Pidgins and Phonetics

 It’s almost 2024, so soon the neat symmetry of my 1973 reminiscences with the current year will be no more. Just time, then, to fit in some memories of the final strand of the first year English programme at Leeds fifty years ago. The A level result that landed me a place at Leeds was in English Literature, but the degree was designed to cover English very broadly defined, and the advanced study of English language was part of that. So, we had, I think, a weekly lecture and tutorial on various aspects of Language study. We learned about accent and dialect, about world Englishes, about Received Pronunciation, about how to transcribe speech using the International Phonetic Alphabet; in short, we were immersed in linguistic study, starting from a base of almost total ignorance. Years later, I was involved as a teacher in the development of A level English Language, but in 1973, few of us had any sort of grounding in this area. Thus, as was the case with Anglo-Saxon, a steep learning curve presented itself.

In 1973, there can have been few better places to embark on the study of English Language than Leeds, which had built up expertise in the subject over many years. The department had a centre for the study of dialect, which had hosted the massive Survey of English Dialects under the leadership of the pioneering Harold Orton. During my time at Leeds, Stanley Ellis, his successor, was in post, and was much admired by us as a communicator. I wrote about him when he died in 2009: 

“Reading this obituary took me back thirty odd years to a lecture theatre in a brutalist concrete building in Leeds. The first year English students were being lectured about accent and dialect by the great Stanley Ellis. He asked one of our number, picked at random, to say a few words. He’d chosen Bob McNally, a lad whose accent to the rest of us was just “Geordie”. Stanley had other ideas. After listening for  no more than a few seconds, he identified the precise area within Newcastle where Bob came from, and also suggested that he’d spent some time in his adolescence away from Geordie land, naming, I think, an area in Yorkshire. An astonished Bob confirmed this was the case. We applauded.
Stanley Ellis was a delightful, down to earth man with a passion for the linguistic diversity of this country. Leeds had become a major centre for the study of accent and dialect, thanks to Harold Orton’s  Survey of English Dialects, to which Ellis contributed. The arrival of this man, in a caravan, with an unwieldy primitive tape-recorder, must have been startling for the rural communities he visited- especially when he asked the questions. The researchers wanted to avoid planting words in the minds of the subjects, so, if they wanted to elicit the local word for a cowshed, say, they would ask something like “What do you call the building where you keep the animals that go moo?” One can imagine how this might have gone down with the tough farming types who were the typical respondents.
Stanley’s party piece could be useful, as the obituary reports:

He came to national prominence when he declared that a tape released by the police in June 1979, purporting to be the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper – then suspected of the murder of 10 women – was by a hoaxer, someone who hailed from Castletown, a small village on the edge of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear – many miles from the scenes of crime. The police disregarded his warning, a decision that may have put their investigation on the wrong track for more than 18 months.

Ellis was proved to have been right in 2005, when the hoaxer was identified and shown to have lived all his life within walking distance of the area Ellis had pinpointed.

Another former student wrote to the Guardian, with a similar story to mine – Stanley must have delighted and entertained thousands of students with his ability, born, of course, of intense study.”

It’s a melancholy fact that, of the Language staff I recall from that first year at Leeds, most will now be dead. Another memorable lecturer was A.P. (Tony) Cowie, whose area of expertise was in Language usage. I don’t suppose many of us had encountered the study of language in this mode, using transcripts of ordinary conversations to observe linguistic patterns and choices in ordinary speech. We learned from him about concepts such as phatic communion, which occupies more space in our utterances than we probably imagine. He also helped us to appreciate the importance of context, to understand the difference between a friend greeting another with “Hello, you old bastard!” and the use of the same epithet as an insult. Some words are obviously pejorative, but some pejorative associations depend on context. I recall that he pronounced “pejorative” as “PEEjorative” with the accent on the first syllable. I’ve never heard it pronounced in that way since, but we were not going to argue with a distinguished lexicographer. How distinguished we did not know. I found this obituary, which records a life of wide-ranging activity and scholarly enquiry. 

My Language tutor in the first year was Dr Loreto Todd, who is still with us, aged 81, which means she was 31 when I encountered her, just over a decade older than her students. She was a lively and engaging woman, with a Northern Irish accent, and she had already, comparatively early in her academic career, conducted ground-breaking research into one of her main areas of study, pidgins  and creoles. It was presumably her interest that led to one of the assignments we had being on pidgins. My memory is a little hazy on this, but as I recall, the assignment for this part of the course was an extended analysis, of some piece of language. Suggestions were given – a TV talk show, a speech, a dialect poem, etc. One of the choices was to attempt an analysis of a piece of pidgin or creole language, and I opted for this. When we reported our choices to Dr Todd, she said how pleased she was I had chosen that topic. I replied, idiotically, “Why?” and she informed me that this was her main research interest. I hadn’t known, of course. It made me acquire her newly published book Pidgins and Creoles, to help with my assignment. It cost £1.25. I see the latest edition is £35.99. 

With her encouragement, I descended into the stacks of the Brotherton Library (which probably deserves a post of its own) to find copies of a journal from Papua New Guinea which carried items written in the pidgin English used there. I discovered a short story about a boy coming from the highlands to the capital, Port Moresby. It was called “Mosbi nambawan peles” (Moresby, number one place) and I set about analysing it to discern the ways in which the pidgin adapted the structures and forms of Standard English.

Loreto Todd went on to have an extremely distinguished career, writing not just academic books, but retellings of folk tales, books about Celtic names, and many student guides in the York Notes series. This last endeavour is very much related to her tenure at Leeds, and I will return to it in a future post. This biography on the website of Irish publisher O’Brien Press, gives an overview of her extremely active career: 

She never told us about Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane! What a fantastic career, which continues in her retirement. 

These were the highlights of the Language strand of the degree in the first year. What happened next will be revealed in future posts.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Pidgins and Phonetics by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

2 Responses to “Pidgins and Phonetics”

  1. Good evening Rob,
    Thanks for bringing back so many memories. I particularly appreciated this piece as I specialised in Language and Linguistics from Year 2. I remember there were four specialisms, called Schemes A, B, C and D.
    Regards, Bob Smith

  2. Bob! Great to hear from you after 47 years! Yes, our paths diverged after the first year. Stay tuned for more, and do correct me when my memory plays me false.

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