THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

13 September 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 1: Oil

1987 seems like a long time ago. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected for a third term in government, Everton topped the first division of the football league and Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ became the first UK Number 1 available on CD format. In that year Paul Thompson and Asa Briggs launched the National Life Stories Collection.

From its modest beginnings National Life Stories has grown significantly and helped to create one of the largest oral history collections in the world – the British Library holds some 70,000 oral history recordings of which nearly 3,000 are long, in-depth biographical interviews created by National Life Stories. This year we celebrated our 30th birthday by highlighting in our annual review interviews from each of our main fieldwork projects, introduced by someone connected to that project.

SoundArchive_22Feb08-000449Jennifer Wingate, Paul Thompson & Rob Perks, 2008 (Jonathan Jackson, British Library)

We’re using these articles as a jumping-off point for the newest National Life Stories venture, our podcast. Each pod will bring you a conversation between your hosts Charlie Morgan or David Govier and someone else associated with National Life Stories – from interviewers, to curators, to listening service staff, to technical staff who digitize and care for the analogue recordings. We’ll be using our new medium to surface great interview extracts and try to get to the bottom of what we think is special about the life story approach to oral history.

National Life Stories podcast episode 1 - Oil

Our first episode takes us back to 1988 when National Life Stories was only a year old. Piper Alpha was an oil rig in the North Sea, north east of Aberdeen. It suffered a huge explosion on the 6th of July 1988 killing 167 people. National Life Stories worked with the University of Aberdeen on the oral history project Lives in the Oil Industry to document the oil industry. In the course of the project we interviewed survivors of the Piper Alpha disaster and other people who were affected by it. Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator, chatted to Dave about the project.

11 September 2017

Recording of the week: Allan Horsfall and Gay UK

The other day I stumbled across an interview with Allan Horsfall in our collections. His story means a lot to me. The Wolfenden Report, published in 1957, opened the ground for legal reform but was not implemented by the Conservative government. Allan Horsfall, then a coal board clerk based in Atherton, Lancashire, decided to do something about it.

Allan was recorded in 2009 for the Millthorpe Project (C1405/05) which set out to interview LGBT trade unionists. Allan recalls that in 1966 the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee, of which he was a co-founder, produced and distributed 10,000 copies of a leaflet entitled ‘Something you should know about’ using Allan’s home address for the committee. Allan was then able to use the lack of reaction, revealing ordinary working people’s tacit support, to reassure members of Parliament representing mining constituencies.

Allan Horsfall - There's something you need to know

Sylvia Kölling and I interviewed Allan at his home in Farnworth couple few years later in 2011. The version of the story Allan told that day (Manchester Central Library GB124.G.HOR/4) was slightly different:

Well, I never got any serious opposition. The fact was that Anthony Grey had an office in Shaftesbury Avenue on the third and fourth floor which was locked up when he went home. I, in contrast, was working from home. I was living in a house at that time which belonged to the Coal Board. And when we put out the AGM announcement the local paper did a front page spread with an eight-column headline, which they'd never done before, 'Homosexuals and the Law' and of course everybody thought we'd get our windows put through and all sorts of harassment but we didn't get anything like that at all. No trouble. I was in what was, what had been, a little mining community. All the ... two or three blocks of houses all belonged to the Coal Board. When the mining industry ran down they sold them to the council so they were in fact council houses. My immediate boss [was] the Estates Manager (I worked in the estates department of the Coal Board). Not my immediate boss but the ultimate boss after this big headline appeared giving the address said that since I was doing this thing in Coal Board property wouldn't I have thought it right to consult him first? And I sent him a message back to say that if I had consulted him first he would have said no! He didn't dispute that, and I never had any trouble after that. There was no harassment. It wasn't attacked until it was attacked by some journalist who did a column in the local paper but he didn't get round to it for three weeks after they ran this big headline. I think they thought that there would have been a range of letters from readers objecting to it but there was nothing at all. So they had to put up their tame journalist to attack it in a regular column, which he did, and that didn't bring any response either. So it was a learning curve, really, for everybody, because there were obviously people in the local paper and no doubt in the local council who thought all hell would break loose. But there was nothing at that time at all.

But then what you get depends on what you ask, and how you ask it. And Allan's memories were by that time over forty years old, so it's not surprising if he rehearsed the mechanics of the coal board story differently depending on his audience. However he tells the story, Allan's local experiences serve as a useful counterpoint to the voices you can hear in the Gay UK exhibition talking about the mechanics of lobbying in Westminster in the long fight towards the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

GayUKWhatsOnGay UK: Love, Law and Liberty, free exhibition at the British Library (Images © LSE Library and Peter Tatchell)

It's your last chance to see the free Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty exhibition at the British Library which closes on Tuesday 12 September. The exhibition tells the story of love, legislative change and the battles for equality experienced by gay men and women in the UK 50 years after the Sexual Offences Act.

