What do I know about Code-Switching? Well, I’m from Dundee…

The other day my kids were acting out some scenario, both pretending to be old people. Inevitably, their old people characters speak Scots. Well, their best imitations of Scots, which, with them having 1 parent and grandparents from the north-east, the other parent and grandparent from the south-east but themselves growing up in the west of Scotland, results in a mangled mixture of Glaswegian-meets-Dundonian with a liberal sprinkling of Borders. I don’t so much correct them as suggest more consistent phraseology, because I’m happy for them to play around with language and it’s interesting to hear what they come up with. Even more interesting is that they feel they have to “put on” the accent/dialect when in character rather than seeing those words as ones they might actually employ themselves, even though they understand them in context.

I’m a sign language interpreter, so am lucky enough to work with languages in a professional capacity, but my long and still continuing journey to become a language professional started with a personal, recreational interest in languages. I learnt French at school and enjoyed it, although we weren’t particularly encouraged to take languages as advanced courses (I could write a whole blog series on my school experience…) I then spent a year in Sweden and learned basic Swedish. After university, where I trained in a Japanese martial art and therefore picked up a smattering of Japanese, I took some evening classes, first to refresh my French, then beginners Spanish. Finally I landed in British Sign Language and that one stuck and led me, after a decade of learning on and off, to start a 2nd career as an interpreter.

But all those are “proper” languages. When I was younger, Scots wasn’t really given serious credence. Growing up in Dundee, we always felt that our particular variant was just Dundonian, not really part of the whole Auld Lang Syne, old timey Robert Burns era way of speaking. Dundonian was fine to speak with your pals but we would get in trouble at school for not speaking properly – ironically sometimes discouraged from being “orrie”… * We were told that there was something wrong and shameful about the way we spoke. It wasn’t given a name, it was just not “proper”.

I’ve spent a lot of lockdown time listening to linguistics podcasts, primarily Lingthusiasm and The Allusionist. The latter has done 2 episodes featuring Scots – this one and this one. They are well worth a listen, both to get some background in how Scots and local dialects were suppressed, but also how people are refreshing the language with new terms as society changes.

Lingthusiams merch shirt. Would have preferred a rhotic joke but this one’s pretty good.

There seems to have been a bit of a resurgence in the recognition and preservation of Scots in recent years. My kids got The Gruffalo in Scots through their school and I wasn’t particularly convinced, it was a weirdly inconsistent mix of east and west coast words and some I’d never heard of. However the whole idea was to encourage kids to think about, learn about and use Scots so as far as that goes it was a good thing. (BTW The Highway Rat is much better than the Gruffalo) I don’t want my kids thinking that there is anything wrong, shameful or old-fashioned about the way their grandparents speak.

In fact when my youngest was learning to talk, she happened to pick up a word for ‘garment covering the legs’ whilst in Dundee, so her word was “breeks” for ages. They still refer to drains in the street as “cundies” because that’s a far better and more specific word. They can be heard to mutter “oot ma road” when someone is in their way. They know what a fleg and an oxter are and what it means if something is foostie.

Blast from the past. This book, whilst not uncontroversial, does somewhat capture the Dundonian tongue.

Last week I was interpreting a college class during which the lecturer relayed an anecdote about being handed a “muckle folder all coverered in stoor”. It was fantastic to hear. For too long that would have been considered language unbecoming of a lecturer, but she was speaking in a way that was natural to her and in that context – using a story from her experience to make a point relevant to the lesson – it was perfectly fitting.

There’s a concept in linguistics called “code-switching” – basically adjusting your language/dialect/way of speaking in different situations. I learned about this in an early sign language class. The teacher explained the concept and asked if we could think of any examples. All I had to say is, “well, I’m from Dundee…” and everyone in the room immediately understood. Dundonians aren’t quite bilingual, but we certainly do code-switch to a significant degree when speaking to any non-Dundonian. We are by no means the only ones, many groups do it for various reasons and it can be natural and easy or forced and exhausting. That experience gave me an understanding and appreciation of the variations in our language as well as the attitudes and perceptions that go along with these.

