Tag Archives: accents

Radio 4: Not Just BBC English

Second in a series of posts touching on English accents.

Before we moved to the UK, we used to come here on vacation/holiday every chance we got, rent/hire a car, and drive from stone circle to stone circle and from castle to castle until our time or our money ran out. On one of these trips, twiddling the radio dial in the car, we ran across a comedy improv program/programme that had us laughing so hard we had to pull off the road until the show was over.  We’d stumbled across BBC Radio 4, the BBC’s spoken-word radio station, which fills the airwaves with drama, news, documentaries, readings from books, and lots and lots of comedy.

Before the show was over—it was “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”, but the BBC web site doesn’t offer any clips I can link to at the moment—we were fans. As soon as we had a place to live in the UK, we subscribed to the Radio Times, the BBC’s guide to what’s on, launched in 1923 because newspapers refused to carry radio listings, afraid that radio would put them out of business. Back then it only listed BBC programmes, but it now covers radio and television—broadcast, cable, and satellite—from all kinds of providers.

With so much to choose from, it was a good six months before I caught the Radio 4 panel show/comedy game show “Just a Minute”. The Radio Times didn’t make it sound appealing; it listed big-name comedians, sure, but the point was apparently for them to speak on a given topic for a minute. So what?

So funny, that’s what, and sometimes outstandingly hilariously funny. The host gives four panellists a topic, and they have to speak entertainingly for 60 seconds without hesitating, deviating from the subject, or repeating a word they’ve already used, while the other panellists listen for clever ways to catch them out. In the hands of the kind of performers they get it’s great improvisional comedy, but you don’t have to take my word for it, you can listen via the BBC website; the most recent show can be heard here.

As luck would have it, the next-to-most-recent show (as I write this, anyway; I’m referring to episode 4 of series 58) included a round on the topic “My Accent”, and aired just after I posted my last blog piece. I’d mentioned RP and the mainstream use of the pronunciation “samwidges” here, both of which cropped up on the show.

Sheila Hancock (actress and author; widow of John Thaw who played Inspector Morse) spoke about the two years of training at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, a prestigious British acting school) that erased her original Cockney accent and left her speaking Received Pronunciation.

Gyles Brandreth (actor, author, former Member of Parliament) in a different round said “I never forget a face, but I’ll make an exception in your case” and implied he might have been quoting Harpo Marx, until he was challenged on the grounds that Harpo never spoke. Brandreth said the challenger clearly didn’t know Harpo as well as he did, and that Harpo “was quite chatty at home over the samwidges”.

The Harpo challenge came from Paul Merton, who speaks with a working-class London accent. During his turn to extemporize on “My Accent”, he said that in the 1980s someone at the BBC told him that with his voice (meaning accent) he’d never appear on BBC Radio 4. That’s about the same time the BBC moved announcer Susan Rae, who speaks with a Scottish accent, onto Radio 4; rumour has it she got death threats, though I’ve only been able to confirm that there was a neo-nationalist outcry and she got some rather impolite suggestions, the printable ones telling her to go back to Scotland.

Clearly, times have changed. And even though people had strongly negative feelings about non-standard accents on the Beeb as recently as the 1980s, it’s possible that opinion began to change during World War II. Since German propaganda radio broadcasts in English used RP, the BBC began using announcers with non-standard accents so listeners could be sure they were listening to real British news, or so Wikipedia suggests.

I like what Radio 4 offers so much that I don’t much care what accents I hear. I have to discipline myself, or I’d putter around all day listening to the radio and, er, never get my next blog post finished.

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Let Them Eat Panettone

We’re snowed in again.  When the forecast said we were in for some serious snow, and remembering last year’s remarkable winter, a good few of my neighbors here on the Surrey-Hampshire border shifted into panic-buying mode. Someone at the gym told me that a nearby supermarket entirely sold out of bread; the queues for the tills (lines for the checkout) stretched all the way down the aisles, and she’d had to wait in one of them an hour and a quarter . This dedicated shopper is also a schoolteacher, and was wondering at the time whether school would be cancelled the next day.  (In the end, the snow wasn’t the deciding factor; school was cancelled where she teaches because the heating system broke down, and there is a legal minimum temperature required before students are allowed in the classrooms.) 

