More Diverse English Dialects

We have already gone over some strange English dialects on this site in past posts. One tiresome canard that is oft-repeated is that US English speakers have a hard time understanding other US English speakers. This is usually said by Europeans. This is a misunderstanding of the dialectal nature of US English. The most divergent dialects of US English have long ago merged in something called dialect convergence. We already discussed New York English on the site.

As I noted, a young Italian man from Queens came to the Sierra Nevada in California recently and enrolled at a local college. For 3 months, people could hardly understand him. He finally learned to speak California dialect and make himself understood. Really, what he did was drop his outrageous New York English dialect.

What was interesting was that the guy could not seem to accomodate the listeners very well. People would ask him to repeat, speak slower, etc. but nothing seemed to work. And after 3 months of regularly listening to him, most listeners hardly understood him better than on Day One.

To me, these are strong suggestions that we are dealing with a separate language (albeit a very closely related one) and not simply a dialect. Speakers of a separate language have a hard time adjustting their speech to make it understood better, and listeners of a separate language usually don’t understand it much better with time than on the first day. With dialects, things are different. Dialect speakers can modify speech and be understood and listeners of dialects can start to pick it up a lot better in a short period of time.

An example of a dialect of English would be South African English. I recently met a fellow speaking a very thick S.A. English dialect. I could understand him all right, every word in fact, but it was one Hell of a thick accent! To show you how these things go, the woman behind the counter couldn’t really understand the guy, and I had to interpret for him.

AAVE (Ebonics) is quite different, and I think it’s a separate language in its hard form. I recently spent a few hours with two young Black women speaking AAVE. I didn’t understand them any better at the end of 3 hours than at the start. And they may as well have been speaking Greek. They couldn’t really adjust their AAVE to make it better understood (I think they don’t want to be understood, really) but they could drop the AAVE at a moment’s notice and speak perfect English.

There is actually some support among linguists for splitting off AAVE into a separate language. It’s probably not happening for political reasons. Could you imagine the howls from the rightwingers and the gales of laughter from the anti-Black racists if they did? I can see it now: “Niggers speak a foreign language! LOL! I always thought so myself!”

My Mom recently heard a fisherman from the coast of Newfoundland on the radio for several minutes and she said she couldn’t understand a word. There are some Newfoundland English dialects that are quite hard to hear.

There is a Youtube video about continuing slavery in the US. I’m not sure what it’s all about, but it looks like work in return for room and board in the deepest Mississippi Delta. There are Blacks on that video speaking a very deep Mississippi Delta Black dialect that can scarcely be understood.

Mulungeon English (especially Monacan Indians) and West Virginia Appalachian English (hard forms) can be quite hard to understand.

We can understand almost all Australian and New Zealand English. It’s often one Hell of an English accent (especially with the Australians), but they can definitely be understood. However, on the radio I recently heard a speaker of a Tasmanian Australian English dialect. She was from a rural forested area and was protesting logging in her area. I had a hard time understanding that dialect.

I would be all for making West African English (at least the hard forms of it) separate languages. On US TV, African English from Kenya and Liberia gets subtitles.

We’ve already discussed the Scots language on this site before. That Scots is now judged a separate language and not an English dialect drives many English speakers into wild conniptions. You can Google the controversy on the Net and watch the wild, raging debates unfold over many pages. I’m not sure why it pisses speakers of a major language so much when divergent dialects are split off into separate languages. Maybe it’s a primal thing.

There’s only been one scientific study done, but it found 42% intelligibility of Scots by a US English speaker. Sounds about right, but I’m surprised it’s that high. I can often barely make out much of anything of Scots, just words here and there.

At this point it ought to be quite clear that Scots is more than one language. In the heart of Scotland, you go 20 miles in any direction and the other Scots speakers won’t understand you. I wonder if there is some kind of “Standard Scots” that could be spoken that would be understood everywhere?

