Recordings of WW1 prisoners of war reveal the changing sound of our language - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 12 August

Obscure British regional accents that died out during the last century have been brought to life once more with the discovery of forgotten recordings of First World War prisoners.


Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 12 August

Recordings of WW1 prisoners of war reveal the changing sound of our language


By Stephen Exley

Obscure British regional accents that died out during the last century have been brought to life once more with the discovery of forgotten recordings of First World War prisoners.

In 1916, dozens of prisoners of war being held in Germany were recorded by Austrian academic Alois Brandl, who was researching British dialects and accents.

The 200 fragile phonographic recordings ended up in the archive of the Humboldt University of Berlin, where they somehow survived Allied bombing in the Second World War before remaining untouched for more than 60 years.

They were finally tracked down by British linguistics author John Adams, who said they “echo a lost Britain, one we can hardly imagine”.

While a small number of recordings of politicians and royalty exist from the time, these are thought to be among the first recordings of ordinary people from different parts of the country.

Thanks to the spread of technologies such as motor transport, radio and television, some regional accents and dialects have become less pronounced over the last century, as people have had increased access to non-local forms of spoken English.

Jonnie Robinson, lead curator of sociolinguistics at the British Library, said the discovery provides a valuable snapshot of how people across Britain spoke at the time.

“This is the earliest known recording of ordinary folk, we are right at the start of sound recording technology,” he said. “There are a small number of recordings of statesmen, politicians, royalty etc, but very [few] of ordinary people.”

On many of the recordings, the prisoners were asked to read passages from the Bible, sing songs or tell jokes and limericks, in order to allow the researchers to compare modes of speech in different parts of the country.

“Regional accents were much stronger [then],” said Hew Strachan, a history professor at the University of Oxford who is advising the government on events being planned to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War next year. “This was a period when you could tell people from one village to another, it wasn’t just county to county.”

One of the prisoners recorded was John Hickman, who used an Oxfordshire accent that has since fallen out of use, which included pronouncing “were” as “weir”, “father” as “feyther”, and “country” as “cund-ri”.

The rescued recordings are expected to be used in an interactive memorial outside the British Library, which is planned to mark 100 years since the war broke out.

Questions


  • How many different accents can you think of?
  • What is the difference between accent and dialect?
  • Are there any words or pronunciations of words that are specific to your region?
  • What kind of judgements are made about people based on their accents?

Related resources


Sounds familiar: accents and dialects from the UK

  • Listen to 71 sound More… recordings and over 600 short audio clips to celebrate the diversity of the English language in the 20th century from TES Connect partner British Library.

Accents and dialects

  • Get students to explore – and take on – different accents and dialects with this lesson activity.

History of dialects

  • Check out this animated video showing a series of characters from medieval times, illustrating how language can vary from region to region.

World War I

  • Find out about the Great War with a detailed scheme of work combining literacy and history.


Further news resources


First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

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