Midlands Regional Dialects

Talk by Brendan Hawthorne
On Tuesday 14
th February 2017

The Vice-Chairman, Graham Cooper, opened the evening, with 5 apologies for absence. He then introduced the speaker, Brendan Hawthorne, author of several books on dialect, specialising in his own, that of the Black Country, and ‘poet laureate’ of Wednesbury. He started writing in 2000, poems in Black Country dialect with its many distinctive words and speech rhythms. At this time he lived in Tipton, “the smoky bit of the Black Country”, later moving to Wednesbury “out of love”. Although so near, Wednesbury is socially so far removed from Tipton that his future father-in-law at first refused to have him in the house!

His school career was badly affected by being left-handed; he was forced to use his right hand. He left school with 2 GCE O levels and a love of English Literature. However, he found that he could read electrical diagrams, so worked in a factory for 18 years. This experience of local dialect and humour was of the first importance, his love of Black Country speech inspiring his poetry. He conveyed his strong belief in the importance of inherited language, which shapes our identity and is an essential part of our culture. He described his grandfather in the dialect, which is difficult to understand, and interpreted it. He analysed some words that showed Germanic origin, dating back to the Saxon invasions. Black Country expressions are also shaped by industry

Next he related how he was lucky enough to fall easily into publishing. His poems in a small magazine were spotted by a publisher who asked him to write some poems for charity. These were so popular that the publisher asked for more, and from there his writing career took off. He has written some booklets for the Bradwell local interest series. They asked him to do some on Warwickshire, which, as a different area, he had to research. This brought home to him how much language differs even in nearby regions, and how words and expressions travel with working people from one area to another.

His publisher asked him to compile, for visiting Americans, some phrases in Shakesperean language, which was popular. He realised that many folk words, sayings and craft terms that Shakespeare used came in particular from hawking, e.g. ‘old codger’ and ‘under my thumb’.

Brendan did some very interesting research into the Vernon manuscript, a medieval work on vellum in the Bodleian library, written in Mercian dialect. The speech patterns and dialect were familiar to him and the historian Michael Wood was impressed by his reading, which brought the moral tales to life. He recited some of his poems, explaining dialect words, many of which come down in families, as well as in crafts and industries.

After the interval, he recited more poems and reminisced about experiences, such as sitting on Anthony Gormley’s vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, making short speeches to a mixed crowd, some drunken and vociferous! A very genial, outgoing personality, he said things tended to happen to him; e.g. the time he was waiting for his wife outside Selfridges in Birmingham, and was addressed by an unknown lady who said he looked like someone who had led an interesting life! He was mystified and questioned her; she turned out to be from ‘Smooth Radio’ and before he knew where he was, he found himself being interviewed, in bright orange make-up, for an appearance in Manchester. He was chosen to do an advertisement for Smooth Radio, using his gift for humour.

His poems covered a wide variety of topics; love poetry, the collection of debris in space, the chaos that ensued after trying to enter the house at night, without waking his wife, after a night down the pub, childhood in the seventies, Black Country character studies, full of humour. Brendan finished with interesting answers to questions about the changes in dialect in recent times, and the importance of recording speech from the older generations.

Graham Cooper thanked the speaker for his excellent talk on a fascinating subject, agreeing that the enjoyment of language was of great importance, along with understanding of its origins and development.

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