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Why the historic Black Country accent should be preserved

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: December 25, 2013

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THIS is the third and final article in my defence of the bostin' Black Country dialect and I am very grateful and honoured to have been given the opportunity to have this platform by the editor of the Black Country Bugle.

The Bugle is a great newspaper with a wide coverage and being allowed to write for a newspaper like this is a dream come true.

Thank you, Editor, Sir! You are a gentleman.

Thank you to all of the readers who have given my previous articles such positive reviews, especially Dr Brian Dakin and Dr Urszula Clark from the School of Languages at Aston University.

The first record of The Black Country occurs in the novel Cotton Green – A Tale of the Black Country in 1846 by the Rev. William Gresley at Lichfield Cathedral. The expression comes from the black soot from heavy industries that covered the area. The Rev. Gresley describes the region as "the dismal region of mines and forges, commonly called the Black Country." Research conducted through the Black Country Bugle and quoted on Black Country Wikipedia related to an 1851 guidebook to the London and North Western Railway. A chapter is entitled "The Black Country" whereby Samuel Sidney, in Rides on Railways, states: "In this Black Country.....they converse in a language bedecked with fearful and disgusting oaths which can scarcely be recognised as the same as that of civilized England."

In Wildfire Through Staffordshire there are stunning depictions of what was then known as "The Mining & Manufacturing District" in Darlaston, Willenhall, Wednesbury, Wolverhampton, Bilston and Walsall – but it is the dialect in Darlaston which deserves mention:

"The language and terms of workers are such as but few persons can understand. Barbarisms such as "um thinks as its gooden like for wea", "us does the wark for they", "us have the wark to daew when em awharts it deune wael far nobboddee abean here cono daot oten bun wae" are very common. To hear them talk of their great works, their pits and mines, everything is alive."

The author of the 1840 narrative praises the workers of Darlaston for their ingenuity, especially for their skill at making gunlocks and their wealth became exceptional during the Napoleonic Wars:

"During the wars, the Darlaston gunlock makers used to live in the most luxurious and extravagant manner. Such was their demand for poultry, fish and meat that Darlaston became the most profitable market for these things in the neighbourhood."

However, it is an old story – war brings jobs and wealth (to some) but peacetime brings unemployment and jobs disappeared. However, Darlaston's skills remained:

"The workers are incredibly ingenious, being able to forge almost anything on the anvil."

The fact of the matter is that the Black Country accent is probably the oldest in England, being descended from the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Mercia 1500 years ago. It is impossible to talk about accents without reference to history and the development of the English language. Accents all have their roots in invasion, change and isolation and the Black Country accent can be traced back to the Anglo Saxons where 4 out of every 5 words are Germanic in origin with no Welsh, Norse and only a, little French from the Norman Conquest.

Ed Conduit's book, The Black Country Dialect, argues that the so-called Great Vowel Shift between the time of Chaucer and Shakespeare passed by the Black Country region with the result that people settled here kept the vowel sounds of Early Middle English.

The contrast between the vowel "o" and "a", for example, in the words mon/man or ommer/hammer and rot/rat have been well demonstrated by linguists and dates even further back to Old English. The main dialect then was West Saxon (used the "a") while Saxons in the Midlands (Mercia) said the same words with the "o" sound.

Ed Conduit also points out other features in his book – verbs which show persistent features from early Middle English and the lack of a perfect, whereby the simple past is used in all such situations (eg "the glass wuz took out o'the fraim" instead of "the glass was taken").

The Black Country accent is quite distinctive between the different towns of the Black Country, although most outsiders would not be able to tell the difference. The problem with the Black Country accent for people (it's not a problem for people "who spake the tongue") is that they do not understand it. Therefore, the bostin' Black Country dialect is dismissed as "untrendy" by outsiders.

The Black Country dialect deserves to be preserved because this ancient language, 1500 years old, is a race apart and here to stay.

The poem below was inspired by one of Bugle journalist John Workman's stories. The poem, is one of the poems which appear in Wildfire Through Staffordshire which was inspired by John's lovely, lovely writing style. The poem, which was translated into Black Country dialect by Dr Brian Dakin from Aston University, was inspired by an article John wrote on October 31, 2013, about Samuel Griffiths' Guide to the Iron Trade in Great Britain in 1873.

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