In a rare piece of happy news to distract us momentarily from all the chaos, those lovely linguists at the Oxford English Dictionary have announced an abundance of new words all taken from regional dialects.
The new entries include the Indian-English phrase “kiss my chuddies”; the delicious word “jibbons”, which is what spring onions are called in Wales; and the Scottish words “sitooterie”, which is (obviously) a place to sit out, and “bidie-in” (“a person who lives with his or her partner in a non-marital relationship”), which surely should have been in the dictionary ages ago, since the author Val McDermid, a fine connoisseur of the English language, uses it in her Twitter bio.
That the wise custodians of the English language are actively embracing regional variation is pleasing for many reasons. A recent report revealed “accent softening” lessons are becoming big business in the UK, especially since the Brexit referendum. Regional accents really are “a bar to social mobility”, according to experts at the University of Manchester, who have found: “We can still sound regional in the workplace, but not too regional.” But I’m with the linguists: now, if ever, we should come together with our fellow Brits, celebrate our diversity and make an extra effort to understand each other. Even people who say “scone” instead of “scone”. Perhaps that would have avoided the sort of consternation that was caused recently when certain London-based commentators realised that Jess Phillips MP wasn’t necessarily dragged up in a barn just because she speaks with a West Midlands accent. So, people in Birmingham can have office jobs, too? Well – as they say in Yorkshire – I’ll go to t’foot of our stairs.
In middle-class offices around London last month, all eyes were on the New York Times’s dialect quiz with which an American newspaper delighted British and Irish readers by reminding us that we’ll always have our cute accents, no matter what else might be jiggered. After reading it, half the country vowed to use the magnificent word “nithered” (cold) more often; scousers wondered why nobody else has a special word for “scally”; northerners tried to figure out what’s special about the word “put” that makes southerners pronounce it properly (despite saying “but”, “cut”, nut”, etc, all wrong); and nobody managed to resolve whether the evening meal is called dinner or tea. (Tea. It’s tea.) We can learn a lot about people from the things they say and how they say them. Only Scotland, for example, would have so many unique ways of describing folk with “an exaggerated sense of [their] own importance”. (The OED mentions “bigsie”, and “fantoosh”, meaning showy or flashy.)
It feels reassuring to learn that, linguistically at least, Britain is embracing difference and change. Periodically, lovers of variation in the English language fret that regional idiosyncrasies are being ironed out by some sort of ugly, modern, homogenous tone. In the 1990s, linguists talked about “upspeak”, or “high rising terminals”, which made young people talk with an upward inflection at the end of sentences as though they were constantly asking questions. One theory was that they’d got it from watching Neighbours, and that it was all the fault of new towns where nobody had any proper English roots. Some observers thought that upspeak sounded ridiculous and infantile, until Tony Blair and George Osborne came along with their fake glottal stops, and then young people asking questions suddenly didn’t seem so silly any more.
My own voice comes from Yorkshire, where children getting in the way of adults were told, “Eee, tha’s like ’oss muck – allus in t’road”; the Wirral, which scousers think is dead posh; Plymouth, whose locals are called janners; and Derby, where I learned to appreciate a flat pint of Bass in a jug please, duck. I’m a linguistic shapeshifter, a fan of a neat phrase and an in-joke, and a proud citizen of all over t’shop.
The OED promises to continue its search for regional terms, showcasing all the diverse glory of British English, as well as reminding us of everything we have in common – our wit, our ingenuity, our endless enthusiasm for a bum metaphor. I for one am all in favour of upspeak, variety, linguistic inventiveness and chuddies. And maybe, if the expert team at the OED keeps investigating, one day they might even figure out what Jacob Rees-Mogg is on about.
• Katy Guest is a writer and editor, and a commissioning editor for the publisher Unbound