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The importance of dialects

I’ve just finished listening to Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

I haven’t read any really enjoyable books recently so I’m so glad I ended the year with the audiobook of this one. I didn’t particularly enjoy My Fair Lady, the musical based on this play, so I didn’t have high expectations. However, I really enjoyed Pygmalion and thought it was a different entity to the musical (although I couldn’t help occasionally imagining the characters breaking into song when they said a line that some of the songs are based on!).

Great characters, nicely depicted setting and a good, humorous story. Plus it uses concepts from sociolinguistics and as a linguistics graduate I couldn’t help enjoying it! I’d certainly try to see it if there is ever a production of it at a local theatre.

I’m fascinated by accents and having lived in various places over the UK I’ve been interested to know how other people perceive my accent. I’m from South West England and although I have some identifying features, when I went to university in Scotland most people described my accent as ‘posh’. A friend later told me that when she initially met me she assumed I would be ‘stuck up’. At university, with a mix of accents from everywhere I blended in fine. However on a work placement as an Online Exhibition Assistant I felt very out of place among my Scottish work colleagues and longed to be able to tone down my ‘posh’ accent. While I’m thankful for my pretty standard accent most of the time, it would be nice to have the homeliness of non-RP accent sometimes, but maybe not quite as much of one as Eliza Dolittle’s!

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A shoe by any other name…

My boyfriend and I come from different cities in the West Country and the other day I asked him out of curiosity what he called those white shoes worn in sport lessons in primary school. He said ‘daps’. Same as me. It’s a West Country (and parts of Wales) thing to call them daps, so this isn’t surprising, but it did lead on for him to ask, “What else would you call them?”

Plimsolls. He said he’d never heard the word. The conversation started me talking about a shoe section I worked in a few years ago where I was advised to refer to them as plimsolls rather than daps. He said that that’d have confused him as a customer. The store is in the West Country, so why not call them daps? I said that plimsolls was more standard, probably better known and less likely to alienate people from outside the West Country. But I’m now wondering whether calling them daps would actually have made local people feel more comfortable? Would there have been any real benefits either way?

A coursework project I did on the use of dialects in TV tea advertisements that showed that dialects are used to sell products. This made me wonder if all shoe shops would (or should) employ the same advice to their staff to use the standard term plimsolls as I was told to do, or whether some would be better off using the term daps? Maybe if they were a small shop in a close community area? I know that sales assistants’ dialects don’t have the same influence as those on TV advertisements, but it made me wonder what affect using a regional term would have on customer satisfaction. If any.

Slightly off topic, but this reminds me of the BBC Voices study on dialects that was one of my favourite websites on this topic. It has a map where you can see the different terms used in the UK. It’ll waste a little of your time quite nicely. It has done mine.