Communication Breakdown

In which The Author meets a ‘native speaker’ of English

I’ve had many amusing encounters with non-native speakers of English over the years, and I’ve mentioned some of them previously. Florence told me of a great slip-up which she perpetrated while trying to get to the dance class she taught in the evenings.
It was pissing down with rain, so her library colleagues had advised her to get off the bus at ‘the Bonki’. It’s the local nickname for the Fforchneol Arms, a pub near the school Florence was heading for. Of course, she didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. She got on the Glynhafod bus and asked the driver for a ticket to ‘the Bonkers’. When she told me about it, a couple of days later, we both fell about laughing, and I said, ‘You’re bloody bonkers!’
Since coming to live in Aberdare, Florence has had to come to terms with Wenglish, the Welsh-English hybrid peculiar to the South Wales Valleys. Popularised nearly thirty years ago by John Edwards in his book Talk Tidy (reissued in 2003 after spending far too long out of print), it’s now the subject of serious academic study. I don’t envy her – it’s her fourth language, in fairness to her, after her local language, English (the official language of Uganda) and Swahili (the lingua franca of East Africa).
Standard English has many hidden pitfalls for the unwary, of course. Native speakers often slip up on matters of spelling, grammar, tenses, and so forth. People with only a shaky grasp of it keep telling me that there’s no need for proofreaders in the 21st Century – sue the spilling chucker and its file. Apparently …
William Caxton set up his first printing press in Westminster. Until then, Middle English spelling largely reflected the sounds the speakers used. After Caxton’s time, printed texts spread the London vocabulary and orthography across space (synchronic) and through time (diachronic). In the Early Modern era, this led to the standardisation of spelling across the country, regardless of local dialects.
As English spread across the world, a knowledge of Standard English became the gateway to education and a career. Meanwhile, English intermingled with the native languages, giving rise to Wenglish, Hinglish, Chinglish, Engrish, Patois, Strine, and all the other varieties we might encounter today.
In our module on the History and Development of the English Language, we discussed Caxton and his legacy. In Gill’s final lecture of the first term, I raised the possibility that Caxton could have chosen to set up shop in Newcastle-upon-Tyne instead.
‘Ye’ll arl be gannin’ yem,’ I told my fellow students, to much laughter.
Someone pointed out in a book I read years ago that some of Shakespeare’s rhymes only really work if you read them in a West Midlands accent. A production of Romeo and Juliet in Brummie would bring out the true pathos, I think. Similarly, Chaucer can apparently sound more intelligible if you read it in an Appalachian accent. The spellings have been frozen while the sounds have changed over time.
The words themselves change all the time, of course. As Richard Dawkins has written:
Geoffrey Chaucer could not hold a conversation with a modern Englishman, even though they are linked by an unbroken chain of some twenty generations of Englishmen, each of whom could speak to his immediate neighbours in the chain as a man speaks to his father. Language seems to ‘evolve’ by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution (Dawkins, 1989: p. 189).
Let’s expand on Prof. Dawkins’ idea, and apply the biological model of ‘punctuated evolution’ to language. We have periods of relative stability followed by a sudden shake-up, and then things settle down again. For instance, the period following the Norman Invasion changed the nature of the English language entirely. As I noted in Logorrhoea, we seem to be in the middle of a linguistic upheaval at the moment. Look at the way (especially in the commercial world) that the word night is slowly being replaced by nite, or light by lite, to pinpoint one shift in spelling. Is it Americanisation, or just simplification? I’ll leave the linguists to argue that among themselves.
Here’s a more recent example: I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve come across the word gawjus on Facebook – almost entirely amongst people aged under 25. This not-quite phonetic spelling reminds me of the futuristic vocabulary which Iain M. Banks invented for his SF novel Feersum Enjin. On the old ITV game show Catchphrase, the host Roy Walker used to tell the contestants to ‘Say what you see.’ Is that what people who type the word gawjus have been brought up to do? I can only respond with Mr Walker’s other regular saying: ‘It’s good – but it’s not right!’
In another generation the accepted spelling of gorgeous might go the same way as connexion, surviving only in old books and dictionaries. If they come across the word at all, young people will have to ask their parents or teachers how to say it. Their own experiences will mean that they won’t be able to make head nor tail of such a complicated word.
