Danny Baker might be surprised to find that he has the support of Thomas Hardy in the matter of dialect

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A little while ago, Danny Baker complained, in a letter to this paper, about the journalistic habit of rendering his distinctive accent with phonetic spelling, a printed dialect he referred to as "cockneyese". He also suggested, with some justice, that journalists would be very wary of applying the same method to an Asian speaker - a simple thought experiment which demonstrated the prejudicial hazard there is in such transcriptions.

Mr Baker might be surprised to find that he has the support of Thomas Hardy on this matter (then again, maybe this is prejudiced too. For all I know those long nights with Gazza and Chris Evans may be spent exchanging favourite passages from the Wessex Chronicles). Writing in The Athenaeum on the question of "Dialect in Novels", Hardy had this to say: "If a writer attempts to exhibit on paper the precise accents of a rustic speaker, he disturbs the proper balance of a true representation by unduly insisting upon the grotesque element; thus directing attention to a point of inferior interest, and diverting it from the speaker's meaning, which is by far the chief concern where the aim is to depict the men and their natures rather than their dialect forms".

This was presumably the burden of Mr Baker's complaint - that the "rustic" orthography (Deptford does have its green patches) diverted readers from the content of his speech to its manner.

But the matter is a little more complicated than that might suggest. When Deborah Ross transcribed the following phrase from her conversation with Baker, she surely had some justification for the attempt to capture the sound of his voice in print: "Yeah, I like football," said Baker, "Yeah, I talk the way I do. But that don't mean I'm a lad. What you do ain't who you are." But given that he had raised the issue of the way he talked, the reader needed some sort of indication of what that was. To write "What you do is not who you are" would have pointlessly drained information from the quotation, not to mention setting a bad precedent. Where precisely would solicitous "tidying up" turn into "misquotation"? The obvious answer might be when the substantive content of a sentence is altered by the changes, but I think that "ain't" is part of the substantive content of Baker's reply - it confirms his unfussed attachment to his origins, the sense of a man unperturbed by lurking metropolitan snobberies (a judgement somewhat contradicted by his indignant letter).

What's more, both Danny Baker and Thomas Hardy are labouring under a misapprehension if they believe that a speaker's accent is not inextricably bound up with the sort of hypotheses we form about their character. Hardy offers "men and their natures" as securely distinguishable from "their dialect forms", when the truth is that, in the common understanding at least, they frequently overlap.

To be fair, this was much less the case in Hardy's day than it is in ours, when Received Pronunciation provides a uniform for anyone who wishes to throw off their local costume. Tennyson spoke with a distinct Lincolnshire accent, and while the circumstances of society made this a less insistent fact than it would be today (where he would have to go on Kaleidoscope to punt his latest collection, or on Newsnight to discuss lottery funding for the arts), it wouldn't greatly have mattered anyway. Hardy's problem with putting dialect on the page was not that it carried an everyday prejudice into the purified realm of literature, but that it converted an effectively indiscernible quality into an unmissable one - the very words were gnarled out of shape.

These days, though, accent almost always comes to us with an associated character. One might wish this wasn't so, but it was confirmed this week by the announcement of the creation of hundreds of new telemarketing jobs in the North-east.

This isn't the first time that large companies have headed North in the search for soothing vowels. First Direct, the telephone bank, directs its operations from Yorkshire, so that financial admonitions are delivered in tones redolent of soft-bosomed comfort (most of the employees do seem to be female). The calculation is simple - the loss of the personal touch must somehow be made good, and identifiable accents allow companies to enlist the prejudices of customers for their own ends. If Yorkshire voices are deemed to be friendly and sympathetic by the general public then the bank will be too, even if it is as persistent about your overdraft as any high-street equivalent. If only you were there, you feel, this pleasant woman would probably hand you a cup of tea and some Battenburg before tactfully suggesting you sort yourself out.

Not all areas of the country benefit from such prejudices. According to a recent survey, Newcastle accents came out equal first when it came to honesty and trustworthiness, while Liverpudlian accents came bottom - a civic libel I'm sure, but also a large disincentive to any firm whose only public face is going to be sketched by the voice coming out of the earpiece. They would naturally prefer the resultant caricature to have a flat cap and a salt-of-the-earth smile rather than a reversed baseball hat and shifty expression.

One obvious solution - the conscious adoption of a less localised form of speech - would probably be rejected out of hand as an institutional repression of regional difference. It is curious, though, that Danny Baker, properly loyal to his accent in speech, none the less wants to have his elocution corrected when it comes to talking in printn

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