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The Routes of English - BBC Radio 4
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Lady on the phone - you tell us You Told Us!

Thanks for the feedback you've been sending us! Here are some of your questions, answered by the Routes team.

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My Grandmother used an expression when I was a naughty wee lad; "Get to pot!" she'd tell me.
To this day, she's three years dead and I'm 32, I don't know what she meant or where the expression comes from.
Do you know it?
Paul Kindermann

Sorry, can't help.
Have you tried Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable or Eric Partridge's many works? Maybe it's antipodean.
Please email us if you can help.
The final series of Routes is about International English, in Australia, South Africa, India, the Caribbean, the USA and on the internet - so maybe I'll find out when I come down under!
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

I wish to know what the word "metatext" means. It is just impossible to find, either in the OED, in the Robert, in the Britannica or in a glossary or literary terms. How comes it is nowhere to be found?
Florence Nadot

MetaText is a text processing and markup meta-language which can be used for processing "template" files.
MetaText can include files, define and substitute variable values, execute conditional actions based on variables, call other perl functions or object methods and capture the resulting output back into the document. It can format the resulting output of any of these operations in a number of ways. The objects, and inherently, the format and symantics of the MetaText langauge itself, are configurable.
MetaText was originally designed to aid in the creation of html (the language of web pages) documents in a large web site. It can create web pages (dynamically or statically) that are consistent with each other, yet customisable.
Gregory Stevens, Radio 4 Online

Your discussion on Routes of English today started a lively debate between my husband and myself. I am American and my husband is of Public School extraction (bless him).

He said that in his youth (some time ago), when chatting up a girl, he would just pray that when she opened her mouth nothing like Eliza Dolittle's cockney would come out. He mentioned the phrase, "the rain in Spain." I said that I agreed with this prejudice because a person’s use of the language indicates his level of education. I was fascinated to hear mention of the study which showed that the strongest inciter of prejudice was a person’s language. That is something I have always suspected. (Middle-class white families can identify with the "Prince of Bel Air" just as easily as black.)

However, after more discussion my husband and I came to a disagreement. We Americans are obviously more tolerant, in educated circles, of regional accents than the British. I thought my husband’s example was not a good one because it only used vowel sounds as the shibboleth of education. I think that regional accents can and should be preserved through their vowel sounds. In English, a person’s true education is indicated by his use of grammar and the pronunciation of the "accepted" consonants. (It grieves me to pronounce beret, "berry", when it comes from the French, but when in Britain... .) On the other hand, my husband insists that the extreme regional vowel sounds are not proper. We did agree that clarity was the goal, so it is probably true that a strong regional accent would soften with the teaching of proper pronunciation.

We have lived in rural Cornwall for the last three years and are sending our two children to the local schools. My little girl’s teacher (otherwise excellent) apparently told her that the "h" in "what" is not pronounced. I nearly exploded. I now make a point of correcting my two by saying things like, "There is a ‘t’ at the end of that word; let me hear it." Perhaps my children will lose their American accent someday and sound more Cornish; that’s fine, but I want to make sure that they speak clearly.

Do you think I’m being elitist when I want my children to enunciate their consonants and learn the difference between "who" and "whom"?
Christine Wilson

You asked about correction of grammatical mistakes. Really it's up to you. If you want to do it then that's fine. I suggest to my children not to use certain forms, but I can't compel them and evolving English is never set in stone. Give people as accurate a map as you know and let them decide whether they want to follow it, say I... But what do I know?

We will cover global English by the way in the final series of Routes in September.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

In your first programme in the current series I was interested to hear about miners' Pitmatic. When I was telling a friend they said the cotton mill workers in Lancashire had a coded language (as well as being able to lip read). Could you fill in any more details please? Also, are you planning to do anything on Black Country dialects? (Not to be confused with Birmingham!)
Angela Woodley

I don't know about cotton mill language - the reason they lip-read was the horrendous noise level in a mill - I've heard it and it's not surprising they were deaf! Pitmatic isn't really code. It's a rich language derived from very particular roots, some Scandinavian, that were subject to a particular local pronunciation which made ordinary words sound quite special too. So you get long word lists of vocabulary that are often just local pronunciations. Words like "at bank" for "on the surface" are special usages, as is "keepy-back" for "savings". We aren't doing any more programmes about dialect. The final series of Routes is about International English, in Australia, South Africa, India, the Caribbean, the USA, and on the internet.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

Having lived away from the UK for over 30 years, I am forcibly impressed by what seems to be a great shift in pronunciation - particularly of the vowel "u", which has developed to my ear, a most unpleasant tone - a sort of admixture of South African and the French vowel (as in "pur". Any comments?
Bill Messer

Interesting. I know what you mean. I think it's probably that this narrowing of the u sound is a feature of so-called Estuary or London/South East England pronunciation which has become very commonplace. You therefore hear it more often, rather than it becoming more widespread. And it is very ugly too. My daughter does it a little and I think it's an effect of living in London. No other explanation. Try dialling up John Wells' website at UCL to see if he can give any more details - he's a Professor of Phonetics and a real expert!
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

I would like your advice. I'm looking for a good book that can help me develop a cut-glass accent. Can you recommend any?

Elocution lessons or try your local library. Voice coaches are all over the place and I assume have written about their craft. Other than that, this lies outside our brief.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

Have you noticed the tendency nowadays for the use of "more" rather than the proper comparative? Examples from Radio 4: "More smooth" (11.10.00); "more hard" (In The Psychiatrist's Chair, 20.10.00); "Much more easy" (24.10.00); "More happy" (16.11.00); "More simple" (4.12.00). Is this not just too sloppy? And how about "ten times less"! Using multiplication in division! What is wrong with "a tenth"? "less big" - Clare Short on Question Time? (25.11.00). Should not radio try to promote correct English? Fascinating programme.
Don Revill

You complain about comparatives. Do you have evidence that the -er form is being avoided? Perhaps it's an example of hypercorrection - like "between you and I" where "I" should grammatically be "me", but many say "I" for fear of getting the wrong case. -er can be so wrong, especially in adverbial usage (quicker or more quickly?) Also may be a hypercorrective fear of the erroneous double comparative ("more prettier"). It's easy to be sure and use the "more+" which is less likely to be strictly wrong. And in live broadcasts, people say funny things. Same point applies to "a tenth" and "less big". The "correct" form takes the sort of nimble thought sometimes not available under say the Humphrys' gaze when what you're most worried about is not saying something that'll upset Millbank HQ. Have you read Words and Rules by Steven Pinker which is very interesting on the way the brain works with regular and irregular verbs. Many of his points have a wider application (he explains why the plural of Walkman is Walkmans not Walkmen for example.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

Can someone please give me a very brief summary of what Labov's research revealed abut the American department stores, please. And I would appreciate an exact date when the Celts invaded English. I can't seem to find one. Thank you.
Deborah Daniels

William Lebove is an American linguist whose work I am as yet unfamiliar with - this query lies outside the scope of Routes. "When the Celts invaded English" - what does this mean? Seems nonsense to me. Celtic influence comes to bear on English where an indigenous Celtic people mixed with English - as in Wales and Cornwall. Kernewek was a Celtic language which "faded out" according to our expert over 800 years, leaving a lot of vocabulary behind. In Ireland, the Irish or Gaelic language was active much longer and the structure, vocabulary and syntax of Hiberno English and Derry dialect as discussed in Routes owe a lot to the native Celtic tongue.
Simon Elmes, Exec Producer

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