Wednesday, 13 June 2012


It's that time of year now when the students start to vanish from the campus, and their place is taken by conference and summer school attendees, and overseas students who need to attend "pre-sessional" courses in English language, so that they have at least a fighting chance of understanding the vernacular mutterings of lecturers from the more challenging parts of our dialect-diverse country.*

A "shibboleth" is a sort of tribal password, originally a word chosen because a speaker of a different language or dialect would find it impossible to pronounce (see Judges, 12: 5-6), but now generally used figuratively.  I have noted before that the accurate use of the present tense is a pretty effective shibboleth for native English speakers: even highly-competent foreign speakers of English find it hard to get right.

So, in the interests of international harmony, here is the Idiotic Hat Present Tense Test.  Just match the answers to the questions!

Section 1: Playing the Piano
1. What are you doing?
2. What do you do?
3. What do you play?
4. What are you playing?
5. Who plays the piano?
6. Who is playing the piano?
7. What are you doing this Friday?

a) The piano, innit
b) I play the piano
c) I am playing the piano
d) I do play the piano
e) Me play piano
f) Please be minding your own business

Section 2: Here's Looking At You
1. Are you looking at me?

a) I [do not] look at you
b) I am [not] looking at you
c) Me [no] look you
d) No, sorry!
e) A free country, innit?

(Answers on the reverse)

*  I have a very strong memory of a friend from Northern Ireland, lying on the grass one summer's day, remarking on all the "floffy clydes" passing by.  I always thought The Floffy Clydes would be a good name for a psychedelic-folk combo.


Leigh Perry said...

I'm hopeless at imitating accents, but it seems that a fundamental starting point is to grasp the appropriate vowel shifts, as in your "clydes". Or in "dray wait wane".


Mike C. said...


Accents are a great pleasure to me, and over the years I've got better at hearing and imitating them. It annoys me when actors can't get them right -- there was a Radio 4 drama last week set in Suffolk, and everyone had bog-standard "Mummerset" accents, a million miles from the very idiosyncratic Suffolk lilt.


Dave Leeke said...

All the kids down here in Suffolk sound like extras from "Eastenders".

But I guess in reality any time there is a requirement for a "rural" accent it's always going to be a default Mummerset one.

Mike C. said...


Disappointingly, I fear everyone in the south and east will eventually sound like that ("Estuary English"), though youngsters in London now mainly seem to use that annoyin' "Jafaican" accent, innit.

There is still a distinctive slightly piratical Southampton accent, and, interestingly, some urban accents (Liverpool, Manchester, etc.) have actually intensified in recent decades. the likes of the Beatles sound quite posh compared to your typical scallie these days.


Frank Harkin said...


Your friend from Northern Ireland was obviously from east of the River Bann - those of us west of the Bann would never use that pronunciation. We mangle our words in an entirely different fashion.

Mike C. said...


Yes, v. Protestant Belfast, I think, filtered through early 70s youth-speak.

It's amazing how precise local dialects can be -- my mother came from a tiny village in North Herts, and claimed to be able to tell quite clearly when someone came from various other tiny villages, visible on the horizon a few fields away.


Martyn Cornell said...

A few years ago I got into a car in West London with a young woman I had never met before, and knew within a sentence or two that she was from rural North Hertfordshire - Little Wymondley, it turned out. Couldn't have done that with someone from an area I didn't know extremely well, though.

Nrn Erlnd: when I was very small, our family doctor was from Ulster, and I was always puzzled as to why he called me "Morton".

Mike C. said...


Being "local" is one of those things that is vanishing from the world. Mum's village was Pirton, now almost entirely occupied by commuters, but when I bought her a copy of a book on the village's history ("A Foot on Three Daisies") it turned out she knew or was related to virtually everyone pictured or mentioned in the book.

Mind you, she couldn't wait to leave -- nothing is quite as oppressive as "traditional" village life.


David G. said...

re the 'floffy clydes' - it works the other way too - my friends and I in Belfast were bemused to learn that we lived in Northern Island (though it's an interesting political concept!) and often wonder where Australiar is ...

Mike C. said...

David G.,

Yes, very true -- the tendency of educated southern Britons to regard themselves as the norm from which everyone else deviates is very annoying.

My teachers used to mock my own accent, probably in a well-meaning way -- the phrase "woider isshoos" became attached to me in the 6th form (their way of getting back at me for endlessly derailing class discussions onto, ah, "wider issues").