You can find out more about the Millthorpe Project and many other oral history collections relating to sexuality in our collection guide.

06 September 2017

Peng Tings on my WhatsApp

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

If you’re a school teacher, or in fact if you know any British human aged under 18, you’ll also be aware that the best word to describe someone you fancy these days is peng. It used to be fit. Before that there was hot, cute, and gorgeous. But right now, it’s peng.

C1442 Peng: speaker b.1994

Um, a word me and my friends use a lot is peng. Um, it it it genuinely means like good-looking, and you can use it for people, like if you saw a boy or a girl that you thought was good-looking, a lot of my friends would say ah she’s peng or he’s peng. You can use it for food, you can use it for anything. Um, I I genuinely, I have no idea where it’s come from, but it’s it’s funny to see reactions of generations before mine to listen to it, cause when I said it, my grandma had absolutely no idea what it meant! {LG} And you do – yeah. That’s it really.

School-yard buzz-words pop up all the time – sometimes only fleetingly, while others stick around and enter our mainstream vocabulary (just think of how new cool seemed a few years ago – and even my Dad says minging now!). This process can’t be controlled – what does or doesn’t catch on depends on factors such as frequency of usage and power dynamics between speakers. An awareness of this is at play when Mean Girls’ character Regina George cruelly tells her schoolmate Gretchen: ‘Stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.’ But peng is definitely happening. And so, for that matter, is piff – another current favourite for ‘attractive,’ as explained by the speaker below. Tony Thorne’s 2014 Dictionary of Contemporary Slang dates this term to ‘mid-2000s.’

C1442 Piff: speaker b.1994

Um, well a slang word we use is piff, which is like, say like if you see someone who’s good-looking, or some – a girl that’s good-looking or a boy who’s good-looking it’s like ah, she’s piff! Like, or ah he’s so piff look at him sort of thing. Don’t know where it comes from cause we have quite a lot of words to describe people and how they look like peng, which also means the same thing. I don’t have a clue where it comes from, to be honest I think they’re quite stupid but they’re just really catchy and everybody uses them. So yeah that’s the slang we use. Piff! P. I. F. F.

Peng appears to have first become a part of spoken British English around 2004-5. It had a slow start in life; BBC Voices, a dialect project which surveyed over 1200 speakers in the UK, recorded only two instances of the word, both in young British Caribbean speakers in the East Midlands. It took off between 2005 and 2010, it seems, since peng was the single most popular vernacular word contributed by under-18s in the recording booths at the Evolving English exhibition in 2010-11. Cambridge Dictionaries included peng in their New Words blog in 2011. And its 2015 appearance in English grime artist Stormzy’s track ‘Know Me From’ (‘Peng tings on my WhatsApp and my iPhone too’) places it firmly at the core of the youth slang lexicon.

As suggested by the BBC Voices data, it’s likely that peng entered English by way of contact with speakers of Caribbean varieties. It may be related to Kushung peng, a word used in Jamaica for marijuana (as in Frankie Paul’s 1985 ‘Pass the Kushung Peng’). Of course, linguistic borrowing is nothing new, but is the way in which English has acquired a great many of its words – from Latin and French right through to German (rucksack), Yiddish (schmuck), and Hindi (pyjamas); very often this is related to English having been forced on others under colonial rule.

In more recent times, a new variety of English called Multicultural London English (MLE) has evolved at home, in diverse multilingual and multicultural environments, and peng is part of this picture. The exchange here is very much two-way; the same BBC Voices speakers who were early users of peng also use ‘brassic’ for broke or ‘lacking money’ – Cockney rhyming slang for skint (brassic lint).

Like it or loathe it, teens and tweens are our richest source of new coinages and language practices, and no doubt there'll be some new competition for peng in the playground this year as well as plenty of other new slang terms. Try testing your own knowledge in this BBC back-to-school slang quiz, and you can get up to speed with more young language on the Evolving English WordBank.

 

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

04 September 2017

Recording of the week: Epic

This week's selection comes from Rosy Hall, an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections.

Epic 3. b. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Particularly impressive or remarkable; excellent, outstanding. (www.oed.com)

According to one Urban Dictionary entry, the birth of ‘epic’ as a popular catchphrase has its origins among ‘avid gamers and pretentious English majors’. This fits with the WordBank contribution of one of our speakers (b.1991), who attributes it to ‘video gamer culture’ and his gaming friends.