I’m making more of an effort to use dialect words and phrases with my kids. I don’t want them to be forgotten or lost with their grandparents. Passing on my Dundonian is part of passing on my heritage and culture, just as much as introducing them to the Beano, talking really fast and forcing them to follow the fates and fortunes (mostly fates) of a 2nd rate football team that play in tangerine and black. Any excuse to tell them to go “awa’n bile yer heid”.


*Translations:

Awa’n bile yer heid – Go away and boil your head – get out of here/don’t be silly

Breeks – Trousers

Fleg – Fright

Foostie – Gone off (food etc)

Muckle – Large

Orrie – Uncouth

Oot ma road – Get out of my way

Oxter – Armpit

Stoor – Dust

Booby Trap

My favourite bra broke last week and I am in mourning. I don’t mean that it got a bit too worn to be useable, frankly it’s been a bit shabby for some time now but it’s not like anyone else is seeing the state of it. No, I mean broke, because I am a woman of certain proportions, my bras contain engineering and parts and they broke. I can’t remember how long I’ve had that particular bra, but I remember it was bought some years ago along with several others, it’s brethren long since departed this earth (ok, send to the clothes recycling place). It wasn’t the prettiest (we’ll come to that) but it was the most comfortable. It wasn’t actually comfortable per se (we’ll come to that too) but it was the least uncomfortable of all my bras. Ah, old faithful “plain flesh coloured” (racist) I’ll miss you.

I remember a friend once telling me that she’d been to Primark. Didn’t really see anything but picked up a handful of cute bras anyway. Oh, how I long to be able to skip into Primark and pick up a handful of cute bras! My bra shopping usually involves a quantity surveyor, a structural engineer and at least 2 stout ladies called Moira.

Bra shopping for the larger-busted lady also can’t just be done in any old shop, no, we get special sections of shops, even special shops to cater for our needs. We also need to take out small loans or sell non-essential organs if we want to purchase anything. Apparently, all that extra fabric and scaffolding is expensive. I have seen myself easily spend over £100 on just a few bras. I mean, it wasn’t easy, it was devastating but there’s no other option. The Scottish Government has subsidised menstrual products, recognising the additional costs that girls and women face and that this is unaffordable for some, I think the next campaign should be bras. First the “Tampon Tax” is abolished, next the “Big Boob Bonus” or the “Supersized Bra Subsidy“. I mourning the passing of bras because it means I’ll have to endure an expensive shopping trip, an often fruitless search for something comfortable, affordable and not resembling 1940s “foundation garments”.

Maybe it’s like curly hair. People with straight hair – and mine is about the straightest hair in the world – often dream of mounds of luscious curly hair. People born with curly hair will tell us that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be – the frizz, the products required to maintain it, always struggling to keep it under control. We say, yeah, but it looks so good! Similarly, many smaller-boobed girls would kill for a bigger bust, or at least spend a fortune to get one artificially. Let me tell you, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Back problems, getting in the way of everyday activities, some sports nigh on impossible, clothes not fitting, swimming costumes impossible to find, suffering in the heat and the requirement for giant, expensive bras.

But they look so good! Well the bras don’t, most are massive swathes of dull looking cloth that may look ok on the size 8 models but when you delve to the back of the rack to pick out the G cup version you emerge with something akin to a hammock or an army parachute. With a tiny bow in the middle to make us feel pretty. Thanks.

Nor are they comfortable. All those wires and triple/quadruple clasps. Oh yes! Guys, if you thought undoing a normal bra was hard, try 4 SETS OF HOOKS! If you do manage, you’ll be so worn you’ll need a wee nap before proceeding. Thankfully the bra can double as a sleeping bag so you’re all sorted. They dig in, they constrict, they poke and prod when we dare to move but we don’t have the luxury of just going without cos that would be even more unbearable. As with many things in life, women just put up with pain, discomfort, inconvenience and expense cos we’re used to it, that’s just the way things are for us.

