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How we experience war

(September 2021)

A new study, conducted by linguist Natalie Braber and me, has found that people in Nottingham experienced the First World War (1914-1918) differently from the rest of the UK population. For this study we worked with students and teachers of secondary schools in Nottingham to examine language used in local newspapers in the years between 1905 and 1925.

Reading back-issues of the Nottingham Evening Post and Nottingham Journal, we discovered a remarkable difference between these two papers and other British publications. UK papers conjured up an image of the endearing Tommy, a gallant fighter defending British democracy against brutal Germans – the Hun – and shielding women and children at home from Prussian militarism that resulted in German atrocities. But Nottingham papers deviated from the national script. At first, for example, the Post and the Journal were more reluctant to use the derogatory ‘Hun’ and the sinister ‘Prussian militarism’. However, during the final three war years these terms appeared relatively more often in the Post and the Journal than in other UK papers. The Nottingham press also showed special affection for local servicemen, calling them lovingly ‘Robin Hoods’.

Conclusions

The study concludes that these differences were most likely the result of specific attitudes and events, such as views moulded and voiced by local journalists and editors, and incidents that directly affected the city’s population, such as a Zeppelin attack on 24 September 1916 that killed civilians and destroyed homes in the Meadows and Broadmarsh (see photo above) and an explosion in a munition factory in Chilwell on 1 July 1918 that killed well over a hundred workers, many of them women.

It’s a good reminder that we experience war in diverse ways. Our experience is influenced by local factors as well as group traits, personal characteristics and the manner of involvement in a conflict, for example as combatants, their relatives, innocent bystanders or remote onlookers.

Students

The study is one of the outcomes of a four-year Hidden History project. Students from Rushcliffe Spencer Academy, Arnold Hill Academy and The Farnborough Academy took part. One of them wrote in a school magazine about this “excellent opportunity” to bring history to life. A student who took part in the first year said: “Honestly, it really inspired me to take history further.” She has now a History degree at the University of Newcastle. Another outcome is a lesson plan on what happened to residents of Nottingham during the war, which is used in Year 9 classes, for example at Farnborough.

The study – From Tangier to Locarno: The Experience of War in Nottingham and Language Use in Local Newspapers, 1905-1925 – is published in the journal Midland History and available here.

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Inspiration

(May 2021)

I just got a nice message from Emily Price:

Hi Ben,

I doubt you’ll remember me but in 2016 I volunteered for you with other students in Nottingham’s archives in relation to your research on German citizens living in Nottingham (see Hidden history). Honestly, it really inspired me to take history further – you even got an honourable mention in my personal statement. And now, 5 years later I’m just about to complete my history degree at Newcastle!

I just wanted thank you for that opportunity. Further, I wanted to offer you my assistance on any future projects you may undertake!

I hope this doesn’t come across too weird and I do hope you’re keeping well!

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Why I wrote this book

(December 2020)

Here’s the preface I wrote for my new book Changes in Attitudes to Immigrants in Britain, 1841–1921. From Foreigner to Alien.

PREFACE

Integration of immigrants and their descendants is subject of ongoing theoretical discussion among academics and often heated disputes in politics and public life. It has also been one of my main research interests ever since I graduated as a historian.

In that research I define integration as a process through which a minority group becomes part of a society without necessarily losing the group’s original identity and characteristics, and during which the wider society itself undergoes changes by absorbing the minority. Many factors can influence such a process. These factors include the attitudes and behaviour of the general population towards members of the integrating group and their repercussions for the behaviour of that group.

Integration can also depend on other factors. These encompass the cohesion of the integrating group and the wider society as well as the preparedness and readiness of the general population and the integrating group to undergo changes. Other factors include the economic, social, political and cultural developments of the society in which integration takes place. Furthermore, the education of children can help to determine the speed and course of integration. Some of these factors can influence each other, while others occur independently. There can be interaction as well as a lack of contact between the general population and members of the integrating group. The result is usually a multilayered, non-linear and long-term process.

In this book I examine one of these factors in a particular setting: the changing attitudes to immigrants in Britain between 1841 and 1921. Currently racism, hate and discrimination continue to affect people from black, Asian and ethnic minority groups with immigrant backgrounds. Quite a few attitudes in the present general population towards immigrants hark back to emotions evoked between 1841 and 1921. These feelings, which are described in this book, probably became part of a collective memory and were conveyed from one generation to the next, to rise again repeatedly. However, people can change their attitudes and behaviour. So, I hope to have produced a case study that clarifies history and provides insights that prove useful in studying and supporting processes of integration that take place as human migration across the globe persists.

