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

04 October 2021

Recording of the week: Dog team or engine power? Sleds and other subjects in 1940s Alaska

This week's selection comes from George Brierley, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

During my time working as a cataloguer on the Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project, I have been fortunate to catalogue a diverse range of oral history collections. The majority of the interviews in these collections are several hours long, recorded across a number of tapes and over a number of days. Occasionally, you will come across a short but sweet recording like this one.

This recording is a ten minute conversation between Abraham Lincoln, an Inuit fisherman (not the 16th president of the United States) and Pete Severnay, a Norwegian sailor. It took place in the city of Kotzebue, Alaska, just above the Arctic Circle, in the winter of 1948.

Despite its short length, the recording covers quite wide ground.

We discover that Abraham has been staying with Pete, who has been travelling across North America for the past few years.

The men discuss several topics. Pete thinks that he might stay in Kotzebue, but it all depends on the fishing. He also complains about the lack of employment opportunities in the area, and that any available jobs pay too little - one dollar an hour.

Abraham has a different outlook; one dollar an hour is a perfectly reasonable wage for the locals to live on. Pete is fishing to keep himself busy, but his main interest is gold prospecting – he believes that there are large amounts of gold in the area.

Unsurprisingly, the two men discuss the weather. Pete isn’t too bothered by the cold. After all, he’s been travelling in wind and storms during his entire time in Alaska, with visibility so poor that he hasn’t been able to see his hand in front of his face at times. He has also built his own sled.

In the audio excerpt below, Abraham amusingly mistakes Pete’s sled for a table, and they start a lively discussion about dog team sleds versus engine-powered sleds.

You will be able to hear a slight hum in the background which comes from the recording device:

A discussion about sleds [BL REF C1603/01 S1]

Download Transcript - A discussion about sleds

Inuit family with MalamuteAn Inuit family with an Alaskan Malamute, c. 1915. Photograph from Wikipedia. Original source: W. E. Mason. Malamutes are the sled dogs that are mentioned by Abraham.

We know little about the background of this recording – the open reel tape travelled from Kotzebue to Anchorage, before arriving in the United Kingdom and ending up at the British Library. We also know little about the two men in conversation.

I could not find any information about Pete Severnay online, although I did find some more information about Abraham. He lived in Kotzebue with his wife, Blanche, where they raised two sons and two daughters. His birth date is listed as around 1887, so he would have been in his early sixties at the time of this recording.

The fact that we know so little about the two men and the recording is irrelevant. In fact, the anonymity adds to the overall appeal. The important thing is that the two men have come together to share their unique knowledge and experiences. They may be different in terms of age and culture, but it is clear from their words that they have respect for each other’s differences.

This recording offers a glimpse into what life was like for the inhabitants of Alaska during the time but also gives insight into the life of an outsider venturing into an isolated community. Who knows? Perhaps this conversation was the start of a friendship lasting the rest of their lives.

Follow @BL_OralHistory, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

22 September 2021

Postcards from China

Since the end of August 2021 a new British Library audio exhibition 'Listen: The Story of Recorded Sound' has been open to visitors to Pingshan Library, Shenzhen, China. It will run until 20 February 2022.

Visitors will be able to hear an eclectic mix of sounds from the British Library’s collection of over 6.5 million recordings of spoken word, music, wildlife and the environment. Recordings date from the 1880s to the present day. 

The exhibition was brought to Pingshan Library in partnership with the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC) and Pingshan Media Centre (PMC), alongside Pingshan Global Promotion Centre (PGPC), and was sponsored by the Publicity Department of the CPC Pingshan District Committee of Shenzhen (PDCPC).

This is the first time that the British Library has brought an audio exhibition to China to be experienced by Chinese audiences. Please see our Chinese-language page about the exhibition for more.

Exhibition photo - image courtesy of Pingshan Media Centre

Above: 'Listen' exhibition, Pingshan Library. Copyright © Pingshan Media Centre, 2021. Used with permission.

In a novel initiative to help publicise the exhibition, the CBBC collaborated with students from the Innovation Lab of Art and Technology, Shenzhen University. The students were invited to develop a set of 10 promotional postcards. The results were quite striking and original, and a selection is reproduced here.

Postcard design by Chen Lin

Postcard design by Feng Jiahao

Postcard design by Han Feng

Postcard design by Huang Jianhui

Postcard design by Zeng Zhixiong
Artists, from top to bottom: Chen Lin; Feng Jiahao; Han Feng; Huang Jianhui; Zeng Zhixiong. Images copyright © The Innovation Lab of Art and Technology, Shenzhen University, 2021. Used with permission.

13 September 2021

Recording of the week: I nearly went bozz-eyed when I saw this!

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

After a summer in which most of us have holidayed in the UK, I’ve been fascinated on my travels to note a growing enthusiasm for commercial products that celebrate local speech and identity. Gift shops and craft stores now frequently sell souvenirs such as tea towels, T-shirts, mugs, beer etc. featuring local phrases or playful re-spellings of everyday expressions to reflect local accents – a phenomenon linguists call ‘dialect commodification’.

During a recent trip to Ashbourne, I was delighted to spot this framed poster of ‘The Derbyshire Periodic Table’. The display replicates the layout of the conventional periodic table, but chemical elements are replaced by a local expression with a correspondingly made-up symbol and atomic number. The entry I find particularly striking is located at the bottom of the red group on the left-hand side – the symbol Bz with the atomic number 73 representing boz-eyed [= ‘cross-eyed’].

Photograph of Derbyshire Periodic table

The 1950s Survey of English Dialects (SED) documented several regional variants for ‘cross-eyed’ including glee-eyed in the North East, skend in Lancashire, squint-eyed in East Anglia and the West Country and boss-eyed in the Midlands and South. This regional distribution of boss-eyed is confirmed by a contribution to the Library’s WordBank by a speaker from Barnet, Hertfordshire, who was surprised when she moved to Merseyside to discover that speakers there were unfamiliar with the term:

C1442X02420 BOSS-EYED

boss-eyed means cross-eyed … somebody who doesn’t see straight ahead …
I live in Merseyside and I find nobody in that area will understand that word

Intriguingly, although ‘boss-eyed’ was recorded frequently in the SED across the southern half of England, there were only two localities where informants supplied a pronunciation with a medial <-z-> sound – one in Lapley, Staffordshire, the other in Kniveton, Derbyshire – a village just outside Ashbourne, which is a convincing explanation for the alternative spelling in the Derbyshire Periodic Table.

entry for bozz-eyed from the Survey of English Dialects book  SED entry at CROSS-EYED showing the form bozz-eyed in Kniveton and Lapley. Survey of English Dialects Basic Material: The West Midland Counties (1969, p.600)

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