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Review of  East Midlands English


Reviewer: Christopher Strelluf
Book Title: East Midlands English
Book Author: Natalie Braber Jonnie Robinson
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 30.2369

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Review:
SUMMARY

This short volume provides a general overview of the phonetics and phonology, morphology and syntax, and lexis of English in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. It follows the common structure of de Gruyter’s Dialects of English series with a goal of providing “the most obvious starting point” for descriptions of particular varieties of English.

Braber and Robinson built their data from new analyses of recordings collected from these counties for the Survey of English Dialects (SED; Orton et al. 1962-1971) and held at the British Library, as well as published SED fieldworker transcriptions and additional materials made available through University of Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture. They also made use of recordings of local speech collected through BBC radio affiliates in the three counties for the Millennium Memory Bank oral history project in 1998 and 1999.

The first chapter briefly describes East Midlands geography and culture. It describes Derbyshire, Leistercershire, and Nottinghamshire as “core” East Midlands counties, and excludes Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire from the study as more peripheral to the region. Despite the region’s low population density and relatively low level of visibility in popular consciousness of English regions, the authors point to a number of sources to suggest that the East Midlands played an outsized role in shaping present-day English, as standard English spoken in London during the late Middle English period was “based on the East Midland dialect” (5). They also note the position of the East Midlands between the more popularly salient English North and South, as well as West Midlands dialects of Brummie and Black Country. Finally, the authors indicate that the East Midlands is “unusual in its lack of representation in popular media” (10), but has played a prominent role in British sport.

The second chapter turns to phonetics and phonology. The authors provide impressionistic descriptions of vowels, following Wells’s (1982) typology, and also offer insights into productions of several consonants and some connected speech processes. Their analyses often align the East Midlands with northern Englishes rather than dialects to the south or the nearby West Midlands—for example, they analyse East Midlands English as generally not maintaining phonemic splits in the dialectologically important BATH/TRAP and FOOT/STRUT sets. While most of their reports are based on auditory analyses of old recordings, Braber and Robinson occasionally corroborate observations with novel qualitative observations. For instance, they confirm the emergence of an innovative regional pronunciation of the happY vowel as [ε] by showing that local students sometimes spell the word “mardy” as <mardeh>.

Chapter 3 examines a series of morphological and syntactic features. The authors note the difficulty of studying morphosyntactic features in samples of spontaneous speech. They are, nevertheless, able to comment briefly on an impressive range of categories, including determiners, nouns and pronouns, verbs, negation, prepositions, adverbs, and discourse particles. Several of these features are detailed with exhaustive tables that appear to list all variants that could be captured from the recordings, for instance providing nine citations of “come” being used in the past tense where “came” would standardly be prescribed (90). The authors also occasionally confirm morphosyntactic variants as saliently East Midland features through attestation in popular sources, such as the dialectal negation suffix -na appearing in a “Derbyshire dialect” version of the Ten Commandments that uses “conna” for “cannot.”

Research content concludes in Chapter 4, which describes some East Midlands lexis. Braber and Robinson devote sections to historical origins of place names, and to vocabularies connected with mining and farming. In this context, the authors break from the SED and BBC recordings that the rest of the volume relies on to anticipate forthcoming studies of the “Pit Talk” of East Midlands coal miners. While the vocabularies of coal mining and farming are likely disappearing as these industries decline in the East Midlands, the authors also show a series East Midlands terms such as “cob” (‘sandwich’), “mardy” (‘sulky’), and “duck” (‘term of endearment’) appearing increasingly in East Midlands-focused products and marketing. They show convincingly that these items of local dialect vocabulary “are an important expression of local identity” (143), pointing toward the emergence of East Midlands English as an “enregistered” variety (e.g., Johnstone 2009).

The book also includes annotated transcripts of recordings as Chapter 5, and brief annotations of references as Chapter 6.

EVALUATION

Braber and Robinson’s study of East Midlands English is a welcome contribution to English dialectology. Consistent with the stated goal of the Dialects of English series to provide a “starting point” for research on varieties of English, the book provides initial descriptions of an impressively broad range of features for a regional variety that has received relatively little attention among British Englishes. The book will indeed be an obvious starting point for future studies in the East Midlands that examine specific features more intensively, and will provide a useful touchpoint for researchers working in other regional Englishes, such as the nearby West Midlands or East of England.

