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Professor Trying to Save Speech Patterns : British Dialects Fall Like Rain in Spain

September 01, 1985|JEFF BARNARD | Associated Press

ASHLAND, Ore. — A retired English professor, who says British dialects are going the way of Eliza Doolittle's "haitches" before she met 'enry 'iggins, is trying to save 65 versions spoken from Scotland to Cornwall.

Donald E. Moore, who taught English at Southern Oregon State College, is giving the college library recordings of 185 speakers. Some of the tapes have been transcribed to help understand them, but others eluded translation.

"I've got an hour or so of Lincolnshire with no transcription," Moore said. "You sit down for a half an hour and you'll end up with maybe half the page full of blanks because you can't tell what they are saying."

Moore said that he wants to preserve the dialects while they are still being spoken. The influence of television, radio, movies and expanded education is curbing differences in the way people speak, giving languages a bland sameness, he said.

He believes his studies will be of particular help to people interested in studying the language as it was 100 years ago. The tapes would be of use to "somebody who is teaching D. H. Lawrence's novels, for example."

"What do the characters of these novels actually sound like? Well, I have tapes of the Nottingham dialect, which is where these novels were set."

Such recordings also are needed by actors and actresses "who want to do an authentic dialect," he said.

About half his examples were culled from oral history tapes made by linguists and sociologists, such as the Survey of English Dialect Archives at the University of Leeds. Others were from commercial recordings, some prepared by the British Drama League in the 1930s to help actors learn accents.

"Then I picked up things off radio broadcasts, things like an Irish politician being interviewed by a BBC broadcaster, which made a nice contrast," Moore said. "Whenever there was an opportunity to interview somebody, like a Welsh farmer I stayed with, I made some tapes."

The dialectical differences show how the English language was formed through conquest, he said. For instance, "bairn," meaning child in Scotland and Northumberland, was left behind by Vikings.

Dialects were so strong before World War II that a Londoner venturing into southwest England needed an interpreter, Moore said.

Two dialects are probably most familiar to Americans. One is Cockney, the lower-class London accent with its dropped t's and h's and glottal stops, which were immortalized by Eliza Doolittle before she met Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw's play "Pygmalion" and its musical adaptation, "My Fair Lady." The other is the upper-class accent known as "received pronunciation," which is taught in the schools.

"You can tell people who have learned received English," said Moore. "They come down extra hard on their t's and h's. That's a clue they weren't born to it."

Still, Moore does not fancy himself a modern Higgins, who could identify a person's neighborhood by listening to him speak.

"I haven't had any ambitions to do anything but have fun," Moore said. "One of the fun things is watching programs like 'Masterpiece Theatre' or listening to BBC broadcasts and seeing if you can pick out the dialects."

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