This is the fourth in a five-part series about the use of dialect in the children’s novels written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was lucky to get some great comments from listener Kate Duncan for this episode. You can follow her on Instagram at nurseryrhymeville.
The Secret Garden contrasts two families – the upper class, damaged, and unhealthy members of the Craven-Lennox clan with their posh upper class accents rooted to no place at all, and the happy, well-adjusted, healthy members of the Sowerby family, whose deep connections to family and community are reflected in their thick Yorkshire accents.
As Mary Lennox and her cousin Colin Craven are drawn deeper into the landscape around them, they begin to code switch, shifting into Yorkshire speech when they need to make a more personal connection with those around them. Conversely, the working-class, native Yorkshire speakers must code switch into standard English speech in order to do their jobs.
This episode explores the idea of code switching and the way that a person’s dialect is tied to their social class as seen in the speech of characters in The Secret Garden.
Activity: Self-Reflection on Speech and Code Switching
Ask your students to write out answers to the following questions:
Describe the way your speech changes depending on where you are. Examples of locations might include schools, libraries, shops, places of worship, outdoor places, or places of business.
Describe the way your speech changes depending on with whom you are speaking. Examples of people might include friends, family members, teachers, strangers, community leaders, or someone who is a different age from you.
Do you feel that the way you speak makes it difficult or easy for you to fit in in some situations? Why?
These questions may be very straightforward for many students, but for others this may be a sensitive area. You know your kids best. If one of your students has a speech impediment or comes from an immigrant or minority background, be sure that you handle any discussion with that child sensitively. It may be a really neat opportunity for certain children to share their experiences, but others may wish to keep their stories private. That’s why I recommend that this activity begin as a personal writing exercise, with sharing done on a voluntary basis.
Music in this Episode
“An Acre of Land” – Traditional (Roud 21093)
“Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” – Traditional
I’m very much enjoying my vacation back home in Southern California. Next week I’ll be back with my conclusion to the four part series on the children’s novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett. For now, please enjoy this sneak peek from my upcoming collection, Stories About Tiger, the Best Dog in the World. This story is called “Tiger Gives the Babies a Bath” and is about a time when some little cousins got covered in sweet potato. Tiger was happy to help them get cleaned up.
I’m on vacation with my family in Los Angeles over the school holidays for Easter, so you’ll have to wait for the dramatic conclusion to my series on Frances Hodgson Burnett. I wanted to have something to share with you during the break, though, so here is a sneak preview of one of the original stories I’ve been working on. There will be another story next week, and after that I’ll be back to my regular schedule. Please forgive the slightly lower audio quality as I’m away from my usual recording setup.
When I was a kid, my grandma had an awesome dog named Tiger. A while ago I started telling my own children stories about him. But as with all childhood memories, some details are muddled, and some parts of the story get condensed or embellished. But the events in this story pretty much happened the way I tell it, in which I was so silly as to think it was a good idea to wear roller skates while taking a very energetic boxer for a walk.
This is the third of a five part series looking at the use of dialect in the three children’s novels written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe, who begins as a wealthy child at a fancy London boarding school. She loses her fortune and spends two years as a drudge before having her position restored. During her time as essentially a slave, Sara comes into contact with every level of society, from her wealthy former classmates to a starving homeless girl huddled in the frozen city streets.
Burnett makes deft use of dialect in the book, leaving subtle clues to show when a character is a fluent but non-native speaker of English and writing the distinctive characteristics of the Cockney accent. But as always, she never mocks an accent or does anything to imply that the way someone speaks is automatically tied to their intelligence or virtue. The speech of Burnett’s characters isn’t itself a personality trait, but rather something that helps readers understand more about the background and experiences of the characters using that speech.
Activity: A Discussion about Speech Bias
This activity is appropriate for students old enough to understand the complicated nature of bias against certain kinds of speech. It is not recommended that teachers use this activity for an assignment which will be graded, as that can discourage openness of discussion and the ability to have a nuanced discussion with room for change of opinion.
Lead a discussion in which the children explore how people judge one another based on how they speak. Some judgment is justified, as when a person makes threats or uses language inappropriate to a certain setting. Explore some of the following issues that affect how speech is perceived for better and for worse:
regional and foreign accents
clean versus vulgar language
using technical jargon
speech affected by a disability
slang distinctive to certain groups which outsiders may not understand
affectations such as vocal fry or upspeak
use of words that may draw attention to the speaker’s race
speech used by those in authority
Try to encourage students to be honest and empathetic. This is not a “right or wrong” discussion but rather an opportunity for everyone to consider the sort of judgments made every day about the speech of others and whether or not these judgments are justified.
In Little Lord Fauntleroy, characters speak with many different kinds of voices. Characters are as lowly as a homeless shoeshine boy or as high and mighty as a British Earl with a seat in the House of Lords, but social status and speaking style aren’t what dictates a character’s morality. The most virtuous and most villainous characters in the book both have uneducated New York accents, showing that integrity and speech style are not tied together. And being wealthy and educated isn’t a guarantee of enlightened behavior; The grouchy old Earl is the most posh character in the book, and he starts out as selfish, rude, cruel, suspicious, and defensive. But he changes for the better after coming into contact with people who are different from him, showing that it is possible to go from posh and pompous to still posh but altruistic.
Frances Hodgson Burnett uses dialect heavily in all three of her children’s novels. In this second of five parts, find out how dialect is used to illuminate character without relying on stereotypes in Little Lord Fauntleroy. In fact, her use of dialect tends to defy stereotypes, demonstrating that good or bad personal character can be found in someone from any linguistic background.
