The West Country dialects
and West Country accents
are generic terms applied to any of several English dialects
used by much of the indigenous population of South West England
, the area popularly known as the West Country
This region encompasses Bristol, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, while Gloucestershire and Wiltshire are usually also included, although the northern and eastern boundaries of the area are hard to define and sometimes even wider areas are encompassed. The West Country accent is said to reflect the pronunciation of the Anglo-Saxons far better than other modern English Dialects.
In the nearby counties of Berkshire, Herefordshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, it was possible to encounter comparable accents and, indeed, distinct local dialects until perhaps the 1960s. There is now limited use of such dialects amongst older people in local areas. Although natives of such locations, especially in western parts, can still have West Country influences in their speech, the increased mobility and urbanisation of the population have meant that local Berkshire, Hampshire and Isle of Wight dialects (as opposed to accents) are today essentially extinct.
Academically the regional variations are considered to be dialectal forms. The Survey of English Dialects captured manners of speech across the West Country that were just as different from Standard English as anything from the far North. Close proximity has completely different languages such as Cornish, which is a Celtic language related to Welsh, and more closely to Breton.
In literary terms, most of the usage has been in either poetry or dialogue, to add "local colour". It has rarely been used for serious prose in recent times, but was used much more extensively up to the 19th century. West Country dialects are commonly represented as "Mummerset
", a kind of catchall southern rural
accent invented for broadcasting.
- In King Lear, Edgar speaks in the West Country dialect, as one of his various personae.
Television and film
History and origins
Until the 19th century, the West Country
and its dialects were largely protected from outside influences, due to its relative geographical isolation. The West Country dialects derive not from a corrupted form of modern English, but reflect the historical origins of the English language
and its historical pronunciation, in particular Late West Saxon
, which formed one of the earliest English language standards.
The dialects have their origins in the expansion of Anglo-Saxon into the west of modern-day England, where the kingdom of Wessex (West-Saxons) was founded. From Wessex, the Anglo-Saxons spread into the Celtic region of Dumnonia, bringing their language with them.
Penetration of the English language into Cornwall took centuries more; During the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, which centred on Devon and Cornwall many of the Cornish objected to the Prayer Book, on the basis that many Cornish could not speak English. Cornish likely ceased to be spoken as a community language sometime around 1780, with the last monoglot Cornish speaker being believed to be Chesten Marchant, who died in 1676 at Gwithian (Dolly Pentreath was bilingual). However some people retained a fragmented knowledge and some words were adopted by dialect(s) in Cornwall. In recent years, the traffic has reversed, with the revived Cornish language reclaiming Cornish words that had been preserved in the local dialect into its lexicon, and also (especially "Revived Late Cornish") borrowing other dialect words. However, there has been some controversy over whether all of these words are of native origin, as opposed to imported from other parts of England, or the Welsh Marches.
Outside Cornwall, it is thought that the various local dialects may reflect the territories of various Saxon clans (who had their own dialects of Saxon).
As Lt-Col. J.A. Garton observed in 1971, traditional Somerset English has a venerable and respectable origin, and is not a mere "debasement" of Standard English:
- "The dialect is not, as some people suppose, English spoken in a slovenly and ignorant way. It is the remains of a language - the court language of King Alfred. Many words, thought to be wrongly pronounced by the countryman, are actually correct, and it is the accepted pronunciation which is wrong. English pronounces W-A-R-M worm, and W-O-R-M wyrm; in the dialect W-A-R-M is pronounced as it is spelt, Anglo-Saxon W-E-A-R-M. The Anglo-Saxon for worm is W-Y-R-M. Polite English pronounces W-A-S-P wosp; the Anglo-Saxon word is W-O-P-S and a Somerset man still says WOPSE. The verb To Be is used in the old form, I be, Thee bist, He be, We be, Thee 'rt, They be. 'Had I known I wouldn't have gone', is 'If I'd a-know'd I 'ooden never a-went'; 'A' is the old way of denoting the past participle, and went is from the verb to wend (Anglo-Saxon wendan)."
In some cases, many of these forms are closer to Standard German than Standard British English is, e.g.
|Standard German||Somerset||Standard British English||Ich bin||I be/A be||I am
|Du bist||Thee bist||You are (archaic "Thou art")|
|Er ist||He be||He is|
The use of male (rather than neutral) gender with nouns, and sometimes female, also parallels German, which unlike English retains grammatical genders. The pronunciation of "s" as "z" is also similar to German.
In more recent times, West Country dialects have been treated with some derision, which has led many local speakers to abandon them or water them down. In particular it is British comedy which has brought them to the fore outside their native regions, and paradoxically groups such as The Wurzels, a comic North Somerset/Bristol band from whom the term Scrumpy and Western music originated, have both popularised and made fun of them simultaneously. In an unusual regional breakout, the Wurzels' song Combine Harvester reached the top of the UK charts in 1976, where it did absolutely nothing to dispel the "simple farmer" stereotype of Somerset folk. It and all their songs are sung entirely in a local version of the dialect, which is somewhat exaggerated and distorted. Some words used aren't even typical of the local dialect. For instance, the word "nowt" is used in the song "Threshing Machine". This word is generally used in more northern parts of England, with the West Country equivalent being "nort".
Celtic language influence
As previously stated, Brythonic languages have had a long-term influence on the West Country dialects.
There is evidence of some minor Irish settlement in the coastal areas, especially Somerset, but the colonies here were not as large or successful as in Scotland, or even the few in north-west England and west Wales.