I would like to start the debate off by proposing that Shetlandic Scots and Orcadian Scots be split off from Scots proper. It’s uncontroversial that these are the most wildly divergent Scots dialect, and they have poor intelligibility to speakers of the rest of Scots. Orcadian Scots is spoken on the Orkney Islands and Shetlandic Scots is spoken on the Shetlandic Islands.

Shetlandic and Orcadian Scots have poor intelligibility with Standard Scots.

As far as the rest of British English, we can understand most of you Limey bastards, believe it or not. However, I have a very hard time with Midlands English. I definitely get less than 90% of it and I don’t get better with time either.

Two of the most infernal English dialects have to be Geordie and Scouse. They are also quite famous.

Geordie is spoken in the far northeast of England near the Scottish border in and around Newcastle. Other dialects around that region like Cumbrian and Northumbrian are similar. Geordie is famous for being one of the hardest English accents to understand. There is actually some support among linguists for splitting it off to a separate language.

Scouse is the notorious, but delightful, dialect of Liverpool. In mild forms, it’s what comes out of the Beatles’ mouths in interviews. In hard form, it’s extremely difficult to understand. There is a report on the Net of a US English speaker who spent 7-8 years in Liverpool and never learned to understand Scouse very well. He said that young working class women were the worst. I’d be in favor of splitting this infernal dialect off into a separate language, but it’ll probably never happen. Can you imagine the shrieks?

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35 thoughts on “More Diverse English Dialects”

  1. There’s a lot of support here for regarding Geordie as a separate language. There’s a lot of support for regarding the Geordies as a separate species. “There weren’t any Geordies till a Scotsman f***ed a pig”. That one always gets us Lancastrians laughing. And don’t call us limey bastards, you bloody colonial.

  2. The real divergence between the Americans and the British is in the field of humour, not language. You Americans seem to speak so tongue-in-cheek that you virtually disappear into your own skulls. It’s impossible for us Brits to tell whether you’re being serious or not.

    Even a humourist of the calibre of Charles Dickens was totally outwitted by you. He poured all his bafflement and disappointment into “American Notes” and you had the cheek to go into paroxysms of rage and call him a Cockney penny-a-liner. If you hadn’t had so many sly digs at his expense when he visited your Republic with such high hopes, he’d have better understood what you were trying to do and doubtless he’d have praised your achievements. Instead of which he wrote “I would rather see a couple of Indian feathers atop a pole than the Stars and Stripes of the United States” and even more tellingly “Their flag flies bravely enough, but if you happen to see the sun through it, then you realise it is very poor fustian.”

    Never was so great a man so shamelessly made fun of. Shame on you.

    1. Nah, we love the Brits. Of course we do. We just like to make fun of them is all. Most of us are part-British genetically, and tbh, “White” culture in the US is probably more British culture than anything else. These facts get glossed over now that WASP means “European White,” that is, Germans, Scandinavians, French, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, the whole nine yards, they’re all “WASP”s now.

      Of course we love the UK, and I’m 5/8 British myself. 3/8 English, 1/8 Welsh and 1/8 Scottish. We came over from England on the 2nd Mayflower boat! Other relatives were the “English” first families of Virginia, and hence, I’m related to Pocohontas. My folks were here before 1700! As far as tracing our lineage back, I’m not sure, but I’m related to Eleanor of Acquitaine, who was the Queen of England for a bit. I don’t know much more than that.

      We love your music (I’m a rock fan and a glam and punk rock fan) and your literature. Most of the great rock bands came out of the UK. As far as British lit, sure, they led the way, and I still read that stuff. In fact, I was even reading Richard Lovelace the other day, famous English poet from 1650 or so. Ever heard of him? Check him out! He’s great!

      Of course Dickens is one of the greatest writers of all time.

      We even love our expats who went Brit, like TS Eliot.

      We just like to make fun of you, that’s all.

      Truth is we’re a bunch of primitives running around in the woods hunting Indians and turkeys, and we never got around to creating much of a real great English speaking civilization here. To find that, one must look across the Atlantic.

      1. “Other relatives were the “English” first families of Virginia, and hence, I’m related to Pocohontas”

        Wasn’t she the ‘mythical’ ancestor of most virginian aristocratic families?

