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Word 4 Word
Dermot Murnaghan writes about Word 4 Word
Language is a badge. We wear it like invisible uniform that declares where we come from, what we do, whom we like to talk to and hang out with.
Dermot Murnaghan
In the former pit villages of Northumberland, the winding gear is silent now. The wholesale closure of most of Britain's coalmines saw to that. But what of the rich, distinctive dialect that made Ashington distinct from Bedlington, and Seaton Delaval different from market-town Morpeth?
These were the tight, self-reliant communities where the pit was the sole employer, the miners' institute the focal point for intellectual endeavour and where pitmatic, the language of the pitman and his folk, thrived. A vocabulary list of pitmatic stretches to pages in length - from crackets to proggy mats. These were the terms that defined the pitman's life, hours spent underground, measured out and described in an accent and dialect so local as to vary from parish to parish, some said.

Talk to the youngsters of Ashington now, though, and they'll not know pitmatic. Never even heard of it. They may recognise a word or three that their grandfather used, but beyond the broad north-eastern marrers ('mates'), dunch ('hit') and divvent ('don't' - long gone is the car bumper sticker that read divvent dunch us, we're Geordies!) today's teenagers use a less geographically precise, although still distinctive, range of words. Not to say that they're not fiercely independent, though; they wear the badge of localness and of linguistic difference with pride: "We're Ashers!" says one lad (from Ashington, as distinct from Stakies, denoting inhabitants of neighbouring -and deadly rival- Stakeford).

"Word 4 Word" is all about local talk, about this sense of belonging as expressed through the words we use to frame our thoughts. But what we're trying to do, too, is investigate some of the big changes that are underway in the vernacular of regional Britain. Not so much the decline of dialect as its evolution.

The set of vernacular options that we naturally reach for to describe our lives and the way we survive them is on the move. Because as we become, thanks to mobile phones, text-messages and the internet, ever more connected with one another across the country we regularly and easily share our lives with those who have similar passions and interests - talk to them about them, communicate with them.

And to do that we need a lingua franca.

No good if the person at the other end of the call doesn't understand one end of pitmatic from the other. We need a new and different vernacular to get along.

"Word 4 Word" sets out to track these new 'horizontal' language communities (they may be skateboarders, or hunt-followers, or football supporters or whatever...) and examine - with your help - how they fit with traditional notions of regional speech.

One young lad from Manchester, keen to own up to using the word mint to describe something 'good' (it's mint that!) observes "words can mean all sorts of things depending where you come from". When he's asked how he'd talk about someone who was 'pregnant', he responds after a little thought: "'ave you bin bakin' cakes?", adding that it's not a normal term but "we're speaking codes - we understand eachother, so we can speak in codes". Little wonder he finds himself in some difficulties when talking internationally in internet chatrooms: "it's funny, I have to explain some of the words", he says.

But "Word 4 Word" is just one part of a huge national survey being carried out this year by the BBC, for Radio 4, for national regional and local radio and for Because, with effect from this Monday, you'll be able to go online and help build a brand new, interactive dialect map of Britain. I'll be telling you more about this in the programme and how you can make your contribution online. And you'll be able to join the debate live by phoning or texting or emailing me at "Word 4 Word" (details on page ?).

In the studio, I'll be joined by Radio 4's favourite language man, Michael Rosen and Dr Clive Upton, the keeper of all wisdom about dialect at Leeds University, who's guaranteeing the academic authenticity of the enquiry.

Thanks to the Leeds team, the many dozens of fieldworkers who are even now still gathering interviews from across the UK are armed with formal questionnaires to find out the UK's local words for all sorts of everyday things like gymshoes and being drunk. Already they've talked to groups of men and women drawn from every walk of life and from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds - from South Walian crane drivers to a group of Nottinghamshire gay men, from Channel Island fishermen to skateboarders from Sheffield.

I'll be back in the summer with a series of six more live programmes reporting on what - with your help - we've discovered.

And what riches of speech just dipping into these people's lives has already revealed; like the tenants of a housing estate in Shropshire who gathered one sunny summer's morning to chat about life and language and who were all surprised (and delighted) to hear from one young man about the usual phrase he and his mates used for 'shoplifting' - a five-finger discount he called it. Truly the sound of the vernacular on the move.
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Michael RosenBestselling children's writer and poet Michael Rosen has written a specially commissioned verse about the myriad forms our current vernacular takes. Follow this link to read the poem.
Dermot MurnaghanDermot Murnaghan has spent most of his career in broadcast journalism. Before joining the BBC, he spent more than a decade fronting ITV's national news bulletins from London. He joined the BBC in the Autumn of 2002, becoming Breakfast's main presenter immediately
Read Dermot's article on Word 4 Word


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