Patrick Stewart on his Yorkshire speech

NPR recently re-aired their interview with Sir Patrick Stewart and he makes some comments about language. These reminded me of some comments he made when he was on “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Both of these are about Stewart’s regional variety (aka dialect or accent). So let’s hear Professor Jean-Luc X. Picard in his own words!

Before going any further, be aware that Stewart and the interviewers use the words accent and dialect in ways that linguists would not. Neither of them are really dismissive when they use these words, but their use nicely shows why linguists prefer the word variety. The words are used to indicate that Stewart had and “accent” or “dialect” when growing up in Yorkshire, but that he no longer does. This is not the case. Everyone everywhere has an accent or dialect, or as we say to avoid negative connotations, variety. Moving on.

Stewart grew up in Mirfield, which is near Yorkshire. The earlier interview comes from Stewart’s guest spot on NPR’s comedy news show “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Stewart recites a poem that his aunt used to tell around the holidays. I couldn’t find this poem online, but it seems to be called “Dropped On”. The discussion starts at 4:00 and the poem is great. Or at least the parts of it that I could understand. Stay tuned for Stewart reciting the famous opening line of Star Trek in a bad French accent.

(Also be aware that the transcript gets a few things wrong. For example, Stewart says “pall” and the transcript says “poor”. Probably a result of an automatic transcription service, but interesting when we think about what it did to Stewart’s r-less variety.)

Next, there’s a 2020 interview with Stewart on “Fresh Air” where he discusses his relationship with how he spoke growing up and how he had to change his variety when he started acting. Stewart had to learn Received Pronunciation, or the variety with the highest prestige in the UK (a prestige that it still holds today). Stewart’s old-fashioned way of speaking about varieties is noticeable here, but he also understands that Received Pronunciation is no longer the default variety of BBC newscasters and that the BBC actively finds speakers with other varieties. Stewart’s childhood acting teacher told him that we would need to “lose” his accent, which sounds bad, but she apparently also told him that he wouldn’t need to lose it all the time. And it’s funny when Stewart says that mixing the two varieties up and using Received Pronunciation with his local childhood friends got him in trouble. I bet! Just because a variety has prestige and is considered “better” than other varieties, it might not get you very far in some places.

The relevant part starts at 32:00 minutes. Stewart gives an example of his childhood variety and says something like “atta laking aht” and then explains what it means in a more standardized variety: “Are you coming out to play?” He also calls “laking” a word for “playing” from “at least the 16th-century”. He’s not wrong! Not by too much, anyway. The word goes back to at least 1300. So we’re talking Middle English here. Check out the OED entry for lake, v. 1, 2a to see more about this word: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/105171

You might recognize the word “lake” if you speak Swedish or Finnish. These languages still have words which mean the same thing and these words are in the not restricted to regional varieties. Swedish leka and Finnish leikkiä mean to play with in the sense of children playing, not in the sense of playing an instrument. These are both cognates with Stewart’s lake. Swedish gets the word from the same place that English does and Finnish gets it from Swedish (probably).

Really interesting stuff from a really interesting actor. I’m going to have to go watch Star Trek: Picard now!

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