It’s been 12 years since I last did fieldwork in Wales. In April-May 2000 I spent a month collecting data in Llandybie, south-west Wales, and in four north Welsh localities for my PhD thesis which focused on syntactic variation. Because I wanted quantifiable data, the method was guided informal interview. This time, in October-November 2012, I spent two days in the Rhondda, the village of Tonypandy, collecting data for a comprehensive description of Welsh English – phonology, morphosyntax and lexicon – to be written together with Rob Penhallurick from Swansea University. And yeah, it’s not Tony as in Soprano, but Ton-y-Pandy, ‘the sound of the mill’. The Rhondda with its two river valleys, Rhondda Fawr (big) and Rhondda Fach (small), was a busy coalmining region in the late half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The workforce was flooding in from England and rural Wales, producing a mixture of languages that first favoured Welsh, the English having to learn it, but later turning the region wholly English-speaking. One of my informants, a retired miner aged 85, told me that his parents were both Welsh-speaking, yet never spoke the language to their children in order to give them the advantage of speaking English instead. Such stories are common in local family histories, and much could be said about the Rhondda and its languages and dialects. I’ll however focus on the methods of data collection.
As it happens, this was my first experience of carrying out dialectological fieldwork in the tradition of Harold Orton and Eugen Dieth of the Survey of English Dialects fame. The method is based on a lengthy questionnaire, which the fieldworker goes through with a handful of informants in each locality. The questionnaire consists of a phonetic lexical set and a list of questions describing a variety of things – family terms, objects, natural phenomena, farming implements, etc. – without mentioning the item directly. The questions can also be used to elicit morphosyntactic features. The informant is expected to come up with the term or construction he (or she) would most naturally use.
Our present questionnaire was an updated and much shortened version, with the same list of words that was used for the BBC Voices Language Lab online survey carried out in 2005-7. The new results will therefore be comparable with these data. The Voices online method, however, was to give the standard expression or – if there wasn’t one – a brief description of the word and ask web surfers to submit any number of other terms they knew for the item. We went back to the method of circumventing the word.
I interviewed ten people during the two days: background data and perceptions about Welsh and Welsh dialects of English were the main topics of conversation. Then came the word list. There was typically more than one interviewee in the room, which produced a lot of lively discussion as to what expressions were used by whom, which words were ‘bad language’, and which were used before but had died out. The productivity of grandmother, for instance, is amazing: mam, mamgu, mambo, nan, nana, nanny, nano, gran and granchi(?) were mentioned, most of them with a Welsh-English etymology. Of some words the informants were practically unanimous: ‘child’s soft shoes word for PE’ are daps. The 12-year-old daughter of one informant extended the word also to what I would call sneakers or tennis shoes, which means that the word is certainly not disappearing. It’s not Welsh in origin, though. As the BBC Voices map for the item shows, this is a high-frequency word in the south-east Wales and Bristol area, also Buckinghamshire and Dorset, but not elsewhere. Whaddoyaknow.
The method of circumventing the requested word prevents the informant from being influenced by the given term, but it also means that in some cases the word that he or she says is indeed the most common, Standard English one. (Boring, but if that’s the word they would use, so be it). It can also produce unexpected outcomes. I described ‘feeling hot’ to an elderly lady by saying: ‘In the middle of July, when the sun is really beaming down, you feel…’ And the lady answered happily: ‘Wonderful!’ What would you have said?
PS. The majority response, after I added a touch of discomfort in the description, was boilin’.