It’s 35 years since I first walked innocently into the maelstrom of opinions that surround regional dialects and accents in these parts. A colleague from Norfolk – let’s call him John – was the newly elected chairman of the East Anglian branch of a national editorial association to which I belonged, a role he saw as an opportunity to spread broad Norfolk wherever he went. Roger, another colleague, but from Essex in the outer reaches of greater East Anglia, was his vice chairman, an upwardly mobile estuary English sort of a man.
Roger didn’t have much time for John, being particularly critical of what he regarded as the intellectual denigration of the region every time – which was often – John Boy laid on his strongly accented dialect with a trowel when contributing the East Anglian perspective to any given national debate.
“The last thing our under-represented backwater of a region needs is the village idiot offering up retrograde opinions, jabbering in a language no-one can understand and leaving the impression that we’re all like that,” just about summed up Roger’s rather harsh judgment.
I warrant that the natural reaction around here – or maybe around anywhere – will be to empathise with John Boy. There he was, single handedly holding back a rising tide of homogeneity, thus endearing himself to the hundreds or maybe thousands of you who worship all things traditionally Norfolk, laud those who champion them and argue like billio – as dozens of you have done with incomprehensible passion in the lively correspondence adorning the EDP’s letters pages – about whether it’s boy, boh, bor or old partner.
But for the sake of balance, should we not consider Roger’s viewpoint?
You see, regional dialects and accents (and yes, I know there’s another argument to be had about differentiating the two but let’s not get into semantics) are a bit yesterday aren’t they? Curiosities that, their preservationist fans contend, add colour and glorious diversity where there would otherwise exist only similitude.
Or, I’ll contend, a barrier that is often deliberately applied to encourage insularity and exclude outsiders. Who, after all, hasn’t heard the apocryphal story of the Welsh corner shop wherein all the customers are happily gossiping in English until an Englishman enters, upon which the shoppers instantly revert to their native Welsh.
Despite what sometimes seems an almost universal love of nostalgia, the day of regional dialects is largely done. They continue to exist only as leftovers of isolation and all that is in the long term unsustainable about limited horizons and a geographically restricted gene pool.
Far from being constrained by economic hardship, unprecedented modern day opportunities for travel and betterment will only be enhanced by the mobility that is once again and increasingly necessary to secure gainful and satisfying employment. Even a century or more ago, my own grandparents left their fast disappearing occupations as colonel’s coachman and below stairs cook in search of pavements of gold down south. Fellow travellers resettled in the capital would recognise Nan’s twang and together they would go on to reminisce about the remnants of Dereham’s mutual acquaintances or Yarmouth’s golden holiday sands. But, thank goodness, no vestiges of accent survived even to my mother’s generation, let alone to me whose return to the county of pioneering ancestors who refused to be stick-in-the-muds was entirely serendipitous.
Now, after more than three decades here, I have come to the inescapable conclusion that I am on Roger’s side; that speaking broad Norfolk is bad for us. We should give it up, and the sooner the better. Regional speech and, worse, writing, serve only to accentuate narrow social, economic and educational horizons that constrain ambition, opportunity and the ability to engage fully with the wider world.
Notwithstanding a determined effort by the BBC to overturn its historic bias towards the even more awful and thankfully even closer to oblivion plum- in-the-mouth aristo-speak by seeking out token Geordies to demonstrate its revisionist policy of employing linguistic diversity, a stigma of parochial and ill educated unworldliness sticks obstinately to those unable or unwilling to properly speak and spell the Queen’s English.
That apart, there’s also the question of whether or not dialects/accents are, in any case, acoustically attractive accoutrements to the English language. In this, you might say, beauty is in the ear of the beholder but that is not quite so.
Most of us try to avoid talking to people in telephone call centres at all, but when we do, consumer research expresses a marked preference for listening to those who speak modern English as she should be spoken. A Scottish accent comes next in the popularity stakes, then Geordie, Yorkshire and Welsh.
Least appealing accents are Scouse, Brummy, West Country, Cockney and Mancunian.
Norfolk doesn’t feature. Must be something to do with isolation.
Let us therefore leave mangled language to the anthropologists, the collectors of curiosities, students of linguistics, hobbyists and members of the awkward squad opposed to pretty much anything progressive. When it has gone we shouldn’t mourn but celebrate its going as an indication that our region has matured into a more open-minded place known for looking forward rather than harking back. We may then have a little less colourful confusion in our lives but will be better taught, better thought of and better understood.
This material is protected by copyright Ken Hurst 2012.