On opening your vowels…
The British side of my family hails from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the northeast of England, Walkergate to be precise, so I was interested to read this week that, along with Liverpool, it is one of the larger, urban northern English regions that has retained its regional accent in what researchers have described as a developing ‘pan-regional “general northern English” accent among middle-class northerners’.
As a middle-class northerner of the semi-rural Cumbrian type, I too recognise that I now speak in ‘generic northern’ rather than the Kendalian of my youth, and that is due to ‘University-isation’ and living north of Fife for the last 40 years. I do have an audio recording of the 11 year old ‘me’ speaking in my pre-adolescent high-pitched, native tones and, although I try not to, I am told that I sometimes revert to type when visiting my childhood home, albeit in a deeper register.
All of which brought to mind a memory as a first-year pupil at Kendal Grammar School in the early 1970s, of our ‘old-school’ English language teacher (Stan ‘Whacker’ Wilkins) asking each of us in class, sequentially, to pronounce a letter of the alphabet. I can’t remember the letter that I had to utter, but I do recall that it was Peter Stainton that started us of with ‘a’.
When we had finished, Whacker took great delight in chiding us for our poor speech; in particular those for whom it fell to say ‘a’, ‘j’, ‘k’ and ‘o’ were demonised. Their sin was in not closing the vowels or consonants with, to a Cumbrian, a vowel-like ending. I don’t mean open or closed in the truly linguistic sense, I mean simply in their pronunciation. So, for example, we didn’t close ‘o’ with a ‘w’ sound, we just truncated it and could have carried on making the same sound until our breath ran out.
Whacker’s resonse struck me as unfair at the time, but it did lead to a few post-dinner, lavatorial comments about not opening our vowels in class, all of which brings me to today’s limerick…
Amidst some cacophonous howls
A northerner with unstable bowels
Soundtracked a farce
As he spoke through his a***e
When told not to open his vowels
Postscript: The recently-disgraced academic and TV historian, David Starkey, attended both the same primary and secondary schools as me, albeit it many years before. His recollection of Kendal Grammar School from the 1950s, below, would contrast strongly with my recollections of it in the 1970s!
“Kendal Grammar in Cumbria was a school of ancient foundations, dating back to 1526. It is now Kirkbie Kendal School. Most of our schoolmasters when I was there tended to err on the side of severity. It was not a savage school, there were hardly any beatings (I remember only two), but the atmosphere was masculine and fairly aggressive.” See TES, 2007 for more.
The only reference that I could find of Starkey’s time at Castle Street primary school is here from the Westmorland Gazette and, believe it or not, yours truly is pictured in the artcle along with my brother, Sally Collett, Christopher Nelson, Nigel Duffin, Julie Park, Paul Bateman, Margaret Robbins (my bête noir) and others.