Scouse Spoken Here, So Bring a Sensa Yuma

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Mar 15 18:59:06 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, March 15, 2005

Baffling Scouse Is Spoken Here, So Bring a Sensa Yuma

LIVERPOOL, England - Shortly after Rafael Benitez, a Spaniard, took over
as coach of the Liverpool soccer team last year, he gushed about this
northern city's spirit and congeniality, before acknowledging sheepishly
that he had encountered one complication. "I can't understand your
accent," he told reporters here. "It sounds like Russian." While most
regional accents in England are growing a touch less pronounced in this
age of high-speed travel and 600-channel satellite systems, it seems that
the Liverpool accent is boldly growing thicker. "Scouse," said Kevin
Watson, a Lancaster University linguistics professor, using the colloquial
term for the Liverpudlian accent, "is getting scouser."

The Liverpool accent, first made famous by the Beatles, who brandished
both the urban and suburban variety, is a mishmash of Welsh intonations,
Irish lilts and Lancashire twangs. Wales and Lancashire abut Liverpool,
and Ireland is just a jump across the Irish Sea. During its lean years
Ireland sent large numbers of immigrants to this once huge port city. To a
newcomer here, Scouse (rhymes with blouse) can seem as impenetrable as a
game of cricket. The letter T is commonly dropped from endings so the word
"what" sounds like "wha." The word "cut" mysteriously rhymes with "foot."
Elizabeth Taylor has the ring of "He lispeth sailor," wrote Brian Minard
in his book, "Lern Yerself Scouse. Wersia Sensa Yuma?" "Sid Samsonite?"
translates roughly into "Are you going to see Sam tonight?"  While
"Nabisco" is not a maker of a cookie; it's a command to steal someone's

Adding to that, the Scouse accent is muffled within the sinuses, a feature
some linguists attribute to the effect that coal burning had on the nasal
passages during the city's industrial period. Mix in a few choice Scouse
phrases and comprehension dips absurdly, as Mr.  Benitez quickly
discovered on arriving here. A quick look through Mr.  Minard's old (1972)
but still reliable guide, offers up a digestible selection of Liverpool
terms. "Giv us me caardz," translates into "I have no desire to work here
any longer." Mr. Minard notes that this is "an excellent example of how
Scouse can use both plural and singular in the same sentence to mean
exactly the same thing." "She caahn aahf jangle," means "That woman is
rather garrulous." The police are "the busys" and a sandwich is a "butty."
Milk is "moo."

In his research, Mr. Watson compared recordings of young people from the
1970's with the way people speak today and concluded that Liverpool was
doing an excellent job fending off the encroachment of southern accents,
including the powerful Cockney influence from London. The migrating London
accents are blamed for the slight changes in regional accents over the
past few decades. "There are things happening in Liverpool that don't
happen anywhere else,"  Mr. Watson said. That said, the curator of English
accents and dialects at the British Library said the Northeast accents,
from places like Northumberland and Tyneside, were also going stronger.

Tracking accents and deconstructing how they change over time,
particularly from one region to another, have proved tricky for linguists,
because there are so many accents in Britain. With that in mind, the
British Library has catalogued hundreds of hours of recordings in a sound
archive, an invaluable tool for researchers. The BBC has also begun its
own project, with the University of Leeds, to record the voices of 1,000
people, analyze the accents and delve into the attitudes accents elicit.

Accents in Britain, particularly in England, are a timeless obsession.
They have long separated the miner from the minister and the more genteel
south from the gritty industrial north. But as the class structure here
loosens, regional accents, at least moderate ones, are leaping class
boundaries, a trend picked up on and accelerated by television.

The BBC, in an appeal to younger viewers, or just plain more viewers, has
shown a marked interest in promoting regional accents on its television
programs and news shows. "The BBC has a conscious policy of becoming more
democratic and accepting a wider ranger of accents," said John Wells,
professor of phonetics at University College London. "They have
discouraged the use of what they feel to be too rigid 'Received
Pronunciation,' " the English of the "educated" classes, and traditionally
the BBC.

The rise of the Labor Party, with its working-class roots, has also helped
chip away at the accent barrier. Prime Minister Tony Blair has been known
to dip into "Estuary English," a hybrid accent with Cockney inflections,
as the political situation requires.

Despite all this cross-switching, accent discrimination still abounds; it
is just more subtle. As Kate Fox wrote in a study last year, "Watching the
English," "All English people are fitted with a sort of social Global
Positioning Satellite that tells us a person's position on the class map
as soon as he or she begins to speak."

Scouse accents routinely rank among the most stigmatized. Last year, the
Aziz Corporation, an executive communications consulting company, surveyed
a wide variety of accents for their appeal to businesses. The consulting
group asked directors from 100 companies to rate the accents. Scottish
accents scored the highest; they connoted honesty and reliability. The
Scouse accent scored lowest: only 15 percent of the respondents believed
that a Liverpool accent denoted success; about 9 percent said the accent
conjured a hardworking, reliable person; and only 8 percent viewed the
speaker as honest and trustworthy.

"People who wouldn't dream about judging on color of skin or gender would
comment on accents, sometimes very rudely," observed Dr. Clive Upton, a
linguist at Leeds University, who is involved in the BBC project, which
also surveyed speakers on their attitudes.

Liverpool has long been perceived as a town of charming hooligans - people
eager to pick your wallet while whispering an off-color joke in your ear.
But Liverpudlians take pride in their accents, in being Scousers (as they
are called), and they are quick to spill their own jokes about their
supposed criminal tendencies, their backward ways and their incorrigible

"We're from Liverpool here," said Bill Costello, 48, a manager for a
timber company, over a pint at a pub called Goose at the Queens, in the
heart of Liverpool, when asked about Liverpool's stubborn accent. "We
don't know about vowels and consonants. Well, only vowels."

To which his friend, John Lee, added only, "Are you from the welfare?"

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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