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Sounds familiar: A teacher tells her pupils how (not) to speak, again

Rachel Wicaksono

Before we get to what the teacher told her pupils, here is some humorous ‘advice’ from a Yorkshire father to his child. The advice covers when (and when not) to speak, as well as some general tips about how to live life.

My ord father he used ti say ti me,‘Here’s a bit o’ summat that Ah’ll ’a ti tell ti thee, Thoo knows nowt, tha’s nobbut very dense, Thi ’eead is full o’ summat but it isn’t full o’ sense. Ah’s gan ti give thee a bit o’ good advice, No need ti tak offence becos it’s nowt but common sense. Thoo mun ’ear all and thoo mun know nowt, And thoo mun see all and thoo mun say nowt, And thoo mun tak all an’ thoo mun gi’ nowt, And thoo mun sup all and thoo mun pay nowt, An’ if ivver thoo does anythin’ fer nothin’ allus do it for thissen'.

You can hear these words sung by Norman Creaser (born in 1919 at Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire) on The Yorkshire Garland Group website, along with other traditional Yorkshire folk songs.

The ‘father’s advice’ plays on a stereotype of Yorkshire people, and perhaps ‘northerners’ in general, as ungenerous, shrewd and silent (‘say nowt’).

‘Nowt’, meaning ‘nothing’ and spelled as ‘nought’, is used as a marker of northern Englishness in the novel Saville by David Storey, winner of the 1976 Booker prize for fiction.

The girls'll do nought but work in a mill, get married and have children.

The Vespasian PsalterBut ‘nowt’ hasn’t always been associated with a specific regional identity; here it is, spelled as 'nowiht', in the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript produced in southern England in the 8th Century,

Nowiht forðon gedegled þæt ne se unwrigen.

Translation: Nothing will be concealed that will not be unconcealed.

And here it is again, spelled as 'nought', in 1484, used by the printer William Caxton,

I promysed to the nought at al.

Translation: I didn't promise you anything.

So, back to the teacher, and her advice to her pupils on how to speak. This time, the advice comes from slightly further north in the county of North Yorkshire, from the Head of a Primary School in Middlesborough, reported in the online version of the local paper, the Evening Gazette, on the 5th February 2013. The advice was contained in a letter to parents asking them to discourage their children from using eleven examples of ‘incorrect’ pronunciation and grammar at home, including ’nowt’.

(If you’d like to hear an example of a person from Middlesborough talking, try the British Library’s Sounds Familiar archive).

The British Library: Sounds FamiliarThe Middlesborough teacher, as reported by the Evening Gazette, says,

We would like to equip our children to go into the world of work and not be disadvantaged. We need the children to know there is a difference between dialect, accent and standard English.

These two ideas, the connection between ‘standard English’ and employability, and the difference between ‘standard English’ and dialect, are typical of teachers’ advice to pupils on how they should talk. Snell (2012) describes cases of dialect prejudice in education going back to the 1960s. She also talks about how linguists have responded to this prejudice, including William Labov’s famous defence of African-American English, ‘The Logic of Nonstandard English’, published in 1969. Snell’s data is from a Middlesborough school playground, and her analysis demonstrates the following three points:

  • As argued by linguists for many decades, dialects evolve to meet the communicative needs of their speakers and are as complex and systematically organized as any other variety, including those that are considered ‘standard’. ‘Standard English’ is a dialect, albeit a socially prestigious one;
  • Also, speakers have a linguistic repertoire that includes elements of different varieties of a language, and indeed different languages. Bits of TV scripts, advertising jingles, songs, traditional sayings (like the Yorkshire father’s advice, for example) are woven into talk in ways that meet their communicative (including their identity-signalling) needs. The British Library Sounds Familiar archive mentioned above, while an excellent resource, shouldn’t be understood as mapping uses of English to individuals or even to regions. Each of the individuals recorded in the archive have a range of ways of talking, depending on their situation, as have people in Middlesborough;
  • And most challengingly, the borders between what we think of as ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ language or between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are porous, disputed and shifting.

