Characteristics of Cambridgeshire dialect speech

Anna-Liisa Vasko

The purpose of this discussion is to supplement the information given in Vasko (2010), which is a revised and extended version of Ojanen (1982).

This discussion provides a short overview of the characteristics of Cambridgeshire dialect speech. All conversations, whether dialectal and standard, are similar in aspects involving the circumstances of their production and their interactiveness. These aspects also influence the speaker’s use of grammatical features. The aim of the following overall description is to place the grammatical features discussed in Vasko (2010) within a larger framework, i.e. that of the variety of language which they represent.

Initially I focus on constructional and performance features. Secondly, the notion of sentence is considered from the point of view of spontaneous dialect speech. Finally, I examine how reliance on implicit meaning and situational reference is reflected in dialect speech.

1. Constructional principles: right and left dislocation

The main difference between written and spoken language is that the latter takes place in real time and is subject to the limitations of working memory. According to Biber et al. (1999: 14.3), the grammar of speech is ‘dynamic ’, in the sense that it is constructed and interpreted under real-time pressure. Biber et al. (1999: 14.3.1) set out three principles which operate in the online production of spoken English grammar in dynamic terms: (a) one must keep talking, (b) there is only limited planning ahead, and (c) from time to time one must qualify what one has said. The first principle means that a speaker cannot simply stop, since the result may be a communicative breakdown. The second principle follows from the first, and operates according to the limitations of human memory. The third principle follows from the previous two: if speakers have little chance to plan structures as they proceed, there may be a need to modify the message retrospectively, that is, to ‘tag on’ a phrase as an afterthought. ‘Right dislocation’ of this kind usually has the aim of preventing any misunderstanding of the reference of pronouns. A typical afterthought construction is of the type seen in the Cambridgeshire example He wa good old boy, Cyril war. ‘Left dislocation’ (also termed ‘initial dislocation’) again serves the positive purpose of thematization, clarifying the precise focus of attention, as illustrated by the Cambridgeshire example us old boys we used to go in there dinnertime to get out of school. In terms of StE grammar, us old boys we used to go in there… also exemplifies the use of a redundant (pleonastic) pronoun.

2. Performance features: non-fluency and syntactic blend

Free conversation is also characterized by non-fluency (also termed dysfluency [e.g. Biber et al. 1999: 14.2]), since speakers are continually faced with the need both to plan and to execute their utterances in real time. The different types of non-fluency in speech are classified, with examples, by Clark & Clark (1977: 263):

Silent pause Turn on the // heater switch.
Filled pause Turn on, uh, the heater switch.
Repeats Turn on the heater / the heater switch.
Unretraced false starts Turn on the stove / heater switch.
Retraced false starts Turn on the stove / the heater switch.
Corrections Turn on the stove switch – I mean, the heater switch.
Interjections Turn on, oh, the heater switch.
Stutters Turn on the h-h-h-heater switch.
Slips of the tongue Turn on the sweeter hitch.

Silent (i.e. breathing) and filled (with er, erm, etc.) pauses are used for hesitation, for strategic purposes (e.g. taking, keeping and yielding the turn), and to mark off units of discourse (e.g. topics and subtopics; cf. Stenström 1994: 7-8). ‘Repeats’ should be distinguished from ‘repetition’, which is used for emphasis (Quirk et al. 1985: 473). Repetition is illustrated by the Cambridgeshire example a real, real old fen bog. Repeats usually affect only whole words and constructions, while stuttering also affects partial words (Stenström & Svartvik 1994: 252). The former can be illustrated with the Cambridgeshire example us old us old boys, and the latter with the example Cut- Cutter End. The spontaneous character of speech is also shown by ‘false starts’; these are retrace-and-repair sequences in which the speaker ‘erases’ what he has just said and starts again, this time with a different word or words, as illustrated by the Cambridgeshire example Who = which which of you boys. A slip of the tongue has been defined by Boomer & Laver (1973: 123) as “an involuntary deviation in performance from the speaker’s current phonological, grammatical or lexical intention”. They further observe that the “deviation is almost always detected, not necessarily consciously, by the speaker, and corrected.”

Another type of performance feature is syntactic blend (or anacoluthon). One of the problems in recognizing syntactic blends is uncertainty about what constitutes a well-formed grammatical construction in speech. In contrast with the degree of grammatical ‘perfection’ expected in writing, dialect speech, like informal speech in general, tolerates a freedom of syntactic structure that would otherwise be regarded as unacceptable. Thus, syntactic blends, such as They used to have what they call a tailboard, in the carts, didn’t you?, from Cambridgeshire dialect speech, can be said to be normal speech phenomena. The fact that the subject of the question tag (you) does not match the subject (they) of the preceding declarative speech unit (clause) suggests merely that a change of perspective has taken place in the course of the construction.

