Mind Your Language

Moving back to Glasgow after several decades is an interesting experience in terms of language and dialect, as in picking it up again, or seeing how the decades and things like gentrification have changed how people speak.


Language changes all the time, but words and phrases get lost in time. This piece from Dominic Wells is the out-takes from an interview with Alan Moore has a relevant point to make which rings true of my current experience as well as having a pop at Sun readers, which is nice.

“To be able to read the Sun, I think you need 100,000 words in your vocabulary; that’s a Sun reader’s vocabulary. [NB: Alan Moore is massively overestimating here, perhaps owing to his own sesquipedalian range. The average vocabulary is 20,000-35,000 words.] So that is painfully limited. And by the opposite thesis, if you expand the amount of words within a person’s reach, you’re also expanding their consciousness, potentially.

“It’s this whole thing of perception, and our perception is made of words. Language precedes consciousness, we are told, and also you can see it even in the present day. Say, for example, before we had the word ‘paedophile’. Or before we had that word in common clearly understood usage. Isn’t it funny how all the paedophiles appeared after that word? You’ll sometimes talk to old people, and they’ll say, ‘well, we never had those paedophiles when I was a girl or I was a boy’, and I’m ‘yeah you did, you just didn’t have a word for it’. So it was worse then, because you couldn’t even conceive of them.

“So yeah, in Jerusalem there is a strong strand about the development of language. Take ‘Third Borough’ [which in Jerusalem is the word used for the deity]. In the early 20th century there was a Third Borough in the Boroughs [the area of Northampton in which Jerusalem is set]. What they were was a combination of rent man and policeman. If somebody defaulted on their rent, they would be collecting the rent and also punishing the defaulter. “The word ‘Third Borough’ doesn’t exist anywhere outside Northampton, and is believed to be a corruption of a Saxon term, ‘frith burhh’, which meant a tithing map.

“As far as I know, ‘deathmongers’ [who assist at both births and deaths] didn’t exist outside the Boroughs. Maybe there were people who fulfilled that function, but they weren’t called deathmongers; and they probably didn’t have quite the same aura. So I wanted to be build this up from the language, the lost language of Northampton.”

I’ve moved back to Glasgow and my own language, accent and dialect is a mongrel mix of all the places I’ve lived. There’s Glasgow in there, a bit of Liverpool, a lot of Bristol, some London, and a chunk of East Midlands. In the three weeks or so I’ve been back I’ve been considered as English, had a chat with some folk from Macmillan who thought me to be from Edinburgh.

But it’s language that’s the most fascinating for me. As Moore says in that excerpt there’s words which are only used locally. Take the Glasgow phrase, ‘a doing/doin’ meaning giving someone a beating when you’re having a benny, which is a Bristolian phrase meaning you’re losing your temper. I don’t know anywhere that uses these words and it’s wonderful such local phrases add to the culture of areas like Glasgow or Bristol.

What is a pity is how these snippets of local language is being lost, or not being used as often as estuary English dominates, and gentrification drives traditional communities, and their language/dialect gets lost. People like Alan Moore who try to keep these bits of ancient language, and the history behind it, alive are to be applauded as we all face a future of sounding like a CBBC presenter…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.