        I heard the reason the one-drop rule didn’t apply to indian ancestry in Virginia was becasue so many upper class families claimed he as an ancestor.

        1. Well, if you can trace your ancestry back to the First Families of Virginia (pre-1700) then you have a 50% chance of being related to her. Genealogists have proven this to be correct. We go back to the First Families of Virginia, and it’s been proven that we are related to Pocohontas. It’s not a myth.

        2. ” it’s been proven that we are related to Pocohontas”

          Robert Lindsay the mestizo…No wonder he like the mexicans so much!

          Viva La Raza!

    2. Pocahontas? Now that is cool, that is seriously cool. And Eleanor of Acquitaine? The nearest I can come to rivalling that sort of stuff is the tenous link I’ve established with Alice Nutter, one of the Lancashire witches. The fact that I’m descended from a long line of Nutters according to my evil friends comes as no surprise at all. (I don’t know whether you’re familiar with the English slang-term “nutter”. It means “village idiot” – someone who’s away with the fairies.)

    3. Glad you like our music. Our best export has to be Dire Straits. Greatest rock band in the universe – and I defy anyone to dispute it. But in the 60’s and early 70’s I was into American music, not British. I remember hearing “Magic Carpet Ride” for the first time. I was stunned. I just thought “What the f*** is that?” I had a green velvet suit back in those days, and some hair on my head, and I used to strut down the street, shoulders going, Steppenwolf sounding in my head. It was so cool, words just can’t describe it.

      These days I’m more into modern classical music, especially the work of a Finnish composer who’s actually on my Facebook friends list. I won’t mention his name because I respect his privacy. Great honour for me, though. I don’t pester him. I just follow his career by reading the English items he posts on his wall. Trouble is, every now and then my home page is swept by fusillades of Finnish, and, I can tell you, that is one seriously formidable-looking language. They have a love of the letter “ä” that borders on the deranged.

      Best wishes.

    4. I’m a hardcore rocker. Starting with the Brits from ’64 on. Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Rod Stewart, Animals, the whole nine yards. After that, to the 70’s, to Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, then to glam, Bowie, Mark Bolan, Mott the Hoople, then to the punks, Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks, The Damned, Siouxie and the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers, Wire, the Stranglers, 999, the Adverts, Tom Robinson Band, and those are just the Brits.

      Around the late 70’s, early 80’s, I was a typical first wave punker, spiky hair with a tail in back, beat up leather jacket, leather studded belt and bracelets, tennis shoes, sneer, the whole nine yards. LOL, it was a lot of fun!

  3. I am back. Never really left Bob, but after you got bumped from blogspot and came here, I decided to wait and see if you survived all the trials and tribulations of the internet dog eat dog world. You did and my congratulations.

    1. Great! I’m so happy to see you again. You’re actually one of my favorite bloggers, though I don’t agree with you politically. I actually think you are a brilliant guy, and at least that one piece you did taking apart Islam was really out of this world for a blogger. You’re Christian, I think, so you might want to post on the recent post, In Praise of Catholicism.

      I still have a Blogger blog, and it recently went up to about 63,000 hits a day, but then South Korea banned it, and the traffic collapsed. I still couldn’t sell one damned ad even at 60,000 heads a day. This “make money on the Internet” thing must be some kind of a joke.

      I have a lot of respect for you as an autodidact, an intellectual, a good writer, a hard worker and someone who uses proper grammar and diction! The last gets lots of points here!

    1. EuroYank, I activated your link and spent over an hour reading your observations on Islam. I live in a northern English town where there is a large Moslem minority, and it’s difficult to know where things will end up. The Moslems seem to loathe Christian culture and all the values it represents – and the hatred is being reciprocated.

      Don’t you consider that your country make a bad mistake when it sided with the Mojaheddin during Russia’s Afghan War? I felt at the time: “Hold on – something’s not right here” what with life-expectancy north of that border being sixty-five, and south of it thirty. But while the Mojaheddin were burning girls’ schools and murdering women doctors, and skinning Russian POWs alive, most western liberals were applauding their exploits as anti-communist freedom fighters who were going to save us all from tyranny.

