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When writing dialect leads to silly spellings

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: January 14, 2014

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I HAVE been reading people's attempts to transcribe the Black Country dialect for more than years, both in The Bugle and other papers.

This phenomenon seemed to have arisen coincidentally at the time when the broad dialect was disappearing. In a 1971 TV interview, I heard a Black Country worker say to a TV interviewer about a news item: "Well, Ah came 'um" (home)… Came? I shouted at the screen incredulously.

The dialect was never written down as a means of communication and just like the northern t' for 'the' and the Cockney rhyming slang 'bread' (and honey) – money, exclusively spoken.

People who had no linguistic training took it on themselves to write not only mainly articles and poems but also translate sections of the Bible into BC. The hallmark of all these efforts resulted in an epidemic of silly spellings which the writers thought in some way would make their offerings seemingly 'Black Country dialect'. This stupidity gives spellings such as 'agen' 'rite' 'orl' 'sed' 'dun' 'no' (for know) 'rode' 'iyon' (for iron) and many more including 'wot' and 'wen' unaware that the h in these words ceased to be correct English apart from 'who' in the 1780s.

The Bugle has hosted several pages in celebration of this so-called dialect and printed material in all good faith with major contributions from people who on the surface had impeccable credentials.

Some years ago, I received a letter from a writer who called his local dialect his 'mutha tung'. There is no normal BC dialect for mother (shouted for as 'motheeeeeer!') and in the word tongue only the vowel and not the consonants need be changed so the logical way to write the BC pronunciation is 'tungue'.

His letter ended with the words 'Kep out the 'oss rode' which immediately gave the game away. BC speakers never ever used the glottal stop as Cockneys do in "war'er" for water. We said 'th'oss' It is a lazy dialect and the words 'ah lahk that' could also mean 'ah lahk th'at' (I like the hat) – the e elided and the h dropped. There is also no BC dialect for road – how could there be? In addition to this – in the same sentence – the word 'kep' is used. This is the past tense! Mothers shouted to their children 'Keep aht th'oss road' – four even syllables. But when someone died it would be said 'E kep pigeons' or 'e kep 'isself ter 'isself' ('r' pronounced). But 'kept 'osses, day 'e?'

Only a born and bred BC person would know this. But even worse is the spelling of the town Oldbury. Some thought that as we spoke of Ode Tom or Ode 'Ill, it must be Odebry. But it was always 'Ollbry'. I worked as a bus conductor (for the money) and the 217 bus filled up at Blackheath by people saying Ollbry as their destination.

In The Bugle (December 5 edition) Mr Dakin in his first line of his Kipling travesty not only has kep for keep but in the fourth line we read 'An' met the 'ackers in trainers new'. New should be 'niw'.

What Mr Dakin is writing is a dialect of a dialect: he never mentions variations such as the West Bromwich and environs vowel doubling. Words such as schoowerl, shoewers, shohw-ers can still be heard in the town. Two years ago in a small local national supermarket, a till assistant was unable to find the bar code on my purchase and called to a supervisor: 'Can I 'ave a coherd'! Similarly, Dakin's spelling of words such as 'ova' or 'eeya' is the dialect of a dialect in the country of Tividale because normal BC was and is pronounced 'over' 'ere' 'theer' and so on. Time is tahm, not tiyme. Dialect fashions come and go. In the Pleck and Bowling Green estate, Netherton, we heard faetho, motho, sisto, butto with the o as in clock. We used to take the mickey out of them. Blackheath speakers said 'chep' for chap.

Words were not only related to the industry the speakers worked in, but a lot of words and expressions were 'in house'. My mother called 'sleepy dust' woppalow – I never heard it anywhere else nor 'kenched 'isself' meaning a sprain. My grandparents added a t to some words 'orange juist' or a d 'yoh'm a late scholard.'

In 1968 a Mr Conrad Yffesson described how we spoke as 'Pure dialect is to enjoy with friends'. He also claimed that some of the BC negatives – bay, cor, and so on, are from Old Norse and an Irish busker, who was well know in West Bromwich until recently, told me that yoh, bin, cor etc came from County Sligo and came with the thousands of Irish workers and their families to build the numerous Black Country canals and railway cuttings and embankments.

The people came to work in the pits and in the such industries as the Corngreaves Iron and Steel works (1837 – 1882) from as far afield as Shropshire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire, Herefordshire who, when learning to adopt the local dialect spoken by far fewer people than in the early 19th century, kept some expressions of a rural origin, but had to swop whatever words they had for plough, scythe, harrow, hedge, bat, chickens for 'ommer, cogwinder, lampen' misken, gleeds, night silers' and so on. Not all Anglo-Saxon!

It s a salient feature among BC people that in spite of a common underlying core of words which everyone understood, people invented words such as 'tranklements' (oddments) befoddled, circumbendifying, updownmonlike and even expressions 'yoh'm lahk a stoat up er bonk' or 'oss in a lezzer'. One man I knew described his sitting wife as 'one on th'ob' meaning a statue, usually of a horse, which stood on the left hand side of a coal fire grate. Ed Conduit claims that four out of five words have a German origin and I shall be checking that out and reporting back. I am a great admirer of Carl Chinn who gives a list of 14 words whose origin can be traced to Old English.

Anglo-Saxon, by the way, was an inflected language with four cases and three genders. Thank heaven that aspect of the language didn't form part of our dialect! Strangely enough, my grandmother called the clock and sideboard 'him' the settee 'her'

A perfect example of pronunciation change altering the sense is shown by the brook between Old Hill and Netherton marked on maps as 'Mouse Sweet Brook'. It is a corruption of Moots Meet Brook – a moot as in 'it's a moot point' was an Anglo-Saxon meeting place and in the 1960s a brewery built a pub of this very site and named it 'The Moot Meet'. It is fascinating to think that 1,000 years later people would again be talking and drinking on that spot (alas not mead!).

I am very puzzled about Brian Dakin's idea of 'Black Country folk music living on in the pubs and clubs' – people will normally absorb popular commercial culture. The proof of this is that until about 20 years ago, stalls in open air markets would have piles of sheet music of popular songs of music hall stars such as Marie Lloyd and others of the 20ss, 30s and 40s. These were played and sung in thousands of pubs. I remember, aged 7, going to what is now the Plaza in Old Hill (then The Grand), to buy tickets for what turned out to be the last music hall booking there. When, in the 60s, a pop song called 'This Old House' came into the charts, my grandmother knew it from when she got married in 1912.

My gran lived in Sutherland Road and all the families had been moved from slums in 1938.

My last wish for the BC bandwaggoners is to be like the pilgrim in the popular hymn and 'let fancies flee away'.

Ivor Morgan,

14 Bowater House, Moor Street,

West Bromwich.

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