Scouse: A Social and Cultural History

Scouse: A Social and Cultural History

Scouse: A Social and Cultural History

Scouse: A Social and Cultural History

Excerpt

If we can truthfully say of a man that he has a Scotch accent, or a Liverpool
accent, or a Welsh accent, or a London accent, or a Gloucestershire accent, then
he does not speak ‘good English’ with perfect purity. (Henry Wyld, The Growth
of English
, 1907)

In Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture, Terry Eagleton makes an interesting observation on the figure of Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. He begins by recalling that Brontë started her novel in 1848 a few months after her brother Branwell had visited Liverpool, and that the city at that time would have had a large number of Irish immigrants (as a consequence of the Great Famine). Eagleton goes on to remind us that Heathcliff, who is picked up starving and homeless from the Liverpool streets by Mr Earnshaw, is described as a ‘dirty, ragged, black-haired child’, ‘as good as dumb’, who, when he does speak, utters only ‘some gibberish that nobody could understand’ (Brontë 1995: 35). Eagleton’s conclusion from this collection of historico-literary facts is that Heathcliff, the quayside waif, is Irish. In fact he suggests a variety of potential identities: ‘Heathcliff may be a gypsy, or (like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre) a Creole, or any kind of alien.’ But his judgement, which is central to his argument, is that Heathcliff is the archetypal figure of the ‘beast, savage, lunatic and demon’ best known to the English as an Irishman (Eagleton 1995: 3). This is an interesting and typically provocative claim, and one that fits Eagleton’s reading well. It is also, of course, nonsense. For Heathcliff, a dirty little lad wandering about the Liverpool docks talking a language/ dialect that no one could understand (or at least that no Yorkshireman could understand), is clearly not Irish. He is in fact the embodiment of that charming and repellant, funny and violent, sentimental and ruthless figure known as the Scouser. Or at least he might have been if there had been any such term as ‘Scouser’ in the early to mid nineteenth century, or if there had been any such linguistic form as ‘Scouse’ at the time. But unfortunately for the Heathcliff as Scouser thesis, this book will demonstrate that neither of the categories of ‘Scouser’ nor ‘Scouse’ existed at that period; they were later developments (much later in the case of ‘Scouse’).

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