Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Sound of Bow Bells

BBC Scotland reports on the influence of Cockney — and particularly EastEnders — on the Glasgow accent. And it's even been picked up by the Guardian, with an odd focus on "social union" grafted on that makes Northern Ireland point-scoring look restrained.

It is in fact hardly surprising that Glaswegian appears to be taking this route, since for every person for whom Scots is a resolutely national affair, there is at least one other who prizes it mainly for its sociolectal value. Such individuals don't look up to MacDiarmid (or even "back to Dunbar") but to Billy Connolly (at least until he showed how out of touch he'd got with the "wee pretendy parliament" comments).

Scots of course has a host of examples of historic l-vocalisation in words such as aw, baw and faw, but to that category have been added many others in line with current "Estuary" speech. A good example is provided by Adele's recent and much-lauded James Bond theme song, in which "Skyfall" rhymes with "tumble", the final consonant of both words being replaced by a vowel — somewhat belying the evening-dress sophistication intended, one might add. Glasgow folk may be particularly prone to following south-east England in this regard, since they have a "dark" [l] — quite unlike the "slender" [l] that Hiberno-English has inherited from Gaelic, to name one example. Thus a present-day Glaswegian might pronounce "milk bottle" without any [l] sound whatsoever.

Another change is the replacement of [θ] and [ð] by [f] and [v], respectively (as in "yoof" culture), a phenomenon presumably reinforced by approximation on the part of the large number of immigrants in London (according to the latest Census, "white UK" residents are now in a minority there). Although the Blether Region, being something of a fuddy-duddy, deprecates such innovations, it is a serial recipient of texts in Glaswegian, including such space-saving spellings as "wot" (or "wit") and "wif".

For the benefit of lexicographers, it might be worth pointing out that "wif", despite its Cockney pedigree, is a distinctively Scottish form, since the final consonant is voiceless, indicating that it derives not from the English [wıð] but from the Scottish [wıθ], where the final consonant is a re-insertion. Similarly, "wit" clearly derives from Scots "whit".

As such, both forms are surely candidates for inclusion in future supplements to the SND.

A not-so-Cockney phenomenon is the alleged disappearance of the Glaswegian [r], where replacement by an alveolar tap after vowels is assumed to herald the disappearance of the sound in such environments altogether. However, the Blether Region believes that the alveolar tap derives not from aping England but rather arises organically from the replacement of medial [t] by a glottal stop before an originally trilled [r] — try saying watter with a glottal stop to experience it — with the practice then extended elsewhere. Other environments where the [r] is dropped or assimilated, such as in further, are both limited and obviously not of English origin (it's also attested in three).

It may be relevant to mention here that the loss of post-vocalic [r] is also a feature of some Dublin speech (where it presumably really is of English origin) but is recessive (rhoticity being a shibboleth of resurgent Irishness), showing that change needn't all be one-way. Indeed, the undoubted fact that some working-class Scots no longer distinguish between [x] and [k] is likely to raise the [r] to the same status in Scotland too.

So, life in the auld quean yet, then.

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