Yeah well, I speak English


One of the problems I have is that I am a native English speaker. I unaffectedly speak the language like a native. This isn’t an entirely good thing. Many years ago I was youth hostelling around the Outer Hebrides and came across a German lad of my own age. In his penultimate school year, he and his parents had discussed the idea of him attending a summer school in England. The idea was that he would both learn English, and ideally learn some geology, because that was one of his interests.

So they looked for summer schools and discovered that Aberystwyth University had something very suitable. Now his mother was no fool. She knew that Aberystwyth (is it wrong that I’m inordinately proud of being able to spell that correctly without having to look it up.) was in Wales. So she phoned them to discuss the matter. The staff could understand her concerns and assured her that not only would the course be taught in English, but at the summer school most of the students would also be English.

So she booked her son on the course then and there, and that summer he travelled to Aberystwyth to learn geology and to brush up his English. Apparently the course was a good one, he had a whale of a time. One small fly in the ointment was that it seemed that virtually everybody else on the course was from Liverpool. So when I met him I could vouch for the fact he spoke perfect, colloquial English, with a broad scouse accent.

His accent was so bad, (or so good, depending on how you look at it) that when he sat his final exams and had to do the ‘spoken English’ section of his English exam, his German born examiners struggled to understand him. They appear to have wondered whether he was actually bluffing, and couldn’t speak English at all. So they called in an Englishman who was in the city teaching English as a foreign language. He did the verbal part of the exam. After the exam was finished the other masters asked the English chap whether their pupil could speak English. He answered, “Absolutely, he speaks it like a native. Poor sod.”

When I was in my mid-twenties I went with a couple of friends to our local auction mart. One of the friends was from the deep south of the UK, the other was from Leeds. I had a calf to sell and an older farmer from ‘further up,’ came across and asked me about it. To be fair he was a bit broad, and as I talked to him I dropped more and more into dialect. Eventually he’d learned everything he wanted to know and he wandered off. My mate from Leeds commented, “I couldn’t understand him and could just about understand you.” My mate from down south just muttered something about, “Sorry but what language was that.”

About ten years ago I was at a big celebratory church service held in Wales. One of the hymns they wanted to sing was Cwm Rhondda. (Yes technically that’s the name of the tune, the words, in English, are ‘Guide me oh thou Great Jehovah’.) Obviously because of the need to follow the tune and make sense, the English and Welsh versions aren’t entirely faithful translations of each other. That’s fair enough. Also fair enough was the fact that as the Church was in Wales, the organisers were Welsh and at least a proportion of those attending were Welsh, they wanted to sing this hymn in Welsh.

One minor problem is that not even all the Welsh spoke Welsh, but at least they could be relied upon to make a decent stab of the words when they had them written down in front of them. The main issue was what do you do for the English? Well somebody have come up with the bright idea of writing down the Welsh hymn in phonetic English. So if an English person just sang what was written, it would sound close to the Welsh. You know what they say, “Good enough for Government work anyway.”

This was explained to us by the preacher, and as the organ struck up, we psyched ourselves up to sing a string of gibberish syllables. It was as we sang that I noticed an unforeseen issue. What I, and other northerners around me, was singing didn’t sound an awful lot like what some of the other English people were singing, never mind what the Welsh were singing.

Still we’d tried.

On the other hand if I cannot tackle Welsh, how would I be with Zulu? There is a hymn which has come from Southern Africa, Siyahamba. In English the words are, “We are marching to the light of God.” I am assured that in the original Zulu this is “Siyahamb’ ekukhanyeni kwenkos.”

In a desperate attempt to do something with our pronunciation we were told to sing, “Sear a hamster in a white wine sauce.”

I don’t know whether there is a vegetarian option available or not.


There again what do I know? Read the man who knows what is what!


As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink.”




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48 thoughts on “Yeah well, I speak English

  1. Sue Vincent June 10, 2019 at 1:09 pm Reply

    I’ve been south of Watford for over twenty-five years. I don’t consider myself to speak with a broad Yorkshire…never have, though I can, as we were stationed in the south in my early years and we moved about a bit.
    They still don’t understand me… 😉

  2. rugby843 June 10, 2019 at 2:26 pm Reply

    Delightful post!

  3. Colleen Chesebro June 11, 2019 at 1:49 am Reply

    What a great article. I heard my fair share of dialects from the UK when I was stationed at RAF Lakenheath many years ago. I can still listen to my favorite British mysteries and understand every word, while my husband who never lived in the UK can’t understand a single word. LOL!

    • jwebster2 June 11, 2019 at 5:36 am Reply

      Tell your husband he could have been born in the UK and still have trouble with some dialects 🙂

  4. knittingwithheart June 11, 2019 at 5:17 am Reply

    Fun story! Reminds me of when we had neighbours from Wales.
    My brain + their accent and “foreign” english = lots of LoLs 🤗💜 Jackie@KWH

    • jwebster2 June 11, 2019 at 5:31 am Reply

      Sometimes the accents can cause problems, or even, as you say, amusement. But I think the most beautiful English can be that spoken in the Western Isles, often by Gaelic speakers 🙂

  5. Margaret Mair June 11, 2019 at 1:56 pm Reply

    Oh my, you made me chuckle. Thank you.