      Well America got its thank you on 9/11. And now our two countries are having to confront something which that seems sworn to destroy everything we stand for. And too many British Moslems seem to welcome the idea of British soldiers being brought home in body-bags from the conflict. In an earlier comment on Robert’s blog I blamed the inept foreign policy of George Bush for this clash of cultures, but you would have me believe that the problem lies much deeper.

      In Wootton Bassett in the south of England, a simple tradition has developed over the last couple of years. The inhabitants of this town line the streets as a mark of respect when the coffins of fallen British troops are brought through from RAF Lyneham. For God’s sake, it’s a valid British thing to do. But it has offended certain Moslem activists so deeply (a group calling itself Islam4UK in particular) that they plan to hold a demonstration of their own. They plan to parade through Wootton Bassett carrying ‘symbolic’ coffins to honour the Moslems murdered by British troops.

      It’s difficult to imagine a more stinging insult. If they really hate this country (their country) so much, they should set up shop somewhere else, somewhere preferably as far away as possible (call themselves Islam4Antarctica, for instance!)

      Best wishes, and congrats on a very thought-provoking essay.

  4. “Our best export has to be Dire Straits. Greatest rock band in the universe – and I defy anyone to dispute it.”

    You cannot be serious! Rock guitar as lift music – tired old chord changes, no singing worth mentioning, and passable but bland guitar solos that go on forever. Pass. Robert’s got it about right. What ? Dire Straits are better than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Who, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Family, Procol Harum, the Groundhogs, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, the Incredible String Band, Thin Lizzy, David Bowie (and the Spiders from Mars), Tyrannosaurus Rex and T. Rex, Roxy Music, the Moody Blues ETCETERA ? Puuuuulllleease!

  5. I have only just read these responses. You guys can be so cruel. Dire Straits – lift music? Lafayette, why do you keep beating up on me all the time? I acknowledge the musical greatness of tracks like “A Day in the Life”, “Gimme Shelter” (wow!), “The House of the Rising Sun”, “Victoria”, “Heart full of Soul”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Whiter Shade of Pale”, “Telegram Sam”, “Nights in White Satin” and all that stuff. I just happen to think “Brothers in Arms” is even better. Where’s the harm in that? You shouldn’t sneer at somebody else’s taste in music. Even if you yourself were into The Vengaboys or Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson, I would let it pass without comment.

    Actually the greatest piece of music ever written probably has to be the C sharp minor quartet, (opus 131), of Ludwig van Beethoven. (Go on, I defy you to throw Mozart in my face!)

    Best wishes for the new year.

    1. Lafayette, I did defy the world to dispute my claim about Dire Straits, so I suppose I deserve everything I got. (“Let me not think on’t, for it hath made me mad…”)

    2. alpha unit, I simply don’t know whether you’re backing me up or having a sly dig at my expense. ‘Elevator music’ forsooth!

    3. I think Dire Straits is exceptionally good, no matter what you call them, you see.

      “Ride Across the River” is one of my favorite songs.

    4. Ride across the River, alpha unit? That song is awesome. I only know it from the 1986 Sydney concert. I don’t know any studio versions.

      Woop woop LOL! as my younger friends have a mystifying habit of exclaiming when some comment texted or posted meets with their approval.

  6. Robert, after you recommended him I read some Richard Lovelace. I never knew he was the author of those famous lines: “Stone walls do not a prison make – Nor iron bars a cage”
    I thought the poem that began: “Amarantha, sweet and fair, – Ah, braid no more that shining hair!” was absolutely beautiful.

