20 December 2018

Ancestors and their Speech Communities

Even if you have little awareness of the origins of language, you will probably be aware that there have been many different languages, accents, dialects and speech communities in the world.

What would your ancestors have sounded like?

I have already written briefly about the sound of ancestors.


Education, migration and the mass media now often shape the way people speak. 

But how has kinship care influenced your dialect?

Have you tried to shake off an earlier dialect or tried to acquire a new one?

How do you communicate in difficult situations, particularly if foreign-language speakers are involved?

In the 19th century, my husband's Italian ancestors lived in various areas of that diverse peninsula.  They would probably not have been able to understand each other's dialects very well, if at all, or even standard Italian.  They were uneducated people, like my ancestors.

My Belgian ancestors seem to have spoken both French and Dutch. But would I have been able to understand any of my ancestors if they could speak to me today?  And would they have been able to understand me?

Even today, I have enough trouble trying to make myself understood in English amongst other English speakers.  And I have had an education.

Yet does an education mainly make thoughts and life more complicated than necessary?

I know from my travels that I am often misinterpreted, and that I misinterpret other people.  Even in daily life in a predominantly English-speaking society, I am frequently confronted by confusing situations.  That can lead to all sorts of problems!

Clear, accurate communication usually requires shared linguistic norms.

Words and phrases are often associated with work.

What jargon do you usually use?

None of my ancestors, anywhere, would have spoken in the same way as members of a royal family.

My ancestors in Belgium would have been unlikely to have had their names in the Almanach de Gotha.

My ancestors in England would probably have known little about the politics of England, even if they had the ability to read newspapers, and the money and time to do so.

None of my British or Irish ancestors would have had their names in Burke's Peerage, or even Burke's Commoners.

You may have an awareness of the languages of the United Kingdom.

Do you speak an insular Celtic language at all?

Do you know much about the origins of the English language and other Anglic languages?

There are many different regional English dialects in many parts of the world, including southern England.

If your ancestors came from south-east England, how did they sound?

My paternal grandmother's family probably spoke variations of Cockney and Estuary English.  She mainly had a north London accent.

My paternal grandfather spoke West Country English.  His protestant Ulster ancestors would probably not have used the language of Irish kinship.  As far as I am aware, none of my ancestors spoke the Ulster Scots dialect though they probably spoke a version of Ulster English

My maternal grandmother spent her early years in the English Black Country but she did not have a Black Country dialect.  She had a soft East Shropshire accent, as did my maternal grandfather.

My paternal grandmother's father would probably have conversed with many different types of people in his job as a tram conductor in London.  He work for 41 years doing that, apart from in the First World War when he was sent off to fight instead.  Women did his job while he was away.

I have been wondering whether Jack's first language was Dutch, French or English.  Each piece of new information uncovers more mysteries. 

My great-grandfather probably started work on the trams in around 1912.  My grandmother was born three years later.  She already had an older brother. 

My great grandmother subsequently had three more boys.  She certainly had her hands full, just as she had with me on my first ever Christmas.

Do you already know enough about my fair ancestors in Mayfair and how they spoke?

Do you know much about trams in London

I wonder whether the trams my great-grandfather conducted were similar to the ones I experienced in Hong Kong.  They had not changed much since the early 20th century.

Have you ever visited the London Transport Museum?

The British National Tramways Museum is now in the village of Crich in Derbyshire.  I have never been there.  In fact, I have only just discovered its existence.  It is not far from where my mother lives.

It is a pity I never had a chance to take my grandmother there.  She would have loved reminiscing about her younger years, sitting on a tram.

Have you ever had difficulty explaining your public transport needs in a foreign language anywhere?

I know I have.  Trying to work out where to get off a bus or tram is particularly confusing without local language skills and knowledge of the area.



Here are a few earlier reflections on Ancestors Within:


Working families and genealogical studies

A Carnaby Street childhood

The importance of being earnest with Alice in wonderland

At the seaside - part four

Finsbury Park and London family history





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I especially appreciate historical insights.