They look good? Yes, we get attention. 99% of that attention is unwanted. I could do a whole other piece on the unwanted attention, how I have spent most of my life trying to hide myself and the psychological impact of that, but I’ll either save that for another time or should possibly take it to a therapist. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Anyway, solutions? Well after my recent loss and with my bra collection dwindling and consisting of now mostly actually uncomfortable and realistically unwearable numbers, I took a different direction and ordered a bra from Molke. Women-led, Scottish-based, ethical, body positive, living-wage-paying tick, tick, tick, tick. They are relatively expensive, but I mind less when my hard-earned money is going to a business like that, and….the bras are funky and comfortable!!!! Oh my word! No wires, no array of hooks, just beautiful comfortable, supportive fabric. I ordered one as a test, tried it on and immediately ordered 2 more. I may never buy a normal bra again. Perhaps old faithful being laid to rest is a blessing in disguise after all…

My new Molke bras

Coincidentally, I’ve just started listening to The Allusionist podcast, all about language. This episode delves into the history of the word “bra” as well as the history of the garment itself.

There’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure

A few weeks ago I read a Guardian article that asked whether someone’s taste in books could predict dating compatibility. My first reaction was, “hell yeah!” If a bloke reads the same kind of books as me there’s a good chance we’ll hit it off. However the article contains comments from people who are extremely judgmental about others’ reading habits and this is where the whole idea falls down. First of all, frankly if a bloke reads at all, I’m interested, but mainly this pretentious distinction between “high-brow” and “low-brow” or “cultured” and “popular” art is a nonsense. What can you tell about someone who professes that Infinite Jest is their favourite book? That they may or may not have actually read Infinite Jest and that’s about it. What about someone who likes sitcoms? What if they are the same person?

Last week I was doing the “what shall I watch next?” thing, skipping from Netflix to Prime to iPlayer trying to settle on something and not quite feeling into anything. Netflix now has a suggestions button that will cycle through options based on previous viewing. The first few recommendations I had already seen elsewhere but then it came to Superstore, based on my viewing of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation. Both excellent shows. But I felt like if something was along those lines and any good, I would have heard of it already? Schitt’s Creek was recommended to me multiple times by multiple people before I finally tried and yes, it does live up to its reputation. But I had literally never heard of Superstore. However the ennui had set in by then so I gave it a try. I could see the similarities to B99 and Parks, but thought it was a bit derivative, bit too fluffy and slapstick in places. A few days later and I’m crying as Jonah comforts Amy as she’s going through a tough time. Later I’m on the edge of my seat as a natural disaster befalls the store. But wait, this is disposable fluff telly, right? Well like most tv these days it is well written and well acted. It does have moments of silliness but also surprisingly deep themes, like worker’s rights, healthcare and immigration, which, by the way America, what the hell is wrong with you? The character of Amy (America Ferrera) has experiences that chime remarkably with my own life. Not totally – I did get married young and had a very similar divorce journey but didn’t get pregnant at 19 and sadly don’t have a Jonah (Ben Feldman) but still I found myself thinking “wow, that’s me” on multiple occasions. It is light, it is fluffy, it is silly, it is low-brow but it is also very good and I am loving it.

The whole idea of this artificial division and associated judgements is class-ist. I remember when I was in my early 20s, taking part in a quiz with some university friends. A lot of the questions related to opera, classical music, theatre etc and I was clueless. It’s not that I’m not intelligent, or that I don’t have good general knowledge, its that coming from a working class background gives you a very different cultural upbringing than those from the middle or upper-middle classes. That isn’t to say that I had no exposure to culture, quite the opposite – but traditional Scottish, folk and popular culture, as “low-brow” doesn’t have the same status or likelihood to appear as questions in quizzes, but it is as rich and fully rounded and as culturally significant as “cultured” culture. At the time I felt ashamed at my lack of knowledge of high culture, but looking back I realise that knowing your Wagner from your Puccini doesn’t make you a better person, just as knowing your Coronation Street from your Eastenders doesn’t make you a lesser person.

