How the Edwardians Spoke

The BBC4 Edwardian season continues to come up with good stuff. There were two most enjoyable Saki programmes last week (Of all the writers and artists killed in the War, was any a greater loss than Saki?) and today we had How the Edwardians Spoke.

In this programme, a dialect expert called Joan Washington told us about a remarkable collection of sound recordings. A sort of Austrian Henry Higgins was mad keen on English accents, and during the War realised that he had a literally captive archive of voices gathered together in POW camps. He got 200 of them reciting poems,singing songs and telling the story of the prodigal son in their local accent. The German authorities seem to have financed it because they thought they might as well know the languages of their future empire.
The recordings have the poignancy of all fragments of the past, and Ms Washington got some effective TV out of the emotions of descendants hearing their great-uncle’s voice. There wasn’t much technical analysis – except that local accents were much broader then. We only heard four of the voices, from Dorset, Macclesfield, Aberdeen and Oxfordshire. The programme makers maybe had a problem in that the soldiers didn’t say anything personal – the Bible story was the favourite text, and maybe they didn’t think we’d sit through more than a few different versions of it.

So the programme was more interesting as a glimpse of possibilities than for what it really told us about accent in Edwardian times. It’s just good to know that such an archive exists, and that specialists will be able to work on it.

It’s also good to think of yet another Great War oddity – that Austrian phoneticist less interested in the war than in the linguistic peculiarities of the enemy.

The Edwardians series continues through the week.It’s Marie Lloyd on Wednesday.

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