It's In How You Inflect

by Quinn

My son is nearly two years old, and his vocabulary and communication skills are advancing apace (I apologise to those who feel I talk about my family life a bit too much. If that applies to you then I suggest you move along. There’s nothing for you here).

Most of his conversational English is limited to single words, perhaps prefixed be the word “di”, which is his way of saying “the”. So, we have “di out”, when he wants to go outside; “di walk” accompanied by a pointing manoeuvre aimed at his shoes when he wants to go for a toddle; “di bin” when he has found a microscopic substance on the floor which he wants rid of; and “di dance” when he wants me to pick him up and knacker myself out, jigging along to his favourite songs such as “Stumble and Fall” by Razorlight, “Brassneck” by The Wedding Present or “Unbelievable” by EMF (he is clearly up for Backing Blair).

He does occasionally burst out with a few two word phrases that take us aback; “sorry mum” once when he bumped into my wife; “pig book” when he wants us to read “Wibbly Pig” to him; “more fruit” when he wants another peach to eat, followed by “mmm, nice” as he scoffs it, “oh dear” if he drops it, and “all gone” when he has finished it.

We do sometimes get longer sentences; for example “bye-bye, see y’soon” as a ‘plane passes overhead (which happens regularly, we are fortunate enough to live under the flight-path for Manchester Airport) but usually a long sentence requires lots of filling; so instead of saying “father, one is hungry and is most anxious that one may be allowed to partake in a slice, maybe two, of that delicious roasted topside one did most recently purchase from the butchers” we usually get “di di di di di di di di di meat”. Actually, I prefer the latter to the former. Still, the other day I got a hell of a shock when he ran up to me and said “Daddy, what r’y doin’…books?” as I sat perusing a paperback.

Of course, the pronunciation isn’t quite there for many words; he still has his own terms for certain objects. So, chocolate is “dot-dot”, biscuit is “bee bit” and banana is “nanis”, a corruption of the original “nana”. In the main I find these words very cute, but less so when they have been shouted at top volume, continuously for five minutes, while I have a headache that feels as if someone has taken a garden claw to my left temple. Which does happen from time to time.

However, there are a few things I have particularly noticed about the way my son talks, and they are;

  • He pronounces some “l” sounds as “w”. So bottle becomes “bott-uw”, when every one knows that around these parts children should pronounce bottle as “bock-ul”. Similarly, when he once had a fit asking for “we-wees” we were utterly confused, until my wife twigged that he wanted to wear his wellies.
  • For some reason, when my son says “the horse” it comes out as “di ‘ose”, in the way one would imagine a poor David Bowie impressionist would speak the words; a dropped “h”, and the rest of the word said as in“hose”, but with a hard “s” sound rather than a softer “z”, if that makes any sense.
  • Although he eschews the glottal (or should that be “glo’al”) stop, he makes use of its distant cousin, in that rather than dropping “t”s, he drops “p”s; so apple becomes “a’ull”; or rather “a’uw”, since he still pronounces an “l” as a “w”.

The overall result is that my son seems to speak in a vaguely estuary English accent, at least when he says certain words; but why? Neither my wife nor I speak that way. If he has learnt his speech from copying, then from whom has he been copying?

The most obvious explanation is the oft-quoted belief that as we watch and listen to more of the national media our regional accents and dialects will die out, to be replaced by the most prevalent speech form of the times, which is currently believed to be estuary English. This I feel would be a rather sad, but likely explanation. While I would like to think that his mother and I play a major role in his life, I suspect my son pays more attention to the words of Bella from the Tweenies than he does to either of us.

Alternatively, is it possible that my son is simply speaking in the manner that is the easiest for him to enunciate? Is it perhaps the case that he talks in the same way that every other small child in the UK has done for hundreds of years? In other words, what I am trying to suggest is, could it be that the speakers of estuary English are simply using a speech pattern that has failed to progress beyond the standards of your average (not quite) two year old?