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2 January 2010

Nowere Boy

No, there isn't a typo in the title of this post. It's not true that the only reason I went to see Sam Taylor-Wood's new film, Nowhere Boy, a film about John Lennon's formative, teenage years, is because I wanted to improve my ear for the Liverpool accent, but my inner phonetician just couldn't switch off during the film--luckily, there wasn't anyone in the cinema sitting close enough to me to hear me muttering to myself under my breath, trying out different sample sounds of the accent. I've always been able to do a good job of certain set phrases in Scouse, such as, "fuckin' great" and "charmin'", the former helped by the fact that I can master the alveolar tap r, which is a bit like a trilled, Spanish r that never really gets going.

After muttering to myself all the way home, I immediately logged on to the Speech Accent Archive, to see if they had any Scousers reading the "please call Stella" transcript. The SAA is great for people who know IPA because as well as the sound clips, you also get an IPA transcription, which is really useful if you want to know which exact phone the speaker is using. Unfortunately, there was a notable absence of Liverpudlians on the SAA so I turned to Wikipedia. 

The entry on Scouse was brief and the section about the phonology of Scouse was briefer skill, although it did offer some insight to the way that while in 21st century Scouse, were and wear are both pronounced wear, in the past, they were both pronounced as were; the entry even mentions that John Lennon and George Harrison would have pronounced nowhere as no-were, hence Nowere Boy

Without a copy of Peter Trudgill's classic textbook, The Dialects of English, I thought my search to improve my Liverpool accent was going to come to an abrupt halt. Then, I discovered The International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA), which is another great resource for geeky linguists and actors, set up along the same lines as the SAA: speech samples are arranged by the place of origin of the speaker and various sociological details about them are given. The speaker then reads one of two set texts, which were written in order to elicit samples of the major phonetic points of interest among different accents of interest; the speakers then continue with a few minutes of unscripted speech about their family, upbringing and the local area. 

You can certainly hear the were-wear merging among the Liverpudlian speakers (there are several of them in the north-west section of this page), with nurse, work, square and her, among others, all being produced with the same vowel sound (I'm itching to include some IPA in this post but Blogger tends to mangle it; suffice to say, it is the sound that is represented in IPA by a backwards three). Sadly, IDEA doesn't  yet have IPA transcriptions (just a transcription in English of the freestyle speech) but it's still a very useful site.

Some of the speakers are pretty nervous (nair-vuss) when giving their samples, with the freestyle segments being punctuated with airms; of course, the best way to elicit the most natural samples of people's language is to tell them that you are really studying what it was like to grow up in Liverpool in the 20th century and to ask them to talk about topics that are likely to be emotional and/or very personal. However, in the days of institutional review boards and bureaucracy, even linguists have to worry about the ethical dilemmas of conducting research with human subjects.

As for the film itself, I enjoyed it, even from a non-linguistic perspective. I'm not a huge fan of The Beatles but I quite like biopics and even though Kristin Scott Thomas is becoming the female equivalent of Ralph Fiennes, Nowhere Boy was understated and touching without being too maudlin; it goes without saying that it was beautifully shot and had a great soundtrack.


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