Monday, 13 June 2011

the Black Country


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I have a terrible confession to make. I can’t reliably distinguish between a Birmingham accent (“Brummie”) and a Black Country accent. Sorry, but that’s the truth.

In yesterday’s Sunday Times a reader complained
The West Midlands conurbation is based on Birmingham, and the area known as the Black Country is part of this conurbation. The second biggest place within the conurbation is Wolverhampton, but people don’t all agree whether Wolverhampton is part of the Black Country or not (the Wikipedia article thinks not). Everyone seems to agree that the centre of the Black Country is Dudley and that it includes Rowley Regis and Walsall. Everyone agrees that central Birmingham is NOT part of the Black Country.

I’m aware of certain lexical and grammatical matters that are characteristic of the Black Country rather than of Birmingham or of the West Midlands in general. Under ‘lexical’ I include various traditional-dialect pronunciations such as ˈbæbi for baby (but I’ve heard that in Derbyshire too). I’ve never actually heard anyone say hɒnd for hand, which is also supposed to be typically Black Country. But jaʊ for you is notorious, though of course even people from the Black Country don’t always pronounce the pronoun that way. Nor do they always say jaʊm (‘yowm’) for you are.

Here’s a clip of Adrian Chiles, which will enable you to hear his ‘Black Country tones’.

Here’s another, longer, one with Adrian Chiles and Frank Skinner, both Black Country lads.

And for comparison, here’s one of Jasper Carrott, who for the letter writer is a representative Brummie.

None of these broadcasters seem to use the characteristic high-rise-level declarative intonation pattern that I hear from some Birmingham people (the “Brummie whine”).

The best phonetic description that I know of is Anna Grethe Mathisen’s article on Sandwell in Urban Voices (ed. Foulkes and Docherty, 1999, Arnold). The very first words in this article, however, are far from helpful in enabling us to distinguish between the two varieties.
Of all the West Midland boroughs, Sandwell has the greatest variety of Black Country accents, including the Birmingham-types...

For someone from Halesowen, like the writer of the letter quoted, it is no doubt true that the Brummie and Black Country accents are “linguistically miles apart”. But not for the rest of us. Help! Is there any phonetician who can pin down for us just what it is that the locals latch onto in recognizing the distinction?

26 comments:

  1. I'm not great at this either, and I live close to both areas. A good place to get a fix on the Black country accent is on the BBC Voices website, particularly the recordings of Gary O'Dea and Brian Dakin. http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/recordings/group/wm-dudley.shtml

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  2. I have read Chinn and Thorne's "Proper Brummie: a dictionary of Birmingham words and phrases" (2002) [but don't own a copy]. I recall that it said that -ong words (long, song, wrong, etc.) are pronounced traditionally with /ʊ/ in the Black Country whereas Birmingham has the more common /ɒ/. Does anyone know if this is still the case?

    You often find in Britain that people exaggerate local distinctions, or that people say that there's a clear difference between two towns and then cannot specify what it is. Some people swear that there's a difference between Leeds and Bradford, but I can't tell any (comparing like-for-like speakers).

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  3. I question whether any difference really exists, though I would never say this to locals of course :)

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  4. I've just looked at this site for the Black Country. I'm surprised to see re-spellings of -ing suffices as -en. This suggests to me [ən] whereas I would expect [ɪŋɡ] for this part of the world. Adrian Chiles and Frank Skinner don't speak as described on that website, so it probably represents old-fashioned Black Country speech.

    The website suggests similarities with the very under-researched Potteries dialect, such as the use of [ɛɪ] in many FLEECE words. I think that most people can distinguish between Black Country and Potteries fairly easily, so maybe Black Country speech has been pulled away from its Staffordshire roots and towards Birmingham over time. (This still wouldn't explain the [ən] though, as [ɪŋɡ] is used in the Potteries.)

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  5. I know what John means; locals insist that there's a difference between the two but I've never managed to pin down what the differences are. Maybe it's purely a matter of intonation rather than phonetics?

    However, I've noticed an unrounded LOT vowel (that is, [ɑ]) in some Brummies, which seems like a local innovation. Could this be one of the differences?

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  6. "However, I've noticed an unrounded LOT vowel (that is, [ɑ]) in some Brummies, which seems like a local innovation. Could this be one of the differences?"

    Well, they do mention that here for Birmingham.

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  7. But jaʊ for you is notorious, though of course even people from the Black Country don’t always pronounce the pronoun that way.

    I had a colleague at (secondary|high) school named Julian, hailing from Stourbridge. He was generally referred to as /'dʒaʊli.ən/. Children are cruel.

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  8. I've had a read through the relevant chapter in Handbook of Varities of English, and it had several suggestions. This was written by Urszula Clark.

    The point that I mentioned in my first post (about -ong words) is on page 144, although I forgot that the /ʊ/ can also occur in west Birmingham.

    It says on page 148 that there is a difference in the FACE vowel, with Birmingham speakers' using [ʌɪ] and Black Country speakers' using [æɪ] (alongside [ɛɪ] in both cases). This is described as "one of the few variables for which there appears to be a consistent difference between the Black Country and Birmingham conurbations."