I have always liked the lyric from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee” (one of their best songs if you ask me)

“Time every journey to bump into you, accidentally
I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate
You smile, mention something that you like
Oh how you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like”

It’s all too easy to pass judgement. It is easy to hate on things, criticise things and make fun of them. I’m no exception, I’ve definitely engaged in that myself. By nature I’m a cynical person and I have strong opinions about a lot of things, A good judgy session can strengthen bonds and cement “us” vs “them” which as social animals we need sometimes. But expressing dislike, criticism or judgement about a tv programme/book/musician shouldn’t be the same as making judgements about the people who do like those things. The times when I’ve found someone who takes a more positive view of things, who talks enthusiastically about an interest or who I share an obsession for something with have been the most life-affirming and uplifting experiences in my life, far outweighing any camaraderie gained from a griping session. The pleasure gained from sharing a passion, sharing joy is a beautiful thing.

As we experienced lockdowns though the COVID-19 Pandemic, most of us watched far more tv and films than we did before. The arts got very little government support during lockdown, yet people continued to create, often going to great lengths to either re-package their output for an online audience, or undergoing rigorous testing, isolation and distancing measures to produce something resembling normal to us. From my own viewing habits alone, I’m going to guess that a lot of the content that has been consumed over the past year has been of the lighter, fluffier, “lower-brow” variety. It offers escapism, gives us laughs and loves when we can’t be with those who make us smile or who we desperately want to hug. It serves a purpose and it serves it well. None of us should feel remotely guilty for that.

We all have a story worth telling.

A few years ago I was heading off on a long train journey, I think to a work conference (remember those?) when I realised that I’d forgotten to pack a book. I ducked into WH Smith’s to see what they had to offer, expecting the usual array of “holiday reading” trash but instead found East West Street by Philippe Sands. Yes, a factual book about interconnected families, war crimes and the International Criminal Court was my idea of a good travel read. It is an excellent book and I still think about it often.

To partially explain, I studied the International Criminal Court as part of my Masters in Human Rights, so it was a topic I already knew a little about and had an interest in. What we didn’t learn at university, and what Sands explores so brilliantly in his book, is about the actual people behind the processes, statutes and conventions. Throughout my formal education, social history was largely sidelined. We learned about laws, revolutions and great thinkers but not about the people, individuals and families who were affected by these, lived through them and whose destinies were determined by them.

In a previous post I talked about what I was reading, and mentioned that I tend to stick to a theme for a while in my book choices. I anticipated that the theme of biographies/memoirs would continue with Obama’s latest. Well I’m afraid I took a slight detour into my current area of study by reading Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks, about the Deaf signing community which I would recommend for anyone involved with deaf people. I then did a swift about turn to read Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel which I would recommend to everyone. Yes, everyone, including you. Even if you are not Jewish (I’m not), especially if you are not Jewish. Even if you think you are a liberal progressive (I think I am), especially if you think you are a liberal progressive, but also especially if you aren’t. Just read it. It’s short, like an old timey persuasive pamphlet type thing and it’s saying something very important.

So then my themes merged and memoirs melded with Jewish stories and I have just finished House of Glass by Hadley Freeman. I’ve been a fan of Freeman’s writing since she wrote a fashion column for the Guardian that I always read even though I have absolutely no interest in fashion, she’s that good of a writer. I haven’t read her other books, but House of Glass sounded intriguing so I delved in. Similar to East West Street, it takes major events in history – World War II and the Holocaust – and lets us see them through the eyes of real people, who were trying to live their real lives. It is beautifully written, with even an amount of humour but always real love and warmth for those whose stories she reveals.

