Are you a blatherskite? Do you have murfles? Are you frightened of Old Harry? In the 1950s, the Survey of English Dialects sent fieldworkers across England to track regional variations in everyday words. Blatherskites were gossips, murfles were freckles and Old Harry was a bogeyman.
Now the survey is being repeated. The research will undoubtedly provide a fascinating update on the changing contours of the English language. Not only have regional dialects shifted, but immigration has introduced many new accents and dialects.
Their social role is different too. In the 50s, dialects were a marker not just of region but also of class. To be privileged was not to have a regional accent. The truly educated, as an 1891 Handbook for Teachers in Public Elementary School put it, were able to “speak so that no one may be able to tell in what county their childhood was passed”.
We can still recognise a “posh” accent when we hear one, but poshness today no longer commands the deference that it once did – witness the derision poured on Jacob Rees-Mogg. Some regional accents may remain the butt of humour – Brummie, for instance, or Somerset – but the ridicule that once greeted pronunciation that wasn’t Received has largely eroded. Indeed, many public figures now cultivate regional accents as an act of authenticity.
The character of social divides has changed enormously over the past 70 years. Today, the language that baffles the unwary is often less to do with region than with social tribe or with generational differences. Whether you know what a blatherskite is matters little today. But you’d better not be confused about “shitposting”.
• Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist