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Scottish Education and language aids

Probably the Best Accent In the World
Lost voices
Some Scottish words
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Heather heralds a whole new world

Neil Munro 15 August 2008

A normal voice in a recognisable Scottish accent makes all the difference to digital resources for pupils to access the curriculum

With the excitement of the exam season over, candidates in the future will be able to take advantage of another “first” in Scottish education – a new computer “voice” which is being made available free to schools and pupils.

It follows the development of digital papers for exam candidates with visual impairment or dyslexia, who would otherwise have to rely on readers or scribes.

Like the new voice, known as “Heather”, this is a product of the groundbreaking work undertaken by the Communication Access Literacy and Learning (CALL) centre at Moray House School of Education.

When he introduced Heather to the nation in parliament in early May, Adam Ingram, the Minister for Children and the Early Years, could not resist pointing out that the SNP Government had funded the CALL centre project enabling pupils to listen to digital curriculum materials “spoken out in a Scottish voice”.

Paul Nisbet, senior research fellow at CALL, said: “We are delighted that Heather will now be available free for all pupils in Scotland. Most Windows and Apple computers already have one or two computer voices installed on them, but the voices are quite robotic and usually have an American accent.

“Better computer voices are supplied with some commercial text-to-speech programs, but they usually have very English accents and, of course, schools and parents have to pay for them.

“The new Scottish voice sounds great and is free. It means that pupils can listen to, for example, Scottish digital exams being read out in a Scottish voice. As far as we know, the Scottish Qualifications Authority is the first exam board to offer digital exams for pupils with additional support needs and, with the launch of Heather, I believe we have another ‘first’.”

Schools and education support services in Scotland can download the voice free from CALL Scotland’s site and install it on all computers in a school. Pupils can also install the voice on laptops or desktop computers at home. Those who don’t have internet access can ask for the voice on CD.

Once installed on the computer, pupils can use Heather with most “text-to-speech” programs to read a whole range of different materials. In addition to the digital exam papers, pupils can access materials such as workbooks or worksheets in Microsoft Word, because Heather is said to work well with the free WordTalk text reader. The voice can also be used to read eBooks.

According to David Fletcher, ICT development officer in additional support needs, the invention is “excellent”. The fact that programs such as Clicker 5 can now give pupils audio feedback “in a pleasant Scottish accent” was extremely valuable.

He said support for learning teachers had been “very complimentary” about the quality of the voice and were very keen to use it with pupils.

At present, Heather is available for Windows PCs only; a Mac version is planned for August.

The Scottish Voice http://www.callscotland.education.ed.ac.uk/thescottishvoice/Home/index.php
Word Talk  http://www.wordtalk.org.uk/

Scottish – Probably the Best Accent In the World…

Englishmen have been known to migrate to Los Angeles and return home a scant few months later with a Californian twang stretched across their vowels. American girls will come to work in London and then jet back across the Atlantic sporting shiny new Kensington-influenced accents. However, the chances are that if you dropped a Scotsman into the middle of the Amazonian jungle, where they had to live with the forest people for twenty years, and have no contact with any other Scots, they would still speak like a Scot. In fact it's very likely that the jungle people themselves would all be talking in thick Glaswegian accents. Why? Because, according to an increasingly persuasive amount of research, everyone wants to sound Scottish nowadays. . .

In a recent survey commissioned by the communications group The Aziz Corporation, 55% of business executives said they believed that Scots accent was desirable in business because it conveyed 'above average honesty in the personality of its owner.' Compare this with the survey scores of our United Kingdom counterparts, with some English regional accents scoring as little as 22% and you begin to get an idea of why the Scots accent is so highly prized in the worlds of advertising and telemarketing. The same survey threw up some other interesting statistics: 63% of people believed that if they meet someone with a Scottish accent in a business capacity, they will generally believe that the person is successful. The Aziz Corporation's chairman Khalid Aziz said, 'If you want to get ahead in business. . .it is better to sound as if you are from Scotland than from any English region.' Or, as one female advertising executive, puts it – 'the Scottish accent sells.'

But perhaps this isn't so surprising when we consider the effects the Scots have wrought in the world of cinema. Are there many women over forty who don't go weak at the knees at the sound of Sir Sean Connery's silky purr? Or many women under forty who don't have the same reaction when they hear Ewan McGregor's honey-dipped tones?

