Not just dwingey chimbles: dialects are alive and kicking

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    A British Library collection of regional words and phrases shows that language is still evolving.

    Dialect shows how English is a living language. Credit: Stephen Finn/Alamy Stock Photo

    If you’re shilpit, you’ll be able to shuck on your dead ronking kecks as far as your oxters. It could be war nor worse to be idle as Ludlum’s dog, but playing acky 1-2-3 would have you jiffling in your gansey.

    No, this isn’t an excerpt from an unseen fragment of A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex and his Droogs commit some act of unmentionable mayhem. Neither is it a lyric exhumed from that memorable yet entirely fictional folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo (played by the late Kenneth Williams in the 1960s BBC radio series Round the Horne).

    Those first two sentences contain words still used somewhere in England today, and show that dialect is very much alive and yet to be killed off by globalization. The British Library in London is gamely trying to keep track of all this in its Evolving English WordBank, a project to record English dialects and slang from around the world (see go.nature.com/2n4aamf).

    That the word ‘English’ is preceded in the name of the library project by the word ‘evolving’ is no empty alliterative affectation. Dialects are regional variants of language, and language is a protean thing whose evolution follows the same principles as those for genes and species in nature. Dialects, if left alone for long enough, can evolve into languages that continue to change. Middle Scots, for example, which evolved into the Scots immortalized by the poet Robert Burns, is thought by some to stem from Northumbrian, a variety of Old English, but is less influenced by French than its southern cousins are. And it probably has more borrowings from Norse.

    Before the invention of printing, English was less a language than a collection of regional dialects loosely flung together like kittens in a sack. A reader of modern English can just about get the gist of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century The Canterbury Tales without a dictionary. The same reader, however, would find Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written at around the same time somewhere in the northwest of England, almost unintelligible.

    For in the same way that dialects are languages in the making, so, too, do languages and dialects die out. We understand Chaucer because our own strain of English evolved from it. The English of Gawain, however, became extinct. Except, perhaps, for a bare few dwingey chimbles sniggled from the march of progress.

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    Not just dwingey chimbles: dialects are alive and kicking. Nature 543, 288 (2017) doi:10.1038/543288a

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