Bidialectical

What a lovely word:

The linguist David Crystal has suggested a future in which we are all \”bidialectal\”, with one English to talk to the world and another to use at home.

The thing is though, I thought we all did that anyway.

Agreed, my experience is unusual in that I\’ve spent most of my adult life outside the UK (OK, OK, unusual for a Brits, obviously, there are billions upon billion who spend much or all of their life outside the UK). Much of that in non-English speaking countries.

At one level I might point to the various flavours of German. High German, as used on the TV news programmes and by serious people in serious meetings. And then what is actually spoken by people in the streets and the homes. Saxon is very different from Schwabian, from Schweizer Detsch and so on. Mutually incomprehensible. Certainly as extreme as Geordie to Cornish (the accent in English, not the Gaelic).

But even at the family level this is still true even if to a much lesser extent. Code words, favourite phrases, words that trigger specific memories and thus have different from public meanings.

As I say my experience is coloured by having been abroad for years. But I certainly speak a different English outside the house and in. It\’s instinctive now, that I speak more clearly, using a more precise vocabulary (often the more \”complex\”, Latin based than Anglo Saxon based, presumably if I lived in Northern Europe it would be the other way around) and more slowly (all of which are indeed changes in accent if not dialect) outside the house than inside it.

To the point that when in the US I could and did talk to my (English) inamorata in English without any of the Americans around us having a clue what we were saying, while speaking to the Americans in entirely understandable if to them accented English/American.

Perhaps bidialectical just means that people will do this more than they do now: but I\’m pretty sure that all of us do it right now to at least some extent.

28 thoughts on “Bidialectical”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    Why doesn’t he use the perfectly good diglossia? I suppose that only applies to close languages like the Portuguese Brazilians learn in school and the quasi-Portuguese they actually speak.

    I think what he means is that the whole world will be like Germany. Except the formal language will be English and they will speak their dialect at home.

    In Germany I think that means High German and English. I don’t think Swabian et al have much chance of surviving for much longer. Certainly French “dialects” are nearly dead. I don’t think even Catalan has much chance of surviving short of independence. Certainly Basque has shrunk enormously.

    Although any America who cannot understand someone from Bath speaking to another well educated middle class Brit is a moron.

    Tim adds: “Although any America who cannot understand someone from Bath speaking to another well educated middle class Brit is a moron.”

    But that’s rather my point. I may well use middle class English when speaking generally but when “at home” I’d use a lot more Bathonian (not actually the correct example with me but you understand what I mean. Someone who grew up in Bath might well have impeccable Queen’s English but that’s not quite what they’d use to talk footie down the pub.)

  2. Yes, we all change our way of speaking according to the audience – linguists call this “code-switching”.

    When I started travelling to the USA, I found some difficulty in making myself understood. After a while, the problem went away. I suppose I had adapted my idiolect.

  3. But who says we have to all individually end up at the Queen’s speech or other lingua franca, as our non-dialect “official” tongue? We don’t. No one has a problem understanding well-spoken but even heavily-accented Scots, Geordies, Northern Irish, Indians, Afro-Caribbeans, and so on, and everyone (with enough effort) can get to one of those close to their dialect (if any) to make themselves understandable to 99% of other English speakers. Indeed as illustration the BBC is a veritable celebration of Britain’s linguistic diversity – just don’t use any local vocabulary we won’t understand.

    The people with the problem are those brought up in a very highly dialectic environment with no to limited childhood exposure to at least one widely-comprehensible variety of the language. This is actually less the case of remote Scottish islands than it is of entire swathes of inner-city underclass.

    German-speaking countries are no different in this regard – educated Germans can speak “proper” German, most uneducated cannot, or don’t make the effort.

    Dialects in England have long-since been dying out in favour of regional accents. I can still tell you, given a minute or two of listening, if someone is from North Manchester, South Manchester, Warrington, Wigan, Blackburn or Burnley (and because I can understand them rather than because I can’t) but to everyone else we are just Lancastrians, or even worse, generic Northerners because they can’t tell the difference between Lancashire and Yorkshire. At least we have Mutually Assured Comprehensibility, which is generally a good thing. Though estuary wide-boy Jamie Oliver would still be very disappointed if he ordered scallops in Bolton.

  4. When beginning to travel as a kid it became immediately apparent my Black Country accent didn’t translate well. Highland Scots, in particular, hadn’t a clue what I was talking about; likewise in reverse. As the travels continue, consciously or otherwise, you adopt local colloquialisms to help assimilate yourself – developing a Spanglish of sorts. Years later, when returning to your roots, everyone takes you for a foreigner. Occasionally I try to effect that original accent in the fond hope it makes my jokes sound better, however, I’m so inept at mimicking, the result sounds something like a caricature of a Welsh Pakistani. I have noticed a resurgence of regional accents this past couple of years, not least as a consequence of the BBC’s efforts.

