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Plenty of tales with Cornish accent still to tell

By West Briton  |  Posted: June 16, 2011

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ARE you proud of your accent?

I was interested to read a number of letters where contributors were bemoaning the fact that we no longer hear Cornish dialect being spoken, either in normal conversation or on the radio.

This interested me because a major part of my working life has been spent gathering stories, many of which had Cornish overtones, where the spoken word was certainly identifiably Cornish in origin.

You notice that I haven't mentioned the two most important words – "dialect" or "accent". There is a subtle difference between the two.

Dialect can be described as "a regional variety of a language, with differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation". An accent is best described as "a way of pronouncing words that indicates the place of origin or social background of the speaker".

For example, I can recall my late wife Joyce, who was a dental nurse, telling the story of how one day in the surgery the patient was sitting in the chair with the usual collection of dental tools in his mouth, when a strangulated cry went up which the dentist, a Scot, could not understand.

Fortunately, Joyce immediately recognised what was being said, and interpreted the garbled cry for help saying, "He can't clunk fitty."

Still the dentist failed to recognise what the problem was, until desperately Joyce translated: "He can't swallow properly," upon which steps were taken to make the patient more comfortable.

That, I think illustrates perfectly what is meant by dialect.

We have all recently heard of the problems that Cheryl Cole experienced in America with her Geordie accent. The Americans couldn't understand what she was saying.

I don't think this would apply to a Cornish accent. In fact, I wonder whether the American style of speech is due to the influence of those early Cornish settlers.

A person's accent, however, can change from one area of Cornwall to another. You can easily identify the difference between those brought up in west Cornwall and those born near the Cornwall-Devon border.

I am sure you all remember the accent of Raymond Shaddock on Radio Cornwall – described as "the boy from Bude" – there was no mistaking that accent.

People from St Ives are also blessed with an attractive lilt to their voice. Difficult to interpret in print, but once heard never forgotten.

Unfortunately, today everyone is mobile and no longer restricted to living and working in one particular area, so truly local accents are diminished.

People moving and retiring to Cornwall also make a difference, as well as radio, television and films.

In schools I am sure many students would not like to be identified because of a strong local accent. Everyone wants to conform to what might be described as the basic standard.

However, although the odd dialect word is still used in conversation – very often with the speaker not fully aware of its origins – identifiable Cornish accents still exist.

So, in a sense, it has become even more important to record those stories in the way that they were meant to be told, with the Cornish element to the fore.

I have been involved with the Holman Project. This is where part of over 160 reels of film stock, covering the activities of the world-famous mining equipment company based in Camborne, has been preserved and digitised and made available to the public through the services of the Trevithick Society and Azook, (itself a dialect word used by gig coxswain in Newquay, to urge their crews onto greater effort).

This is a Cornish-based, not-for-profit community interest company, based at the Innovation Centre at Pool.

Azook undertook the presentation of the programme and recorded the recollections of the men and women who worked at Holman's, which is the side of the project that I was involved with.

Those recordings, and many others that I have collected over the years, are slowly being placed on a website organised by Azook at www.cornishmemory.com

The joy of undertaking a task such as this is to share the experience in the telling of the tale. The person concerned is reliving the incident that they are describing, and, as I have found in so many similar incidents in the past, listening to that recording on playback you can almost see the twinkle in their eye.

I have always claimed that everybody has at least one story to tell about an incident or a moment in their life, which they would love to have the opportunity to share with others.

I have come across stories in the past, far removed from my original reason for talking to someone. In the Isles of Scilly, for example, I interviewed someone about the "Welcome Stranger" gold nugget discovered in Australia, only to discover over a cup of tea after the interview that the lady of the house had been delivered by Dr Crippen who used to stay in Tregarthens Hotel on St Mary's. Her father was Dr Crippen's boatman.

A similar incident occurred at Delabole when I interviewed an elderly quarry worker about his days in the slate industry. Over a cup of tea he disclosed that he had housed Ronnie Biggs, the "Great Train Robber", as an evacuee during the war.

Only a few weeks ago I was asked to record an elderly gentleman's life story so that it could be passed down to future members of his family.

During the recording, he related the tale of an unusual incident in Helston where, many years ago, a circus based in the lower part of town faced an unfortunate situation when three lions escaped and were wandering around the area we know today as the boating lake.

Once you get in conversation with anybody you never know what surprises might lie in store.

So, returning to my original theme regarding dialect and accents, what I am really saying is that there are still plenty of people with an identifiable Cornish accent, who have stories to tell.

All it needs is the will to meet them and listen – you will be surprised at what you might discover.

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