I express this hope with gratitude. I am grateful to the historians who went before me, my teachers and colleagues as well as my family and friends, plus all the helpful linguists, archivists, librarians, readers, reviewers and editors, without whom this book would not exist. It is impossible to name all these people and detail their contribution, but I pray that I have not disappointed them.

*

Here you’ll find more information about this book.

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Why do we have so many accents?

This post about language and identity was written in January 2018 by linguist Natalie Braber, Associate Professor in the School of Arts & Humanities of Nottingham Trent University. Versions of this article have also been published by The Conservation and The Scotsman.

Where we come from matters. Our origins form an important part of a distinctive personality, which can become a group identity when we share these origins. More often than not, our use of language, especially our dialect, is an expression of that distinctiveness. In addition to using distinctive words and grammatical patterns, which may not follow the rules of Standard English, people have accents, related to their pronunciation when they speak, which can articulate their identity.

Where they come from

Dialects and accents developed historically when groups of language users lived in relative isolation, without regular contact with other people using the same language. This was more pronounced in the past due to the lack of fast transport and mass media. People tended to hear only the language used in their own location, and when their language use changed (as language by its nature always evolves) their dialect and accent adopted a particular character, leading to national, regional and local variation.

Invasion and migration also helped to influence dialect development at a regional level. Just take the Midlands in England, for example. The East Midlands were ruled by the Danes in the ninth century. This resulted, for instance, in the creation of place names ending in “by” (a suffix thought to originate from the Danish word for “town”), such as Thoresby and Derby, and “thorpe” (meaning “settlement”), such as Ullesthorpe. The Danes, however, did not rule the West Midlands, where the Saxons continued to hold sway, and words of Danish origin are largely absent from that region.

Where they appear

Dialects and accents are not restricted to English or UK English for that matter. In the US, Australia and New Zealand, where English has been spoken for a much shorter period of time than in the UK, you would expect less variation as English has been spoken there for a shorter period of time. But even there, dialects and accents occur and the linguistic influence of settlers who came from certain parts of the UK such as Scotland or Lancashire helped to determine local varieties.

A similar phenomenon appears in the UK. During the 1930s, Corby in Northamptonshire received a big influx of Scottish steelworkers. Here, there are features in the local language – for example, pronunciation of vowels in words such as “goat” or “thought” – which we think of as typically Scottish that are still used even by townsfolk who have never been to Scotland.

Other influences on language use

Other factors influence language use, too. One of them is social class. Very many local accents are now associated with working-class speakers, while middle and upper-class speakers tend to use a more standardised English. But this is a relatively recent development. Indeed, until the standardisation of English from the 16th century – when one variety of English came to be used in official situations and by printing presses for the wider publication of books – it was acceptable for speakers of different social classes to speak and write in their own dialects. Then, Latin and French were regarded as prestigious languages, applied by the elite in education, law and literature.

Changes, for example through music

Dialects and accents are changing and will continue to change. After all, language never stands still. Some traditional dialects are disappearing, but new urban and multicultural varieties continue to arise. Some accents are deemed “better” than others and certain features may become fashionable.

This can be influenced by music. At the moment, linguistic features of “black English”, associated with hip hop, grime, R&B and rap music – such as “bae”, “blood” or “brother”, which can all be used as forms of address – are regarded as “cool” and are adopted by other speakers.

Why people vary their language use

In addition, people change the language they use depending on who they are talking to, and why they are talking, for example formally in a job interview or casually to friends and family at home. People also change the way they speak to make themselves understood more easily, a phenomenon called linguistic accommodation.

Ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and age can all affect language usage. And there are also personal reasons for using dialects and accents to identify yourself. I have lived in England for 16 years, but you can still hear my Scottish accent and that is unlikely to change.

Or will we speak all the same?

Speakers’ language varieties can converge (become more similar) or diverge (become more different). And as the modern world becomes increasingly connected, linguists have wondered whether dialects and accents in general are bound to disappear.

There is certainly such a thing as “dialect levelling” – differences between dialects appear to be vanishing, which could be a consequence of the rise of mass and social media. But while there is much discussion about the disappearance of dialects and accents, public interest in the subject is growing.

They are here to stay

A consensus has not yet been reached. In UK English, some features may be spreading like wildfire through the country, such as people saying “free” instead of “three” – a linguistic change known as th-fronting. But differences persist, and speakers in Liverpool still sound very different to speakers in Plymouth.

