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Tuesday 25 July 2023

Accents and Subtitles

When my mother-in-law used to travel up from the South to visit us, and passed through Barnsley on the train, one of her worst fears was that her grandchildren would grow up to have accents like those she heard around her. The broad Barnsley accent can be quite difficult to follow, and unintelligible to many from the South.

Some of our children’s contemporaries did indeed speak like that, but not them. As I mentioned in the last two posts, our daughter was teased at school for sounding ‘posh’, and was embarrassed by her voice in the two stop-motion video stories we made when she was little. It was quite a surprise when she said recently it is now her Yorkshire accent that bothers her.

The rather impressive subtitling on YouTube has no problem with it. It transcribes almost all of it correctly. In fact, I wasn’t quite sure of the word “daydreaming” until I switched them on. 

I doubt it would have so little trouble with unmodified Barnsley. I also wonder what it would have made of my mother-in-law’s mixture of South London and “Snolbans”. I endlessly mimicked her pronunciation of “strawbrizz, raarzbrizz and guzzbrizz”? “They are raarzbrizz, not rasp berries,” she would strike back.

And what of my own unbroken childhood accent? It can be heard in an exchange 45 seconds into the compilation I made from the old take of my dad singing and reading poetry (Days of Wine and Roses, May 1st). It includes the following exchange:

        Dad: Right. I am now about to begin.
        Me: You
’ll ave all the laughing in.
        Brother: Yes, you will, won
t you.
        (more laughter)
        Me: Hey! When you
think about it what were all laughin at? It's a waste of tape.
        Dad: My tape.

Embarrassing as I now find it (and there is a good deal more on the full tape), the YouTube subtitling copes with it surprisingly well. And although it struggles in places, it even follows most of my then sixty-five year-old Grandma’s village accent, fashioned before the First World War, as heard playing with my baby cousin later in the extract.  

I also had a cassette tape of chatting with friends as teenagers. Listening again recently, I was appalled, not only by the accents, but also by the language used and what was being said. I rapidly abandoned my first idea of sending it to them and threw it away. Now, I wonder what the subtitling would of made of it. I can’t imagine. We don’t always like what we see or hear when we look back.

There is one further aspect of YouTube subtitling I find astonishing. It can automatically translate into any one of over a hundred and twenty other languages. For example, if you want it in French: 

Not always perfect, but it can only get better. It can even do Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic. Who knows, one day it might be able to do Manx and the Yorkshire dialect?


  1. I remember in that Charing Cross Road movie where Anne Bancroft s character smiles over "an entire island of people saying rahzbriz". Not likely. It still sounds ridiculous to this old Northern Yorkshire woman, long now American. Our accent was closer to County Durham, with a lot of Norse words in use. We couldn't follow our West Yorkshire relatives very well!

    1. Well, we're not going to start saying "raarzbris" just so that people from North Yorkshire can understand us. I grew up near Boothferry Bridge which was the boundary of 3 or 4 accents. Those to the north of the river said things differently from those from the west or the south. My dad said that before WW2 you could tell which village someone was from.

    2. But that's my point! If you pronounced it like that , southern style, we'd stare in bafflement! I agree about the differing speech patterns locally, from village to village, dale to dale.

  2. My paternal grandmother was from Barnsley and never lost her accent after moving "dahn sarf" in the 1930s. As a child born and bred in West London it was an education to me, unravelling her words. She had s great sense of humour and her raucous laugh was quite infectious.

    1. PS Subtitles definitely cannot yet cope with Manx dialect. .

    2. There is still a lot of Barnsley around, but if you go to Barnsley market now you hear a lot of Asian Barnsley, which is wonderful.

  3. Replies
    1. Subtitling and translation would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, but it it almost old tech now.

  4. Does it know Swabian? That is my real mother tongue, but I can speak proper German when I want to, and understand most German dialects/accents quite well.
    Hearing my own taped voice is usually very embarrassing - it sounds not at all like I think I sound.

    1. I doubt it can do Swabian, but if you click to watch on YouTube rather than on Blogger there is a tools menu at the bottom of the picture which shows all its languages.
      It has taken me years to listen to myself on the take without cringing.

  5. My family have their roots in Suffolk around the Stowmarket area, and my parents carried that accent with them when they moved to Sussex. However, despite living with their accents my brother and I seriously struggled to understand my cousins from Bacton whilst they were at the village primary school. It wasn't until they moved on to secondary school in Stowmarket that their accents moderated enough for us to really understand them.

    1. My daughter's thoughts about her accent in the stop-motion videos only arose after she went to university. Television is another major influence. I love accents and hope we don't all end up sounding the same.

  6. My grammar school in Lincoln soon ironed out any traces of my Lincolnshire accent apart from the short a - I still say grass not grarse.

    1. As Will says above, education changes accents and although the grammar schools provided great opportunities for those lucky enough to get in, it could separate people from their roots. I seemed to lose a lot of friends after I went.
      "Graarse" is another one that sounds ridiculous to me.

  7. I'm not sure I have ever had an accent. As a child I had elocution lessons, but my first 15 years of life was spent in the Black Country. What I loved about the tape was the gentle singing of an old song by your dad, it reminded me instantly of my nanna in Wednesbury.