Activity: Rewrite in Dialect
Provide students with a paragraph of text that they are already familiar with. It could be a passage from a book they’ve read, or an excerpt from a famous speech, or even a newspaper article. Have the students rewrite the text in a working class, middle class, or upper class dialect – or all three if you’ve got the time.
Smaller children who don’t have much of an understanding of politics or economics may need to have it explained as “write it the way a Queen would say it” or “write it the way someone would say it if they had never gone to school.” Have students share their work with one another and encourage discussion. An exercise like this can help students pay closer attention to how characters in books speak, and how they can write more believable characters in their own fiction.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was a woman who was knocked down many times in life, but this dual citizen combined her titanium British backbone with her American can-do attitude and made herself the most famous woman in the world. Her status can only be compared to that of J.K. Rowling, and her literary creations were just as much of a social phenomenon.
There isn’t another British or American novelist who addresses issues of social class more directly and thoroughly than Frances Hodgson Burnett. Plenty of authors do address issues of class, but it’s usually just within one narrow layer. shows people at every layer of society, from a starving homeless waif on the streets of London to the heiress of a diamond fortune in her three novels for children: Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden. This first episode in a series of five gives an overview of Hodgson’s life and how it gave her a unique perspective on dialect and social class.
Activity: An Autobiography in Dialect
Children usually write a short autobiography at some point in school, but they are almost always instructed to use “proper” standard language. For this writing exercise, encourage students to write in a way that reflects their natural dialect and personal speech patterns. This can include use of slang words, irregular spelling, or creative punctuation to make the writing sound as realistic as possible.
Students can read their autobiographies to one another, providing a chance for students to notice and discuss mannerisms and speech patterns that make a written character more vivid.
The Ukrainian folktale of “The Crow and The Snake” is not one that’s well known in the West. Very little information exists about it in English, and I’ve had trouble discovering anything about its origins or publication history. But it has turned out to be a remarkably poignant story in light of the current war being waged by Russia against the nation and people of Ukraine.
“The Crow and the Snake” can be seen as a parable or allegory of the invasion and subsequent war, which makes it useful to parents and teachers who are at a loss for ways to explain what’s going on to their children.
You can hear the entire folktale here:
Activity: Should the Fox have helped more?
In “The Crow and The Snake” a Crow is attacked by her neighbor, a Snake who eats up her children. The Crow never considers fleeing from her home, choosing instead to defend it. A passing Fox offers advice to the Crow, which ends up working, and the Snake is killed. The morality of the Fox’s actions are worth considering.
Have students engage with the following questions. This could be in a class discussion, in written essays, or in small group conferences.
Why do you think the Crow didn’t try to fight the Snake herself?
Why do you think the Fox gave advice to the Crow?
Can you think of any reasons the Fox should have offered direct help to the Crow?
Can you think of any reasons why the Fox would not have wanted to offer direct help to the Crow?
If you were the Crow, would you have abandoned your nest or stayed behind to fight for your home?
This audio version of “The Crow and The Snake” pairs with the episode “A Ukrainian Folktale Turned Modern Parable.” It can be freely used by parents, teachers, and other educators for non-profit purposes.
I don’t have a great degree of familiarity with the folklore of Eastern Europe, but recent events have led me to look for stories from Ukraine as a way to learn more about the culture of a nation that is fighting for its survival. Unfortunately I can find very little English-language scholarship on Ukrainian folklore. If any listeners have tips for me about reliable sources for research, please send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Ricky the Racer” is a tale that has been in TQ Townsend’s family for four generations. It was written by her grandfather, E. Harlow Mortensen, and originally had the title “Dick and the Racetrack.” It’s been modified and added to over the years, so what is presented here is an expanded retelling. A few details have been changed from the original, but it’s mainly the same story that was first told almost 70 years ago.
The folk history of this tale:
This story was first made up in the mid-1950’s. The cars in the original version of the story were Volkswagen Bugs. Dick was the driver of a blue bug, and to the best of my memory the other bugs were green, red, and white. I believe the sounds the cars made were “ZEEEEEEE,” “BWAAAAAA,” and “BUH-BUH-BUH-BUH.” But it’s hard to remember exactly because it’s been so long.
I have changed the name of the main character from Dick to Ricky because, in the years after this story was first written, this nickname has acquired a vulgar connotation and I don’t want my kids to accidentally get in trouble for innocently saying a word that will get them in trouble at school. Also, when my oldest daughter heard this story she wanted to hear about a female protagonist, so when I tell it to her, Ricky becomes Ricki and she saves Lucky the Puppy.
Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm but usually the only fact people know about these men is that they were the authors of a book of fairy tales. And even this is only partly true. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk tales, and then they edited them into Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales, which became the heart of the fairy tale canon.
The Brothers Grimm were dedicated to preserving folklore at a time when war, economic change, and the loss of large, multigenerational families were destroying folk traditions. It would be nice to say that dictators with imperial ambitions no longer posed a threat to the unique cultures of smaller neighbors, but unfortunately the plight of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is alarmingly relevant given the present-day war in Ukraine.
Activity: Collect and Preserve Folktales
Within your family, school, or community, have children think of sources for local legends and stories. Are there famous local sites? Notable citizens from the past? Family bedtime stories or songs? Have children record these bits of folklore. Then, decide who will edit and arrange the works. Consider which items have most value to preserving the folk memories of your family and community. Once the stories are assembled, share them in a way that gives free access to as many people as possible and encourages others to make new creative works based on this folklore.