  5. @PaulB “Yes, we all change our way of speaking according to the audience – linguists call this “code-switching”.”

    Not quite. The example you give is called ‘style shifting’ because it’s all within the same language. Code-switching relates to utterances that are constructed using a mixture of languages as in:

    ‘Je suis une Canadienne-francaise, I guess.’

    This is something that goes on a lot in Singlish, the English spoken in Singapore.

    What David Crystal is saying is that the boundaries between dialects and indeed languages themselves will become increasingly blurred as they have in multilingual places like Singapore.

  6. “when in the US I could and did talk to my (English) inamorata in English without any of the Americans around us having a clue what we were saying, while speaking to the Americans in entirely understandable if to them accented English/American”

    Yes!

    I did a trip through the UK with a mixture of Brits and Americans and the Americans would say “I can understand you guys but everyone else is speaking a different language”. After a few drinks the Americans would cease being able to understand the Brits in the group.

    I love the English language. Whatever that is..!

  7. “I don’t think even Catalan has much chance of surviving”

    Interestingly as a recent tourist to Barcelona, when starting a conversation with a local in attempted Spanish, the reply was always in English. They hate speaking Spanish so between themselves it’s Catalan and for everyone else it’s English. I expect a Madrileno would get whatever the Catalan for “oh do be a good fellow and shove off” is…

  8. NC: if you look you’ll find that “code-switching” is commonly used in the sense I gave, especially in the context of speakers of African-American Vernacular English. (But I agree that the sense you give came first.)

  9. Chaps

    I’m from Bristol, my wife of 26 years is of Welsh extraction, my son went to quite a posh Public School and then Cambridge, we live in rural Somerset and my daughter goes to the local High School.

    I seem to have many accents/dialects which surface in different family/social/work situations. The one that generates the most amusement for my wife and children is when I’m on the ‘phone to my Dad – you can only imagine the ribbing I get.

    “You can take the boy out of Bristol….” etc

    JamesV @4 “Indeed as illustration the BBC is a veritable celebration of Britain’s linguistic diversity” – loads of our Celtic friends and “generic Northerners” but not many Bristolians or Brummies though, eh?

  10. My kids speak English at home and weegie at work / school.

    My brother is fluent in English, Dundonian and East Coast Yank and, after a few years, is even beginning to understand Brummidgen.

  11. I swear completely differently in American as compared to English, and I use more Latinate words in English.

    Wouldn’t ever table a motion though. You’d never be able to eat on it.

  12. ‘The thing is though, I thought we all did that anyway.’

    I’d say not. Spent all my adult life out of UK too until a few years ago and now am in rural England.

    I developed similar habits to you in my English whilst abroad, but everybody round here – off all social strata – do not have this habit.

    Those with an accent might soften or strengthen it as they feel like, but apart from that people have a one-dimensional approach to language (and life).

  13. Doug, I think you are simply seeing “most people” and “those who get off their arses and do something a bit different”. I certainly relate to Tim’s post but have never lived abroad for more than a few months at a time.

    It’s not a class thing, possibly an attitude to life thing. Dunno.

  14. Italian too: dialect among themselves, instant switch to “standard” Italian when needed to converse with a tourist or someone from another region or even city.

    You might also like to try overhearing the conversation in a Glasgow pub…discreetly, of course, if you value your life.

  15. I don’t suppose Jamie Oliver would have much difficulty in switching back to the accent of Clavering, which is nowhere near the Thames estuary. Whether that would get him scallops in Bolton I don’t know.

  16. @MellorSJ,
    If you put one of your motions on the table (or mine for that matter) I doubt anyone would want to eat.

    @Peter S.
    Fried potato thing resembling a hash brown on a barm (bap to southerners). Like a chip barm, only with one single, large (reconstituted) chip.

  17. Surprising that David Crystal should come up with such a humdrum idea (if Simon Jenkins is to be believed).Crystal’s new book Spell it Out is another matter, showing how we got lumbered with a really weird spelling system when in the Middle Ages relatively straightforward phonetic spellings were used .We used to spell ‘debt’ as ‘det’ till etymologists got their hands on it.

  18. Cornish ain’t Gaelic, Tim. Or perhaps “wasn’t” since it’s dead, whatever the graverobbers say.

  19. So where is professor Higgins when you need him.
    Is it not unlikely that English in Egland will die out and be replaced by Urdu , Hindi or some such.
    English might be considered racist. Or not properly PC.

  20. So Much For Subtlety

    Blue Eyes – “Interestingly as a recent tourist to Barcelona, when starting a conversation with a local in attempted Spanish, the reply was always in English.”

    But was that because they hate Spanish or because they recognise that you’re a tourist?

