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I want to speak like my forebears who made me what I am; Carl looks at the phrases and dialect of his Birmingham ancestors.

WHEN I was a kid, all of the family used to gather at our mom's on a Sunday afternoon. We listened raptly as the chat turned to the goings on down "the old end". Lively characters of the past were mulled over, striking events of days gone by were knocked about and a vigorous way of life was shaken into view. And as we took in the bustling histories of our families, their neighbourhoods and their city, without knowing it we also drew in the way in which these tales were told; for they were recounted in the spirited speech of working-class Brum, a speech which pulled us unconsciously into the origins of the English language in the West Midlands.

In my mind's eye, those many Sunday afternoons are now one and as that day sped on, our grandad Perry would say: "Well, blige me" when something happened that he wasn't too keen on or which impressed him; and towards the end of the afternoon he would look at our mom and beckon her over. Sadly, grandad had multiple sclerosis and couldn't walk so he'd gain our mom's attention by saying, "Come ere ma wench". "What's that, our dad", our mom would reply. "Gie us a piece, wench, I'm clammed." And off our mom would go to cut our grandad a piece of bread and so stop him feeling hungry.

He came out of Hick Street, Highgate and his broad Brummie sounds were shared by our nan and her sister, our Winnie, who came out of Whitehouse Street, Aston. Like so many Brummies, our nan's mom and dad originated elsewhere, but their kids grew up in back-to-back Brummagem and as with all those whose address was "back of " their Brummie speech was inextricably bound to who they were and where they came from.

Our nan would begenst and snever, teach us how to play glarnies and jackstones, warn us "to mind the "orse road", mek us doorstep sarnies and matter-of-factly point out that her leg was a-wailing her and playing her up. All the while, our Winnie would let us know how her'd traipsed all over the town and that her'd had a good mooch down The Cov, the Coventry Road, with her ta-ta bag, the big shopping bag she took with her everywhere.

Then she and our nan would bring to mind their mom, great granny Wood. She was a hard collaring woman who had to make-do-and-mend every day of her life and could put together a filling meal with a few bacon bones and pot vegetables. Nobody gave her anything and day after day, she would be in the brewus maiding and dollying, blueing and rinsing and making sure that her own kids wore clothes that were as spotless as were those she cleaned for the better off.

With sayings and words bouncing hither and thither, our mom would tell us to have "no cotter" with someone who was upsetting us and to tek no notice if we were teased by a cousin; she'd let us know how someone had come a right purler and scraged their legs; and she'd admonish us not to let anyone see us blartin if we'd had a bit of dust up over the rec.

Often our nan's brothers, our uncle George and our uncle Bill would pop in and put in their twopennyworth. Our Georgie was nicknamed the fat 'un and he'd tell us how our great-grandad Wood, the old mon, would tek no nonsense from no-one and would have a set to with anyone, no matter how hard they were.

Our Uncle Bill was the big 'un, the oldest lad, and once when he saw someone he disliked he asked the person whether or not they'd got their rings on their fingers from down the suff, "where yo come from yerself ".

Our dad was not left out. He came out of Studley Street, Sparkbrook, and would fetch us over to "go and put that rubbish in the miskins" and when it was bedtime he'd order us to get up the dancers. On other occasions, he'd evoke a lost world of illegal betting. It was a world peopled with tekers and runners, the folk who took cash bets for illegal bookies; coppers whom you bunged to let you know when they were going to nick you; cute punters who were clever with their betting; and old dears who had a flutter for a bit of fun and who boasted colourful monikers or noms de plume.

Dad's accent was slightly softer than the flatter tones of our mom's Aston family and he shared this characteristic with his uncles. Great uncle Bill was born in 1893 in that part of Sparkbrook that had been in Balsall Heath, Worcestershire, until two years previously. Both his mom and dad had been brought up locally, in what had been an agricultural outpost on the edge of Brum.

Growing up hard on the borders of Worcestershire with Warwickshire, their speech emphasised the melding of the tones of the rural West Midlands with the urban talk of Brum. Neither uncle Bill nor his younger brother, uncle Wal, said floor or door - always they pronounced such words as floer and doer; whilst cloth became clorth.

To go shopping along the Ladypool Road was always a trip down The Lane; the town was the fanny brown; to have something on credit was to have it on the mace; and somebody who was seen as a bad "un was a mongrel.

In those the didn't anyone like my on the or on television except who denigrated accent Although the sound of the voices of my Sparkbrook uncles differed slightly from that of my Aston relatives, the words they used and the way they put those words together in a sentence were the same. They spoke the same dialect and were proud to be "proper Brummies".

Their mom, great granny Chinn, was a wardrobe dealer - a posh way of saying someone who flogged second-hand clothes. A couple of times a week she would take her clobber up the old Rag Alley, lay it out on the floor and pull the buyers in with her banter.

In those days of the 1960s you didn't hear anyone talking like my family on the wireless or on the television - except for those who mocked or denigrated our accent. Anyone who was well educated and in positions of authority spoke "posh" and it is not surprising, then, that many working-class parents wanted their children to converse in standard English.

Our mom and dad were no different and I can understand why they and so many other parents did so. It is not their fault that society was so prejudiced against dialect speakers and that those with strong accents were so often discriminated against.