And it's not just native Scots who can spin our accent into box office gold. Mike Myers – star of the Wayne's World and Austin Powers movies – has had a long standing affection for the Scottish accent which dates back to the time he spent in Edinburgh in the mid 1980's, when he was an up and coming comic working the Festival circuit. 'I just love the Scots accent,' Myers has said, 'because it can go from very soft to really angry so quickly.'

Myers first used his Scottish accent to hilarious effect in his early 90's comedy 'So I Married An Axe Murderer', where he played his character's own father – a man fond of The Bay City Rollers, conspiracy theories, McEwans lager, and berating his own sons for the size of their craniums. ('My God! Will ye look at the size o' that boy's heed! It's like Sputnik! Spherical but quite pointy in parts. . .') Sadly 'Axe Murderer' was a box office flop when it was released but for those interested in hearing one of the funniest – and best – Scottish accents ever committed to celluloid by a non-Scot, it's well worth picking up on DVD.

Undeterred, Myers returned to the Scottish accent again a few years later, this time with much greater commercial success, in the smash hit 'Shrek', creating one of the best loved animated characters in movie history in the process. But it nearly wasn't so: Myers originally voiced the luminous green ogre using his native Canadian accent. He thought it could be funnier and convinced the producers to let him re-record his entire part in a new Scottish accent. The re-dubbing allegedly cost a fortune but Myers' instinct, and his feel for a Scots brogue, were proved right when 'Shrek' became one of the biggest hits of the year. (Of course not all of Myers' creations have been quite so flattering to the Scottish people – who could forget the horrendous Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers series? Thirty stone of sweating, foul-mouthed Glaswegian!)

If Myers in 'Axe Murderer' and 'Shrek' is an example of a non-Scot getting our accent right then, at the other end of the scale, most Scots would probably agree that the actor getting it most wrong was probably Mel Gibson in 'Braveheart'. Gibson's mangled blend of Highlands, Lowlands and anything in-between left many people at a loss as to which particular part of Scotland this William Wallace came from, if any. However, Gibson's accent couldn't have been that off-putting as 'Braveheart' picked up a raft of Oscar nominations and went on to become one of the most successful films of all time at the Scottish box office, introducing a whole new generation of Scots to a forgotten chapter of their past to boot. (Albeit with a few historical liberties.)

Other much loved Scottish accents in the worlds of film and TV have included Scotty in 'Star Trek' (Of whom Eddie Murphy does a flawless impression: 'The engines cannae take it Captain! They're gauin tae blow!') Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid in the Harry Potter films, Johnny Depp in 'Finding Neverland' and Robin Williams' cross-dressing turn as Mrs Doubtfire.

Interestingly Williams based his Mrs Doubtfire accent on that of Scottish Director Bill Forsyth, who Williams had worked with on the 1993 film 'Being Human'. Forsyth had, of course, already made a considerable contribution towards publicising his native tongue when he directed the worldwide hits 'Gregory's Girl' and 'Local Hero' back in the early 1980's.

But pride of place here must surely go to the character with arguably the best-loved Scottish accent in TV history – The Simpson's school janitor and flame-haired Scotsman, Groundskeeper Willie, voiced by Dan Castellaneta (who is also responsible for Homer Simpson’s dulcet tones). Who can forget the wit and wisdom of Willie who once wanted to marry his tractor? The world without our well greased, bucket carrying hero would surely have been an incomparably poorer place.

And finally . . . there is even the argument that the Scottish accent is so fondly regarded throughout the world that it allows the user to get away with language that very few other accents do. Paying our tongue a high (though possibly dubious!) accolade the comedian Eddie Izzard said, 'If you look at Billy Connolly, he can use really rough language - swears like a trooper sometimes - but little old ladies love him and go and see his shows. He gets away with it because of that adorable Scottish accent. If I used language like that in front of pensioners I'd be tarred and feathered!'

For further information on the Scottish accent, there are a plethora of information and clips online. As part of Dominic Watt, Arthur Hughes and Peter Trudgill's book on Accents and Dialects, the accompanying CD, has recordings of speakers from Edinburgh (two), Glasgow, and Aberdeen. The CD which comes with Foulkes & Docherty's Urban Voices has quite a few Scottish speakers on it too.

Lost voices
John Mullan 18 June 1999

The Scouse accent should be 'wiped out', Scottish is 'a turn-off' and Estuary is a 'terrible mistake'. Why do people get so angry about flattened vowels and glottal stops?

The British have always been peculiarly obsessed with accents, what they signify and how much they matter. It is a perennial question, and something is always happening to bring it back. Beryl Bainbridge declares that "uneducated regional accents", particularly Scouse, should be "wiped out." Then Barry Norman says that Scottish films are a turn-off because of Scottish accents. Then the demotic intonations of the Nato spokesman become as much a cause of comment as what he is saying.

Opinions about Jamie Shea's accent were divided in a way that reflected current uncertainties. "It has been a terrible mistake to allow Nato's case to be presented by Jamie Shea, who sounds like the manager of a lower-division football club," wrote John Keegan in the Daily Telegraph. (It is difficult not to hear his accent of public-school condescension.) Shea may have an Oxford PhD and be fluent in French, German, Dutch and Italian, but a general's wife made a formal complaint about the way he speaks. For many aged over 30 the issue is sharper because of the contrast between Shea's "Estuary English" and the unflinching plumminess of Ian McDonald, Ministry of Defence Spokesman during the Falklands War. Are we learning something - hearing something - about a changed society?

At the moment the topic of accent is tender because officially accent does not matter while privately it does. A recent comic victim of the doublethink has been Jacob Rees-Mogg, Etonian son of William Rees-Mogg, whose prospects of becoming a Tory politician are rumoured to be sinking because of his anachronistically posh accent. He has become a hero of the Daily Telegraph letters column, one correspondent complaining that "an overt form of intimidation exists, directed against anyone who dares to eschew the current, Americanised, mode of behaviour, speech and dress." "It is rather pathetic to fuss about accents too much," says Rees-Mogg in a self-vindicating article, though undermining the liberal sentiment by opining that: "John Prescott's accent certainly stereotypes him as an oaf."

This Rees-Moggian contradiction tells us of a modern uncertainty about how we speak. When George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion (1912) it was uncontentious to believe that some ways of speaking were better than others. The majority of children received no secondary education. In the 1890s, George Gissing, a writer with strong working-class sympathies, took it for granted that a working-class accent undermined all attempts at self-improvement. In his novel New Grub Street, Mrs Yule is married to a literary man but comes from humble origins. Her move upwards in society is doomed, for, though her speech "was seldom ungrammatical", "the accent of the London poor, which brands as with hereditary baseness, still clung to her words, rendering futile such propriety of phrase as she owed to years of association with educated people."

Now, as linguist John Honey, author of Does Accent Matter?, has said, "the subject is virtually taboo in our schools." Officially we should not think that one particular accent, Received Pronunciation (RP), how BBC newsreaders were trained to speak, is any "better" than others. No longer do job adverts in newspapers specify well-spoken candidates, as they still did in the 1980s. Yet some of the time we do. Scarcely any Guardian or Independent article involving David Evans, former Tory MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, failed to mention his car-salesman's accent, a sound to chill the blood of any liberal - it seemed the incarnation of Thatcherite brutalism.

In Spitting Image and probably the middle-class imagination, Norman Tebbit was given an Essex drag on his vowels which he hardly possessed. He should speak in that way because of what he represented.

Estuary English confirms our uncertainties. It can seem egalitarian or bogus. The term was coined in 1984 by linguist David Rosewarne, but only began appearing in newspapers in the 1990s. Now we all hear it. The latest edition of Chambers Dictionary defines it as "a form of English influenced by Cockney, spoken in the Thames estuary and surrounding areas". Of course, this misses the point - as if the Thames estuary were a distinct region of the country. "Estuary" is precisely not local. The Oxford Dictionary of New Words, officially non-judgmental, is stiffly condescending: "It may now be regarded as fashionable among certain popular comedians, pop and rock musicians, and presenters of television programmes for the young."

The adoption of this accent, generally taken to signify collapsing class distinctions, is an unprecedented phenomenon. The middle class and the privately educated take on some of the elements of what has always been one of the lowest status accents: Cockney. Academic studies confirm that, socio-linguistically, Cockney has shared the bottom rung with Scouse, Glaswegian, West Midlands and Belfast.