In my opinion, dialects and accents are here to stay. Humans enjoy being part of groups, and we can consider language as a key means of expressing the perceived differences between “us” and “them”.

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How history is brought to life

(July 2016)

In my research project on  German immigrants in Nottingham during the First World War I’m working with the Trent Academy Group, which consists of Rushcliffe School, The Farnborough Academy and Arnold Hill Academy.

Students and teachers from these schools collaborate in defining research questions and conduct aspects of the research activity and dissemination of the research findings. Furthermore, they are engaged in the production of lasting learning materials on this subject.

So far, ten Year 11 and 12 and thirty Year 9 students from the three schools have taken part in the research work. Below you can read what one of the students wrote in the July issue of their school magazine, the Rushcliffe Post.

We found out what happened to German individuals

“World War One is on our collective conscience currently as we are in the middle of the 100 year anniversary; with soldiers rightly remembered. However, what about the people left behind? What about the residents of Nottingham? In particular, what if, like the poet and First World War soldier Siegfried Sassoon- you had German ancestry, or were German? The three schools of the Trent Academy Group have been given an excellent opportunity to work with an historian on a project that will try to answer this question.

TAG 1The first part of the project entailed us spending a day in Nottingham Central Library and Nottinghamshire Archives, under the direction of historian Ben Braber. The students were given a framework to work in, but were using their research skills to find out about what happened to German individuals. Ultimately, their research will help develop knowledge and understanding about the impact of the war on the people involved and the wider community.

On Tuesday 12th July we went to the Nottinghamshire Archives. Our task was to find out as much information about Germans/Austrians living in Nottingham in WW1.

TAG 2Our person was a German man called Alexander Seelig. We shared what we had found out through looking through an accounting book and various old letters about Seelig to the other people at the event. Seelig was accused of trading with the enemy and found guilty. Before he was imprisoned he had his own export trading company called “Seelig & Company” which were an extremely wealthy company.

We then researched different people who were German/Austrian who lived in Nottingham using online records. After researching two different people we came to the conclusion that they must’ve been visiting or imprisoned as nothing came up for them. However we then were given a final person to look at called “Isaac Bowmer” and we found out that he was of Austrian heritage. We found a newspaper article showing that he’d committed suicide because he was so fearful of what might happen so him as an immigrant living in Britain.

Overall the day was extremely enjoyable and we learnt a lot about German and Austrian immigrants in Nottingham from 1910 onwards and how they lived there life.”

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Hidden history

(May 2016)

My current research project is on German immigrants in Nottingham during the First World War. It’s a collaborative undertaking for academics, teachers and students.

Overview

This project breaks new ground, because it examines a subject that has been somewhat overlooked.

The examination focuses on: German migrant numbers and ethnic coherence; their participation in the wider society; prisoners of war, implementation of national measures such as arrest, internment and deportation of German nationals; hostile attitudes such as Germanophobia; riots and disturbances, for example in May 1915 following the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania; and German reactions and support for the German migrants in Nottingham throughout the period.

This is new research, because the subject has not only often been ignored in academic research, but it has also largely disappeared from the collective (public) memory.

Furthermore, whereas other research and publications on Germans in the UK during this period are usually limited studies on other localities or general countrywide overviews lacking local detail, the findings of this local examination are reviewed in a UK context.

For these purposes the project uses primary sources on the history of Nottingham, available in local and national depositories such as Nottinghamshire Archives and the National Archives, and secondary sources on the history of the UK in this period.

Partners

I’m conducting this project with academics at Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, and we are working with the Trent Academy Group (TAG) – a multi-academy trust that supports schools in providing outstanding education for their pupils. The members of the Group are: Rushcliffe School – An Academy specialising in Science; The Farnborough Academy; and Arnold Hill Academy. All three are based in Nottinghamshire, and teach the First World War as part of the curriculum.

TAG students and their teachers are collaborating in defining research questions as well as conducting aspects of the actual research activity and dissemination of the research findings. Furthermore, they are engaged in the production of lasting learning materials on this subject.

Questions

In addition to the focus of examination mentioned above, the students are questioning differences and similarities between the period of the First World War and today when it comes to the position and treatment of foreigners such as immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and the development and maintenance of British values in times of conflict, terrorist attack and war.

This assists them in broadening and deepening their historical and social knowledge and developing and honing their research and dissemination skills, and it helps them and their fellow students to identify with historical personalities and events in order to gain a greater understanding of past and present.