    In return, I recommend you read Richard Barnfield, who happened to be gay at a time when it was desperately dangerous to be so (circa 1600). Other homosexual poets of his time took refuge behind ‘Arcadian’ stereotypes (of beauteous youths and amorous shepherds) which are really quite tedious, but Barnfield wrote about his lovers with a simplicity and a directness which is still quite startling.I quote his “Sonnet 11”:

    Sighing, and sadly sitting by my Love,
    He ask’t the cause of my hearts sorrowing,
    Conjuring me by heavens etemall King
    To tell the cause which me so much did move.
    Compell’d: (quoth I) to thee will I confesse,
    Love is the cause; and only love it is
    That doth deprive me of my heavenly blisse.
    Love is the paine that doth my heart oppresse.
    And what is she (quoth he) whom thou do’st love?
    Looke in this glasse (quoth I) there shalt thou see
    The perfect forme of my faelicitie.
    When, thinking that it would strange Magique prove,
    He open’d it: and taking of the cover,
    He straight perceav’d himseife to be my Lover.

    I don’t know what you make of the poetry, but you have to applaud the man’s courage.

    1. Yeah, Lovelace is too much, man. I find myself reading these poets from the 17th century these days because, Hell, at least I can understand them! I figure, if I can understand it, it’s a good poem. I can hardly understand any modern poets anymore, sorry. I don’t care how good they are. I just can’t make sense of them, so what good is it? I can barely even understand Delmore Schwartz.

      The only thing that bothers me about gays in Lit is that I’m straight and I love Lit. And it’s really painful to read these bios of all these great writers and one after the other, for Chrissake, they’re gay or bi! I go to read the next guy’s bio, and I’m like, “Pleaase say this guy isn’t a queer too!” And I’m so happy if I read he had a wife and kids. Then I read the next guy and he’s queer and I’m like, “Oh no! Not him too!”

      I guess part of it is insecurity. I’m a Lit guy. Lit’s full of queers, so what am I then?

      I also dislike the way that the Velvet Mafia has been going back over the lives of all of my literary heroes trying to make queers out of them. Jack Kerouac? Jack, how could you? They’re even trying to say that Shakespeare and Pound were part queer. Is there anyone they will leave alone? A big bio came out about Lawrence of Arabia saying he was queer. Actually, at the time, the guy was celibate, celibate = queer to a lot of these types.

      It’s annoying the way queers seem to be taking over whole fields to the point where if you’re a straight guy in the field, you’re under suspicion.

      I long for the days when the most macho straight guys of all would hunt, fish, chase women, run countries, drink, womanize, do all the masculine stuff, then go home and play the piano, learn a foreign language or read or even write poetry. Or even cook a meal. Nowadays, all that stuff is off-limits to your macho US male. He won’t touch it with a 10 foot pole since it’s draped in a fog of queer.

      I respect guys who really are gay though, like this poet. He had a lot of balls. Back in those days queers got the death penalty.

  7. Yes. Personally I think Barnfield’s poetry is worth remembering, not because he was gay, but because he had ‘the balls’ to admit to it. He’s in the mainstream because of his courage and his honesty. Ironically, in their scramble to recruit Shakespeare to their cause, gay propagandists seem to have totally overlooked him.

    I read the other day that somebody was even claiming Franz Schubert was gay, on the strength of the discovery of an androgynous-looking ‘portrait’ that probably wasn’t of him anyway. Schubert was short, fat, and such a notorious wencher that he had syphilis by the time he was twenty.

    Feminists here never tire of telling us that Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, even George Eliot were actually lesbians. It’s none of it relevant. “Draped in a fog of queer”! I love that.

  8. Robert The Groundhogs were a terrific British blues rock band of the late 1960s, guitarist T S McPhee. Well worth getting to know if you’re a rocker.

    Now on the subject of Scots, it is to the honour of the Scots that they first introduced the work fuck into literature, and here’s the poem! It’s by William Dunbar, a 15th century Scots satirist and religious poet. Translations are given by an American literature enthusiast from New York, Raul de Sandanha. Dunbar is very funny once you crack the language difficulty!

