How the Edwardians Spoke

by Kieran Healy on October 19, 2007

A (slightly ponderous) documentary on a set of rare sound recordings of British and Irish POWs from World War I. First recordings are just after 10 minutes in. I liked the way the speed of the shellac recording is calibrated by matching an A note on the last groove to the A from a tuning fork. At 23″ or so there’s a recording of a man telling the parable of the Prodigal Son, where the difference between the ‘a’ in _father_ and the ‘a’ in _man_ is quite striking. At about 35″ there’s an nice example of the problems associated with interpreting material like this: another recording of the Prodigal Son story (a set text for the German academics who were interested in English accents) is played to a woman who knew the solider speaking, with interesting results.

{ 1 trackback }

Tiny Planet » Links o' the day
10.19.07 at 12:27 pm



Reinder 10.19.07 at 6:11 am

A 440-Hertz tuning fork or a 444-Hertz tuning fork?


foolishmortal 10.19.07 at 6:40 am

Fascinating. Without background, I’d have placed the earlier recordings in rural New England or WV. They certainly were more readily intelligible to me (W USA) than a modern Glasgow or Newcastle accent is, not to mention the Welsh.

A question for the linguists among you: is there a more dialect/accent-rich region than England or the UK? Where and why?


caeciliusestpater 10.19.07 at 9:27 am

foolishmortal – Germany and Italy both have a far greater dialectal diversity than modern Britain. There are distinct regional accents in the UK, but nothing like the lexical and grammatical variety of Bavarian and Saxon, Venetian or Tuscan, for example.


Aidan Kehoe 10.19.07 at 10:13 am

A question for the linguists among you: is there a more dialect/accent-rich region than England or the UK? Where and why?

Papua New Guinea, and impassible terrain that has nonetheless been settled for millennia. Closer to our everyday experience, Slovenian has a wealth of dialectal variation in a country the size of Kuwait; it’s in the Alps, so also relatively impassible terrain.


reason 10.19.07 at 10:18 am

I think your question is quite difficult to answer, because it is difficult to understand exactly what you mean. Do you mean “Is there an English speaking country, with more distinct dialects and accents within an equivalent area than the UK has?” Or do you mean something else? Don’t forget long history and density of population has a lot to do with it, in which case within the English speaking world the UK has unique advantages. But if you outside the English speaking world, then perhaps Switzerland comes to mind (in fact any area with deep valleys which has partially isolated communities for a long time).


Bongob 10.19.07 at 10:19 am

Fascinating doc. Joan Washington’s trope that dialect reflects terrain seemed decreasingly persuasive but it’s probably quite a useful tip for the actors she drums accents into professionally. The piano score was just In The Way. But such amazing stuff!
English WWI POW’s being herded into standing before a metal cone and reciting a Biblical parable sounds like something out of an old Flash Gordon serial somehow written by Pat Barker. And how on earth did a massive collection of shellac 78’s survive in Berlin? Shellac is nearly the most fragile material ever created (second only to the hinge arms on CD jewel cases).


harry b 10.19.07 at 12:27 pm

Thanks Kieran, fantastic. It is ponderous, but rightly so. I love watching her impatience to hear the first recording, and her emotional response to hearing the recordings. Its charming.


Kieran Healy 10.19.07 at 1:31 pm

The other thing I was reminded of was the German academic philologers in Alexander McCall Smith’s _Portuguese Irregular Verbs_.


The New York City High School Math Teacher 10.19.07 at 3:08 pm

There is a lovely Library of Congress web exhibit on the pre-1918 color photography of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii which excites the same ding an sich as that BBC documentary:

Look at this picture and this one and especially this one.


pithhelmet 10.19.07 at 4:20 pm

Papua New Guinea is linguistically diverse, not just “dialect rich,” and at least hundreds of distinct languages are spoken there. Where dialects are mutually intelligible by speakers of a language, NG villages, often separated by a mountain range, river or endemic warfare have developed their own distinct languages in relative isolation from one another.


thag 10.19.07 at 4:37 pm

Girt stuff, Kieran!

It’s just amazing how WWI managed to draft all those music-hall comedians from Mummerset!


Badger 10.19.07 at 6:16 pm

Amazing, not ponderous at all. Voices of people from that long ago. How they talked.

Ye knowe eke that in forme of speech is chaunge,
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
Than hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so,
And spedde as well in love as men now do…


shtove 10.19.07 at 6:58 pm

The background music is Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.


Raghav 10.19.07 at 8:31 pm

This is really fascinating. I had no idea that the accents of the home counties at the time were rhotic.