    1. I wonder if things such as tone of voice are regional too. I remember listening to someone from North East Scotland and thinking how like some of my village relatives they sounded despite their accents.

  8. All most fascinating Tasker. As I have said before, I have always been proud of my East Yorkshire accent and I am puzzled about why anybody should ever feel awkward about their regional accents. My accent speaks of The Plain of Holderness and Bridlington Bay and Beverley Minster and Leven Canal. It is a significant part of who I am.

    P.S. It's not "would of" but "would have" (just being helpful).

    1. Thanks. Corrected.
      My accent drifted according to where I lived and worked. Perhaps I'm easily influenced. I've never regretted my "dulcet Yorkshire tones" as someone once described it. But as mentioned in a comment above, around Boothferry Bridge we used to hear a range of variations. The EY villages to the north were different from the WR villages to the west.

  9. Wonder what it would make of a Geordie accent? I really do think it is wonderful that you have all these records of your childhood and your children's childhoods. I can't imagine a child being so self conscious of her accent though. I don't think I was self conscious at all at that age. It came on strong by the time I was 12 though.

    1. My daughter's accent became less strong after she went to university, and only now on listening to the videos in the last two posts does she realise how much.
      The tapes, photographs, cine films, and videos are a treasure and endless source of amusement for us.

  10. Every child should be given the opportunity of 'sounding posh' as your
    daughter did at school.
    Why ?
    Because the children of middle-class professionals speak with
    clarity and confidence while working-class children are often trapped in
    one impoverished register.
    Just listen to children from a fee-paying school at four o'clock.
    Now you would think this would be supported by the intelligentsia in
    my native Scotland, but they either condemn me as an elitist
    (how can I be an elitist when I want the best for the children of the class from which I came ?) or they dodge the issue like cowards.
    Talking posh has nothing to do with regional accents.
    Liz Berry the Black Country poet has delicious enunciation while
    retaining her singsong Midlands tonality.
    Tom Leonard and James Kelman wrote a great deal of nonsense on
    the subject of working-class dialect.
    The sons and daughters of lawyers, doctors and university lectures
    do not talk like Kelman characters.
    Why would they want to ?

    1. Children like to fit in at school, but as my son also said, if he still spoke as he did at school, moderate as it was, he would not now be accepted in his professional job with a law firm.
      But we may be underestimating many children. Bernstein's work on restricted and elaborated codes has lots to say on this topic.

  11. Thanks. I'll follow up Bernstein's work.

    James Kelman's novel A Disaffection was like no other. Brilliant.
    I admired his short story collection, That Was A Shiver.

    Often I am entranced by the voices of young working
    class women from West, Central or East Coast Scotland.
    I find myself laughing at their sardonic take on life.
    But I believe they should have the option of using a middle class
    speech register if they choose, instead of being vocally ghettoised.

    My paternal grandfather was a miner in Uddingston yet his three
    daughters could have walked into the Ritz for afternoon tea.
    The Kelmans and Leonards show no nuance in working lives.
    Ronald Frame the Glasgow-born novelist thinks this too.

    *Ronald Frame on James Kelman's That Was A Shiver Collection
    of Short Stories.*
    The National online.

    1. I was fascinated by the northeast Scotland accent when I lived there.

    2. The Dons, Angus North and the Mearns, Banffshire & Buchan.
      Doric and the 'speak' of the Mearns : A rich oral culture.
      There is this strange unease between Edinburgh & Glasgow.
      West Coast & East.
      Andrew O'Hagan has written a book about it. A sharp writer.

      Dougray Scott in Irvine Welsh's TV drama *Crime* might just
      revive interest in the East Coast accent.
      Dougray is over the top but it is a compelling performance.
      I could have done without the cocaine episodes.
      Pity us all if cocaine is really this popular.

    3. The lines of A Scots Quair I always remember are:

      "You saw their faces in firelight, father’s and mother’s . . . you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far-off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true—for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all."

    4. Decades ago I spent the night in Welwyn Garden City where
      Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-32) died.
      I was staying above a pub and told the proprietor who wrote
      down Gibbon's name since he had never heard of him.

      One of my sister's was given Gibbon's novel Spartacus as
      a school prize and I read it eagerly.
      Sunset Song trilogy: language sharp, clean, as you say.
      I have still to read his book The Speak of the Mearns.

      *Vivien Heilbron insisted nude scene was put into iconic
      Sunset Song production.*
      Gavin Docherty Scottish Daily Express February 2023.
      Ms. Heilbron was outstanding in the role of Chris.
      I wrote up an interview with her, again decades ago.

      Terence Davies' Sunset Song was beautiful but the language
      was impoverished.
      Davies was a foundation student at the National Film School
      as was my late brother; Davies has genius.
      Agyness Deyn took my breath away as Chris.
      Ms Deyn is in a movie Electricity filmed around Bradford
      which I recommend on DVD.

  12. The ideal used to be received pronunciation but these days I think that most people are proud, or at least content, with their regional accents. The thing that I am annoyed by is the misuse of basic grammar.
    (Sunset Song - what a heart-breaker, simply wonderful.)

    1. We probably all stretch grammar a bit these days, I'm sure I do, but there are some aspects that are fundamental which should not me. That irritates me too.


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