As part of this weekend’s ACAVA Studios: Spode Works open studios event, and our contribution to the Stoke for UK City of Culture bid, we’ll be showcasing ANNA, a learning algorithm that analyses poetry and audibly delivers it in an old-fashioned regional Potteries dialect. To create ANNA, we needed to feed text input into the system to “train” her to produce the poetry, so we enlisted the help of Stokie actor, storyteller, writer and poet Alan Barrett to provide the content to give ANNA authenticity. Here we have a Q&A with the man himself about the history of dialect, the importance of retaining traditional Potteries “speak” and the relevancy of it to the SOT 2021 City of Culture bid.
The Potteries dialect is a very distinct one! Can you give us a little background about it?
Most of the dialect stems from local idiosyncrasies, as it does across the world. What one area calls a stew, another calls a hotpot, or in our case, a lobby. Add that to the increased industrialisation of the 18th and particularly 19th centuries, where new jobs and technologies brought in new words, to a largely uneducated population and they made up their own pronunciations for ease of use and learning. I suspect this is not unique to our city.
However, we do have several unique words. How many areas have a “jigger” or “jollier” as both job and equipment? The word “sneyped”, or “sneeped”, depending on how you prefer to spell it, is almost onomatopoeic. I have no idea of its origins, but I can tell you I learned it very early in my life. Some phrases are distinctly geographical; for instance “up ‘anley” is clearly because Hanley is on a hill, whereas “dine Stoke” is because Stoke is on the valley floor.
Dialect and accent are usually regional, and Stoke-on-Trent is no exception, but we’re a half way stage for the roads intersecting north and south, as well as east and west. This means we’ve evolved a unique dialect without much outside influence. It’s almost impossible to copy the dialect if you’re not local.
We’re also an area with traditionally manual labour, which means the dialect gets passed around very quickly. Outsiders coming in for work adapted to fit in. If you add to that, the canal users and their slang, it becomes so much easier to understand how different dialects evolve. It’s a definitively working class dialect, with a distinct lack of “h”. As with many others, it’s the vowel sounds that determine its eventual outcome.
When the pottery industry was in its infancy, many people still spoke with biblical reference, thee, thou, shalt etc. This is not unique to us, but much of it has remained. “Dust ‘ear?” probably began as “Dooest thou hear?” and “Coss do eet?” from “Canst thou do it?” As I’ve travelled the country, working as an actor, I haven’t found the same level of biblical referenced pronunciation retained. It does cause me to consider that we have closer links to “olde Englishe” than most regions. That might just be wishful thinking on my part, but it’s worth condering.
There’s also a modicum of preferred brevity about regional accents and dialects, taking the spoken language down to its simplest form. This applies nationally, but we seem to have mastered linguistic brevity to degree level!
We have also given a word to the English lexicon. It’s not a great word, but it says everything you need to know about it – “pothole”, a hole dug from a flattened road of clay. The resultant clay used to make pots.
Why do you think that it’s culturally important to retain local dialect?
It’s absolutely imperative to keep all regional dialects, no matter where they are in the country. It’s a positive reflection on the community, helps to establish and retain links to our cultural heritage and history and – speaking personally now – I loathe the TV speak and imposed accent of the “trendies”. It is unique, and we have far too much that demands we are all the same.
I know what I sound like when I’m just talking socially, but I do make an effort when conversing with strangers. I’m happy to do both, not to fit in, but simply out of courtesy. We’re all much happier conversing with friends and family because we don’t have to make the effort to speak with perfect diction.
We should be proud of our heritage and that includes the dialect. We must not be bullied or made to feel somehow lacking simply because we don’t have RP as a standard. The dialect also reflects the culture of evolving industries, and though the words may change because of new and different jobs, the way we pronounce them should not.
How did you become involved in the development of ANNA?
I am a storyteller, and one of my characters is Toby Jugg, a Victorian kiln placer brought forward 150 years by Dr. Who to tell people what life was like on a potbank in 1868. He uses old terms, and “spakes wi’ a pott’ry dylikt”. Carl contacted me and asked me to help out.
Anything that preserves what we’re rapidly losing, or potentially losing, is something I want to be involved with.
I love language with all its nuances, especially English. People forget, it’s essentially a hybrid tongue, made up of many influences. The original Brit language is likely a mix of Welsh and Cornish. The Romans pushed the Brits back westwards and couldn’t be bothered to follow them over the Welsh mountains or the Cornish moors. As well as Latin from the Romans, we also have Gaelic from Scotland, along with Anglo-Saxon, Jute, Danish, Norse, which includes Norwegian and Swedish, and other linguistic influences they brought with them from other places they conquered. Add to this the local and regional dialects and accents and you can see where what we now call “English”, is actually not “local” to the island at all!
Do you think modern technology is an effective tool for educating a younger generation on the history of their home town?
To be honest, I never gave it a thought until Carl spoke to me about it. I suppose that’s an age thing. However, once I saw his enthusiasm for the project, and he led me through it, (being gentle with the science and tech-speak), I could see its merits.
We live in an increasingly tech savvy world, where I have to ask my grandkids to sort my phone out, so I think it’s sensible and desirable to apply that technology where it’s most beneficial. If that means making an app they can use, rather than watching a documentary, then so be it. I’d still rather they read a book, but I’m pragmatic.
Do you think that the local dialect is important to the promotion of SOT 2021?
Yes. Absolutely! Can you imagine a Birmingham bid without a Brummie accent, a Liverpool bid without a healthy dose of Scouse?
I think we need clarity, and any dialect can lose its appeal if overused external to its origins, but we shouldn’t shy away from it. It’s part of who we are, so whilst it’s good and proper to have the bid written down well, it’s equally important to take the public with us, and that means not ignoring the way we speak. That would be insulting.
See ANNA in action this Saturday 7th October at Bitjam’s studio (number 22) as we put her to the test against artist and painter Fred Phillips to create some ‘Pottr’y’ poetry, in “Fred Against the Machine”. You can find out more about Alan Barrett here at Manic Meanderings.