When I was a kid in Kentucky, on snowy mornings we listened to the radio–with a degree of attention I’m sure we never gave our teachers—to see whether our county, Fayette county, would be on the alphabetical list of schools closed for the day.  If they got to Floyd county or Garrard county without mentioning us, we’d groan—and listen again ten minutes later to see whether Fayette had made its way onto the list.  If we actually ended up having to go to school, we felt robbed. 

Until sixth grade, we could easily have gotten (UK: have got; they don’t use gotten here) to school despite any snow that Kentucky was liable to see; we only had to walk down to the end of the block.  And in that school, they tried to teach us not only to read and write English, but to speak it properly. 

For starters, we weren’t to say ain’t, which was puzzling because the teachers would say “Ain’t ain’t a word”, as if that settled it.  And if I said that they’d just proved it was, because we could understand perfectly what they’d said, it didn’t go down very well.   

I didn’t ordinarily use ain’t myself, I was just peeved by the lack of logic.  I also didn’t pronounce spaghetti as “buzzghetti”—where on earth did kids get that one?—nor did I pronounce sandwich as “samwidge”.  All of these, we were taught, were markers of low-class low-lifes who would never amount to anything.  To say you had a “samwidge” in your lunchbox was enough, to hear the teachers talk, to doom you to a life of poverty, with only demeaning low-paid work during those short periods in which you were not actually incarcerated.

So you can imagine how surprised I was to move to England, cradle of our mother tongue (don’t look too closely at that mix of metaphors), and find that “samwidge” seems to be the default pronunciation for much of the country. 

At the moment Caroline Quentin, an actress we’re used to seeing in comedy dramas and mysteries, is doing telly adverts (TV commercials) for holiday party food for M&S (Marks & Spencer, an upscale department store, including a grocery department) saying to us several times an hour “if you must have samwidges, make them mini dessert samwidges”.  Yet she seems to have found decent employment and somehow avoided imprisonment. 

 It seems like everyone in the British broadcast media and, in fact, I’d say almost everyone who lives within commuting distance of London says “samwidge”.  The exceptions, oddly enough, include the inhabitants of the town of Sandwich in Kent.  I confirmed this with the woman who was answering the phone yesterday for the Sandwich Tourist Information Centre.  There, they say “sandwitch”.  Fine, upstanding people, those Sandwich-dwellers. 

Even the posh-voiced announcers on the BBC say “samwidge”.  These announcers also interview experts about the economic crisis and ask them to give us the “figgers” on such things as proposed budget cuts, meaning “figures”.  And since Ireland’s economy has been iffy lately, they may turn us over to “our island correspondent”; it took me months (okay, maybe I’m a little slow) to realize that they were saying “our Ireland correspondent”. 

It used to be that the BBC only hired people who spoke RP—that’s Received Pronunciation, which has been known by several names including simply BBC English, but the name Americans are most likely to know is the Queen’s English. Someone who speaks RP particularly precisely and beautifully is said to have a cut-glass accent, as BBC announcers historically did have.  But in recent years the Beeb has started to diversify, so you do hear radio presenters with a variety of regional accents.

I plan to post more about the variety of British accents soon, and I should have plenty of time to listen to the various sorts of speech that show up on British radio while we’re snowed for in the next few days.  We’re out of bread, so we won’t be having any “samwidges”.  We do have a couple of panettones that I bought as Christmas gifts for friends, but we might be forced to eat them.  Surely, if we’re cut off from civilization, our friends wouldn’t want us to starve.

