John Morrish: All right, my lover? No it certainly is not, my cocker

Bristol's dialect is ripe, but the council wants formality and uniformity
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The Independent Online

Formality is in and friendliness is out in Bristol. The new Liberal Democrat leader of the city council, Barbara Janke, has issued an edict. All reception and security staff must address visitors to the council as Sir or Madam. Love, dear, or mate are out.

Liberal? Democratic? Not very: the way we speak to other people is our business. As one unnamed council worker put it, "It's our vocabulary." But that isn't the way managers see it. To them, how customers are addressed is part of successful branding. They want formality, respect, distance, and uniformity.

Two years ago, Tesco annoyed people all over the country by banning all those forms of address: "pet" in Geordieland, "duck" in the East Midlands, "hen" in Glasgow and so on. It introduced a new "code of etiquette" after complaints that staff were getting "too familiar". Which meant "Sir" and "Madam" again.

But there's something different about the Bristol case. People may not like it, but they generally understand when their national or multinational employer lays down the law about proper form. But this was Bristol City Council, representing Bristolians, and here it was telling Bristolians how they should speak to one another. And that's one thing Bristolians are a little defensive about.

The truth is, if Ms Janke thinks that her receptionists have been calling people "love", she hasn't been listening carefully. Bristolian is a ripe, though fading, dialect, and the way Bristolians address strangers is to call them "my lover". It implies no intimacy at all. It doesn't matter whether you're a six-year-old boy clutching your mother's hand or professor of experimental physics at the University of Bristol, the little old lady in the cake shop will always ask you "All right, my lover?" before taking your order. (For men, an alternative, but much less respectful term is "My cocker". And if you are family, or a particularly close friend, you might hear "My babby".)

There's more to Bristolian than that, of course. There's the heavy "r" in words like "dark", "park", and "lark". There's the infamous Bristol "l", added to most words ending in a vowel ("Are you from around this areal?"), giving rise to the joke about the Bristol man with three daughters, "Idle", "Eval" and "Normal". Bristolian has its own words, too: "scrage", meaning to scrape one's skin, "spreathe", meaning to chap, and "coopie", to squat. There's also a grammar: "Cust?" meaning "Could you?", "Ust?" meaning "Have you?" and "Casn't?", meaning "Can't you?". Adge Cutler used to tell the story of a man who couldn't turn his bus round: "Thee's Got'n Where Thee Cassn't Back'n Hassn't?"

The problem with the Bristol dialect, though, is that even lifelong speakers find it faintly embarrassing. This is an engineering and trading city whose citizens built Concorde. But to anyone else, Bristolians sound as if they should be sucking a straw on top of a five-bar gate. While other accents are common in broadcasting and call centres, West Country - and Bristol in particular - is shunned for its regrettable tendency to make the speaker seem like a rustic.

Upon these sensitivities, Ms Janke has planted her elegant footwear. Bristolian is dying out. Tim Shortis, in a study of the dialect at Bristol University, gives the Bristol "l" only 20 or 30 years. Ms Janke won't have noticed. Her council ward is Clifton, the new Bristol, populated by wealthy incomers, attracted to scenery and lifestyle.

Local sensitivities aside, how we address one another is a genuine problem. While Americans happily use Sir and Ma'am (until recently, even to their parents), we shrink from saying them unless we happen to be behind a counter.

So how do foreigners cope? Here's a suggestion from Olga Mindrul of Moscow University: "Never use gentlemen, lady, sir, madam, Mr, Mrs, Miss, or Ms," she says. "Use 'Excuse me'."