Both House of Glass and East West Street have plots and twists worthy of thrillers or mystery novels but document the real lives of people, often family members or acquaintances of the authors, a product of research and investigation into parts of their lives that were hitherto unknown to their loved ones. My own parents have been doing family history research as a hobby for years now. As far as I know none of my relatives or ancestors were involved in international affairs or single-handedly shaped world events. In fact a good lot of them resided in a place called Dull. Farmers and mill workers from Dull don’t make for much mystery or intrigue and I don’t think I’ll be writing a book about them, but I do want to know about them. I’ve visited Dull. It was, well, dull but it was interesting to see where my forebears lived, worked and no doubt had their own personal dramas. Much genealogy research is records-based – births, marriages, deaths – at the basic level these give places and dates but occasionally they can include other snippets of lives such as whether they died after a long illness or were found drunk in a ditch. Census records can reveal occupations, how many people lived in a house and whether they were wealthy enough to employ “help” or whether they were the hired help to another family. One relative of mine was a police officer, and it’s fascinating to look through his police notebooks and find out what crimes he was investigating and learn that he was once commended for catching a runaway horse.

Through my parents efforts I know more about some distant ancestors than I do about closer relatives. Living the past year through a pandemic, with lockdowns keeping us from seeing our families, it’s natural to re-evaluate our relationships with our nearest and dearest, or farthest and most distant. I want to hear all their stories and piece together the unique jigsaw of my family with all its branches extending around the world, containing Scottish stories, English stories, Jewish stories, tales from Australia and Sri Lanka and possibly beyond.

It also makes me wonder what future generations will know or learn about me? Digital records might make it easier to investigate but what impression will be left behind of my life? Facts of my birth, marriage and not-yet-completed divorce will tell one story, but what of my personal social history? Well I suppose I’m still writing that…

On finding unexpected connections

I seem to go through phases of reading certain types of books. For a long time I was deep into the Beats. Then I forayed into filling the gaps in my reading of modern classics – Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, some Hemmingway, some more Salinger. Then in response to the Black Lives Matter movement I read several books on that theme – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I like to immerse myself in an era, a genre or a milieu, finding the structures of it, seeing all the elements interplay, exposing the commonalities and highlighting the differences. Now, it seems, I’m taking a turn at autobiographies and memoirs. Two that I’ve just read back-to-back have thrown up some unexpected connections between individuals that I wouldn’t have expected to have much in common, which got me thinking more broadly about the connections between us all.

The memoir train started because my older daughter is learning about World War 2 at (home)school. She had spotted my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary on a shelf some years ago and had expressed an interest. Now that she’s a bit older (11) I figured it would be ok for her to read, but wanted to do so myself first, just to be sure, to jog my memory and also so that I’d be better equipped to discuss it with her. Around the same time, I was on the Waterstones website ordering her a thesaurus and I spotted that they had Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reduced and Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park in paperback. I had been meaning to buy Jollett’s book since it came out, so both got moved into my basket and arrived a few days later. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I finished Anne Frank, handed her over to my daughter and up popped an email from Bookbub (if you are a reader and aren’t signed up to this already, then check it out – daily personalised ebook offers usually for a few quid each) letting me know that Janey Godley’s memoir Handstands in the Dark was on offer. Well that would bridge the gap nicely.

Ok, maybe an explanation of who those people are is required. Not Anne Frank or Barack Obama, I assume you all know who they are…

Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event, one of my favourite bands, I wrote about seeing them here and here but definitely saw them one more time then that. In recent years the band haven’t been quite so active, but Mikel has become prominent as a political commentator on Twitter. Jollett is based in California, and while I haven’t “met” him – despite various attempts I have met almost all the other band members but not the man himself – I have, however touched him and had his sweaty t-shirt pressed against my face. Don’t worry, it’s all part and parcel of being front row at a smallish gig. In any case, we have connected, in a manner of speaking. We have been in the same place at the same time and are connected by not only the music but shared interests in writing, literature, politics and possibly more. We would have a shared frame of reference.

Janey Godley is a Glaswegian comedian famous for her “Trump is a C*nt” sign on one of his Scottish golf courses a few years ago. I first came to know her work on an appearance of Have I Got News For You, and more recently she’s been entertaining us during lockdown with voiceovers of videos, most notably of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid briefings. We both live in Glasgow but I haven’t met her, or knowingly been in the same place at the same time. However, all Glaswegians, adopted or native, share a special camaraderie and we would certainly have a shared frame of reference.

