Standard English in the land of coal and iron

Griffiths, Samuel, editor of "The London Iron Trade Exchange" / No restrictions

The people of Birmingham – Brummies – call us ‘Yam Yams’ because, when we speak, it sounds to them like we are saying, “Yam, yam, yam,…”. Which is a bit rich, really, considering the way that Brummies speak. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones and the like.

I find that I am writing more about my own identity, recently, and that is a sign that the proponents of identity politics have succeeded in their agenda, at least to some extent. I am from The Black Country, a part of England, west of Birmingham, once described by Elihu Burritt, US Consul to that city, as, “Black by day and red by night,” a place that, “…cannot be matched for vast and varied production, by any other place of equal radius on the surface of the earth.”

But we don’t just have funny accents. The Black Country has its own dialect that is a source of both pride and shame, depending on your outlook. It probably arose from the country people, unaccustomed to standard English, who moved into a previously sparsely populated area during the industrial revolution. In one flourish, the heathy land that was so unpromising for farming, became the source of vast wealth due to its iron ore and coal reserves. And the Second Earl of Dudley, who owned much of the local industry and employed many of those country folk who had moved to the area to scratch out a living, became extremely rich, to the extent that he would entertain the Prince of Wales with lavish parties at his seat of Witley Court.

According to family folklore, my great grandfather worked for the Second Earl of Dudley in one of his mines. As a ten-year-old, his job was to haul coal up out of the mine and to the surface, a feat that was achieved by being harnessed to a truck that ran on rails, like a human traction engine. His mother, understandably, was not pleased with this arrangement and eventually managed to apprentice him to the pit blacksmith. He was later known for the skill of being able to make anything out of iron.

The remnants of these times are retained in the dialect, a dialect I heard everyday as a child in the schoolyard and classroom. And yet I never recall our teachers using it. I don’t remember them ‘correcting’ it or delivering long tirades against it. It was not even a question. Instead, they simply spoke and wrote in standard English all of the time and expected us to use it when speaking formally or writing.

There was no campaign, as far as I am aware, for the use of our dialect in schools. There was no call for lessons in the vernacular. It would never have occurred to us to ask for that. We all had television and we knew that the way we spoke was not standard English. We also knew that if we wanted to make our way in a world outside of The Black Country, as accountants or engineers or, dare I suggest, teachers, we would need to be fluent in standard English.

Some people – the snobs – would argue that this was because standard English is superior to The Black Country dialect, but this point was moot. It was about communication. If you want to tap into a culture wider than your local town, you need to understand and be understood.

When education professors use impeccable standard English to suggest that the imposition of standard English on students in schools is oppressive or perhaps even racist, I am minded to remember what standard English has done for these professors. Lecturing in a university may be more precarious in 2020 than at any time in recent history, but I wonder how many would trade such a position for stacking shelves or filleting chicken carcasses or going down a pit or out on a trawler.

I guess we don’t always recognise our own privilege and this can lead us into making saft arguments.


5 thoughts on “Standard English in the land of coal and iron

  1. I was born and brought not forty odd miles from Dudley and, as a boy, I remember every evening the sky turning red from when they opened the furnace doors at Shelton Bar. It really was a thing in those days, eh? Shelton Bar was the local steelworks and, along with the pits and most of the potbanks, it is long gone.
    My great-grandmother, like your grandfather, also worked in the pit pulling up the coal trucks. Whatever doesn’t kill you must make you stronger because she was ninety-five when she died,
    Her son, my granddad spoke perfect pottery dialect and passed a lot of it on to me. Mind you, he was bi-dialectal and could switch into Standard English at the drop of a hat. It was the same with us kids. In the schoolyard, we spoke the local dialect and with a local accent. The moment we stepped over the threshold of the classroom, we switched to SE. Everyone knew that if you wanted to go to grammar school or to university, you needed to have a decent command of the Standard English dialect.

    • Stan Blakey says:

      What a raft of saft and sometimes daft arguments we saw!

      – complaints that the word “verbally” means something other than spoken in the context of using grammar.
      I am trying to think of a common usage of verbal or verbally that doesn’t mean exactly spoken as opposed to written. As in a verbal contract or “He verbally agreed” or “he had trouble expressing himself verbally”.

      – complaints that it would be difficult for teachers to find a definition of Standard English.

      – complaints that we should look at all the work done by the critic before dismissing them as if someone complaining about how to teach language doesn’t have to make their case clearly.

      I do think it is worth having a good reference for Standard English. I offer

      A great modern approach that covers all the fun that is our language including such items “It’s me”. It will keep you from getting tripped up by saft arguers that occasionally have a valid point (not that we have seen that this week.)

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