Magazine article NATE Classroom

In Search of English

Magazine article NATE Classroom

In Search of English

Article excerpt

I often give talks at 'lit fests', and usually I find myself in the company of novelists, poets, dramatists, and the generalist authors that flood the literary tents these days. But at the Dartington 'Ways on Words' festival a couple of years ago I found myself in totally different company. I had just written a book which was a new genre for me--a linguistic travelogue: By Hook or By Crook. Its subtitle was A Journey in Search of English. The organizers, presumably sensing that travel was sexier than linguistics, placed me on their 'travel writers' day.


The idea for this book grew during 2005, when I was acting as a consultant for the BBC on their 'Voices' project. 'Voices' was a celebration of the accents and dialects of the UK and all regional radio stations were involved, collecting audio material and presenting it in a wide variety of programmes during August of that year. I was actively involved in several of the programmes including one which was made for BBC television called 'The Way That We Say It', a report on the English accents used in Wales. You can see some clips at , and you can see the ongoing project at .

Making a programme like this, there are long periods when you're waiting for something to happen. The light might not be right, the background might be wrong, there might be too much noise from passers-by ... all sorts of things lead the producer to say, quite often, 'We don't need you for half an hour, David'. What is a chap to do, when such waiting-periods emerge? Some presenters read; some knit. I went walkabout, looking for language. I roamed around the neighbourhood where we were filming, looking out for interesting place-names, signs, inscriptions, posters ... anything which had something unusual or surprising to do with language. And there were always surprises. Language never lets you down.

When the filming was over, and I was back home, I collected my notes and started to tell the story of my linguistic journey around Wales, but soon realized that I wasn't going to be able to restrict it in that way. The language issues I encountered demanded explanations, and searching for these took me far away from Wales. Take the title of the book: By Hook or By Crook. I wasn't intending to call the book that at all. I was originally going to call it In Search of English. But after telling my opening story, in which I encountered a shepherd's crook, the publisher felt that a more lively title would better reflect what the book was about.

That story perfectly illustrates the serendipitous nature of linguistic enquiry. I was in Gaerwen, in Anglesey, waiting to talk to the auctioneer at the sheep market. Why? Because he was reputed to be unbelievably fast and fluent in both English and Welsh when auctioneering, and we wanted to interview him about the kind of language he used. He was working when we arrived, so while I waited for him to be available I wandered round the market. I thought I'd record some local Welsh accents and spotted an old, craggy, Welsh-faced shepherd near one of the pens. I put on my best Welsh accent to greet him and was flabbergasted to hear him reply in broad Scots--even though (he later told me) he'd lived in the area for forty years. That was surprise number one--to find someone who had retained an ethnic accent for so long. That's pretty unusual. Most people change their accents, a little or a lot, when they move.

Surprise number two was when he gave me a tutorial on shepherd's crooks. I hadn't realized there was such a science in their construction. And I went home that day with my head buzzing with stories of how crooks were used. Apparently they'd also been used for fighting in the old days. I was telling this to a friend who's into martial arts in a big way and he wasn't at all surprised. He'd used sticks in some fights and he could see the value of having one with a hook, especially if they were good at trapping necks and legs. …

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