In his book, Jollett writes about his life born into a cult, living with addicted and mentally ill parents, his chaotic, impoverished and often violent and neglected childhood. So far not much I can directly relate to, although it makes for fascinating reading and is beautifully written. Later he writes about finding his way in a middle-class world, having to mask, suppress or hide his working class background. He attends a prestigious university and finds himself a fish out of water. Here I can definitely relate. As the book goes on, I find more and more commonalities between us. Our shared frame of reference gets wider.

Godley’s memoir recounts her life growing up in Glasgow’s east end in the 1960s and 70s. It too is a life of extreme poverty, surrounded by people struggling with addiction and violence. There is abuse, albeit of a different type. I didn’t grow up in Glasgow but I worked for a voluntary sector organisation providing advocacy to children and young people with disabilities all over the city for 8 years. A lot of my work took me to the east end. I grew familiar with Shettleston, Parkhead, Haghill and Bridgeton. I spent many hours on the number 19 and 41 buses to Easterhouse and all stops along the way. I saw the poverty and abuse that still persisted in the early 2000s-2010s. Kids who had never been near the City Centre, whose whole lives were contained in one postcode. Older siblings caught up in gangs, groomed or selling themselves on Glasgow Green. Kids driven to stealing phones because there was never any food at home. Kids sent to young offenders prison because they wouldn’t admit that’s why they stole. The shame of poverty still hung in the air. Kids in wheelchairs who had worn out shoes because they weren’t deemed worthy of spending money on. So many disabled children in inadequate housing. Families worn out from fighting for things they should have been entitled to. It may have been 40 years after the time Godley was writing about, but, all too sadly, we would have a very wide shared frame of reference indeed.

In Godley’s book there here are gangs, not cults, but the similarities and overlaps with Jollett’s book and life were striking. I never would have imagined that a Californian rock star and a comedian from the east end of Glasgow would have quite so much in common, or that I would find so much in common with either of them. Even little things, like they both take to running to cope with the harshness of their lives and to take back what little control they can. I get it – running is cheap and can be done anywhere, so perhaps isn’t too surprising, but it was interesting to see layer upon layer of common threads woven through each life story.

It made me wonder what other two apparently random people might find themselves connected? I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that any two people in the world are linked through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. At first it seemed unlikely to me, but then I thought. I’ve lived in Scotland, London and Sweden. I have family in Australia and Sri Lanka. That already extends my first links to a good spread around the world. I have friends from places as disparate as Finland, Malawi and the US. That covers even more of the globe. Maybe it’s not such a crazy theory after all.

I love it when I meet people and we have something unexpected in common. Finding that shared interest or experience reminds us of our common humanity. People are people, after all. We may be different ages, nationalities or come from different cultural backgrounds but if we allow ourselves to look beyond preconceived expectations we will find something that will make us yell, “really, me too!” and share a profoundly beautiful moment together. I adore those moments.

Indeed thinking back to this time last year, it was both horrifying and fascinating to see just how quickly COVID-19 spread from a localised outbreak to a global pandemic. News reports in the UK focussed on China, then Iran, then Italy as it crept ever closer to us. The virus doesn’t travel by itself, it travels from human to human, from person to person as they move from place to place. International travel, full flights and packed commuter trains help transmission, but it still spreads around the world one person at a time. We have been told to isolate ourselves for almost a year now, while we as humans, in all continents, have never been so connected by a single event. We are not only experiencing it as those who lived through previous pandemics or significant global events like the world wars, but thanks to technology we are able to witness others, share our stories and have more of a collective experience like never before. We all now have Covid as a shared frame of reference, for better or for worse.

So in short, Janey Godley, Mikel Jollet and I are connected by only a few degrees of separation. I’m just about to start reading Obama’s book, I wonder how many degrees between he and I????