steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Mood: rueful fogey

When I was at college one of my lecturers was known for his love of drink, his roving hands, and his work on the Leeds University dialect survey. His lectures were pretty dull, except when he was talking about dialect itself (he was a specialist on the different words used for “barn” in west Cornwall, and really knew how to make the subject come alive), but he did have a nice line in maps. He was especially fond of the isogloss, the linguistic equivalent of an isobar. For example, there is a line that runs from the Severn to the Wash, north of which ‘u’ is pronounced with lips rounded, south of which with lips more open. He called it the bugger-bugger line, though it’s hard to convey the pronunciation here. I wonder if that’s common usage amongst linguists?

Then there was the truce-term map. Folklorists and dialecticians have been long been interested in truce terms - at least since Iona and Peter Opie produced their accounts of playground usage half a century ago. Barley, fainites, pax, scribs, kings, skinch, and the rest, were shown to be very specific – to towns or even to neighbourhoods. A ‘scribs’ town might be found floating in a sea of rural barley. And these terms were old! “Barley” goes back at least to Gawain and the Green Knight, for example (I. 296), and prior to that (I assume) to the knightly request for a “parley”. Ever since those lectures, truce terms have had been highly evocative for me – secret histories of Britain, passed down by those least in a position to understand them in a series of intergenerational Chinese whispers.

So, I was surprised yesterday, playing tag in garden with my daughter, when (being a little out of breath) I asked what she and her friends said when they wanted to suspend a game. She looked at me blankly for a minute – then, understanding, answered: “We say ‘Pause’, of course.”

It makes sense, I admit. Even so, it’s sad to see a delicate posy of rare linguistic orchids crushed under the monocultural heel of the Nintendo Gamecube.
Tags: language
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