Um, I think that ‘epic’ is a very interesting word that I constantly hear my friends use, because, it’s interesting because it’s, I feel it comes from like some kind of like video gamer culture, cause my friends are like ((bay kid)) gamers, I mean I’m not so much, but they always use the word ‘epic,’ ‘that was epic’, or like ‘epic fail’ and {cough} I just, where, what does it mean? I guess it’s kind of like…uh like ‘amazing’, like it just sort of emphasizes something. You know what I mean? Yeah. It’s like a lot of emphasis on something it’s epic, it’s not just s- -- you know ordinary, it’s epic. I don’t know, maybe it’s rooted from the actual word epic where you know, like, I don’t know the Odyssey? Who knows? Who knows. But yeah. Bye!

Epic (C1442)

Like so many words whose meanings have evolved over time, epic is a common bugbear among prescriptivists – English language mavens who would rather the word were reserved only for Homer and Virgil. As alluded to by this speaker, epic hasn’t always been a trendy word for something like ‘really good’ or ‘extreme’; traditionally it’s a genre of lengthy heroic poetry. Scholars have pointed out, however, that even this definition is fairly fluid – the meaning of epic has changed over time to cover both oral and written forms, and extends to novels and even movies (Game of Thrones, anyone?). Language change is inevitable, after all; it seems this new epic is just the latest iteration.

Song-of-ice-and-fire-1177616_1920

And we’d better get used to it: unfortunately for the pedants, a high level of objection usually correlates to a high level of usage. Judging from the number of internet rants against it, it’s clear that epic is here to stay!

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

01 September 2017

Alternate Nikolai Malko – an EMI Extended Range recording

Label

In my last blog I described the experiments going on at EMI just after the Second World War with one of the earliest examples of a tape recording being transferred to shellac disc.

In 1947, Ukrainian conductor Nikolai Malko (1883-1961) was in London to conduct a concert at the Albert Hall on 25th March which introduced American violinist sensation Arnold Eidus (1922-2013) to London.  The previous day Malko recorded Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite with the Philharmonia Orchestra at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road.  I recently acquired alternative takes of two of the sides from this recording session for the British Library.  The recording was made using the Extended Range high frequency method capable of capturing 20Hz-20kHz and marketed as ‘Transient True’.  Whereas the Gerald Moore test recording described in the previous blog was definitely recorded on tape and pressed on shellac in early April 1947, the Malko recording, from 24th March, was probably a direct cut recording.  However, the high quality of sound, only marred by the surface noise of the shellac, is remarkable.

Here is take one of the Danse Russe.  Take two was the published take.

Danse Russe

Thanks to Jolyon Hudson

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Dialect Where You Least Expect It

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

The recent publication of fixtures for the 2017-18 hockey season may have escaped the attention of many sports fans in the frenzy of Transfer Deadline Day, but this week’s friendly between Southgate and Durham University was a personal highlight as, with a daughter on each side, household bragging rights were at stake. A significant occasion for the family, of course, but surely not a source of professional interest: after all, hockey – in the UK anyway – is a predominantly middle-class sport so not, one might imagine, a likely focus for dialect research. Well you’d be surprised: the impressive thing about dialect is it can crop up virtually anywhere.

Take last season, for instance: watching one daughter play at Ben Rhydding I was delighted to see post-match teas included the option of a bread-cake (not to mention a chip buttie).

BREAD-CAKERegional variants for BREAD ROLL feature regularly in dialect surveys as noted in a previous blog post and, given the spectacular setting of Ben Rhydding Hockey Club, little more than a drag flick from Ilkley Moor and the famous Cow and Calf rocks, it’s perhaps not surprising to find Yorkshire dialect in this context. However, watching my younger daughter play in a school tournament at Charterhouse – an exclusive boarding school – I was equally intrigued by the wording on a noticeboard next to the astroturf hockey pitch.

BEAKSThis eminently sensible set of principles for parents and supporters includes in rule 8 an appeal to respect ‘decisions made by beaks and coaching staff’. The OED records the term beak [= ‘teacher’] from 1888 and includes four citations: two contain references to Eton College and two are by authors educated at Marlborough College. Its use is categorised as ‘schoolboy slang’, so not really an example of dialect then, although according to the OED dialect encompasses a ‘[m]anner of speaking, language, speech; esp. the mode of speech peculiar to, or characteristic of, a particular person or group’. While the distinction between dialect and slang can be a little blurred, it would be interesting to establish how widespread beak is within private schools – this recording explores the existence of a similarly idiosyncratic code at Harrow School, for instance.