However, I suspect that pronunciation will cause the real communication difficulties between older and younger people in the future. I encountered a young native English speaker three weeks ago. I’d taken Stella with me for a photographic expedition and by two o’clock we were both getting peckish. There’s a Tesco Express-cum-filling station at the end of the village. It was only a few minutes’ walk away, so I decided to pick up some lunch. The girl behind the counter was about seventeen or eighteen, at my best guess. I took our snacks to the counter, and then asked for a pack of AA batteries, which were hanging on the display behind her.
‘Phawrwai?’ she said, in what can best be described as Estuary English, with an Australian Rising Inflection thrown in for good measure.
Now, I’ve been doing fairly advanced crosswords for years, and I didn’t have a clue what that word meant. I looked again at the display, and realised that she’d tried to ask ‘Four or eight?’
I asked for four of their own-brand batteries, and she rang them through the till. Then she flummoxed me again, with a totally new word. As a former student of TESOL, with the eventual aim of teaching English to non-native speakers, I had to ask her to repeat it. I’m going to try and break her utterance down phonetically. (Like Eliza Doolittle’s opening speech in Pygmalion, the standard English character set really doesn’t do it justice.)
The initial vowel sound had been elided to nothing. Instead of /eniː/, she went straight into /niː/. It was a bit unexpected, to be honest, and had me on the back foot immediately. It was followed by /p/, and then something midway between /e/ and /ə/. I was floundering by now, and we were only halfway through.
Next up was a glottal stop. If you’re unfamiliar with the glottal stop, imagine the actor Bob Hoskins ordering ‘mushroom risotto and a bottle of Mateus Rosé’, and listen to what happens to the /t/ sound. I presumed (correctly) that her glottal stop was intended to take the place of the /t/. There’s nothing new about that – in the south-east of England, /t/ (and, to a lesser extent, /d/) have been endangered species for decades, with the glottal stop predominating. Now, like the grey squirrel, it’s spreading across the country, propagated by TV and radio; /t/ only survives in small pockets of Received Pronunciation speakers.
[A digression: Some linguists have suggested that, as well as /t/, the /þ/ and /ð/ sounds might disappear entirely in a couple of generations, replaced by /d/ or /f/ or /v/, depending on the origin of the speaker. I remember a rep named Tony H., who used to say /və/ instead of /thə/. I thought he had a slight speech impediment at first. Over the past ten years or so, I’ve noticed it becoming more and more common. One of our younger lecturers used to do the same thing. Alan, one of the regulars in the pub, is a real Sarf Lunnoner. I don’t think his mouth could form the /t/ sound, never mind /þ/ or /ð/, if his life depended on it. Two generations ago, in ‘Arʾford, ‘Ereford and ‘Ampshire, ‘e’d ‘ave stuck arʾ like a sore fum. In 2012, a more refined version of Alan’s dialect is becoming the lingua franca of many youngsters who go to university. Judging from the available evidence, we might need to add Alveolar Plosives and Dental Fricatives to the endangered species list.]
After the glottal stop, there was a fairly clear /r/, with an odd flattened tripthong approximating to /əʊə/ to finish it off.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you. The /l/ in Bristol has no real historical reason to be there at all. The name of the town was first recorded in the eleventh century as Brycg stowe, meaning ‘Assembly place by the bridge’ (Mills, 1991: p 52). Similarly, Domesday lists it as Bristou (Hinde, 1985; Mills, 1991). It originally ended in an open vowel sound, and the final /l/ crept in over the centuries, as with several other words in that part of the country.
Three weeks ago, in a small village in the Vale of Neath, I encountered exactly the opposite phenomenon (or, if you’ll allow me a little linguistic pun, phonemenon). The final /l/ had vanished without trace.
I’m not a trained phonetician, and I didn’t have the full battery of recording equipment which the professionals use. Nevertheless, to the best of my ability, this is approximately the noise the girl behind the counter made:
Between her non-standard pronunciation, her lazy manner of speaking (which seemed to involve the minimum possible use of the organs of speech), and the ARI (I don’t think she actually was Australian, by the way), it took me two runs at it before I realised that she was trying to ask me if I was paying for ‘Any petrol?’ Her self-built language barrier wasn’t exactly conducive to an easy transaction. I felt rather like Ronnie Corbett in the legendary ‘Fork Handles’ sketch. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d been pulling my leg all along.
