Is Glaswegian lost in translation?

It’s “fly cup”‘ time at Charmaine’s Prize Bingo in the heart of Glasgow’s historic Gallowgate, close to the city centre. The tea break means there’s no bingo lingo to be heard, but the walls echo with patter sharp enough to bring a smile to the tear-stained faces of the china clowns who look on mournfully from their plinths.

“See ma weans,”‘ invites Agnes Davidson, placing a steaming mug on the table. “Sometimes when a’ speak they’ve no’ got the faintest scooby whit ahm oan aboot.”‘

Davidson spent 21 years as landlady of a Northampton pub and rolls her eyes as she tells how her children speak with an East Midlands twang, rather than with the tones of her native “Parkheid”‘ in the east end of the city. To them, and apparently many others, negotiating their way around unreconstructed Clyde-built vowels and idioms can be daunting.

Above the fruit machines on the first floor of the building are the silent remains of the old Britannia Panopticon Music Hall. There, generations of Glaswegians gathered under gaslight to marvel at Sir Harry Lauder, who often declared: “It’s a braw, bricht, moonlicht, nicht, the nicht.”‘ Much has changed since Lauder strode the stage, but the thick brogue of the 21st century bingo players is virtually identical to that of the denizens who would regularly cram the Victorian theatre’s wooden benches during its heyday.

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For many who live outside Glasgow, the tones of working-class “Glesgae”‘ remain a rich source of mirth and derision. Last week a London translation firm advertised for a native speaker to interpret for business executives befuddled by the seemingly impenetrable brogue. Deals are said to have sunk when entrepreneurs from England or abroad were confronted with the patois synonymous with Rab C Nesbitt, the fictional string-vested Govan ne’erdowell.

Jurga Zilinskiene, the Lithuanian boss of Today Translations, insists the move is no gimmick and there is a real need for staff capable of making “Weegie”‘ understood from Vilnius to Vancouver.

“We are aware that some of our foreign and UK clients can find the Glaswegian accent difficult to decipher,”‘ states Zilinskiene in near perfect received pronunciation. “While it’s unusual for us to want someone to translate a dialect of English, there is a clear demand.”‘

The experience of Zilinskiene’s clients is not new. As reported in The Sunday Times last week, newly published MI5 archive documents revealed that the thick Glaswegian accent of Mick McGahey, the former vice-president of the National Union of Mineworkers, proved indecipherable to the security service operatives who bugged his phone calls.

But is the dialect really so difficult to decode? Why does it continue to bamboozle most of those born outside Scotland’s biggest city? And what is it about the Glesgae patter that has made it endure when so many other regional dialects have succumbed to the influence of the estuary English and American accents ubiquitous on television and in films?

Janey Godley, the award-winning comedian, is characteristically frank about the problems that come with speaking like an extra from River City rather than a BBC executive at White City. “I would love to say that people in my beautiful, cosmopolitan home city speak as clear as a bell but they don’t,”‘ she says. “The accent is incredibly difficult, it’s very exclusive and not everybody gets it.”‘

Godley admits that she had to tone down her east-end accent to make herself understood on the international comedy circuit. A similar approach is apparent in the routines of Billy Connolly, whose accent has mellowed over the years.

“I quickly learned to speak clearly,”‘ she says. “I am proud of where I came from and under no circumstance did I change my accent to hide that ‘” I changed it so people in New York and New Zealand could understand me.”‘

The comic, who performed to sell-out crowds and rave reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, said Glaswegians routinely face the sorts of snide comments that would be considered unacceptable if they were directed against other groups in society. She recalls how the late writer Clement Freud sneeringly demanded a translator after she appeared alongside him on Radio 4.

Andy Cameron, the veteran Glasgow comedian whose anthem for Scotland’s doomed 1978 World Cup campaign contained the lyrics “We’re aff tae Argentina and we’re gaunny do or die, England cannae dae it “‘cos they didnae qualify”‘, insists that linguistic confusion is far from a one-way street. “I used to go to the Glasgow Empire quite a lot to see English comics who’d come up and they struggled to be understood because they wouldn’t slow down,”‘ he recalls.

“When I go down to England I don’t do any gags for the first six or seven minutes. I just talk to the audience and I speak slowly and that usually helps them get attuned to it.”‘

He believes the Glasgow dialect is unfairly maligned. “I don’t think Glaswegian is any more difficult to understand than other regional accents, like those in Liverpool or the east end of London,”‘ he says.

According to linguists, the genesis of the Glasgow dialect has much to do with the fact that the city has always been a cultural melting pot.

The settlement was originally part of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde, where a Celtic language similar to modern-day Welsh was spoken. In later centuries its status as a large port attracted people from across the globe, with each culture adding to the city’s linguistic broth. Foremost among the newcomers were tens of thousand of Irish emigrants, driven from their homes by hunger and unemployment during the 18th and 19th centuries.

James Scobbie, professor of speech science at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, said Glaswegian remains one of the UK’s most distinctive accents. “All Scottish accents are very different from others in the English-speaking world. We have an “‘r’ that is pronounced, while other accents are “‘r’-less,”‘ he says.

He adds that Glaswegian is distinguished from other accents by a typical rise in intonation at the end of each sentence. “In Glasgow, even if you pronounce everything clearly and beautifully, it can still sound unfamiliar to outsiders. There is lots of nasalisation, and things like not using your tongue to making a “‘t’ consonant. Also, there isn’t a way in which you can change your Glasgow accent subtly and make it sound like standard English, as people in many English cities can.”‘

The historical lack of social mobility in the city accounts for the accent’s resilience. Dr Jennifer Smith, a senior lecturer in Glasgow University’s English language department, says the city’s pockets of deprivation, which rank among the worst in Europe, have prevented the accent’s dillution.

“We know that Glasgow is statistically poorer and there are a lot of deprived areas, so within those areas there is a lot of non-mobility,”‘ she says. “In that situation, you get dialects passed down and down through the generations.”‘

Smith believes greater television exposure could help Britain tune in, understand and even love Glaswegian. “The Newcastle dialect sounds very different from standard English, but people don’t seem to have as much of a problem as they do with the Glasgow dialect. There are quite a lot of Geordie accents in the media. The more exposure you have to different dialects, the more you pick up on them.”‘

Mustafa Karagozlu, an 18-year-old engineering student from Istanbul, has spent time on both Tyneside and Clydeside and is in no doubt about which accent is the most challenging to an incomer.

“Glaswegian is much harder [to understand”> than the accent in Newcastle,”‘ says Karagozlu, who has spent four months in Glasgow. “Sometimes I ask for directions here and I don’t understand a single word.”‘

But the idea of employing translators to decipher Glaswegians’ diction has angered city fathers. Alex Mosson, the for- mer Lord Provost who worked alongside Connolly on the Clyde shipyards, says: “It’s a lot of tripe. I travelled the world as Lord Provost and nobody failed to understand me.”‘

Back in the Gallowgate a grandmother bristles at the suggestion that non-Glaswegians should need an interpreter. “It’s a pure brass neck, so it is,”‘ she says. “We can un’erstaund every word o’ EastEnders and Friends nae borra at aw, but they cannae get the gist of whit we talk like. It’s oot a order.”‘

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