Saturday, 3 September 2016

Accent on Change

I have said it before (posts on 6th June, 2015, and 29th June, 2015; and I will probably say it again):

By fu, fat, far and fan
Ye can ken a Forfar man.

   This relates to the distinctive replacement of wh by f in the broad dialect of North-East  Scots.  How much this is still true – is the accent ‘pure’ or even surviving on its last linguistic legs? – is open to question.  But for a long period a fairly distinct boundary within Scots pronunciation seemed to run right through Angus.  D D Murison stated that the distinct border of North-East Scots ran in ‘a line drawn from beyond Nairn to Monifieth’.   This may have been true at the time he wrote (1979), but may no longer be so.  Language is naturally fluid and that is one of its wonders.  It is a major component in the distinctiveness of areas and tells us much about history.  Take a look at the place-names on maps showing the very far north of Angus and you will notice that the names are more anglicized, less Gaelic than counterparts over the border in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.
   According to some classifications the northern periphery of the sub-dialect of East Central North Scots includes the accents found in the city of Dundee and in western Angus.  According to a differing definition ( in the Concise Scots Dictionary), west Angus falls within the East Mid Scots group A, while east Angus is lumped together with the Mearns (Kincardineshire) as a distinctive subset of North-East Scots.  The author of one of the earliest and best Scottish dictionaries, Dr Jamieson, resided for a long time in Angus and collected a great many words that were unknown in the west and southern parts of Scotland.  There was always a tendency, among certain people of course, for a kind of gentrification that could be highly self-deluding.  This persists to this day.  A recent TV documentary on BBC2 featured a well-heeled street in Edinburgh.  One of the residents, whose family had lived there for many generations, stated (without a spark of satirical intent) that he spoke a strangulated version of upper-class English because that particular part of Edinburgh always had that accent.  What a linguistic conundrum that would be, if true.
   The snobbery about ‘couthy’ language has a long, disreputable history.  The author of the New Statistical Account for Dundee noted in the 19th century:
Amongst the better classes in Dundee, from the progress of education, and a wide and daily intercourse with other parts of the kingdom, as well as foreign lands, the style of conversation has rapidly improved.  Among the lower classes there are still many expressions used which may be called Angusisms, - while the tone of speech is neither so drawling as if Fife, nor so sharp as in Aberdeen.  
    Hooray then for the Dundee pan-loafers, but change was to come with growing urban industrialisation.
   Just to the north, the Rev David Cannan, in the New Statistical Account of the parish of Strathmartine noted:
A considerable improvement has taken place in the language of the people within the last forty years.  Many Scottish phrases are becoming obsolete; and a number of trades-people speak English with considerable propriety.
   His counterpart in Arbroath, the Rev Thomas Doig also remarked on a change:
The language generally spoken is the Forfarshire dialect of the Scottish tongue, with a peculiarity of accent distinct from that which is observable in the neighbouring towns of Dundee and Montrose.  Amongst the gentler classes, however, correct pronunciation is much more attended to than it was thirty or forty years ago.  The shibboleth, by which a native of Arbroath may be detected most readily, is his pronunciation of any word in which the letters o and i are found in conjunction, as in the words oil, spoil, anoint, point, &c.  It is impossible to exhibit on paper the sound which a native of Arbroath gives to these words; but a stranger who has once heard it, will never forget it.

   Further north, the Rev. Robert Smith and Joseph Paterson of Montrose pointed out the substitution of f for wh, and again pointed out the tendency of the upper strata of society to speaking ‘proper’ English.  Gaelic, as we hinted earlier, faded away in Angus at a fairly early period.  There were no native speakers in the 19th century, except a few families in Glenisla who had migrated from Kirkmichael in Perthshire. But the Rev James Watt, in the New Statistical Account  for Glenisla, quaintly commented, ‘...the language generally spoken is the dialect peculiar to Angus-shire, with a slight approach, in the upper district, to the Gaelic accent’.

    Dundee's accent is reckoned by some to have rapidly evolved (distorted?) in response to the peculiar sonic demands forced upon workers by hellishly loud jute mill machinery and there is some logic to this supposition.  Dundee, like Liverpool in its way, stands apart linguistically from its mother county, but the disparagement of its distinctive tongue could possibly be likened to the attitude towards the Brummy tongue in England, scorned by pure-speaking English cognoscenti.

   No doubt our tongues will turn again.  As long as we don't all start speaking in uniform, soulless Estuary English.

Dundee Jute Mill Workers.

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