February 12, 2013, by Rosamund Aubrey

A dwile by any other name …..

To celebrate David Attenborough’s 60 years as a broadcaster, the BBC has made his films from the 1960s available on iPlayer. The one on Bali is fascinating, but the two about Australia and particular Aboriginal culture and way of life, are a world away from how we portray First People now. The other thing you notice immediately is his accent – definitely Received Pronunciation or BBC English (posh). I don’t know when this changed, but when you listen to him now, he’s got an educated accent and an easily recognizable voice, but his accent, is, well, normal. Not like Joan Bakewell who tried hard to lose her Lancashire accent and still sounds posh, too posh for some. The accents of educated people recorded in the 1950s are equally posh and they sound terribly formal.

Received pronunciation (RP) is much easier to understand for non native speakers, but the sheer diversity of accents and the informal nature of broadcasting styles reflects changes in society, and is no bad thing. The major change wrought by literacy, radio, television, film and the web is not so much an homogenisation of accents as a loss of regional and dialect words – which were falling from everyday language even in 17th century in England. You can have a mardle, but it’s no good getting all of a muckwash about it, societies change and languages evolve, but like dialects, languages also die.

There are six or seven thousand languages and every week or two one small language dies. It dies because it has become irrelevant, only a few people speak it, these things happen. Ninety five percent of languages have less than 1 million speakers, while Mandarin Chinese has some 874 million native speakers and English 341 million; Papua New Guinea has 847 languages and a population of 5 million.

But Papua New Guinea is a biodiversity hot spot, not the most diverse, only 13th in the world, but there is a remarkable overlap between maps for biodiversity and language diversity. Most megadiversity countries are close to the equator with a concentration of biodiversity rich rain forests, while biodiversity hotspots are relatively small regions mostly in the tropics with a concentration of rare and endemic species. The languages spoken by the indigenous people in these counties reflect their culture and traditions, but also their relationship with their environment. And when a language dies, the knowledge of the environment often dies too.

In the UK we have belatedly tried to keep our languages alive, children were forbidden to speak Gaelic or Welsh in schools, but these are now taught and are no longer the preserve of isolated communities and cultural heritage. But ask a search engine how many dialects there are in the UK and the results quickly morph from dialects to accents, with a note that the northern part of Britain does have its own words which are non-standard English.

Does it matter? Probably not. Trades and professions have come and gone and with them their own distinct dialects. Who cares if I wipe the floor with a dwile or a floor cloth, or if I think of shrews as rannies, or lady birds as bishy barney bees. Biodiversity isn’t threatened in any way, and the non-standard grammar of dialects is no help to anyone in the 21st century. And yet … as dialects dwindle and expire quietly, no longer part of a living community, for some of us the accent and the dialect are deeply entwined with the place ..… but as English speakers we still have a diversity of informal Englishes which we use unconsciously to suit the occasion – a shared heritage and a shared evolution.

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