For a discussion of features typical of spontaneous speech data, see also Miller & Weinert (1998 : 22-23, 60, 262).

3. Grammatically incomplete sentences

In speech, it is also common for utterances to be left grammatically incomplete. Biber et al. (1999: 14.2.4) list the following four types of incomplete utterances: (a) incompleteness where the speaker abandons and ‘repairs’ by starting anew; (b) incompleteness where the speaker is interrupted by another speaker, or (sometimes) by another event; (c) incompleteness where the hearer rather than the speaker ‘repairs’ the utterance by finishing it, and (d) incompleteness where the speaker simply abandons an utterance (loses the thread, finds no one is listening, seeks to avoid embarrassment, etc.). Incomplete utterances of these types are typical in the Cambridgeshire data. For instance, ‘sentences’ are often left grammatically incomplete, as in I tell you a lot about old * give me a ride out Farmer’s Fen what. We’ll we’ll get on about the gravel digging. (For transcription conventions, see Transcribing Cambridgeshire dialect speech: problems and solutions.)

In dialect speech, short, often paratactic, structures are preferred. For this reason, identifying a sentence, which is a basic unit in the analysis of the standard language, is often problematic. There does not seem to be any fully reliable method of defining sentences in dialect speech in terms of their syntactic form or semantic content. It is questionable whether one can speak of sentences in cases such as the following:

Then = the old Turner started, a big red bus, like the buses we got now. And = course I mean they used to = that was just the jobs = to go on that and course what we = whatever did we used to pay to go on that for a start, very, very little, well, I mean what we have to pay now. [LAUGHING] Yes. (Harlton AW) (For transcription conventions see Transcribing Cambridgeshire dialect speech: problems and solutions.)

The answer depends on how we define the term ‘sentence’. Innumerable definitions of a sentence exist, ranging from the vague characterizations of ‘traditional’ grammar (such as ‘the expression of a complete thought’) to the detailed structural descriptions of contemporary linguistic analysis. Crystal (2003: 414) defines the sentence as “the largest structural unit in terms of which the grammar of a language is organized.” Crystal further notes that research has also attempted to discover larger grammatical units but so far there has been no ‘clear’ unit “comparable to the sentence, whose constituent structure is stateable in formal, distributional terms.”

We have to accept that in dialect speech (as in all conversational language) we may rarely come across stretches of language that constitute ‘sentences’ in the strict sense of this term. In spite of this, when transcribing and analysing dialect speech, researchers often work with ‘sentences’ (e.g. Ihalainen 1988; Tagliamonte 2006, 2007; Beal et al. 2007).

4. Reliance on implicit meaning and situational reference

Conversation is typically carried out in face-to-face interaction, which means that speakers share not only the physical context of time and space, but also social and cultural knowledge.

This shared knowledge is reflected in speech as grammatical reductions of various kinds, such as the use of ellipsis and the use of substitute pro-forms (e.g. one/ones substituting for a word or word group functioning as a noun). Ellipsis, the ‘omission’ of one or more words (relative to written StE structures), is a common means of being ‘economical’ in dialect speech. Of course, from a speaker’s point of view nothing is felt to be ‘missing’.

Reduction is possible because speakers can rely on implicit meaning or reference. This implicit meaning may be retrieved anaphorically from a previous verbal reference, but can frequently only be deduced from the extra-linguistic situation (cf. e.g. Stenström 1994: 15 regarding exophoric reference). Reliance on situational reference is often seen in the use of such deictic items as this , that, them (for StE those), here, there, and the substitute pro-form one, as exemplified in the following Cambridgeshire dialect speech extract:

That (i) was a pair and my brother-in-law, well, he put a jug on there one night and knocked it off. Yeah, that’s so long ago, that is. Well, that (ii) one , that dog in the other end come from the fair and that (iii) come, from this here, in the last war.

The informant is describing the souvenirs on the mantelpiece (there refers to the mantelpiece) of his home. That (i) refers to a bird (one of a pair), that (ii) is a dog, as the speaker makes clear in an afterthought, and that (iii) is another dog. The fact that that (iii) is a dog cannot be deduced from anything said before or after (this here), but only from the shared knowledge of the speaker and the interviewer, i.e. from the fact that the interviewer could see the objects while the informant was describing them.


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