Belfast has a very rich linguistic heritage. Its colourful local dialect is used in very skilful ways by many of its speakers, who use its resources to tell great stories about events which have happened to them, engage in affectionate ‘banter’ and ‘slegging off’ their friends, and tell jokes often at their own expense.
Unfortunately, the dialect and these speaking skills are not generally valued in the education system. This undoubtedly contributes to the underachievement in that system within working class areas and particularly among Protestant boys. It is well know from the literature on sociolinguistics that considerable prestige attaches to the use of non-standard speech among young males, whereas young females tend to adopt more standard speech styles.
The stigmatization of working class speech has two very bad effects. First, and most directly, it means that within the education system, pupils lose marks for using their local dialect. Moreover, teachers do not ‘teach’ standard English as an alternative and useful dialect – on the whole they do not know how to describe the differences between the local forms and the standard form, but simply mark the former wrong. Being regularly marked down for using their native language variety cannot help the attitude of pupils to school, which linguistically at least can come to be seen as an alien environment.
Moreover, the oral storytelling skills particularly characteristic of inner city Belfast, are not the kind of skills which are valued in the classroom, where stories should have a clearly structured form with a beginning middle and end, not the more rambling, and interesting, stories that are told on the streets.
The aim of this project is twofold. First, it aims to collect examples of the dialect of speakers of Belfast English and to use these to create a website showing how this dialect is just as structured and linguistically correct as standard English, and how rich and skilled the performance of local speakers can be; and secondly to create a resource for teachers which will encourage them to value local speech forms, and to teach standard English through comparison with these forms without devaluing the local dialect. Many teachers indicate a fear that if they do not tell pupils their dialect is ‘wrong’ then ‘they will think it is all right to speak that way’; they do not appreciate that it is very possible to be bidialectal and still speak the local dialect, while being able to use standard English in writing or in more formal situations.
It is not only in education but also in employment that speakers of Belfast English are discriminated against. Using ‘I seen’ or ‘I done’ can be seen by recruiters as a badge of lack of education. On the contrary, these are every bit as linguistically correct as ‘saw’ and ‘did’; it is just a historical accident that the English of the southeast of England has come to be seen as more correct than other local varieties. We also need to educate employers to realise that in rejection ‘seen’ and ‘done’ users they are missing a large pool of talent which simply happens to use a local dialect.
With thanks to Prof Alison Henry, Professor of Linguistics, School of Communication, University of Ulster at Jordanstown, Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, N Ireland, BT37 0QB.