November 27, 2006

Slurry accent II

OK, there's new data, and so I've got a new hypothesis about how Lawrence Henry came to refer to "a kind of commercial London speech known as 'slurry.'" It wasn't a slip of the ear, heard in place of "Estuary". It wasn't a malapropism, merging "estuary", "Surrey" and "slang". No, it was a textual misreading.

When I posted about this a few days ago ("Slurry", 11/24/2006), I also wrote a letter of inquiry to the editor of The American Spectator, where Henry's column was published. They put my note into their online reader mail (including my own slip of the fingers, "slip of the error" for "slip of the ear"!), and Lawrence Henry responded:

I learned of the accent I call "slurry" from none other than Dick Francis, can't now remember which novel. He described it in some detail as a kind of commercial affection based on suburban London, and gave extensive examples in a character's speech.

Dick Francis has written many books, I'm afraid -- too many for me to search, even if I owned them all. If anyone knows or can find where he used the word slurry to describe an accent of the right kind, please let me know. While waiting for the true citation, though, I have a guess about what has happened. If we search books on a9 for {"slurry accent"}, we get seven results. None of them are to Dick Francis books. But they're like the sample of four below:

Dorothy Garlock, The Listening Sky, p. 17: "If she's got her eye on the boss man, it'll do her no good:" This voice had the slurry accent of the South. "Who ain't got a eye on him? Lordy mercy."

A.J. Zerries, The Lost Van Gogh, p. 72: "Hello, Ryder, and not so tense -- it's your old friend, Aaron," said the man on the stoop in a slurry accent.

Kavita Daswani, The Village Bride of Bevery Hills, p. 38: I kept my eyes lowered as I heard these people in their relaxed, slurry accents talking about what had happened that morning or debating between Chinese and a sandwich.

Paul Garrison, Red Sky at Morning, p. 129: "We will speak English to spare your sailors unnecessary distress." "Admiral," the well-dressed Wong responded with a slurry accent." His English came less easily than Admiral Tang's.

It would be easy to misread a phrase like a slurry accent as if it were analogous to "a brummy accent" rather than to "a fussy accent". So my hypothesis is that Dick Francis described a character's affectation of Estuary English, using a phrase like "a slurry accent" or "his slurry accent", and Lawrence Henry misread slurry as a name rather than a description.

[Update -- Ben Zimmer writes:

I haven't found any references to a "slurry" accent in a Dick Francis novel, but he frequently uses "sloppy" to describe a disfavored southeastern (UK) speech pattern:

To The Hilt, p. 19
I'm not good at voices and accents, but I'd say his was sloppy southeast England.

Trial Run, p. 29
They had a rough, sloppy way of speaking, swallowing all the consonants. Southern England. London or the Southeast , I should think, or Berkshire.

Twice Shy, p. 41
I listened to the utterly English sloppy accent and thought that it couldn't have less matched the body it came from.

And it's not like Francis is unfamiliar with "Estuary" as a dialectal descriptor:

Shattered, p. 22
Her accent was Estuary, Essex or Thames: take your pick.


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 27, 2006 05:14 PM