09 April 2012

Anil clemore bartat

There is, currently, a local teenage craze for singing the old Yorkshire dialect song On Ilkla Moor ba' t'at for no apparent reason.

Chatting to some of them, I discovered that they believed it to be a completely nonsense song devoid of any meaning, also that they believed it to have been made up by Himmie O'Connor – a former member of their group, since moved away.

Interested by this, I asked one of them, Donal, to write down the nonsense sounds which they sing. Looking at his transcription I was struck by how closely the sounds, despite being divorced from meaning or origin, match the actual words of the song. This seems to me a vivid illustration of the power of song as self perpetuating meme.1

Below is a tabulated record of Donal's transcription, actual Yorkshire dialect form, and BBC English for the changing key line in each verse. Anyone who knows the song (which will include most Britons of my own generation, at least) can skip straight down to the table; for those who do not, I'll give a quick explanation here...

The Ilkley Moor of the title is a place, an open and desolate area between the Yorkshire towns of Ilkley and Keighley. The song contains several stanzas (the exact number depends on the version you hear), each of which follows a rigid abaabbb structure. The "b" lines are repetitions of the title; the "a" lines are repetitions of a single key phrase which changes from stanza to stanza. So, for example, the first stanza runs thus:

a: Weer 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee?
b: On Ilkla Moor ba' t'at
a: Weer 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee?
a: Weer 'ast tha bin sin' ah saw thee?
b: On Ilkla Moor ba' t'at
b: On Ilkla Moor ba' t'at
b: On Ilkla Moor ba' t'at

(The spelling actually varies according to source; to avoid disputes here, I have asked a Yorkshire born and raised colleague of my own age, who still speaks dialect at home, to write the words as he knows them. his word is, for the purposes of this post, law. The number of stanzas is decided by those Donal's transcription.)

To save space, the table below gives the title (also the "b" line) just once, followed by the key phrase from each stanza also only once.

Stanza Donal Dialect BBC
Title/"b" Anil clemore bartat On Ilkla Moor ba' t'at On Ilkley Moor without a hat
1 Thar spin a cotton merry Jane Tha's bin a-coort'n' MaryJane You have been courting Mary Jane
2 Thar sparnta catcha deetha code Tha's bahn ta catch tha deeth o'cowd You're going to catch your death of cold
3 Then oosalata berrythy Then oos'l ha'ta burry thee Then we'll have to bury you
4 Ant wermzal common eeteeyoop An' t'wurms'l coom'n yt thee oop And the worms will come and eat you up
5 Thent dooksal common eetoop worms Then t'dooks'l coom'n yt oop t'worms Then the ducks will come and eat up the worms
6 Boo tossel go Anita docs Boot oos'll go an` eyt oop t'dooks But we'll go and eat up the ducks
7 So woozel Allah ettenthy So oos'll all ha' etten thee So we'll all have eaten you

  1. Having transcribed, Donal conceded that there did actually seem to be some real words – something that he had not realised before – even though they made no sense as a group. This additionally illustrates something about language learning which has recently become political in the UK in connection with phonic spelling tests for six year olds. As a child's fluency with language increases, so will the tendency, when told to write down a spoken nonsense word (eg: "OSC"), to substitute one to which s/he can assign semantic meaning (eg: "ask"). This leads to children with more developed skills paradoxically performing less well in the test.

1 comment:

Ray Girvan said...

This seems to me a vivid illustration of the power of song as self perpetuating meme.

And yet a very mutatable one, unless continually reinforced by knowledge of some canonical version. The very tendency to fit misheard lyrics to known words (even if semantically ridiculous) is part of that process.