So while beak might not be strictly comparable with the more overtly dialectal bread-cake, it offers a fascinating glimpse of boarding school parlance and demonstrates how localised and vernacular forms permeate even ‘official’ communication within a school and to its extended community. You would imagine, for instance, that Standard English is universally adopted by schools for written communication to parents, but as the new school term approaches and parents up and down the country check whether their children have the right school uniform it’s fascinating to see how one essential item of PE kit varies from place to place. A quick online search of primary school websites in England confirms that school brochures, newsletters and websites differ in how they refer to SOFT SHOES WORN FOR PE.

PE SHOE

The four variants shown here from Francis Askew Primary School in Hull (sand-shoes), Wylde Green Primary School in Birmingham (pumps), Howard Primary School in Croydon (plimsolls) and Hullavington C of E Primary School in Wiltshire (daps) were among the many alternatives captured in the BBC Voices survey of 2004/5 and show how we all use and encounter dialect even in the most unexpected places.

31 August 2017

Mr Tickle in a Newcastle accent

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

At the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library (2010-11), we asked visitors to submit recordings of their voices in specially designed telephone booths. Around 15,000 speakers took part, and the outcome is the Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – a collection of accents and dialect words from over the UK, and all around the world.

One of the things we asked participants to do was to read us a story, so that we could compare different voices saying the same thing. We went for Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Tickle; it’s a useful text because it includes plenty of words that give us clues as to where people are from, like fast and laugh, for instance (do you say yours with a short or a long ‘a’?). We also hoped its light-hearted tone would put the readers at ease so that they wouldn’t change their ‘normal’ voice too much, since sometimes reading out loud can cause people to switch into a more formal register.

In this recording, however, the speaker was so at ease that he put on a performance, exaggerating features of his Newcastle accent to give us the full Geordie experience. He even ‘translates’ some of the words into dialect terms, such as ‘starving’ for ‘hungry,’ ‘pack it in’ for ‘stop it,’ and ‘arms as long as you’d like’ to refer to Mr Tickle’s ‘extraordinarily long arms.’ Then there’s ‘out for the count’ instead of ‘fast asleep,’ and ‘upset’ for ‘terrible pandemonium.’ And of course the speaker adds ‘man’ at the end of a few sentences for good measure.

Our Newcastle speaker also beautifully demonstrates some Geordie vowel sounds for us. Notice the way he pronounces words like ‘house, ‘out,’ and ‘down’ – this ‘oo’ sound is where the Toon gets its nickname from! There’s the ‘oo’ in ‘book,’ too, and the characteristically Newcastle vowel sound in ‘long’ (‘lang’). You can find out more about Newcastle English on the Sounds Familiar website.

Perhaps the theatricality of this reading task makes it inauthentic in some way – it’s hard to say whether the participant really speaks like this in everyday life. But, we have more ‘natural’ recordings elsewhere of these features (check out this other Geordie example in the VoiceBank), so we know they can be ‘real Newcastle’ too. What’s more, recordings like this can be incredibly useful to us as sociolinguists, because they tell us something about the dialect words and features that are most salient to speakers as markers of their local identity. And, of course, they are evidence of the delight and pride speakers take in their linguistic heritage.

Continue the conversation with us @Voicesof English.

28 August 2017

Recording of the week: bringing Batwa voices back to life in Uganda

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Dr Peter Cooke has been researching music in Uganda since the 1960s. In 1968 he was in the Kisoro area in western Uganda where he recorded a few songs performed by members of the Batwa community. The recordings now form part of his collection at the British Library (BL reference: C23) and can be listened to on the British Library Sounds website.

In 1991, the Batwa in Uganda were evicted from their historic homelands and their presence in the country was decimated. In 2006-7 Christopher Kidd, then an anthropology PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow who had been working amongst the Batwa communities, took the Cooke recordings back and played them to local colleagues at the offices of the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda. On hearing them, one of the staff members was able to identify his own grandfather, a man called Kiyovu, as the sole performer of these two songs. Furthermore, he reported that Kiyovu’s only surviving son, Jeremiah Bunjagare, was still living in the area although he had been relocated, as part of a development project, to Gitebe beside Echuya Forest.

Dr Kidd went to Gitebe and played the recordings to Jeremiah. He immediately picked out his father's voice and was visibly emotional at hearing his father after all these years. With much pride he explained that the man they were listening to was a man who sat beside kings [Kiyovu was indeed a performer for Mwami Rubugiri, the king of Rwanda]. Later he danced to show his thanks for bringing his father back into his life. Dr Kidd reported: "Listening to these recordings was a time when Jeremiah and other Batwa remembered not their powerlessness but a time in which they ‘sat beside kings’ and were respected as a people and a culture."

Urwasabahizi_Innanga zither song performed by Kiyovu

Jeremiah Bunjagare listening to recording of his father from 1968 - Photo Chris Kidd 2007Jeremiah Bunjagare listening to recording of his father from 1968 - Photo Chris Kidd 2007

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