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Lawrencian Dialect

Artefact 2: Dialect | Feature 4 of 4

Nottingham Dialect
Brinsley Headstocks. Lawrence’s use of mining terms reflects his working-class background. Source: Paul Fillingham

Many authors write in Standard English and, as a result, for many readers this is the ‘expected’ variety of literary works. However, there are authors who use local dialect in their work. D.H. Lawrence, son of an Eastwood miner, is one of them. In this fourth and final essay, linguist Natalie Braber delves deeper into his work.

Natalie Braber

Natalie Braber @nataliebraber

Dialect is sometimes considered as sub-standard and improper. However, dialects are an important part of our identity and reading local dialect can help us identify with characters as they appear more real. Also, by looking at dialect use, we can examine which features of language are used by authors to represent where they are from. Or how they apply language to tell the readers something about the characters and the situations these people find themselves in. For example, Lawrence was very sensitive to the implications of language and social class, and he used both local dialect and Standard English to represent the different social backgrounds of his characters.

If we want to learn more about local language in general, we can look at both ‘dialect literature’ and ‘literary dialect’. The first are publications written in regional dialect, generally for a local audience. They can preserve and record specific dialects and as such, they can contain considerable metalinguistic commentary, which means they comment on local pronunciations, words and grammatical patterns. Literary dialect is the use of non-standard features in works of fiction. Local dialect can be used to identify particular local speakers and represent specific local features of language. In the case of literary dialect, authors may need to consider ensuring the work is accessible to a national audience unfamiliar with the dialect in question. As such the dialect representation may be limited both in terms of the range of dialect features represented and the frequency with which they occur.

There is some work on Lawrence’s dialect usage, for example Hilary Hillier has published Talking Lawrence which looks at the patterns of dialect used in his work. And as part of my research, I have examined different books of dialect literature and literary dialect set in Nottingham to see which features their authors used to realistically portray the local language. In the case of Lawrence, I looked at the play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd (1911), which is a dramatisation of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums, a short story written in 1909 by Lawrence. I also examined Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928).

In order to be perceived as realistic, authors who want to use a dialect must be sure the audience is sufficiently familiar with the dialect. In the case of Nottingham, many people, particularly outside the region, are unaware of its features. This may have limited Lawrence’s options or forced him to adopt specific spelling. For example, a feature is to write vowel sounds with diacritics (a diaeresis), for example, roäd (road), beäst (beast) and cooät (coat). The purpose of this marking is to emphasize that there are diphthongs in these words, this means that there are two vowel sounds. Lawrence often uses non-standard spellings of words to explain how they are pronounced, so we see words such as ‘abaht’ and ‘niver’.

Some of Lawrence’s dialect has features in common with Northern varieties, where words, such as ‘put’ and ‘putt’ sound the same. So the word ‘money’ is spelt ‘munny’ or ‘munney’ and ‘cump’ny’ is used for ‘company’. We can also see that the letter ‘h’ is not a typical feature of Eastwood dialect. Lawrence illustrates this by using spellings such as ‘aven’t’ and ‘appen’ for ‘haven’t’ and ‘happen’. We can also see deletions such as ‘wi’ (for ‘with’) and ‘ha’ and ‘ha’e’ (for ‘have’), while ‘l’ is frequently deleted (such as in ‘on’y’, ‘a’ready’ and ‘a’most’) which give his work a local flavour.

Another way Lawrence uses local language for certain working-class characters are particular verb forms which are not used by the upper-class speakers. His workers use forms such as ‘dunna’, ‘nedna’, ‘canna’, ‘shonna’ and ‘munna’ (for don’t, needn’t, can’t, shouldn’t and musn’t). These verb forms are not seen in present-day Nottingham-based literature and this suggests they are no longer being used.

Some words can be used to indicate ‘Nottinghamness’. Lawrence uses many mining terms which tie in closely with his background. Words such as ‘butty’ (man in charge of a team underground), ‘cage’ (lift in the mine shaft), ‘bantle’ (lift-load of men in pit) and ‘snap’ (lunch or dinner) show Lawrence’s close link to the mining culture of the region, but we also see other words such as ‘wezzle-brained’ (foolish) and ‘pettifogging’ (petty) which are local to the region.

As the already mentioned verb forms, much of this traditional vocabulary and non-standard spellings are being lost. Books aimed at a wider national or international audience do not use these features or simply use more general non-standard features that occur throughout the country to signal the working-class origins of speakers. In contrast, Lawrence uses local dialect to assert his roots and understanding of these local communities. Reading his work is not only a chance to enjoy a literary giant, but it can also help us shed more light on how people in Nottingham and the East Midlands lived and spoke.

This is an abridged version of the work found in ‘Nottingham: City of Literature – Dialect Literature and Literary Dialect’ by Natalie Braber, published in Dialect Writing in the North of England (edited by Patrick Honeybone and Warren Maguire) Edinburgh University Press (2020).

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