SCOUSE: LIVERPOOL’S UNIQUE DIALECT
Issue 4 of The Merseysider magazine has an article on a new study of the language spoken in Liverpool – ‘Scouse: A Social And Cultural History’, written by Tony Crowley and published by Liverpool University Press. Here is the full version of the interview with Tony on which the article is based.
1. There’s a strong ‘personal’ element in the book (most obviously in Chapter 6), which as a reader I certainly thought was one of its many strengths. Could you briefly explain what writing the book meant to you – writing about your own city and your own accent?
In my experience, people elsewhere in Britain have always been ‘generous’ enough to share their views on ‘Scouse’: to comment on its perceived faults, to take it as an object of ridicule, and – most tedious of all – to mimic it (usually badly). So, like many people from the city, having been on the receiving end of what must constitute one of the last socially acceptable forms of prejudice, I thought I’d actually investigate the language of Liverpool to see if I could unpack not just its past, but also its role in contemporary Britain, as a way of discovering what it is exactly that makes the speech of this place the subject of such fascination (sometimes expressed as contempt, sometimes as romanticised nostalgia).
With regard to the city, well I think being secure in the world means having a sure sense of the place you call home as a basis for making your way away from it (and back to it when you want to return). Liverpool is that place for me – it gave me a lot and I wanted to give something back in return.
2. You point out the flaws in the usual ‘Scouse = Lancashire dialect + Irish-English’ formula. But where then did Scouse come from? Were there other influences at work? Or is it mistaken to try to explain it in this way?
My argument is that Liverpool had a distinctive form of language in effect by the mid eighteenth century, and one which evolved – shaped by the patterns of population change – over the next hundred years or so. But I also contend that the language of this place evidently developed under the influence of the enormous influx of immigrants – from Ireland and elsewhere – during the mid to late nineteenth century. In addition I suggest that Liverpool’s function both as a location of population movement, and as a place from which many natives travelled elsewhere and then returned, were other significant factors which had an impact on the language. So in short, I see the history of language in Liverpool as being much more complicated than the version offered in the standard account.
3. You explain how Scouse has many cultural meanings/associations. Other accents have their associations and stereotypes (e.g. the Glaswegian accent’s association with toughness), but is Scouse almost unique in having so much cultural import? (Cockney is the only comparable accent that comes to mind in this respect.)
I think the difference is that the invention and popularisation of ‘Scouse’ (in the 1950s and early to mid 1960s primarily) more or less coincides with the advent of popular culture itself. So unlike other accents – which are undoubtedly recognisable and linked with certain places and ‘types’, ‘Scouse’ has been marked by being associated with very significant developments within popular music and television (everything from Z-Cars to The Liver Birds, The Beatles to Brookside).
4. As I’m sure you know from your visits, the physical appearance of the centre of Liverpool has changed considerably in recent years, with lots of new buildings etc. These changes, along with the Capital of Culture year, have been widely reported in national as well as local media. Among some Liverpudlians there seems to be a different kind of pride and a different kind of confidence. Do you think the national perception of Liverpool (and the self-perception of its inhabitants) might be changing?
Well I’ve never thought of Liverpudlians as being short of confidence! And I’m deeply sceptical that developments like Liverpool One will do much for the city in the long run. On the other hand, there has been proper investment in the place – much of it funded by the British State and the EU – and that has begun to change perceptions externally and internally. In a sense though, what that really illustrates is the waste and neglect of all those lost years of decline and destruction. Liverpool is a city whose resources – including its culture, its built environment and its people – are unique; all it ever needed (and still needs) is long-term and well-directed investment geared towards the creation of sustainable opportunities and rewards. Give it that and it will flourish; perceptions will follow.
5. At the close of the book there’s an intriguing reference to the ‘lost literature’ of Liverpool. Could you briefly elaborate on what you mean by this, and is it an area you hope to investigate in the future?
There is a history of wonderful writing in Liverpool which is virtually unknown and inaccessible. I’m particularly interested in the history of the Liverpool novel – from the mid Victorian period on. The material ranges from novelistic critiques of the barbaric excesses of mercantile capitalism, through the Liverpool-Welsh novelists of the late Victorian period, the early-feminist writings of May Sinclair and Winifred Duke, the experimental writing of James Hanley (whose five-volume story of the Fureys is a staggering achievement), the brutalities of Malcolm Lowry’s work, the novels of the 1950s and their portrayal of a city struggling between past and future, and on to the contemporary novels which attempt to use ‘Scouse’ as their narrative medium. It’s an amazing body of material which I hope to address in an extended study after I finish my next project (a glossary of Liverpool English from around 1850 to the present).