Graeme Garvey: Lost in translation, there’s no love for dialect in court

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A JUDGE decides the male defendant who uses a four-letter word in court is being disrespectful.

He feels that its use shows the erosion of common decency in Britain. He determines to intervene on behalf of the poor, defenceless woman who has been the unfortunate victim of this inappropriate language.

We prepare to agree with that judge as we mentally flick through a list of the usual suspects, words so rude we hardly dare think of them. Then we find that the four-letter word which has been hauled into the dock is “love”.

This surreal event took place recently in Barnsley and it was quite clearly the use of the word itself that was objected to by Judge John Foster, not the way in which it was spoken, since no mention was made of the tone of voice used.

Comedian Steve Coogan, as Alan Partridge, makes play of the sexist language used to deliberately patronise women in the sketch where the talk show host insults some feminists.

One wonders if Judge Foster, in some grand, quixotic gesture, is trying to save all women from being patronised and sees himself as the preux chevalier, galloping to the rescue of any female legal adviser-in-distress while, at the same time, doing his bit for common decency in Britain. Nobody calls a woman “love” in my court and gets away with it!

The whole thing is laughable, on one level, but on another level it can be seen as discriminating against someone’s authentic use of English. The context makes it clear that the person was using the word in the way many people in Yorkshire do. It is commonly used throughout the county by both males and females to other males or females as a non-sexual term of endearment and has been so used for a very long time.

Although Standard English has spread from the south and become the normal language of communication throughout Britain these days, Yorkshire dialect was traditionally an equally valid form of English and the person who was upbraided in court was merely using a dialect expression. He might well have been gobsmacked, to use a northern dialect word, to find he had caused offence.

Nor does the judge’s alternative help. Many Yorkshire folk (another dialect word) would find it rather odd, with a hint of forelock tugging, to be expected to address female court staff as “ma’am”. Imagine the trouble, too, if anyone slipped up and said, “mam” instead. Such “disrespect” could lead to a fortnight in the stocks and possibly the end to life as we know it.

The issue, here, is one of dialect not accent and it is important to see the distinction.

Accent is just how words are pronounced, so Emmerdale, Coronation Street and EastEnders are all scripted in Standard English but pronounced with a regional accent.

Few if any people speak Yorkshire dialect as their first language any more but the dialect itself (words and phrases) still survives.

Indeed it is making something of a comeback. The words “nowt” and “owt” are not corruptions of “Proper English” but point us back to their Standard English equivalents, “naught” and “aught”, now pretty much replaced by “nothing” and “anything”. But in text messages, the shorter, therefore easier, dialect words have become increasingly popular nationwide.

When someone in Yorkshire says “tha knows” – heard frequently in Barnsley – they are not corrupting “you know” but using a form dating back to Shakespeare’s time: “thou knowest”.

Again and again, you can see that losing Yorkshire dialect means losing part of our national culture and tradition. It is in this way that the judge has been insensitive to language diversity or variety.

Possibly unwittingly, he referred to “Britain” not “England” and it highlights the disadvantage that is often felt in the north of England. While Scotland is moving towards independence and Welsh language television is heavily subsidised by taxpayers throughout the UK, Yorkshire dialect, beaten by its more vigorous southern rival, is expected to slink off and disappear. Now even one word can be a dialect word too far.

What all this shows is that judges, too, are human and this one has, ironically, made a misjudgement. The defendant wasn’t being disrespectful, he was being polite and trying to bring a bit of humanity into a place where they play elaborate word games using an alien tongue, an entirely artificial language where they say, “Can you confirm that is your name?” in a world where normal folk might well say, “Is that what they call thi?”

“Can you confirm that is your name?”

“Yes, love.” Yes it is. It definitely is my name. Talking, one human being to another, I can confirm that, yes, that’s my name. But he said it much more concisely than you can in Standard English.