons. How was I supposed to know that the Black Country dialect is 1,500 years old and originates from the Anglo Saxon language of Mercia?

Which is exactly what is probably happening in the lessons at Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen. Halesowen is itself named after an Anglo-Saxon word for river valley – "Halh" as is Halhs Owen or Wals Halh – Walsall. The school made national headlines by vowing to stamp out the Black Country dialect. John White defended the "zero tolerance" policy and said, "I think we are seeing a decline in standards of English when children come into school. Some children are not able to speak very much at all, to be honest......we want to pick them up on that and improve their standards of English. It is important because it is the foundation of everything. If they can't say it, it is likely they can't read it and even less likely they can write it."

Parents have branded the school "snobbish" and "insulting". Phrases like "cor do that" (can't do that) will be corrected every time a child utters it because it is on an outlawed list. Other phrases on the list include "ay" (pardon), "I day" (I didn't) and "it wor me" I (it wasn't me).

Ann Mills, aged 62, has two grandchildren at the school and said: "I was raised here and I'm proud of the way we speak." Alana Willetts, aged 30, whose son goes to the school, added that staff should be teaching the children about the Black Country and its dialect. She said: "Some of my friends have gone on to be doctors and lawyers and I'm an engineer. The accent doesn't affect you as a person. I think it is patronising and insulting to say that people with a Black Country accent are disadvantaged. All the parents are outraged."

Another parent said: "I whole heartedly believe that local dialect should be encouraged, not eradicated. Anyway, why should everyone speak like 1950s newsreaders?

"What if the school had a "zero tolerance" towards Jamaican patois and the language of Ali G? Would that be racist? Or "zero tolerance" towards Punjabi, Hindi or Urdu?"

To outsiders, the Black Country dialect may sound like mangled English but if people listen carefully echoes of 1,5000 years of history can be heard and it was no surprise when The Guardian newspaper ran a headline on July 27, 2003 The much-mocked Black Country accent is to get serious academic scrutiny with a research project from the University of Wolverhampton.

Dr Urszula Clark, Principal Lecturer in English at the University, was sponsored by the Black Country Society to research the dialect and its literature to counteract its unfashionable image. Dr Clark said: "The Black Country accent has a stigma attached to it – as if it was somehow not as valid as standard English. Hopefully this will go some way towards getting rid of that stigma.'"

Dr Clark also described the dialect's academic value back to the Anglo-Saxons with its words and grammatical structure and highlighted the good dialect poetry in the Black Country Bugle (Black Country Ballads).

In fact, the Black Country Bugle's role in keeping alive Black Country culture is even mentioned on Black Country Wikipedia and reads: "Established in 1972 from a site in High Street, Cradley Heath, the Black Country Bugle has also contributed to the region's history. "

The Black Country dialect's perception was boosted even further in 2008 when an internet video, The Black Country Alphabet (not forgetting the infamous The Black Country Christmas Song) described the whole alphabet in Black Country accent and dialect across the country. The Black Country was even granted its own flag in July 2012.

And this is the whole point of it all – Black Country folk are fiercely proud of their cultural identity.

Similarly, The Guardian newspaper ran a story about the first school in Cornwall to revive the Cornish dialect and it could only do so with modern technology. Cornish is a member of the Celtic family of languages which includes Welsh and Breton. Cornish people are proud of their cultural identity and also have their own flag.

This then begs the question: if Cornish people are proud of their ancient language and dialect, why do Black Country folk allow other people to mock their dialect?

Is Ian Henery right? What do you think? Email your views to editor@blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.

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