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A Treacly Thanksgiving Message

Tate & Lyle tins/cans from my pantry

My family doesn’t usually observe American Thanksgiving now that we’re living in England; when nobody else is celebrating and it isn’t a public holiday, it loses most of its appeal. It’s not that I’m not thankful, that’s for sure, and it’s not that I don’t cook anything. In fact I spent the evening making spice cookies (UK: biscuits) to take to my doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery) tomorrow for him and all the staff. The British National Health Service gives me excellent care—and without doubt the best access to medical care I’ve ever had—and I am truly grateful for it.

I couldn’t find my pumpkin- and turkey-shaped cookie cutters, though, so the clinic staff will have to make do with autumn leaf shapes and plain old circles. And the recipe calls for molasses, which we don’t have here, so I made the cookies with treacle.

When I first encountered Alice in Wonderland and read the story told by the dormouse about a treacle well, I was too little to know it was meant to be nonsense, and since I had no idea what treacle was, I happily took Lewis Carroll’s word for it that treacle was something that came out of a well. Harry Potter’s favorite dessert, treacle tart, isn’t quite that misleading, but it has none of what people usually call treacle in it, either. It’s one of my favorite British concoctions, and like so much good cooking it was born of necessity—you use up bread crumbs to make the filling—but it’s sweetened with golden syrup.

I’ve included photos of the tins (US: cans) of Lyle’s brand treacle and golden syrup from my pantry so you can see the remarkable labels used by the manufacturer, Tate & Lyle. It’s not often you come across food labeled with pictures of the carcass of a dead lion. The connection is the story of Samson, which is also the source of the quotation on the cans: “out of the strong came forth sweetness”. 

Samson seems to have been quite a capable lad, as the tale involves him killing a lion with his bare hands; finding later that bees had made a hive in the body of the lion, from which he harvested honey for his family; and later still being quick-witted enough to turn this into a riddle for what seems to have been some kind of after-dinner entertainment, karaoke not having been invented yet. But the dinner guests cheated at the riddle game so Sampson had to kill thirty of them, which is just the kind of story that makes reading the Old Testament so much fun, yet is precisely the part they leave out when they tell you about it in Sunday school.

The difference between black treacle and golden syrup.

From what I’ve read, treacle and molasses are both byproducts of refining sugar from sugar cane, as is golden syrup. Golden syrup is a type of treacle and molasses isn’t, though I have no idea why, and nobody calls golden syrup by the name treacle because… er, because treacle is something else entirely. Just look at the photos posted with this article and you’ll see the difference. And I have no idea why it’s easier to get molasses in the USA and to get treacle here. Presumably wherever you live, stores offer what the population prefers.

(My father, who was from Mississippi, preferred sorghum, which comes from a different plant entirely. If offered molasses he would launch into the old—if you’re from the American south—joke about how you cain’t have mo’  ’lasses if you ain’t had no  ’lasses yet.)

If the British prefer treacle then I would assume that treacle is sweeter than molasses, because most British food is sweeter than I like it. The national sweet tooth here seems to prefer things amazingly sweet, which I’ve always thought it might just be a holdover from the second world war. They had sugar rationing until 1953, and seem to still be making up for lost time.

But apparently treacle isn’t as sweet as molasses after all, because my spice cookies came out under-sweet. I’m going to give them to the clinic staff anyway.  I can pretend they’re meant to be like that, maybe call them low-sugar biscuits, bill them as a healthier option. The staff will still know I’m thankful to them for being there.

 *   *   *

And, readers, I’m thankful for you. 

In fact, I’ve been delighted to see how many readers seemed to be coming to read my posts these days—my hit count was looking pretty good.  That is, I was delighted, until I found that a good number of these readers were clicking through to this site from an Asian porn site.  Yes, my post from last Christmas on the English tradition of Christmas cake appeared, along with several links to other peoples’ Christmas-food blog posts, on what seems to be an Indonesian pornography site.

 So I am taking the advice of reader Rod Cuff from the north of England, who said that perhaps I could ask the people who enjoy my blog to post links to my site on their sites.  I would be most grateful if people would be willing to link to me, or even for people just to talk this blog up to their friends.  Somehow, I’d rather get new readers by asking you to join me in a marketing effort, than by getting myself listed on more porn pages.

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