The Long and the Short of It

Really clever linguists can draw maps. They join points on a map which separate the way language is used.

One such line runs through Warwickshire not far from Stratford upon Avon. Below the line most people will use a long ‘a’ sound and above it most will prefer a shorter vowel sound.

In modern times though populations are more fluid, they move around. This explains why folk sometimes have difficulty in placing me. My mom was a twin born a few miles north of the line. Her twin married and moved about 18 miles further south. All their adult lives my mom visited her sister about once a fortnight, and usually I accompanied her. This is why I sometimes have a ‘bath’ in the ‘barth’ and on other occasions I will have a ‘barth’ in the ‘bath’ or even a ‘bath’ in the ‘bath’ or a ‘barth’ in the ’barth’.

The differences are also social. I once asked a very grand lady the way to Bathwick Hill in Somerset. ‘I suppose you mean Barthwick Hill’ she responded, to which I answered, ‘That’s right, Bathwick Hill’, which after all is the way it is written.

Don’t let such things worry you though. She understood exactly what I meant and so would any other native English speaker. It is important though to at least aim at the right general pronunciation, if you want to be clearly understood. There are programmes on the web where you can speak into a mike and match your pronunciation against a native speaker - do you come out as a beginner, competent or a native?

Otherwise just listen very carefully – try the BBC World Service programmes for a start. The people on the radio will be speaking at a normal speed, and these days in a variety of accents. You are more likely to find this helpful, as well as interesting, rather than listening repeatedly to language school tapes or CDs, these are good at the beginning, but they can end up being a little boring, repetitive and limited in what they cover, usually with the emphasis on holiday makers and booking rooms or ordering expensive meals. They never seem to go into cheap cafes, the kind most of us can afford, and they never seem to cover such things as getting on a bus, only trains and taxis. British Television is even better than radio if you can get it, as you see the words spoken in context and so it is much easier to work out what is being said.

Language learning should be fun rather than a chore. Try listening to some old comedy shows. They are always being repeated – the Navy Lark or Hancock’s Half Hour. Get a magazine or newspaper in English, not necessarily one in the simple English meant for learners. Treat it as a puzzle perhaps as you read an article. The first time through you may only get the general gist of it, so try reading it two or three times, perhaps making a note of any difficult words or new ways of saying things. Even advertisements can be helpful.

And remember, English is not fixed, it is a growing and changing language. Last night I watched an advertisement for mascara which claimed that it would ‘millionise’ eye lashes . In other words make it seem that there were many more than there really were. One person’s reaction was ‘There’s no such word’, but the truth is that there is now. If people are using it in an English sentence then it is a word that can be used in English.

After all, William Shakespeare added hundreds of words to the English language, some would claim the number runs into thousands. One such word is said to be ‘puppy’ , perhaps coming from the Italian ‘puppa’ a doll, I suppose people do play with puppies.  As Shakespeare came from so near that linguistic line on the map I would quite like to hear him say ‘Bath’ or perhaps ‘Barth’, but people didn’t bathe much in those days so perhaps it is a word he rarely used.