    Pages 145-6: older Birmingham speakers are more likely to separate BATH from TRAP. It seems likely that the isogloss passed through the conurbation in the past but has moved south of it as the short form in BATH has eliminated its rival. No vowel causes conflict quite like the BATH vowel!

    Page 151: Black Country speakers have [ɪʊ] rather than [juː] in GOOSE words with a yod.

    That should be enough to satisfy Black Country people of their sovereignty.

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  9. Ed said...
    "It says on page 148 that there is a difference in the FACE vowel, with Birmingham speakers' using [ʌɪ] and Black Country speakers' using [æɪ]..."

    Did they really write [ʌɪ]? Is [ʌɪ] being used here to mean [ɐɪ], as in Accents of English? That would make more sense to me. Because [ʌɪ] sounds way too broad, even for a Brummie accent. It sounds like nothing I've ever heard for FACE, in fact.

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  10. I did a study of BC dialect a number of years ago. Events may have moved on, but (also having a number of BC relatives), I'd have to challenge the 'you' pronunciation. I suspect jaʊm is a cartoon version by outsiders; most of my sample and informal contacts at that time (early mid 80's) were saying jəʊm. Of course Brummies call BCers Yam-yams which is allegedly a skit on the 'yo-am' thing, which may further indicate its a 'way you hear it' thing and would indicate that this is a distinctive of BC speech.

    So has the pronunciation changed in 20 or 30 years. It could have done, but I still don't hear the few BC speakers I hear nowadays saying jaʊm. I think that the central vowel may be a little lower than the schwa but not into /a/ territory.

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  11. @yuriive: Yes, it does say that and is in square brackets. I think that she must mean that, as she uses the symbol ɐ when discussing the CURE and lettER vowels, but there is no need to use ʌ in any other set for the West Midlands.

    I can't speak for Urszula Clark though. Perhaps she would reply to an e-mail from you. She's still doing research on the Black Country's dialect.

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  12. @ Ed: Thanks for your reply. I'm just amazed by how wide the diphthong used for FACE is in this accent, that's all.

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  13. Was up there at the weekend, and lived there for fifteen years. Stayed with a pair of friends, one a brummie, the other from walsall - the first used a slightly wide lip placement on [ɜː] words, the other rounded.
    Brummies do tend to use an unrounded [ɒ] as well, so that 'no it's not' sounds like 'no it's nat' (Chicago, second city anyone?)

    The main thing I notice is a very different tonal quality - Brummies tend to be twangier and more trebley in tone, possibly why a lot of people mistake strong brummie for london - my old mate from Halesowen, and most of the yam-yams I know have a heavier, darker tone.
    Is there also something in the 'trap/bath' split that might indicate one or the other? My memory of giving pronunciation notes to West Midlanders is that BC'ers were more likely to have [pæθ] and [ɡɹæs] than Brummies.

    I am of course only referring to the caucasian accent here - MBE is a totally different fish!

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  14. As a Blackcountryman of Sedgley, I think David Cooper of Halesowen is unsuccessful in the valid pursuit of attempting to illustrate the difference between Black Country and Birmingham phonetics, because both Frank Skinner (born Oldbury, Sandwell) and Adrian Chiles (born Quinton, Birmingham) originate from the Black Country's easternmost fringe (and arguably beyond it), where the pull of Birmingham is strongest. To me, both sound like "Brummies". However, no other Black Country "celebrities" can demonstrate the point any better.

    Instead, for anyone with 28 mins and an ignited interest, youtube hosts 'House of Friends', a Philip Donnellan documentary filmed in the Turk's Head public house in Brierley Hill for his controversial BBC2 series Landmarks in 1964. While the relative dearth of research interest in the Black Country (apart from Urszula Clark recent work and forthcoming project, and Esther Asprey's 2007 PhD thesis from Leeds) means that very little modern-day data exists to show how far and where this distinctive speech has been retained, it is nonetheless a fascinating piece. Thoughts?

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  15. My experience (which would be mostly with younger speakers) is that Brummies do not have the trap/bath split, except that they do tend to have the long vowel in "laugh" and "aunt".

    I also don't believe that that [ʌɪ] transcription for FACE represents a real back vowel: if it did wouldn't it sound rather like West Country PRICE and so be likely to be caricatured as CHOICE?