Maybe she really was a Londoner, or an Essex girl. She certainly didn’t sound like someone who had been born and bred in Glynneath. Perhaps she’s moved there from elsewhere. After all, Alan’s moved to Aberdare. But he’s my age (at least). Then again, I wondered whether she and her contemporaries had grown up with the television as an unpaid babysitter, and learned their English from shows like EastEnders and Neighbours. Or, quite possibly, no teacher ever risked ‘breaching her human rights’ by teaching her to enunciate clearly in an effort to facilitate communication. Which, lest we forget, is the primary purpose of language.
I wouldn’t have rated the chances of many tourists being able to engage her in conversation. I’ve met Germans, Italians, Austrians, Czechs, Poles, and people of many other nationalities while I’ve been walking around there over the years. I wonder how a lot of them would have fared while trying to make themselves understood in Tesco Express that afternoon.
On Saturday I had a pint with my friend John K., who was born and raised in Cork. He’s in his sixties, and has never lost his accent. He’s worked all over the world, so he can make himself understood wherever he goes. Although he’s very softly spoken, which means that you might miss the odd word now and again, he’s perfectly intelligible. He speaks clearly, and once you tune your ear in to the nuances of the Irish brogue, you’re fine. I used to drink in a pub in Cardiff which was run by a family from Cork, so I was already tuned in.
Every so often, a friend of mine will ask me where my accent comes from. It doesn’t actually come ‘from’ anywhere. It’s Welsh, but it’s not as conspicuously Welsh as (say) Rhod Gilbert’s. I’ve unconsciously absorbed influences from all over the country over the years. Maybe you could describe it as ‘educated Welsh’, if you were that concerned to label it. The girls who asked me if I’d do the voice-over for their video, all those years ago, could have done far worse (see Sibling Rivalry). After all, they could have walked into any pub in the Valleys and approached someone who could barely string a sentence together.
I’ve met plenty of people like that over the years. I was on a bus one day when a passenger got on in Mountain Ash. He knew the driver, and the two embarked on a ‘conversation’ (I use the word advisedly).
The passenger grunted, the driver replied, ‘Uh?’, and the passenger grunted again. After twenty minutes or so, I felt like a Primate Language researcher from the late 1960s, wondering if they’d make the breakthrough and achieve mutual understanding. I got off in Pontypridd, so I don’t know whether they succeeded.
Obviously, I’m not advocating a return to an era when BBC newsreaders wore dinner jackets, and radio audiences threw up their hands in horror at Wilfred Pickles’ Yorkshire accent. Those days have gone, and regional accents are (largely) acceptable in broadcasting. Listen to John Humphrys (a Welshman), James Naughtie (a Scotsman), Terry Wogan (an Irishman), Clive James (an Australian), Brian Perkins (a New Zealander), Paul Gambaccini (an American), David Jensen (a Canadian), Raghe Omaar (a Somali), or even Vitali Vitaliev (a Russian), and you’ll be able to understand them all perfectly.
Some blimpish Radio 4 listeners complained when Neil Nunes (a perfectly intelligible Jamaican) started working in the continuity suite. That was simply the most reactionary element of Middle England doing what it does best ‒ pissing into the wind. It’s not as though Mr Nunes introduces The Archers by saying, ‘Nah, mon, I an’ I be gwin darn Armbridge an’ ting!’ Don’t forget, after the death of Alistair Cooke, Sir Trevor MacDonald was voted the Greatest Living Speaker of English. Sir Trevor was born and raised in Trinidad.
Where you acquired the English language is irrelevant; it’s how you use it that’s important. It’s absolutely not necessary to sound like John Snagge, or Richard Dimbleby, or even Linda Snell from The Archers, whose frightful cut-glass tones really do belong in the 1950s. All that matters is that you can understand people, and make yourself understood in return.
I’m sad to say that if you can’t do that effectively, then customer-facing activity in a popular tourist spot probably isn’t the ideal job for you.
But then again, you never know …
DAWKINS, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene (2nd ed). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
EDWARDS, J. (2003) ‘Talk Tidy’: The art of speaking Wenglish. Creigiau: Tidyprint Publications.
HINDE, T. (1995) The Domesday Book: England’s heritage then and now. London: Hutchinson.
MILLS, A. D. (1991) A Dictionary of English Place-Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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