Thursday, November 19, 2009

The real Henry Higgins

Reading this obituary took me back thirty odd years to a lecture theatre in a brutalist concrete building in Leeds. The first year English students were being lectured about accent and dialect by the great Stanley Ellis. He asked one of our number, picked at random, to say a few words. He'd chosen Bob McNally, a lad whose accent to the rest of us was just "Geordie". Stanley had other ideas. After listening for  no more than a few seconds, he identified the precise area within Newcastle where Bob came from, and also suggested that he'd spent some time in his adolescence away from Geordie land, naming, I think, an area in Yorkshire. An astonished Bob confirmed this was the case. We applauded.
Stanley Ellis was a delightful, down to earth man with a passion for the linguistic diversity of this country. Leeds had become a major centre for the study of accent and dialect, thanks to Harold Orton's  Survey of English Dialects, to which Ellis contributed. The arrival of this man, in a caravan, with an unwieldy primitive tape-recorder, must have been startling for the rural communities he visited- especially when he asked the questions. The researchers wanted to avoid planting words in the minds of the subjects, so, if they wanted to elicit the local word for a cowshed, say, they would ask something like "What do you call the building where you keep the animals that go moo?" One can imagine how this might have gone down with the tough farming types who were the typical respondents.
Stanley's party piece could be useful, as the obituary reports:

He came to national prominence when he declared that a tape released by the police in June 1979, purporting to be the voice of the Yorkshire Ripper – then suspected of the murder of 10 women – was by a hoaxer, someone who hailed from Castletown, a small village on the edge of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear – many miles from the scenes of crime. The police disregarded his warning, a decision that may have put their investigation on the wrong track for more than 18 months.

Ellis was proved to have been right in 2005, when the hoaxer was identified and shown to have lived all his life within walking distance of the area Ellis had pinpointed.

Another former student wrote to the Guardian, with a similar story to mine - Stanley must have delighted and entertained thousands of students with his ability, born, of course, of intense study.


Madame DeFarge said...

An SF writer (this factoid is of no real purpose) once guessed exactly where I was from and where I had lived. Had he ever met any of my friends, I would have suspected him of fakery. I was rather unnerved. I do love hearing different accents and would love to pinpoint them. As it is, I can just mimic them rather well. A poor substitute.

Rob Spence said...

Mimicry has its uses. I remember several detective stories where it was crucial.
Any possibility your SF writer was actually a superior alien from a neighbouring galaxy?

Mary said...

hmm - you were at Leeds Uni in 79? me too - but in the Phsyics department.

Rob Spence said...

No, Mary - thirty *odd* years. I graduated in 76. I remember the Physics/Admin spine, and those little coffee bars.

Minnie said...

Fascinating post; now avid to learn more. Lucky you, to have studied with him.
Have always been interested in/appreciative of accents, but saddened by growing evidence of 'flattening out' or standardisation (you'd only hear people of/over a certain age in Bristol saying 'blige!', or in Nice using the word 'malheur' as a form of punctuation).