A year ago, when the ‘word of the week’ started on this blog, I wrote about my love of local language and the wonderful pronunciation and lively expression that make up part of it. It has been great to see these words appearing every week on the blog. And what’s even better – people are reacting to these words. It obviously makes them think about the language they use as well as the language of the people around them, and they’re not afraid to speak their mind.
I finished last year by writing: ‘No language is lazy or wrong, and celebrating our local language will help keep it alive, so let’s use it where we can!’ Well, I stick to this statement.
We read media reports of heads of schools forbidding certain local words or pronunciations, stating that it will hamper their pupils’ ability to get a job, or arguing that such words are damaging for young people. And BBC reporter, Steph McGovern, claimed recently that her regional accent had affected her pay when compared to colleagues.
But local words give us a sense of our identity and they tie us to the people who live around us. I’m not arguing that people should use local language in all situations (I, for example, wouldn’t expect to see it in an academic essay), but there’s a time and place for it. Plus, many people are able to switch between their local language and a more standard variety when this is needed. And I think that young people shouldn’t feel embarrassed or ashamed about using their own language.
Several years ago, I invited secondary schools from across the East Midlands to take part in a study looking at language variation in the UK. I wanted to engage with students’ opinions on language variation. The 17- to 18-year-old students carried out a number of tasks, including listening to recorded voices to try to place particular accents and specifically to talk about language in the East Midlands. In total, around 330 took part in this project. I gave them maps of the region and they were asked to talk about (and write down) language in their local and surrounding areas. I also asked them to think about where language started sounding different, how it was different, and give examples of words and/or pronunciations of different accents in the region. The students were encouraged to feedback their opinions to others within the group and examine whether they agreed on the issues raised.
The final task provided a very rich source of thoughts about local language, and it generated animated discussions, many of which centred on ideas about the so-called ‘ugliness’ and ‘negativity’ that was said to surround their local accents. Some students said that their local language was lazy, slurred, chavvy, boring, rough, not proper, not unique and fast. Others said that they didn’t like it or were trying to get rid of it. These characterisations were frequent and widespread. Only two students said that local language was relatively easy to understand and just one believed it was friendly.
I haven’t got the space here to explain why this occurred, but this is something we should be aware of. Therefore, a positive celebration of local language such as the ‘word of the week’ can make people feel proud again of their language and pass their words onto family and friends. So, please tell this blog about your favourite word today.