The news that a primary school headteacher sent a letter home to parents telling them when to correct their children’s speech caused some consternation today.
Carol Walker, the head of Middlesbrough's Sacred Heart Primary, advised parents to correct phrases like “I dunno” to “I don’t know” and “yous” to “you” lest their children be disadvantaged in job interviews.
Was this the social engineering of a middle-class teacher (albeit one from Stockton-on-Tees) trying to destroy centuries of local dialectal tradition? Or a completely justified attempt to improve her children’s grammar? Sadly, for any defensive Teesiders, most of Walker’s points were valid - what teacher worth their salt wouldn't correct “I done that” to “I have done that”?
But several of Mrs Walker’s suggestions wade into the murky, elastic territory of proper word pronunciation, too. Who’s to say why a clipped received pronunciation of a word is of any more worth than a Middlesbrough eight-year-old’s learned interpretation?
John Prescott, the former deputy PM who has lived in South Yorkshire, Cheshire and Hull (he was born in Wales) is sceptical. “I quite understand why she feels she wants to say that but it’s the justification - namely, that you won’t get a job if you talk with a northern accent - that’s curious,” he says.
“I love accents and people should be proud of them. I remember when I moved from Rotherham to Chester and went to order the Daily Herald and they couldn’t understand a word I was saying.”
Speaking proper may help you get ahead in the world but there’s a certain charm to dialect misuses that - so long as people learn to differentiate when writing - you can’t help but love. For instance one of Walker’s banned phrases is the charming northern “gizit ‘ere” for “give it to me” (my school playground preferred “gimme it”). The school also advises correcting “werk” and “shert” to “work” and “shirt” and “letta” to “letter”, which are simply the kids’ accents. Ridiculous. Leave them be. If people aren't being employed on the basis of having an accent then it’s probably the company’s fault and not the bairns’.
Us northerners get a lot of this and - frankly - a rebellion is due, it’s time to start correcting southerners. If I had a pound for every time someone stared at me blankly for saying “bath” with a hard “a” rather than the weirdo southern pronunciation “barth”, I’d have enough to fill a barthtub.
And, despite a natural dulling of my own Mancunian/Lancastrian tones, thank to a decade of living darn sarf, I’m still regularly corrected on my own pronunciations by southern colleagues on certain words (for the record, guys, it’s ‘pass’ like ‘ass’ not ‘parse’ like ‘arse’ and the ‘oo’ in ‘room’ would suggest that it’s room and not ‘rum’, so there).
But do strong accents make us sound dumb? Research from Bath Spa University in 2008 suggested not and that the Yorkshire twang was more intelligent sounding than even received pronunciation, so any early age tinkering might have the opposite effect to the one desired. So hey, teachers, leave those kids alone!
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