Almost certainly this is because, historically, they have all been essentially working-class accents - unlike Yorkshire, say, which might be middle class. This is one reason why Scots voices, and to a lesser extent Irish and Welsh ones, are different. A middle-class Scottish accent can signify a good education (lawyers, doctors). It is difficult to believe that there might be, in Edinburgh's salubrious suburbs, streets of people sounding like Malcolm Rifkind. Yet, however mockable his extraordinary intonations, they still seem to tell us of a beady intelligence.

The peculiarity of Estuary is that (pace Chambers) it does not have a locality. Recently linguists have detected strains of it among Liverpool schoolchildren. Via television and radio it comes from London, yet has become placeless. This is unsettling because regionality of speech has often commanded respect. When Ted Hughes died it was his voice reading his poetry that laid hold of the TV viewer, the Yorkshire accent a guarantee of its harsh lyricism. It did not matter that Hughes spent most of his adult life in Devon; the accent was evidence of origins in a writer whose poetry is all about what is elemental.

One of Hughes's greatest influences was an earlier poet laureate, Wordsworth, who also never lost his northern accent, a mark of the fidelity to place that was the distinction of his poetry.

Regional accent has often been a sign of achievement without corruption. Obituaries of Lord Denning invariably made a connection between what the Times called "his attractive regional burr" and a kind of undeluded, if reactionary, "common-sense". We like to hear stories of the stuffiness that we have escaped - of the head of BBC Outside Broadcasting who told cricket commentator John Arlott in 1948: "You have an interesting mind, but a vulgar voice." Arlott's much-enjoyed accent was also a kind of phonetic fossil. He came from Basingstoke, now surely thoroughly Estuary-ised.

The RP that is now challenged only became a dogma in the late 19th century, fostered by the public school system. Yet a strong sense of correct pronunciation was well established by Shakespeare's day.

It was always based on what Elizabethan courtier George Puttenham called "our Southern English", the speech of "northern men, whether they be noblemen or gentlemen" being "not so courtly or so current." Regional accents have been noticed, especially where they might not be expected, for centuries. Sir Walter Raleigh's West Country vowels stood out at courts. Sir Robert Walpole's Norfolk accent signified, for allies, his sturdiness, for foes, his baseness. Gladstone retained a trace in his voice of his Liverpool origins.

For post-war grammar-school boys and girls, accent had other meanings. For Harold Wilson it was the appropriate possession of the meritocrat. Traditionally ambitious grammar-school pupils would try to escape their localities, and therefore their accents. Most famous is Mrs Thatcher, whose elocution lessons are usually mentioned condescendingly or mockingly. It does seem reasonable to satirise her later speech-training when already prime minister. At the behest of her PR adviser Gordon Reece, she worked away to remove perceived stridency from her voice. Her childhood elocution training, however, would have been standard for many grammar-school pupils with ambitious parents - the equivalent of music lessons.

Reacting to Beryl Bainbridge's now infamous remarks, Derek Jameson declared: "People who have elocution lessons should be held in contempt." Bainbridge, from Liverpool, herself had elocution lessons from the age of 11. In the 1990s, this self-fashioning seems somehow wrong. But it has a long history, going back to the late 18th century.

One of the pioneers of elocution was Thomas Sheridan, father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who gave lessons in proper enunciation to the young James Boswell. Sheridan's friend Dr Johnson had made the first attempts, in his Dictionary, to prescribe the "correct" pronunciation of words. Johnson himself arrived in London as a young man with a marked Staffordshire accent, only gradually modified as the years went by. It was a source of amusement to his literary and theatrical friends. By Johnson's day there was a strong idea of the proper English accent; above all it must not be provincial.

Aspirants from the provinces have always had to change themselves. Joe Orton had elocution lessons so that, as he thought, he might succeed as an actor. Once this pattern was not so unusual for budding thespians. In order to embark on a repertory career, Leonard Rossiter similarly had lessons to get rid of his once-strong working-class Liverpool accent. It is too easy to imagine a regional accent as a badge of integrity for the writer or artist: DH Lawrence hanging on to his Nottinghamshire origins; David Hockney keeping to a bit of Bradford in California. But some surprising people have been worried about their accents. Thomas Hardy may have made extraordinary imaginative use of his "Wessex" origins, but he was ashamed of the thick Dorset accents of his brother and sister.

