Speaking Yorkshire in the Secret Garden

This is the last of five episodes taking a look at the use of dialect in the children’s novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett. In The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett wanted to create a world where the characters return to their roots, literally and metaphorically, so the best way to express that was to find words that are closer to their roots. In this novel, the Yorkshire dialect is used to represent moments of emotional vulnerability or closeness to nature because it is a branch of the English language that is much closer to its ancient roots than more widely spoken dialects.

Activity: Dialect Interviews

Students can learn more about authentic use of dialect in writing by interviewing someone who speaks a dialect different from their own. This could be an immigrant from another country, or someone who is just from a different area of your own nation. Dialects also change over time, so a child could interview a grandparent and learn a bit about slang terms that aren’t used anymore.

Ask the interview subject about vocabulary words and phrases unique to their hometown. After collecting a list of terms, the student can try writing a fictional passage in dialect. Ideally the person who was interviewed could be on hand to help with polishing to make sure the words are used correctly. There are so many fascinating words that come from other languages, other times, and other regions, and your kids will find it both fun and enlightening to learn a bit more about how people different from them express themselves.

Music used in this episode

Doxology (“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”)
music by Louis Bourgeois (1551)
lyrics by Thomas Ken (1674)

This song is referenced in Chapter 26 of The Secret Garden

Code Switching in the Secret Garden

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

Speaking Like A Little Princess

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.

Speaking English with Little Lord Fauntleroy

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.

Dialect in the Works of Frances Hodgson Burnett

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.