    In secreit place this hyndir nycht
    I hard ane beyrne (young man) say till ane bricht (lady):
    “My huny, my hart, my hoip, my heill (happiness),
    I have bene lang your luifar leill
    And can of yow get confort nane.
    How lang will ye with danger (disdain) deill?
    Ye brek my hart, my bony (pretty) ane.”

    His bony beird (beard) wes kemmit and croppit,
    Bot all with cale it wes bedroppit,
    And he wes townysche, peirt, and gukit.
    (And he was townish, bold, and foolish)
    He clappit (embraced) fast, he kist and chukkit (fondled)
    As with the glaikis he wer ouirgane.
    Yit be his feirris (behavior) he wald have fukkit –
    “Ye brek my hart, my bony ane.”

    Quod he: “My hairt, sweit as the hunye,
    Sen that I borne wes of my mynnye (mommy),
    I never wowit (wooed) weycht bot yow.
    My wambe is of your luif sa fow
    That as ane gaist (ghost) I glour and grane.
    I trymble sa, ye will not trow,
    Ye brek my hart, my bony ane.”

    “Tehe!” quod scho, and gaif ane gawfe.
    “Be still, my tuchan (touch-object) and my calfe,
    My new spanit howffing fra the sowk,
    And all the blythnes of my bowk (body).
    My sweit swanking (fellow), saif yow allane
    Na leyd I luiffit all this owk:
    Full leif is me yowr graceles gane (face).”

    Quod he: “My claver (clover) and my curldodie (wild flower),
    My huny soppis, my sweit possodie,
    (My honey-soaked bread, my spiced drink,)
    Be not oure bosteous (rough) to your billie (lover),
    Be warme hairtit and not evill wille.
    Your heylis (heels), quhyt as quhalis bane,
    Garris ryis (makes rise) on loft my quhillelille:
    Ye brek my hart, my bony ane.”

    Quod scho: “My clype, my unspaynit gyane,
    (Said she: “My clumsy fellow, my unweaned giant)
    With moderis mylk yit in your mychane (tummy),
    My belly huddrun (cover), my swete hurle (impetuous) bawsy,
    My huny gukkis, my slawsy gawsy (fat fellow),
    Your musing waild perse ane harte of stane.
    Tak gud confort, my grit-heidit (headed) slawsy:
    Full leif is me your graceles gane.”

    Quod he: “My kid, my capirculyoun (wood-grouse),
    My bony baib with the ruch brylyoun,
    My tendir gyrle, my wallie gowdye,
    My tyrlie myrlie, my crowdie mowdie (vagina),
    Quhone that oure mouthis dois meit at ane,
    My stang dois storkyn with your towdie:
    (My stake does stiffen with your ass)
    Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane.”

    Quod scho: “Now tak me by the hand,
    Welcum, my golk (fool) of Marie (Faerie) land,
    My chirrie and my maikles munyoun (matchless darling),
    My sowklar (suckler) sweit as ony unyoun (onion),
    My strumill stirk yit new to spane.
    I am applyit (agreeable) to your opunyoun:
    I luif rycht weill your graceles gane.”

    He gaiff to hir ane apill rubye (apple).
    Quod scho, “Gramercye, my sweit cowhubye (fool)!”
    And thai tway to ane play began
    Quhilk men dois call the dery dan (dance of love),
    Quhill that thair myrthis met baythe in ane.
    “Wo is me,” quod scho, “Quhair will ye, man?
    Best now I luif that graceles gane.”

  9. Here’s a funny youtube clip of the Glasgow dialect,
    parliamo Glasgow: Note this is distinct from Lallans, or Lowlands Scots, the language Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Grieve used to write his great epic poem A Drunk man Looks at a Thistle. And here’s an 8 minute film about the poet: – that’s him in his seventies walking along a wall simultaneously puffing on a cigarette.
    Here you can listen to MacDiarmid reading the Watergaw, which he gives an English translation of before he reads it. This is a foreign language!

  10. Sorry for taking over the comments. I’m a rock music and poetry nutcase. Don’t get me started!
    If it were (English subjunctive!) not for forums like these where would we air our obsessions! It keeps us sane in this dumbed down world!

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