Thus, the project brings to life a hidden history of integration and segregation, and makes it relevant for young contemporary audiences through involvement, collaboration and dissemination, leaving a legacy in terms of experiences and learning materials that can be applied in future education and training.

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What’s the use

Front cover image of This Cannot Happen Here.(November 2013)

In my book This Cannot Happen Here – Integration and Jewish Resistance in the Netherlands, 1940-1945 (published by Amsterdam University Press) there’s a small section on the ways in which Jews used language. Here’s that passage.

During the 1930s Jews in the Netherlands were becoming part of a changing Dutch society. They contributed to some of the changes, but during the process of their integration into Dutch society Jews did not necessarily lose all characteristics of their Jewish identity. However, less than in the past Jews defined these characteristics in terms of religion such as congregational membership, synagogue attendance, observance of Jewish rituals and participation in organised Jewish education and activity. More than before, Jews in the Netherlands maintained and further developed Jewish identities in other aspects their daily life. This was expressed, for example, through the way they spoke.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century most Jews in the Netherlands spoke Dutch, which had replaced Yiddish as their everyday language. This had been a slow process, with Yiddish being diluted with Dutch, but the development accelerated after changes in education, where Jewish children increasingly took part in general, not specifically Jewish education. By 1900 some families still spoke Yiddish at home, but this was regarded as uncivilised by the establishment. Not only Jews changed their language – the general population also altered language use. Like other living languages, Dutch was constantly changing. Significantly, several Yiddish words were introduced into Dutch and used by non-Jews. For instance, the phrase het was een sof to indicate that an event had been bad or the use of the name Mokum for the Dutch capital Amsterdam showed that language change was part of a process of mutual cultural transfer.

The historian M.H. Gans has made several observations about the language spoken by Jews in Amsterdam. He noted their patter had certain characteristics that distinguished it from the Dutch spoken by non-Jews in that city.

Traditionally, the Jews of Amsterdam lived in and near a quarter on the east side of the city centre. It was not a restricted area or ghetto and was also inhabited by non-Jews. The old Jewish quarter in Amsterdam belonged to the part of the city that had some of the worst slums. Demolition of slums forced their inhabitants to move. Some individuals who were successful in business or employment also moved voluntarily to neighbouring and further outlying districts. However, such moves were by no means permanent. Sometimes people moved on, at other times they returned to the old neighbourhood, for example because they preferred living there as they had remained outsiders in the new neighbourhood or because they were forced to return as they could no longer afford the usually higher rents of their new homes. In any case, by 1930 only about 18 per cent of all Jews in Amsterdam still lived in the old neighbourhood. In 1941 there were four neighbourhoods in the capital where more than 50 per cent of the inhabitants were Jewish. In other neighbourhoods Jews often lived in clusters.

The population of Amsterdam used numerous language variants, some of which were specific to neighbourhoods. Jews had their own accents in the neighbourhoods where they were concentrated or they adapted the accent of the neighbourhood in which they lived or to which they moved.

Overall, Jews in Amsterdam pronounced some letters less sharp, their intonation was dissimilar, and they gave words extra endings, changed syntax and word order, and made different word choices and combinations. To some, this language sounded more melodious, others found it exaggerated or even vulgar.

Linguists have pointed out that it is common to have several speech communities within one city, which show differences in terms of vocabulary, pronunciation or intonation. These sometimes long-lasting differences can be caused by real or perceived ethnic origins. While this is a group phenomenon, individuals within one family can use different spoken variants of a language, not always depending on their education, and one person can use various language forms at different times, often in relation to the people he or she is addressing. The language Gans heard from Jews in Amsterdam can be best described as a non-standard variety of Dutch. For example, the feature he mentioned of wij bennen instead of wij zijn (we are) is characteristic of non-standard language.

Jews may have used language variety for several reasons. An overtly flowery word choice could have been typical for persons who were uncertain about their language use, for example, working-class people who thought their language use was improper or incorrect. This relates to what linguists call striving for overt prestige (in the eyes of users of the standard language) rather than covert prestige (in the eyes of users of non-standard forms). It suggests that the Jewish users of standard and non-standard Dutch wanted to express a sense of belonging, either to the group that apparently spoke the standard variety – ‘proper Dutch’ – or to the group that did not. As such, how Jews spoke and what they said could have been knowingly or unintentionally a response to attitudes about Jews in the general population, a wish to hide or express a Jewish identity or a desire to participate in or abstain from certain activities, both Jewish and general activities. However, the use of a non-standard variant could also cause misunderstandings between Jews and non-Jews, which set Jews apart within the general population.