Their findings also themselves point toward very compelling directions for future research. At the level of individual variables, for instance, during their description of the GOOSE vowel, Braber and Robinson note that “following /l/ frequently prompts more fronted GHOUL” (39). Since following /l/ generally results in lower F2 and pre-/l/ allophones of GOOSE often resist fronting (e.g., Thomas 2001 for examples from North American varieties), the East Midlands appear to exhibit an opposite allophonic conditioning pattern from many other Englishes for a widespread sound change. At the systemic level, Braber and Robinson’s discussions of popular representations of East Midlands English features point toward a speech community in the early stages of enregistering its language. East Midlands English may, then, offer insights for how it is that a language variety undergoes the process of enregisterment.

It is noteworthy that nearly all of Braber and Robinson’s language data comes from extant recordings archived at the British Library. These recordings, for which Robinson is lead curator at the British Library, have been described elsewhere as a tremendous resource for historical dialectology (e.g., Robinson 2017). This book admirably demonstrates some of the ways that extant recordings like the various collections at the British Library might be used to for linguistic research. It is clear that Braber and Robinson have exhaustively mined SED and Millennium Memory Bank recordings, and by doing so have been able to extract at least some observations on many linguistic features without the time and expense of conducting new interviews. Of course, they are also able to report much greater time-depth than they would be able to do with interviews conducted today, since the SED fieldwork was conducted half a century ago. At the same time, their approach not only draws on these under-utilized extant sources, but also contributes new meaning to these extant sources. This is particularly true in the case of SED materials, where Braber and Robinson’s analysis helps synthesize meaning that is obscured by the glut of raw data published in the SED basic materials.

The reliance on extant recordings and the requirement to cover a broad range of features naturally limits the depth with which Braber and Robinson can cover any feature. This is especially the case for morphosyntactic features and lexical items, where the authors acknowledge that they are limited to whatever features happen to have occurred. As a consequence of this, the extent to which a given feature is really characteristic of East Midlands English often cannot be clear. For instance, a single speaker from Swadlincote contributes many of the forms of negative constructions in tables on pp. 70 and 97, so it’s possible that this speaker is just especially recessive (or innovative, depending directions of change). It is a bit more disappointing that phonetic data are presented entirely as impressionistic transcriptions. While it is obviously beyond the scope of the book to provide extensive acoustic analyses, it would be helpful, e.g., in the case of vowels, if the book occasionally provided formant estimates to give context for the transcriptions Braber and Robinson settle on--especially in cases where the authors disagree with transcriptions of SED fieldworkers or weigh in on disagreements among SED fieldworkers.

The reliance on SED recordings and field materials also means that the book is often more suited to describing traditional features of East Midlands English, rather than describing the variety today. Braber and Robinson’s introduction notes that in previous work, “the dialect has been described and discussed more from the historical perspective than as a living and changing regional dialect still in use today” (4). While Braber and Robinson draw on the relatively recent Millennium Memory Bank recordings and refer to ongoing research with modern speakers, descriptions often focus on features which the authors impressionistically conclude are disappearing among younger speakers. This is especially clear in the chapter on lexis, which devotes substantial attention to coal mining and farming vocabulary that “is disappearing from usage” (126). Of course, the book offers a great deal by documenting disappearing dialect features, but in many cases thorough description of the “living and changing” character of East Midlands English awaits further research.

As that research appears, _East Midlands English_ will continue to serve as a broad, accessible overview of an under-researched variety of English. It is also an excellent model for using archival recordings as an entrypoint to studies of speech communities.

REFERENCES

Johnstone, Barbara. 2009. Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech 84(2). 157-191.

Orton, Harold, Eugen Dieth, Willfrid Halliday, Michael Barry, P.M. Tilling & Martyn Wakelin. 1962-1971. Survey of English Dialects A and B: Introduction and the basic material. Leeds: E.J. Arnold & Son.

Robinson, Jonathan. 2017. British Library sound recordings of vernacular speech: They were lost and now they are found. In Raymond Hickey (Ed.), _Listening to the past: Audio records of accents of English_ [Studies in English Language], 13-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, Erik R. 2001. An acoustic analysis of vowel variation in New World English [Publication of the American Dialect Society 85]. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wells, J.C. 2001. The Accents of English, vol. 1, An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Christopher Strelluf is an assistant professor in the Centre for Applied Linguistics at University of Warwick. He received his PhD from the University of Missouri in 2014. His research interests include language variation and change, dialectology, and interactions between language and power. His monograph _Speaking from the Heartland: The Midland vowel system of Kansas City_ is available as the 103rd Publication of the American Dialect Society.

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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781501510724
Pages: 186
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