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  16. I know theres differences between west brom and hampstead speech and brummie speech and dudley speech. It could be a worcestershire and staffordshire and warwickshire thing. West brom and smethwick were proper staffs, dudley had more worcestershire so say yowm whereas I say yo'm pronounced yum and quickly yam. Yammer also means to speak quickly and loud, brummies are one tone, dudley is quite low, brummies came across smethwick, west brom speakers etc first. My nephews are from west brom, one of their partners is from hampstead and uses BC phrases not brummie ones. Brummies dont have a dialect its just how they pronounce it, e.g. citays and also oi for I. West brom snd smethwick speech say coherd for code schoolwerl for school etc in long vowels but uses yo, ya, ta, tarra, ay, which suggest old dialect rural speech as well as mek as I use mekkin the bed, some have common features like missing letters out in bothe speeches alf for half. I use doe for dont, but not cor or dae although I grew up in a later era when there was less broad speech however my mom says jus my barra not used in birmingham for just the way I like it and yampy and she was from bearwood, but we use most common BC words and phrases. Cor and wor may be more dudley/worcestershirewhere more so called traditionalists think theres a standard speech and there wasnt one. We speak more like Walsall Noddy Holder. I looked at staffs dialect and couldnt see wor or cor but I might have missed it. But we do use a at the end instead of er winda, mucka, gaffa, gunna, wanna. Use gob, bobowler for moth, collywobbles, wooden 'ill for stairs.

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  17. As a smethwickian who has never and never been a brummie, from people talking on the subject who have never been near the place or come from outside to think they know its rubbish, we eat faggots in smethwick and say kidda and use terms not said in birmingham, I would suggest as we say yo'm not yow'm its from this and living next to birmingham and going to market as my grandad did brummies got yam yam from yum yum would sound yam yam but now it seems everyone is jumping on the yam yam title, by the way neither smethwick, oldbury or quinton were ever the borough of birmingham which is where brummies come from, not even sutton coldfield or northfield are brummies either, birmingham expanded rapidly to cover more areas.

    there is an elitist standard black country speech going on and it never existed but one thing in common people were not brummies

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  18. Its even more offensive to call all people who have never considered themselves brummies to be brummies just because they live by it, russia is next to finland you wouldnt call a finn russian!

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  19. A lot of the traditional pork butchers with faggots etc closed down and so have many pubs, however I feel in a comfort zone in oldbury west brom even blackheath however I always feel different stepping into birmingham got nothing against birmingham though. Smethwick was always staffs until other bigger boys kept trying to steal us and move us around including birmingham and sandwell but we have always fiercely been separate

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  20. If u think about it wednesbury is as far from dudley as bimingham is from coventry so phrases and words are bound to be different

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    1. Wednesbury is less than 5 miles from Dudley. Birmingham is more than 20 miles from Coventry.

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    2. Smethwick is also 5 miles from dudley, so what? I meant in purely connection terms. Doesnt mean people in wednesbury associate with dudley or birmingham. Wednesbury is its own place my sister in stone cross does shopping in wednesbury. Its whereyou know and who you mix with. If you shop work with people despite them living in other areas borders become silly. In my area/patch its always been oldbury west brom smethwick in terms of family shopping anywhere outside this radius might as well be norwich! Oldbury is 5min car journey people regularly go back and forth. Speech therefore separates depending on areas people mix with. I can step around the corner in be oldbury per se. People in all three areas have always disassociated with birmingham as its been separate on many levels

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    3. Frank skinner was moat farm not far from me. We had faggot shops and old fashioned butchers which diappeared as they area changed and industry died and it affected the area more than elsewhere

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    4. Brummies dont really have a dialect they sort of have an west midlands accent so they would never say you am etc. However it seems different parts of the black country speak different. I seem to use ye'm from old english ye for you rather than the younger yo or yow and I would typically say ye or ya got the collywobbles rather than yo got the cobblewobbles. I guess these are dudley things. I would say there is a linguistic difference between west brom smethwick and oldbury and both birmingham and dudley areas, but people in these three towns have always shared family friends and working relationships, I have very little connections on a personal level outside even sandwell and thats probably the reason for the differences.i do know many people were rehoused outside the area too due to substandard housing, overcrowding in places like telford, tamworth redditch etc, which may explain West Bromwich Albion support although it might have been there anyway. But I would say ah bin for I have been, ah cun for I can, so im not sure standard black country dictionaries are always right and said across the entire area

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    5. Brummies dont really have a dialect they sort of have an west midlands accent so they would never say you am etc. However it seems different parts of the black country speak different. I seem to use ye'm from old english ye for you rather than the younger yo or yow and I would typically say ye or ya got the collywobbles rather than yo got the cobblewobbles. I guess these are dudley things. I would say there is a linguistic difference between west brom smethwick and oldbury and both birmingham and dudley areas, but people in these three towns have always shared family friends and working relationships, I have very little connections on a personal level outside even sandwell and thats probably the reason for the differences.i do know many people were rehoused outside the area too due to substandard housing, overcrowding in places like telford, tamworth redditch etc, which may explain West Bromwich Albion support although it might have been there anyway. But I would say ah bin for I have been, ah cun for I can, so im not sure standard black country dictionaries are always right and said across the entire area

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  21. Ive never been to bilston or darlaston as we stick to the north east and east south staff former areas no idea why, although I have been and worked in dudley but mainly keep to the east of it mainly castlegate, centres of wednesbury and walsall, blackheath, rowley and cradley heath ( which are all in sandwell anyway) as my brother lives, halesowen a little the centre and mucklows hill there but thats about it. It might be an family, historical thing. I have no actual brummie relatives and dont go near it unless working.

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