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Hansard's bread and butter: our language and dialect group

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At some point in our lives, we’ve all taken part in the Great Bread Debate. When asked what we would call the foodstuff pictured below, our answers vary dramatically depending on where we’re from in the UK. Typical names include cob, batch, bara, bap, barmcake, roll, bun, breadcake, morning roll, muffin, oggie, buttery, bridie and scuffleralthough, as a proud Yorkshireman, I’m a die-hard proponent of “teacake”. But what does bread have to do with Hansard? Beyond serving as lunch for hungry parliamentary reporters, it neatly illustrates that language is not standardised. 

Round white bread items - description dependent on your dialect

Accents and dialects vary widely across the 650 constituencies represented in Parliament. With people from all parts of the country (and beyond) working in Parliament and myriad rhythms of speech flowing through debates, recognising that nuance and reflecting on how it can be preserved when translating the spoken word into the written word is vital. 

Hansard’s goal is always to produce an accurate, readable report of parliamentary proceedings, in accordance with our terms of reference, but as a team we also make every effort to develop our approach to how we accurately represent language and dialects in print—no easy task when language changes so quickly and that change almost always begins with speech. 

(B)ready for action 

The Hansard language and dialect group was established in 2022 to draw up guidance to help our team make appropriate and consistent decisions when reporting the use of different languages and dialects. We work together with our colleagues in the Senedd, Stormont and the Scottish Parliament to address gaps in our knowledge, and provide a wealth of resources, including a language library, style sheets, glossaries and spreadsheets for colleagues to pool the languages and dialects they speak. During parliamentary recesses, reporters can study online courses on sociolinguistics and languages such as Welsh or British Sign Language. 

In June 2023 we began our seasonal lecture seriesinviting guest speakers to talk with us about their specialismsby hosting Jonnie Robinson of the British Library, who gave a brilliant lecture on accents, dialects and linguistic identity in the UK. Our autumn speaker, Warren Maguire from the University of Edinburgh addressed the question “What is Scots?” with a linguistic exploration of the terms “Scots” and “Ulster Scots”. In 2024, we hope to welcome more experts on topics including accent bias, the Cornish language and multicultural London English. And that’s not to mention our own in-house experts: us. 

Grainy image of Warren Maguire from Edinburgh University delivering a lecture to Hansard staff
Screenshot of Dr Warren Maguire's hybrid-delivered lecture "What is Scots?"

Linguistic diversity in Hansard  

Our team are proud, like the MPs we report, to have a rich and diverse linguistic background. We come from across the UKfrom Northern Ireland to Norfolk, from Scotland to Somerset—and further afield. While having native proficiency in English is essential for the job, ability in other languages too only helps! And we’ve noticed a correlation between linguists and Hansard reporters: a love of both the spoken word and the written certainly comes in handy when that’s your daily focus. Some colleagues have grown up in bilingual families; many have studied second and third languages, and worked as translators and interpreters; and we are extremely fortunate to have three colleagues who are first language Welsh speakers. So although we are based in London, it’s a job very much not just for Londoners—our linguistic diversity makes us all better at what we do. 

If you fancy learning a little more about the diversity of language among our reporters, my lovely colleagues Owain and Laura have written about the speech of their respective home nations, Wales and Scotland, and Helen has described her path from translation work to a career in Hansard. 

The Mother (Tongue) of Parliaments 

Although the House of Commons resolved in 1996 that “English is and should remain the language of this House”, Members may speak shorter utterances in the language of their choice—they might, for example, wish each other “penblwydd hapus” (“happy birthday” in Welsh) or respond“ go raibh maith agat” (“thank you” in Irish) if called to speak in a debate—so discussing past uses of languages other than English in Parliament and familiarising ourselves with frequently used phrases helps our team to produce an accurate report quickly. On that note, I need to keep my streak going on Duolingo...  

The UK is a signatory to the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which protects seven minority languages in the UK (Cornish, Welsh, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Ulster Scots, Manx Gaelic and Irish). The majority of those languages are used to various degrees across the legislatures of the UK. For example, despite that 1996 resolution, in 2017 the House of Commons passed a motion agreeing that MPs could make speeches in Welsh during Welsh Grand Committees and that those Welsh language contributions should be recorded alongside their English translation in the Official Report—a process that Owain also touched on in his blog post. 

Example of how Hansard presents translation - text in Welsh and English.
Example of how Hansard presents translation: extract from Welsh Grand Committee, 18 January 2022

“With languages, you are at home anywhere”* 

Our voices and dialects are badges of pride. Their rhythms and variety are the living embodiment of the UK’s rich linguistic history, so we take them seriously. We seek to respect all speech, and its diversity and importance in affirming national, regional and cultural identities. By fostering curiosity and conversation about language and dialect in the UK, and creating a constructive and descriptive culture around linguistic variation, we celebrate our differences and encourage the sensitive handling of variations of grammar and word choice. 

The Hansard language and dialect group enhances our ability to produce an accurate, readable report while keeping one eye on the ever-evolving linguistic make-up of the House, allowing parliamentary reporting and self-expression to go hand in hand. After all, when we gain so much joy and knowledge from the language of others, reducing our lunch to “bread” just doesn’t cut the mustard. 


* "With languages, you are at home anywhere": (Edmund de Waal The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss) 

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