Monday, 20 January 2014

George Orwell as sociophonetician

George Orwell
Most people know George Orwell from his dystopian novel 1984. But he also was a political writer and published essays on English culture.

 It was by mere chance that I found these two quotations, the first of which is take from the novel Coming up for Air written in 1939:

The second one is to be found in an essay with the title "The English People", written in 1944, but not published until 1947. Among other things Orwell writes about steps towards greater democracy in England. Here is his description of the third step:

Doesn't this sound - at least vaguely - like an anticipation of the concept of Estuary English?

There might even be a link to what Sidney Wood writes in his blog about a personal experience he had at school:
Of course, he [= Rosewarne] couldn’t know that our English language master had already told us at school in 1950 that our dialect was Estuary English. It seems I’d been speaking Estuary English for 50 years before Rosewarne coined the expression. Perhaps it was our English master who coined it, or perhaps he’d read it somewhere. If so, it would be exciting now to know where.


  1. Thank you, the first quote is certainly relevant to the spreading of London phonology to the home counties in the 19th century (while not touching the expression 'Estuary English'). The Thames Valley setting is west of London, extending through Reading to Oxford, and Orwell himself grew up there at Henley. This novel is a mixture of nostalgia for an Edwardian England, with daily sunshine and few motorcars, and apprehension for an impending war against fascism. The main character, growing into manhood just before WW1, prefaces your quote with 'I cured myself of dropping aitches and got rid of most of my Cockney accent'. Mugglestone (Talking Proper) has a similar story about how H G Wells 'shed the Cockney markings of his youth' (p. 263), unfortunately without citing a source. That didn't mean that Orwell's character was switching to RP. He was just stepping up the regional 'popular'/'standard' scale (J Wells), enough (then) to qualify for a clerical job.

    Mugglestone also reminds us that 'cockney' didn't just refer to East End London speech. It was also used in the 19th century to denote linguistic vulgarisms generally, any feature that prescriptionists saw fit to denounce.

    The second quote deals with something different, a national standard accent, but I haven't seen that essay yet.

  2. At the time that Orwell was writing, the diversity of English dialects was much greater than it is now. Working-class people from different parts of the country would have had great difficulty understanding one another (but people didn't travel much in those days, so the problem didn't occur much).

    I feel that Orwell didn't really grasp that, in phonemic terms, BBC English was virtually isomorphic with Cockney and perhaps a few other south-eastern accents. It was (and, to a lesser extent, still is) easier for a Cockney to adopt RP than for someone from, say, Bolton, where the incidence across phonemes is very different. In most cases, a Cockney need just alter the phonetic realisation of a phoneme, whereas a resident of Bolton would have to memorise all the difference incidences. (See Shorrocks's two volumes on Bolton for full detail) Therefore, the standard favours some areas over others.

    Creating a national standard that is devoid of all class, regional and historical baggage would be akin to a creating an auxiliary language, and we all know how well Esperanto panned out.

    1. Ed, Orwell's writing was'nt all that long ago, or was it? 1930s and 1940s. He died young in 1950. He was my father's generation. I never had any difficulty understanding either them or my grandparents' generation.

      I'm afraid the working population was more mobile than you expected in the 19th century. There was a continuous exodus from the countryside into industrial towns, albeit to local metropols, but places like Cardiff, Manchester and London were magnets for people all over England. Then there were the calamities like the collapse of Cornish copper mining, with Cornish miners moving to Welsh slate mines, Cumbrian lead mines, Lancastrian iron mines, coal mines everywhere, or shifting to spinning and weaving in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The toughest linguistic experience was presumably for those going to 100% welsh speaking areas.

      I checked the 1911 census (when Orwell was 8) for the street I grew up on decades later. This small town on the Thames Estuary had expanded industrially around 1900, with people coming from all over the country. This is the linguistic spectrum for those people (crane drivers, railway workers, shipwrights, pottery moulders, painters etc). One street, 32 households, 78 adults, 38 children. Of the adults, 20% were born locally, 35% elsewhere in Kent, and 17% elsewhere in the south (Sussex, Surrey, London, Hants, Cornwall, Essex, Bucks), a total of 72% speaking some variety of Southern English (additionally, possibly half rhotic and half nonrhotic). The rest were from the Midlands (Staffs, Birmingham, Derby, Worcs, Shrops), with unsplit TRAP/BATH and FOOT/STRUT, some rhotic and some nonrhotic. There was also one German pottery moulder, who'd first lived in Staffs.

      I still haven't seen that Orwell essay, but I'll agree that he didn't have the necessary linguistic background to deal with dialects or accents, or the topic of national standards. On the other hand, it's possible he had his tongue in his cheek when he suggested Cockney or Northern English as a standard for all children additional to their own (yes, that does sound like Esperanto). The alternative is he was naive.

    2. Well done on researching the 1911 Census! I shall accept your point that working-class people did travel more than I was implying.

      However, I would stand by the point about dialects' being much more diverse back then. All the academic sources (Joseph Wright, Survery of English Dialects, etc.) suggest this. It's true that most of the academic work was focused on rural areas, but there was also some less formal work done on urban dialects (e.g. dialect almanacs, dialect poetry). Going on personal experience, if you go back two generations in Yorkshire, the speech differed much more from Standard English in terms of lexicon and grammar, and it wasn't just a few different vowel sounds.

      Have you looked at Shorrocks's work on Bolton? His research was done in the 1970s and 1980s. If you grew up in a town on the Thames Estuary, I doubt that you would be able to understand the traditional dialect that he recorded in Bolton (which we can assume was the everyday speak of the area in the 1930s and 1940s, and Bolton's dialect is very similar to that of Wigan, which Orwell must've known).

    3. Shorrocks on Bolton is on my list, that's as close as I've got, except for seeing quotes by others. I've never had difficulty understanding northern English, including the British Library recordings, but people quickly learn to adjust to strangers. I remember being confounded when listening to Cumbrian sheep farmers talking together, but not when they spoke to me. As you say, dialect is more than accent. We still had plenty of neighbours from the Midlands in the 1930s and 1940s, and some from Wales and Yorkshire as well. We have family from Yorkshire, Tyneside and Scotland through marriage, and I doubt if that's unique just for me.

    4. If you can understand all of those recordings, then you're better than most people. I suppose that you are a professional linguist, so I should've expected nothing less.

      I said once on John Wells's blog that the recording from Dent is particularly difficult.

      It's interesting to read your comments about your neighbours. It sounds like quite a mixed community.

    5. Sorry, I was too general about the recordings. I'm most familiar with the Lancashire recordings, haven't listened to Yorkshire so much yet. I'll certainly listen to Dent. I've visited Sedbergh several times and walked over the hills towards Dent, and pub staff made sure we understood them.