When I was little, I had a friend whose mum was forever correcting the way we spoke. There was nothing particularly unusual about our use of language – we had the pretty generic Northern accent of the town we lived in, neither Liverpool nor Manchester and neither Wigan nor Warrington, but something in between – but as far as my friend’s mum was concerned, that wasn’t good enough. She’d grown up in Liverpool, and had been trying to lose her accent ever since. She hadn’t really managed it, but it had given her a hypersensitivity to speech, a sense of being perpetually on the alert for anything that was too regionally marked. Any vowel that was a bit too flat or too long, any hint of a glottal stop or dialect word, and she’d pounce. She taught at the primary school I went to, and that seemed to give her licence to monitor my speech, as well as that of her daughter. She probably thought she was doing me a favour, but all it did was to make me wary: afraid of opening my mouth in case I was jumped on, newly self-conscious about part of me that had never been a problem before.
School language policies didn’t exist back then, but if they had been around, I’d probably have been on the wrong side of them. At university, the only state-educated Northerner in a tutorial group of RP-speakers, I was asked to demonstrate Northern vowel sounds by a linguistics tutor who generally treated me as if I’d just escaped from a zoo. So it’s not really surprising that as an A level English Language teacher, regional variation – and, in particular, the ways in which schools try to police their students’ use of language – is one of my favourite topics. Over the last few years, a stream of schools have attempted to eliminate regional speech, arguing that they are giving their students the best chance possible of succeeding in the wider world. From Colley Lane Primary School in Halesowen and Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough to Ark All Saints Academy in Camberwell, pupils have been told not to use slang, dialect forms and regional pronunciations such as ‘woz’ instead of ‘was’ and ‘gonna’ instead of ‘going to’. Ofsted is all het up about regional speech too, as if it’s the only thing we’ve got to worry about in schools at the moment. An absolute must-read on this topic is Ian Cushing and Julia Snell’s fantastic essay ‘The (white) ears of Ofsted: a raciolinguistic perspective on the listening practices of the schools inspectorate’, which examines how Ofsted upholds the language of the white bourgeoisie, its judgements about non-standard language translating into ‘systems of sonic surveillance in which the nonstandardised language practices of students and teachers are heard as impoverished, deficient, and unsuitable for school.’ It’s a vital text for anyone concerned with diversity and social justice in schools: if your school is developing any kind of language policy, then you need to wave this article in the faces of whoever is responsible for drawing up the policy, and make sure they are absolutely aware of the implications of certain kinds of beliefs about language.
All of this is a very roundabout way of introducing a poem I have loved for years, Tony Harrison’s ‘Them & [uz]’. ‘Them & [uz]’ takes the form of a pair of caudate sonnets, drawing on an incident from the poet’s adolescence. Harrison, a working-class boy who found himself at the distinctly middle-class Leeds Grammar School, was pulled up for his regional speech in the middle of a lesson on ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:
4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’
The first of the poems is dominated by the voice of the teacher, asserting his superiority in the plummy accent of the elite: ‘We say [Λs] not [uz], T.W.!’ That shut my trap.’ There are images of awkwardness and inarticulacy, references to the ‘stutterer Demosthenes’ with his ‘gob full of pebbles’ and the narrator’s sense of his mouth being ‘all stuffed with glottals, great lumps to hawk up and spit out’. The use of Greek lettering and phonemic symbols adds to the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier you have to break through, a code that needs to be followed in order to make sense.
The second poem, however, is the perfect riposte to the power of RP. There’s a defiance that runs all the way through, from the opening lines – ‘So right, yer buggers, then! We’ll occupy / Your lousy leasehold Poetry’ – to the narrator’s determination to harness the power of his own regional speech. He tells us that he
dropped the initials I’d been harried as
and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],
ended sentences with by, with, from,
and spoke the language that I spoke at home.
Gone are the Northern stereotypes, the whippets and flat caps. Instead, there’s a reminder that regional speech is about identity, about loyalty. It’s a connection to where you’re from and the people to whom you’re most closely related. ‘[uz] can be loving as well as funny.’
The most brilliant thing about ‘Them & [uz]’, of course, is its take on the sonnet form. Both of its component poems are similar enough to a sonnet to have that sonnet feel. They have a regular rhyming pattern. The first is in rhyming couplets, and the second begins that way as well, though its final four lines have an alternating rhyme, a little twist at the end. (There’s something clever, though: Harrison’s rhyming of ‘from’ and ‘home’ only works as a full rhyme in certain Northern accents, where ‘home’ sounds more like ‘wom’. My dad, descended from generations of Lancashire miners, would, in full dialect mode, have pronounced ‘at home’ as ‘a’wom’.) But they don’t follow any of the typical sonnet patterns: they’re not Shakespearean, or Petrarchan, or Spenserian, or anything else other than themselves. There’s a fair amount of iambic pentameter in there, but not enough to make it completely regular. And, of course, the poems have sixteen lines each, not fourteen. It’s as if Harrison is sticking two fingers up to literary convention: Look. I know all about sonnets, all those rules and the things you’re supposed to do. But I’m not going to do what you tell me to do. I’m doing things my way. It’s a gorgeous, bolshy retort to all the language police out there, and I bloody love it.