As we listen through the recordings, we have a list of linguistic features that we index when we hear them used by one of the speakers in a particular interview. With pronunciation, we listen out for things such as: do the speakers use glottal stops (marked by the phonetic symbol [ʔ]) for /t/ ? And if so, is it only at the end of words (I like it [ɪʔ]) or is it also in the middle as well (I'm better [bɛʔə]) ? We have about 330 of these pronunciation related features, some very common like the T-glottaling just mentioned, others much rarer.
The features we listen out for under ‘grammar’ include things like how singular and plural are marked on nouns and verbs, and whether they appear to match. For example, in all parts of the UK (and other English-speaking countries) it’s common to hear that cost six pound_ or I drove six mile_ last night. In Standard English, it’s expected that because six is more than one, this is a plural construction and you would say six pounds or six miles.
Note that we’re not saying which is “correct”. If native speakers of a language use such constructions then that is valid data for us. What we’re interested in is how this usage varies, be it geographically, socially or by gender, and whether the variation is also leading to change in English.
This week I’ve been writing the linguistic commentary for an interview with three teenage males in Sheffield. One of the constructions they use very frequently is the tag innit. In the clip that’s available on the BBC Voices site (you can listen here) there are three instances (the time stamp in minutes and seconds is included):
I just get that from my friends, innit (0:23)
we always looked out for everybody on... you know soldiers, warriors, innit (0:42)
say that about each other, innit (0:48)
The first interesting thing about the way they use this tag is that it doesn’t correspond to Standard English, given that these end-of-sentence tags usually echo or agree with the form of the verb that’s gone before. So Standard English would have:
I just get that from my friends, don't I
you know soldiers, warriors, aren't they
say that about each other, don't we
The second interesting thing is that this construction (its spelling innit and the way it is currently used invariantly by young speakers) is now included in the September 2009 online update of the Oxford English Dictionary.
The lexicographers note that it is a particular feature of Anglo-Welsh dialects and include this quotation from a journal article by J. G. Wolff: “Many Welsh people … say and accept as correct, such expressions as …‘Shall we go out, is it?’, or even: ‘Like you know innit see, me mother, see, do always like tell me to do the washing up, innit see?’.” On the British Library Sounds Familiar? website (here) there is a five minute audio clip with lots of examples of this kind of i(s)n('t) it from an older speaker in Aberhosan in Powys.
The OED also notes that this modern use of innit is associated with the speech of young British Asians. This comedy sketch from the BBC series “Goodness Gracious Me” below includes some nice examples (even though they are exaggerated for effect!).