    • jwebster2 June 11, 2019 at 1:59 pm Reply

      Every day should have a chuckle, and no writer should be too proud to provide them 🙂

  6. jenanita01 June 11, 2019 at 6:43 pm Reply

    I have a terrible problem with peoples accents, and cant understand a word they say… My brain refuses to try…

    • jwebster2 June 11, 2019 at 7:26 pm Reply

      I’m not too bad with accents, and can cope with a lot of the dialect words as well. But sometimes the ‘cut glass’ southern accents can throw me

      • jenanita01 June 12, 2019 at 8:41 am

        The one I have the most trouble with is Scottish. It sounds like a foreign language to me…

      • jwebster2 June 12, 2019 at 9:23 am

        A lot of Scots words are the same in Northern English, but the pronunciation can differ 🙂

  7. jenanita01 June 11, 2019 at 6:44 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on anita dawes and jaye marie.

  8. joylennick June 12, 2019 at 11:24 am Reply

    Entertaining, as always, Jim. Coming from Essex, married to a Cockney, and with a Welsh mother, I was quite tuned in to dialects. Drunken Scots and those from Northern Ireland do pose a slight problem though. (I have met a few holidaying here in Spain, where I now live.) Only a few,mind… x

    • jwebster2 June 12, 2019 at 11:31 am Reply

      Very broad and drunken Glaswegian does pose problems 🙂

  9. Jack Eason June 15, 2019 at 4:32 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from Webster san…

    • jwebster2 June 15, 2019 at 4:38 am Reply

      Webster sans good taste 🙂

  10. patriciaruthsusan June 17, 2019 at 10:09 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    First, some amusing information about struggling with English and its dialects when getting an education. Next, a book on offer by Jim Webster with amusing stories about Port Naain by Tallis Steelyard. This is followed by a good review of the book by a satisfied reader.

  11. patriciaruthsu June 17, 2019 at 10:17 am Reply

    It probably helps me that I used to watch quite a few old English movies on TV in the 1950s. I do have to listen carefully to understand someone using the Liverpool dialect. I read once that Americans understand Cockney better than other English dialects because the actor Cary Grant had a Cockney accent. 😀 — Suzanne

    • jwebster2 June 18, 2019 at 3:27 pm Reply

      As opposed to poor old Dick Van Dyke who most definitely didn’t in Mary Poppins 🙂

      • patriciaruthsu June 19, 2019 at 2:24 pm

        Yes, that was definitely not his best dialogue. The dancing was good, but the dialect, ugh. 😀 — Suzanne

      • jwebster2 June 19, 2019 at 2:47 pm

        Poor chap was quite embarrassed about it at one point but I think he came to joke about it
        Apparently he did have a language coach!

  12. […] Continue reading at Jim Webster […]

  13. robertawrites235681907 June 18, 2019 at 4:35 pm Reply

    Now Jim, what I want to know is did you say that in high Zulu or ordinary, everyday Zulu [smile]. Our children learn high Zulu but it isn’t what is generally spoken in South Africa.

    • jwebster2 June 18, 2019 at 4:37 pm Reply

      I suspect that any Zulu who heard it wouldn’t recognise it 🙂

  14. Marilyn Armstrong June 18, 2019 at 5:49 pm Reply

    “Sear a hamster in a white wine sauce” is the kind of words my mother used when she had no idea what the singer had actually said. it’s good to know that it wasn’t random but probably Zulu.

    Also, having spent a fair bit of time in various parts of the British Isles including Wales, Somerset, and Ireland — whatever they speak, it’s not the same language I recognize 😀

    • jwebster2 June 18, 2019 at 8:52 pm Reply

      Ah, but your mother would doubtless have coped with us all 🙂

  15. Cynthia Reyes June 18, 2019 at 6:46 pm Reply

    Thanks, Jim. You made me grin. Between accents and languages, I wonder humans can communicate at all. Lately, I’ve been listening to the birds, and wondering if they fare better.

    • jwebster2 June 18, 2019 at 8:51 pm Reply

      the better humans communicate the more they seem to disagree 🙂

      • Cynthia Reyes June 18, 2019 at 8:53 pm

        I know! And sometimes I wonder if all this education has helped us at all. We seem to be duking it out all over the place.

      • jwebster2 June 18, 2019 at 9:01 pm

        Ignorance doesn’t seem to help either.

  16. bitaboutbritain June 19, 2019 at 1:29 pm Reply

    Enjoyed that… 🙂

  17. M T McGuire June 21, 2019 at 4:14 pm Reply

    I can usually ‘get’ accents, it just takes a while to get my ear in. What is most embarrassing is that it takes me a very short time to begin to speak like the person I’m talking to. I’m always petrified the Northerners will think I’m taking the mick so then I end up going all posh and that’s even more embarrassing.



    • jwebster2 June 21, 2019 at 4:45 pm Reply

      My accent can get more pronounced and I use more dialect words if I’ve with somebody who does speak with the same dialect but mostly , with those who don’t speak it, I’m more interested in speaking slowly and carefully so they can understand me 🙂

      • M T McGuire June 22, 2019 at 2:09 pm

        I never realised people had that much trouble with an accent although I think the North East accents are some of the hardest to understand.

      • jwebster2 June 22, 2019 at 3:01 pm

        We get a lot of lads across here from the North East, it depends who’s got the orders to build ships whether our lads go there or they come here. So my ear is pretty well attuned 🙂

  18. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt June 13, 2022 at 2:40 am Reply

    United with more than Americans by a common language, what?

    • jwebster2 June 13, 2022 at 4:43 am Reply

      Few people speak English as badly as the English 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt June 13, 2022 at 5:11 am

        I’ve never understood why you guys think ‘idea’ has an ‘r’ in it.

        Also, almost everyone who SINGS in English, actually sings in American English. Too hard to keep a stiff upper lip while singing?

        I do hope I get to come visit your part of the world and listen to it some day. There will be peals of laughter on both sides, and we’ll all feel better.

      • jwebster2 June 13, 2022 at 5:45 am

        Here’s some English singing 🙂

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