We briefly discuss the myths that some people don’t use their language properly (dead end number 4 - Snell’s first and second point) and that languages exist independently of their users (dead end number 10 – Snell’s third point) in chapter 1 of Mapping Applied Linguistics.

Our dead end number 10, how we conceptualise ‘language(s)’, is the subject of a recent UK Linguistic Ethnography Forum e-seminar on Superdiversity, endangered languages and education. It’s also the topic of an article in Applied Linguistics by my colleague, Chris Hall.

The Transporter Bridge: Middlesborough So, back to the Middlesborough teacher. Unfortunately, one cause of the linguistic discrimination she fears her pupils will face in the workplace, is her own letter to their parents. By perpetuating ‘dead end’ thinking about language, speakers and situations, she is contributing to what she is right to identify as a problem: linguistic insecurity and conflicts of identity that may damage children’s future career aspirations and lives more generally. The problem is not the way children in Middlesborough talk, it is the discrimination that they face, and better advice to the parents would not be to ’correct’ their children’s language, but to campaign for a new head teacher.

What about the teachers themselves? The Middlesborough teacher correctly points out that the UK National Curriculum requires children to be taught to use ‘standard English’. This is challenge, for the three reasons that Snell mentions in her article, and also because of the potential threat to pupil identity and aspiration that she identifies.

In a book aimed at teachers involved in language education, Eric Hawkins (who in 1965 became the first director of the language teaching centre at the University of York), identifies a kind of teaching that is ideally suited to this challenging situation, 

We are seeking to light fires of curiosity about the central human characteristic of language which will blaze throughout our pupils' lives. While combating linguistic complacency, we are seeking to arm our pupils against fear of the unknown, which breeds prejudice and antagonism. Above all we want to make our pupils’ contacts with language, both their own and that of their neighbours, richer, more interesting, simply more fun. (Hawkins, 1984)

I think that Hawkins' advice is a bit like the Yorkshire father’s ‘hear all’ and ‘see all’. ‘Say nowt’, on the other hand, is more like the Middlesborough teacher, and although her advice may sound familiar, it certainly is not educational.


Hall, C. J. (2013). Cognitive contributions to plurilithic views of English and other languages. Applied Linguistics, 34: 211-231. 

Hall, C. J., Smith, P. H. and Wicaksono, R. (2011). Mapping applied linguistics: a guide for students and practitioners. London, Routledge.

Hawkins, E. (1984). Awareness of language: An introduction. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Labov, W. (1969). The logic of non-standard English. Georgetown Monograph on Languages and Linguistics, 22: 1-44.

Snell, J. (2012). Dialect, interaction and class positioning at school: From deficit to difference to repertoire. Online at: [Accessed May 29, 2013].

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Reader Comments (2)

In the sociolinguistic context of the present, I can understand two points of view. The one of the teacher who tells students "how not to talk" as he/she wants to prepare them in a practical and realistic way; we live in a society of linguistic prejudice where dialects/varieties/accents have privileges or are stigmatised. From this point of view, it can be understood that students should be prepared to face all these barriers to avoid them from being limited within, for instance, the labour market.
On the other hand, it is true that the reign of "standardization" and certain privileged/popular dialects/varieties/accents should be fought against. I cannot recount the times I have heard "you have a Brummie accent" or "the Brummie accent is one of the most unfavourable ones in the UK, while Geordie is the most popular one". I mean no offence by this, as my family is from Birmingham and I recall these examples from what I have heard. The point is that these prejudices seem rather subjective, and are greatly influenced by language standards. Therefore, the linguistic system we live in right now, which many speakers give for granted and "normal", is nothing but the product of opinion, and not actually linguistic evidence that one accent/dialect/variety is superior to another. As mentioned in the article above, Snell's Dead End 4 gives a good point about this issue.
Having said this, "standardization" seems like a double edged tool. While making it easier for second language learners to acquire a language that has many dialects/varieties/accents, such as the case of English, natives pay a high sociolinguistic price for it, as it has been since the first Standard English variety took form in the shape of Received Pronunciation.

As an amateur linguist, I am sorry for any imprecisions/mistakes in this comment.

September 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterDaniel Bonfill
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