How we speak . . .

I’ve just finished reading the novel Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett, set during the late 19th century, in the Potteries of North Staffordshire. And now I have started his 1908 novel (considered his finest), The Old Wives’ Tale, that is set in the 1860s and beyond, also in the ‘five towns’.

Bennett used the local Potteries dialect sparingly throughout his novels. I came across a new dialect word while reading The Old Wives’ Tale this morning, which has perhaps taken on a new meaning nowadays: He admitted a certain feebleness (‘wankiness‘, he playfully called it, being proud of his skill in the dialect) . . . And this use of dialect came to my mind in light of something I read about recently (more of which at the end of this piece).

One author who did successfully write in Potteries dialect was William Bloor. His work has been archived at Keele University, and is available online where there’s this interesting comment: On the written page the dialect has the appearance of an arcane language, with mangled vowel sounds and harsh consonants rendering it incomprehensible to many.

You can find a list of Potteries dialect words here. Better still, listen to local Potteries author Alan Povey tell one of his Owd Grandad Piggott stories in dialect. Can you understand? I can (mostly).

Potteries dialect is much less known (and appreciated, perhaps) than Cockney (London), Brummie (Birmingham), Scouse (Liverpool), or Geordie (Newcastle upon Tyne). Today, there are probably few people in North Staffordshire who still fully speak in dialect as many did up to the 1950s. The influence of radio and television has surely brought about a standardization in the way we speak.

But what are the Potteries? They are the six (not five) towns, north to south, that comprise the City of Stoke-on-Trent: Tunstall [Turnhill], Burslem [Bursley], Hanley [Hanbridge], Stoke [Knype], Fenton, and Longton [Longshaw], and so named because they became a center of ceramic production in the early 17th century, due to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal.

I grew up in North Staffordshire, in the small market town of Leek (Axe in the Bennett novels), on the edge of the Staffordshire moorlands, just 10 miles to the northeast of the Potteries. Between September 1960 and June 1967 I traveled the fourteen miles every day from home to school in Trent Vale on the south side of Stoke. In Leek and the Potteries I did hear people talking in the local dialect, but rarely at school. Boys of my age had moved on linguistically, so to speak.

I don’t speak any dialect, but I clearly have an accent that, to many, sounds ‘northern’ because of the short vowel pronunciation characteristic of my speech. In this clip, I’m reading the first few paragraphs from Bennett’s The Old wives’ Tale:

But while I don’t speak dialect, I do use a few dialect words such as nesh (sensitive to the cold) or mithered (bothered). Growing up, I often heard the term of endearment, duck (used for men and women), but never used it myself.

I guess my accent and pronunciation (like anyone else) is a consequence of what I heard at home growing up. And has been modified by years of travel and living overseas. My mother was born in London’s East End, but grew up in Epsom, Surrey. She emigrated as a young woman to Canada and the USA in the 1920s. My father was a Staffordshire man, from Burton-on-Trent, but he moved away as a young man to the Cotswolds and then to sea, traveling the world as ship’s photographer. The way they spoke must have influenced me. For example, I pronounce schedule in the American way: skedule, not the soft shedule. That came from my mum, because that’s how I heard her pronounce it, something she probably picked up while in Canada and the USA.

A week ago or so, a rather interesting ‘quiz’ about British-Irish dialects appeared on Facebook (originally from The New York Times), and was widely shared. It wasn’t your run of the mill Facebook quiz. It seemed to have a purpose. Several people I know took the quiz, including my eldest brother and his wife. I took the quiz. We were all amazed at the accuracy of pinpointing where we came from,based on words we use in everyday speech. This is what my brother posted afterwards: Regarding myself – it says that I formed my language/speech style as being SW Derbyshire and SE Cheshire, which is ‘Spot-on’, Pauline’s was correct also being Perthshire and Aberdeenshire.

I guess the algorithm behind the quiz used certain ‘signature’ words from different parts of the country (like nesh in my case) and gave them extra weight.

My result pointed towards Stoke-on-Trent northeastwards past Leek into southern Yorkshire, but with a greater probability in North Staffordshire. Also spot on! Just click on the link below and try for yourself.


Staffordshire oatcakes – a local delicacy

Although I was born in Congleton (in the county of Cheshire), I moved to Leek, in north Staffordshire – about 12 miles away to the southeast – when I was seven.

So, I grew up in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, and actually think of myself more or less as Staffordshire born and bred. My father was a Staffordshire man who was born in the brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent.

For me, the Staffordshire Moorlands (on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park – and, founded in 1951, the first national park in the UK) is one of the most beautiful parts of England. It’s wild and rugged, but dissected by the deep, wooded valleys of the River Churnet, and the River Dane (which forms the boundary between Staffordshire and Cheshire for about 10 miles). Among the most famous landmarks are the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, outcrops of millstone grit, and home for many decades to a feral population of wallabies!

For seven years from 1960 I attended high school in Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries. In those days, the Potteries were a dark and dismal city, covered in the grime from the collieries (and steam railways) as well as the smoke from the myriad of bottle ovens found in all the factories (known as ‘potbanks’), where world-famous ceramics were made, such as Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton.

Now, the pits have closed, and the ceramic industry is but a shadow of its former glory (the Wedgwood family is fighting to keep a priceless collection of ceramics together, in danger of being sold off piecemeal to cover the pension fund debts of the parent company that went bankrupt in 2009). The Clean Air Act of the mid-1950s ensured that the pollution that once smothered the Potteries was a thing of the past. And over the past decades the spoil heaps from the collieries have been levelled (in one part of the city they were referred to as ‘the Cobridge Alps’), and whole areas of terraced housing (once occupied by the workers from the potbanks) have been demolished to make way for new developments.

And one of the businesses affected is The Hole in the Wall.

Well, I guess this means nothing to almost everyone who reads this post. About to close down – on 25 March to be precise – The Hole in the Wall is the last remaining front-room oatcake bakery in Staffordshire.

Oatcakes? These aren’t the crispy biscuits you buy in Scotland. Oh no! They are a delicious, thin, grilled ‘pancake’ made from fermented oat flour, served hot with delicious fillings of bacon, sausages, cheese, and eggs, and have been a traditional Potteries delicacy for decades. Just watch this audio slideshow to learn how they are made (and what is happening to The Hole in the Wall) , and why Potteries folk adore them. It’s believed that the idea of oatcakes was brought back to the Potteries by soldiers of the Staffordshire Regiment who had served in India. They look like the Ethiopian injera, which is made from the indigenous cereal teff (Eragrostis tef). These points are raised in the slideshow and the accompanying article in The Guardian.

I grew up eating oatcakes, and many years ago now, I introduced my wife Steph (an Essex lass) to the delights of the Staffordshire oatcake. And she was hooked as well, found a recipe, and has been making them ever since. And we enjoyed them during the 19 years we lived in the Philippines.

She’s still making them and today, Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of oatcakes and sausages, and freshly-brewed coffee. What a great way to start the day!

But there’s another Staffordshire delicacy – love it or hate it (in my case, ‘hate it’) – and that’s Marmite, a yeast extract by-product of the brewing industry. Marmite comes from Burton-upon-Trent, and the ‘Marmite odour’ is quite rich at times during the summer as you drive through the town.