Throughout the Covid-19 lockdown, the Black Country Studies Centre will be bringing you videos and blogposts about life in the Black Country, past, present and future. Expert speakers will give you insights to their subject and research, as well as sharing their recommendations and links for finding out more. Catch up with previous episodes here.

This week’s episode of Lockdown Learning is from dialectologist, Dr Esther Asprey…

I am currently working at the University of Warwick. In 2007 I finished my PhD on the dialect of the Black Country – although academics had looked at it before, mine was the first attempt to try to look at it across the whole Black Country region and through history. Since then I’ve continued to work on looking at the dialect. I worked from 2008-2012 on various projects which became the Aston University Corpus of West Midlands English, and then over the bonk at the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City University.

Like any regional dialect in England, Black Country dialect has changed over time (even Standard English does this, though because we have dictionaries, grammars and newspaper style guides to tell us how to write it, change in written Standard English is slower, but it does happen).

I found for example that much older Black Country speakers just about remembered negative verbs like ‘It inna bad’ where younger speakers would have ‘It bay too bad’ or even ‘It ay too bad’.

I also found that much older speakers still pronounced the ‘r’ in words like <farm> where most Black Country speakers now don’t do that and tend to associate that with areas like Bristol or even Ireland.

I also found that the dialect is different across the Black Country area. There was a difference in how speakers in West Bromwich pronounced the word <more> (a bit like mower) and those in Netherton (to rhyme with pure). There were differences with those in the south who might pronounce <price> as something more like <praas> and those in the east who pronounced it more like <proice>

My research now looks at the voices written out of history – which is most Black Country dialect speakers. Because the so called Fisher Act – the Education Act of  1918 raised the compulsory school leaving age to 14, education had a great effect on the kind of literacy pupils attained. Although many more learned to read and write, they would have been taught though Standard English as they are now, and dialect writing fell even further into obscurity.

Writing in dialect did happen in informal settings, and even now we can look at online spaces and letters to see how someone’s region comes through in the words, grammar and spelling they use. Writing in dialect though, was and arguably is seen as something niche – a pastime, but not serious literature.

Many of the writers and performers working in the Black Country over the years have shown that this is not so. The Black Country Night Out team of Harry Harrison. Tommy Mundon and others proved a huge hit across the region, lifting spoken and sung performance into something enjoyed by the community. Writing took longer, but published authors like Paul Mcdonald, Anthony Cartwright, Jon Petty, Archie Hill and Liz Berry have shown the UK that serious literature can be written in dialect. The written version of a spoken dialect though, has no agreed spelling system, and so the spelling choices made by those who write it down can often tell us more about how they pronounce their words and where they are from in the region.

I am still collecting and recording Black Country speech and stories and would love to hear from you all. My contact details and some useful links are below:

  • Very early dialect recordings of Black Country from the British Library:

Contact me: Esther.Asprey@warwick.ac.uk

Interested in learning more about linguistics? Find out about studying Linguistics at the University of Wolverhampton.

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