    “They hate speaking Spanish so between themselves it’s Catalan and for everyone else it’s English. I expect a Madrileno would get whatever the Catalan for “oh do be a good fellow and shove off” is…”

    Perhaps. But Catalonia has been a victim of its own economic success. It is a high immigrant area – if you count immigrants from other parts of Spain as immigrants. If a Catalan marries someone from Andalucia, what language will the children speak? The parents will undoubtedly speak Spanish to each other. As a rule the language of the countryside always wins out over the language of the cities. And as the richer parts of Europe have no countryside, it means the language of someone else’s countryside will win.

    9PaulB – “if you look you’ll find that “code-switching” is commonly used in the sense I gave, especially in the context of speakers of African-American Vernacular English. (But I agree that the sense you give came first.)”

    Is this just an excuse for Barak Obama’s silly speech to those Church Ministers? The most interesting example is Australian English which is almost entirely devoid of regional accents, but which does have code-switching. Depending on the social occasion Australian native speakers will speak very different types of English.

    16Andrew Duffin – “Italian too: dialect among themselves, instant switch to “standard” Italian when needed to converse with a tourist or someone from another region or even city.”

    My limited experience of Italians though is that this is dying out – Italians want their children to have some dialect if only so they can speak to the grandparents, but actually they speak to their children in standard Tuscan.

    20DBC Reed – “Crystal’s new book Spell it Out is another matter, showing how we got lumbered with a really weird spelling system when in the Middle Ages relatively straightforward phonetic spellings were used .We used to spell ‘debt’ as ‘det’ till etymologists got their hands on it.”

    The problem is that a lot of weird English spellings are phonetic. It is just that they represent regional differences. Though and plough are supposedly regional phonetic spellings. English does not have one specific area which defines the proper form of the language – as Italian does with Tuscan or Spanish with the area around Madrid – and so all sorts of bits and pieces have crept into the language. I think it is likely to end up like Chinese. They might be better off with a proper alphabet. The Chinese of the Soviet Union were forced to use one and they seem to get by fine. But everyone has invested so much time and effort into learning the characters, that they do not want to throw it all away and so inflict the same suffering on their children and children’s children.

  21. I used to live in Lisboa. My ex-wife was Spanish and we used to mix in cosmopolitan circles that used English as a common language. After a few months of dating me no one could understand her English as she’d picked up so much slang.

    I remember watching some comedy sketch where a lady asks to study “speaking English as a foreign language” “cus foreigners never understand me”

  22. @23 SMFS
    Not being funny but its a pity you chose plough/though.Crystal devotes a chapter to the ‘gh’ spelling with additional references to plough and though specifically elsewhere.Hard to summarise but there appears to have been an Old English letter ‘yogh’which was pronounced (like the strange sound in James NauGHtie) but which French scribes could n’t cope with when they came over with the Normans so they substituted ‘gh’ .Then the printers could n’t cope with yogh either because they used cases of print brought over from the Continent and these did n’t contain it.It gets worse with people thinking the adjective from French ‘haut’ etc should look like the others and be spelled ‘haughty’ and that’s not the half of it according to Crystal.The old yogh pronunciation lingered in certain areas of the country apparently ,as you suggest.I can’t see any point historical, traditional,educational or logical in keeping such useless silent letters,any more than pre-decimal coinage.

  23. @PaulB
    NC: if you look you’ll find that “code-switching” is commonly used in the sense I gave, especially in the context of speakers of African-American Vernacular English.

    When linguists talk in general about changing speech styles in relation to who is listening then they will talk about Howard Giles’ work on Accommodation or Allan Bell’s work on Audience Design. Code-switching refers very specifically to bi-lingual or bi-dialectal utterances. You are right to say that the most well-known work on African-American Vernacular speech by William Labov does refer to code-switching but this is not the same as the general point about accommodative style shifting that you originally made – for linguists, the two things you mention above are quite distinct. If you want to check this, go to the amazon.co.uk page for Peter Trudgill’s A Glossary of Sociolinguistics and type in code-switching into the search box.

  24. NC: this page includes changes in register in the definition of code-switching. But I accept that a purely accommodative style shift is not a code shift.

    SMFS: I hadn’t realised that you admire Obama so much that you listen to all his speeches. For my part, I don’t know what he said. The subject was much discussed in the USA fifteen years ago, starting with the observation that African-Americans commonly spoke their own dialect, African-American Vernacular English. (This dialect was given the name “Ebonics”, which was at least much snappier.) It was rightly suggested that it was unhelpful for teachers to treat AAVE constructions as mistakes in English. It was wrongly suggested that AAVE was an African language, and that it would be helpful to teach African-American children in it rather than in the standard dialect native speakers of all other languages and dialects were expected to use at school. And that special training should be given to help African-American children with code switching.

  25. Speaking as an American, I’m sort of poly-dialectal due to simply a fascination with dialects. I normally use standard General American, but prefer Estuary English to be honest. When in a professional situation, I switch into a sort of half-Queen’s English, half-American accent. Depending on who I’m talking to and where they’re from, I’ve gone into West Yorkshire, Queen’s English, and an odd Virignian accent on one occaision. But I prefer Estuary English overall.

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