And I blame no mother or father who seeks to impress upon their youngsters '' days of 1960s you hear talking family wireless the -for those mocked or our the need to speak standard EIndeed it is essential that ea sound command of this diaHowever, standard English is and as well as acknowledginimportance we ought also to significance of local dialects.

Now that I am older, I can feelings about my language. benefited from a good education that was denied to members of my family until along. I have had a choice, a English. everyone has alect.

s a dialect ng its o assert the. n express my I have ation, an o all the I came gift that was withheld from all my forebeatime. I can be who I want to bas I wish to. And still I wish to them. For they made me what hey scratted and saved, tmoiled so that someone in tha future, had opportunities, h possibilities. I owe it to them hold of the chances they laboI also owe a duty to them not back on their lives. I shall nethat debt or that responsibilinever will I seek to pretend tcome from them. I will speak for if I forswear their dialect I cast aside my heritage and dfamily.

God knows that our folk hto give us in terms of money property. They had no gold nhouses or lands, nor jewellery et, they passed on to us preThey gave us their examples work. They showed us how tstrong neighbourhoods in thdark and hostile environmenars until my be and speak o speak like at I am.

toiled and he future had had m to grasp oured for but t to turn my ver forget ity and so hat I do not k as they did will have disowned my had nothing and nor silver, nor ry or finery. cious things. of hard o make he midst of a nt. And they handed us their words.

Even if they are no longer used commonly, we have a responsibility to give our words to our children and to their children. For these words call us to the beginnings of our city and to those who made us first. If we abandon our words as worthless we give up our past as meaningless. And if we do that we throw out something vital of ourselves, for a people who lose their language are a people who lose their soul.

These are things I feel deep in my heart and my being. They are made all the more powerful by the years I have spent researching the lives of tens of thousands of other working-class Brummies who lived not only in Aston, Sparkbrook and Highgate but also in all those other working-class heartlands of the city from Winson Green in the west to Saltley in the east, from Summer Lane in the north to Small Heath in the south.

And when many of those folk were moved on during the post-war redevelopment of Brum, they took their language with them to areas like Pype Hayes, Quinton, Weoley Castle, Yardley Wood, Sheldon, Lea Hall, Chelmsley Wood, Shard End, and Castle Vale. Here the accent and dialect of the old end has been carried amidst the new surroundings and housing.

In other places, such as Acocks Green, Cotteridge and Ward End, the Brummie town speech has been affected by the rural-tinged tones of those who lived in what were villages in Worcestershire and Warwickshire.

A more remarkable development has occurred in the redeveloped central areas such as Lea Bank and Hockley and also in Handsworth. Here the Brummie language has been influenced deeply by the inward movement of people speaking the patois of Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. In such localities, the accent that is now common amongst young people owes almost as much to the West Indies as it does to Brum. At the same time, certain African Caribbean words have made their presence felt.

Similarly, in Kings Heath, Erdington and formerly in Sparkhill there is an Irish Brummie accent noticeable amongst the sons and daughters and even grandchildren of those Irish men and women who have come to live and work here since the 1930s.

And increasingly, it is easy to pick out amongst the teenagers of Alum Rock, Bordesley Green, Lozells and other neighbourhoods a South Asian Brummie accent -itself owing much to the speech of black Brummies.

It is likely that in forthcoming generations a newer Brummie twang will appear that will look for its roots not only to the English of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire but also to the West Indies, Ireland and South Asia. This shift in the accent will be accompanied by the emergence of a modern Brummie dialect which will be influenced both by local and external forces.

These outside effects are evident already, for example, in the spread of the glottal stop of Estuary English. This speech form is now common amongst young people. Often they drop the "t" in words such as bitter leading to the pronunciation of bi'er.

As the newer form of Brummie strengthens, probably, it will spread outside the city's boundaries along with big city accents and dialects elsewhere in the country. As a result, the traditional Brummie dialect will gradually decline - although some of its words like mom instead of mum and bab for baby and as a form of endearment will live on in the new speech.

That is as it should be. The people of Birmingham are changing and their dialect must reflect this transformation. Language is a vital thing. It cannot and should not be put in a jar and sealed. We are on the cusp of a major linguistic shift and those of us from older generations have an important role to play in that process of alteration.

We can hark back to the older words and phrases, we can listen to and take note of the shifting of sounds and words in our city, and we can try and make sense of the speech that will emerge. No matter how hard we may wish that we could, we cannot force words which are dear to us on to younger people.

But what we can do is to seek to explain the history of the traditional Brummie dialect, we can stress the importance to our present of those who spoke the words of the past, and we can try and help maintain a bond between the Brum which has gone and the Brum which is to be. In that way, our forebears will live on and will not be strangers to their descendants.

'' In those days of the 1960s you didn't hear anyone talking like my family on the wireless or on the television - except for those who mocked or denigrated our accent


Flower sellers (far left) like this one in the Bull Ring in 1939 have always been prominent in keeping alive the speech of Birmingham; a woman and a child (left) in a yard at the back of Hanley Street. It was in yards like this that the Brummagem speech was kept alive and (above) a wonderful view of part of Bordesley Park Road, Bordesley - another neighbourhood where the dialect words of old Warwickshire were spoken.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Jan 25, 2014
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