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Ow’s it gewin bab?


In celebration of Black Country Day, Dr Esther Asprey, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics blogs about her research in the region.

I am a dialectologist, which means that I study the differences between regional dialects across the UK, with a focus on the area my family comes from, which is the Black Country. We hear many claims about Black Country dialect in chatting to residents of the region and in listening to those outside the area.

One of the most frequent claims is that Black Country dialect is very old, and it’s possible to hear people refer to it as Shakespeare’s English, Chaucer’s English or even ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ What is great about these labels is that they confer a pedigree and a heritage on the dialect, and I think this shows the affection and high regard the dialect is held in by many residents and speakers. It’s certainly a refreshing change from the narrative which comes from attitudinal research to dialects, which claims that Black Country dialect is the most downgraded and vilified of the UK’s dialects.

What does it mean though to claim that Black Country dialect is ‘very old’?

It’s certainly true that the traditional dialect has many features which appear in Middle English. Chaucer himself uses verbal endings in the plural which give us forms like ‘we han’ and ‘they bin’, and these are indeed characteristic of English dialects from the Midlands - more southern varieties tended to use -th endings  (hath, beeth). It’s also true that forms like ‘her’ for the object form of the feminine pronoun are found in the Old English associated with our region. Detailed study of manuscripts copied at monasteries in the West Midlands backs up the idea that Old English hēo gives us modern Black Country ‘where’s ‘er gewin’ (where is she going). Indeed, the puzzle for linguists is how to account for the rise of the she form that replaced this in Standard Present Day English, but that’s a tale for another day.

On the other hand, Black Country dialect doesn’t exist in a vacuum, just as its speakers don’t. The traditional dialect borrowed items like ‘ganzey’ for a vest from the Irish geansaí (jumper). Similarly our neighbours over the border to the west gave us the word ‘ceffle’ for a clumsy person from the Welsh ceffyl (horse).

More importantly perhaps, structures like <day> and <cor>  - I day see him (I didn’t see him) and I cor do it (I can’t do it) have no great time depth in the region. To find the more traditional forms we need to look to Shropshire and North Staffordshire, and we see that for a time (and perhaps even now for very elderly speakers) these forms co-existed with forms like ‘didna’ (did not), ‘conna’ (cannot) and ‘wunna’ (will not). These more Stoke/Shropshire forms have themselves come from a more standard con not, did not and wun not, and have simply reduced over time till the /t/ is lost.

The more Black Country forms <ay> <day> and <cor> come from standard forms again, but the speakers have taken a different route to make them. The /t/ is lost, but so, in this process, is the /n/ of not. We still hear forms like ‘cost do it? I CORT’ if a speaker is annoyed and emphasising that they really can’t do something. This pronunciation, ‘cort’,  shows us that the /n/ segment was lost first and in fact that the vowel took on a nasal quality (think of French which does this all the time  - French cinque for ‘five’ does not really have a perceptible /n/ in it, instead the /i/ segment is exhaled through the nose rather than coming out through the mouth. The /t/ was lost later on, giving the forms we now know.

My point for Black Country Day is this; The dialect is partly ancient, partly modern, but ever changing, ever fascinating, and a good reflection of the social history and geography of the region. There can be no better location than the University of Wolverhampton to do this research, and I wish you all a very Happy Black Country Day!

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