As an American, I’ve always liked West Country accents best.


geoff 10.19.07 at 10:48 pm

I didn;t find it even “slightly ponderous”, of course I used fast forward a few (just twice) times, but it was late at night when I wondered over to Crooked Timber then to the video marked. Very interesting how the first family Washington visits is quite emotionally moved by just how one of their relatives whom none knew sounded. It seemed to trigger family pride that they actually contributed to things. My favorite part of the video was when Washington went and spoke to the sister and niece of one of the POWs. The sister, who recalled the family stories of the older brother, long died, sounded exactly as my mum – about the same age as the sister. Less the accent and speech patterns and more the expressions and linking or words and quite bizzarly, I think, the lovely optimisum in the tone of voice overall. As Washington noted the landscape seems, maybe, to effect how you treat vowels.

Thanks for the video. So of made my late night.


Jay C 10.20.07 at 3:07 pm

Yes, Kieran, fascinating. One thing I noticed, though (from the brief clips I viewed: maybe she addresses it elsewhere) is that Joan Washington seems to view the gradual loss/dilution/change of regional British accents as an artifact of creeping urbanization, and doesn’t seem to take into account the technological factors that have homogenized the “standard” English of today.

In Edwardian Britain, not only did a large percentage of the population live, and remain in, linguistically distinct areas, but, unless they migrated elsewhere, had in their language-formative years, little input of “other” accents to draw on. Remember, while sound recording (as we see) was existent, it was probably poorly-distributed in rural areas, and then (as now) probably mostly music. There was no radio, television, or even sound movies to diffuse “standard” accents – e.g. “BBC English”; so it’s no surprise that “local” accent/dialects were more prevalent. Even if, I believe, slowly succumbing to standardization though mass education, even c. 1915.

Still an excellent documentary, thanks.


Nicholas Ostler 10.20.07 at 10:04 pm

For me, the most salient thing was not the slight, and expected, differences between 1916 and 2006 pronunciation, but the persistent attitudes of the presenter Joan Washington, who associated accents with landscapes, and even with climate (in Aberdeen), and was judgmental (while denying it to her victims) about modern slackness of articulation, even (at the end) seeming to suggest that h-dropping and ‘t-dropping’ (glottalization?) were innovations of the the 20th century. She had evidently purged her native Aberdonian to a highly precise RP – presumably for professional credibility as an elocutionist: interestingly, Jonnie Robinson of the BL had made no such effort. At least it made a bit of sense of something I have never understood – viz how Shaw could paint Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’ as being highly knowledgeable about articulation and acoustics while still bemoaning the performance of the lower classes – ‘for cold-blooded murder of the English tongue’. Joan is a modern Eliza. Plus ça change…


Jacob Christensen 10.20.07 at 10:57 pm

Fascinating (especially given that my native Danish is one of the fastest changing languages in the world with regard to pronunciation and disappearance of dialects, so Danes born in 1980 would find it hard to understand Danes born in 1890), even if I would have loved to hear more examples from the recordings.

It struck me that Philip Jarvis’ fæ∂er could be found in parts of Jutland as well. But then, Jarvis was from East Anglia.


Random 10.20.07 at 11:04 pm

Didn’t anybody else think it was odd that the woman didn’t recognize her own brother’s voice? Even if she’d long forgotten it, the sound should have brought the memory back. Could this have been some kind of declamatory exercise, and they weren’t speaking normally? I am very suspicious of the fact they were reading prepared texts rather than just saying their names, or whatever.


Jacob Christensen 10.21.07 at 3:38 am


Could this have been some kind of declamatory exercise, and they weren’t speaking normally?

Yes, the presenter hinted that that effect occured. The Danish and Swedish cases of dialect recordings [disclaimer]I know of[/disclaimer], have people speaking casually.


Jay C 10.21.07 at 12:45 pm

@ #20, #21:

I think the situation of the recorded soldiers “not speaking normally” may come from the fact that the crude recording equipment of the time – mechanical, not electrically amplified, IIRC – required its subject(s) to speak loudly and plainly in order to be adequately transcribed.
Also: the issue of the standard text makes sense: this was a study on regional variation in a language: hearing the same text in different accents would make it easier for the researchers to compare the changes. Although I imagine that nowadays, a similar study would use something other than a Biblical parable as the template.


Badger 10.21.07 at 1:28 pm

By the way, try and imagine the Americans compiling an archive of Mideast accents in recent years, quite a change in imperial “culture”, don’t you think? Thinking about which makes me nostalgic for an academia that could actually talk about history and culture over the din of professional nitpicking…


Jacob Christensen 10.22.07 at 4:55 pm

@22: I can imagine contemporary researchers using articles and blogposts about the fall and fall of Britney Spears as their template…

(More to the point: Yes, limitations of recording equipment, disks that would only hold 3-4 minutes of speech, etc. etc. But it is also an interesting illustration of the problems with controlled experiments in a laboratory environment).


Henry (not the famous one) 10.24.07 at 3:18 am

The Wiltshire residents moving their relative’s speech patterns over to Somerset reminded me of Mark Twain’s introductory comment to Huckleberry Finn:

“IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.
I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”

Comments on this entry are closed.