This is what seems to be changing. For a long time people have been uneasy - like Hardy, proud yet defensive - about where they came from. The rise of Estuary English is unsettling because it seems to tell us that we do not come from anywhere in particular.

Proud of their accents

Sir Walter Raleigh John Aubrey was told by an old man who had once known him that "notwithstanding so great mastership in style, and his conversation with the learnedest and politest persons, yet he spake broad Devonshire to his dying day".

Sir Robert Walpole Britain's first and longest serving prime minister had the accent of a Norfolk squire - but then he was constantly mocked for this and other failures of refinement by better-spoken contemporaries.

William Wordsworth Cumbrian lad who did not let Cambridge rob him of his northern vowels. Celebrated by Tony Harrison, self-proclaimed laureate refusenik, in his poem against received pronunciation Them & [uz], for rhyming "water" with "matter".

Lord Denning Draper's son from Whitchurch, Hampshire, who returned (accent intact) to live in his birthplace in his 60s - this time in the nicest house in the village.

Harold Wilson His Huddersfield accent was disappearing during the 1940s and 50s, but mysteriously returned after he became Labour leader in 1963 - a useful contrast to Alec Douglas Home's strangled toff's drawl.

Derek Jameson The original "Sid Yobbo", he used his potentially excruciating accent to project a rough-and-honest image - still, his voice has been a major cause of complaint by radio listeners.

... and not so proud

William Shakespeare Linguist John Honey thinks that the bard "grew up speaking the Stratford-upon-Avon variant of the Warwickshire dialect" - but he would have had to ditch it to get on in the world.

James Boswell Down in London from Scotland and anxious to make himself into an urbane character. The high status of a refined Scottish accent is a 20th-century phenomenon.

Margaret Thatcher Though not mentioned in her autobiography, the clever Grantham girl's grocer father forked out for elocution lessons - decades later yet more lessons were needed.

Joe Orton In the early 1950s he took lessons in speaking to rid himself of his Leicester accent. So successful were they that he won the elocution prize at RADA.

Joan Bakewell The Stockport girl did what had to be done and, as she admits, on arriving at Cambridge trained herself out of her Cheshire intonations.

Keeley Hawes The actress daughter of a London cab driver, says that she could not have become successful without 10 years of elocution lessons (hours with a pencil in her mouth so that she could get a perfect 'O').

Some Scottish words:

Ahint - behind
Auld - old
Baffies - slippers
Birl - twirl, spin
Blether - chatter
Brae - hill
Braw - excellent
Breeks - trousers (pants)
Canny - careful
Close - alley
Cowp - tip over
Crabbit - bad tempered
Dicht - wipe
Doo - dove or woodpigeon
Dreich - damp and dismal weather
Drookit - soaked through
Dunt - bump
Eejit - idiot
Een - eyes
Fleg - a fright or to frighten
Flit - move house
Forbye - besides
Forkietail - earwig
Gey - very or rather
Girn - complain
Greet - weep
Haver - talk nonsense
Hurl - a ride
Jag - prick
Keek - peep
Ken - know, understand
Kirk - church
Lug - ear
Lum - chimney
Messages - shopping, usually groceries
Mind - remember
Muckle - large or a lot
My lane - on my own
Oxters - underarms
Palaver - fuss
Peely-wally - pale, wan
Pooch - pocket
Puckle - a few
Puddock - frog
Puggled - tired out after effort
Quine - young girl
Reek - stink or smoke
Roon - round
Sassenach - an English person
Scunnered - fed up with something
Shoogle - shake
Stoat - bounce
Thole - put up with
Thrawn - stubborn
Waur - worse
Wheech - zoom
Yon - that

Further information
Paisley women http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LT-284TagXI
BBC Doc speaking Scottish http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMnKPnPhhYw
Sounds of Scotland http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/
Guess the accent http://www.scottishquest.com/howscottish/game.html
Scots Dictionaries http://www.scotsdictionaries.org.uk/
Tom Leonard http://www.tomleonard.co.uk/sixoclock.shtml

See also
Scots language
English Scottish accents
Wargames and the Scots accent
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