The Cornish dialect, or Anglo-Cornish (to avoid confusion with the Cornish language), has the most substantial Celtic language influence, because many western parts were non-English speaking, even into the early modern period. In places such as Mousehole, Newlyn and St Ives, fragments of Cornish survived in English even into the 20th century, e.g. some numerals (esp. for counting fish) and the Lord's Prayer were noted by WD Watson in 1925, Edwin Norris collected the Creed in 1860, and JH Nankivel also recorded numerals in 1865 . The dialect of West Penwith is particularly distinctive, especially in terms of grammar. This is most likely due to the late decay of the Cornish language in this area.
In other areas, Celtic vocabulary is less common, but it is notable that "coombe", cognate with Welsh cwm, was borrowed from Brythonic into Old English and is common in placenames east of the Tamar, especially Devon, and also in northern Somerset around Bath. Some possible examples of Brythonic words surviving in Devon dialect include:
- Blooth - A blossom (Welsh blodyn)
- Goco - A bluebell
- Jonnick - Pleasant, agreeable
- Some of the vocabulary used is reflective of English of a bygone era, e.g. the verb "to hark" (as in "'ark a'ee"), "thee" (often abbreviated to "'ee") etc, the increased use of the infinitive form of the verb "to be" etc.
- The final "y" is pronounced /ei/. For example: party /pa:tei/ silly /silei/ etc...
- All "r"s in a word are pronounced in a rhotic fashion (and not trilled), in contrast to Received Pronunciation where "r" is only pronounced before vowels. West Country pronunciation of "r" corresponds with that in Ireland and in most of North America. For example: park, herd and car.
- Initial fricative consonants can be voiced, so that "s" is pronounced as Standard English "z" and "f" as Standard English "v".
- Long "a" vowels in words such as grass, ask and Bath are represented by the sounds [æ:] or [a:] in different parts of the West Country; the isoglosses in the Linguistic Atlas of England are not straightforward cases of clear borders.
- In Bristol, a terminal "a" can be realised as the sound "aw" - e.g. cinema as "cinemaw" and America as "Americaw" - which is often perceived by non-Bristolians to be an intrusive "l". Hence the old joke about the three Bristolian sisters Evil, Idle and Normal i.e.: Eva, Ida, and Norma. The name Bristol itself (originally Bridgestowe or Bristow) is believed to have originated from this local pronunciation.
- In words containing "r" before a vowel, there is frequent metathesis - "gurt" (great), "Burdgwater" (Bridgwater) and "chillurn" (children)
In various districts there are also distinct grammatical and syntactical differences in the dialect:
- The second person singular thee (or ye) and thou forms used, thee often contracted to 'ee.
- Bist may be used instead of are for the second person, EG: how bist? ("how are you?") This has its origins in the Old English - or Anglo-Saxon - language and is the form adopted as standard in modern German ("Du bist").
- Use of male (rather than neutral) gender with nouns, e.g: put'ee over there ("put it over there") and 'e's a nice scarf ("That's a nice scarf").
- An a prefix may be used to denote the past participle; a-went ("gone").
- Use of they in conjunction with plural nouns, where Standard English demands those e.g.: They shoes are mine ("Those shoes are mine" / "They are mine"). This is also used in Lowland Scots, except that in Scots they are two different words, thae (from Anglo-Saxon ðà, the plural form of that) and they (from Anglo-Saxon þà, the plural form of he, she and it).
- Am used exclusively in the present tense, usually contracted to 'm. e.g: you'm, you am ("you are") .
- In other areas, be may be used exclusively in the present tense, often in the present continuous; Where you be going to? ("Where are you going?")
- The use of to to denote location. Where's that to? ("Where's that?"). This is something you can still hear often, unlike many other characteristics. This former usage is common to Newfoundland English, where many of the island's modern-day descendants have West Country origins - particularly Bristol - as a result of the 17th–19th century migratory fishery.
- Use of the past tense "writ" where Standard English uses "wrote". e.g: I writ a letter ("I wrote a letter").
- Nominative pronouns follow some verbs. For instance, Don't tell I, tell'ee! ("Don't tell me, tell him!"), "'ey give I fifty quid and I zay no, giv'ee to charity inztead" ("They gave me £50 and I said no, give it to charity instead"). In most Germanic languages (and it is most noticeable in Icelandic) it is nominative pronouns (I, he, she) which follow the verb to be, e.g.: It is I, It is he, These are they and not It is me, It is him, These are them. However in casual Standard English the objective case is now used. In West Country dialect however, many other verbs can take the nominative case.
- West Country accents also share certain characteristics with those of other isolated rural areas where Standard English has been slow to influence the speech of most people; for example, in parts of the East Riding of Yorkshire final "r"s are still pronounced, or, in East Anglia, long "a"s retain the [æ:] pronunciation.
- The Survey of English Dialects found that Cornwall retained some older features of speech that are now considered "Northern" in England. For example, a short /ʊ/ in suck, but, cup, etc. and sometimes a short /a/ in words such as aunt.
There is a popular prejudice that stereotypes speakers as unsophisticated and even backward, due possibly to the deliberate and lengthened nature of the accent. This can work to the West Country speaker's advantage, however: recent studies of how trustworthy Britons find their fellows based on their regional accents put the West Country accent high up, under southern Scottish English but a long way above Cockney and Scouse. Presumably this is premised upon the perception that farmers are people of the soil, and hence more honest compared with city dwellers, or that slow speech means slow thought, hence more incapable of guile.
The West Country accent is probably most identified in American English as "pirate speech" cartoon-like "Ooh arr, me 'earties! Sploice the mainbrace!" talk is very similar. This may be a result of the strong seafaring and fisherman tradition of the West Country, both legal and outlaw. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) was a native of Bristol, and privateer and English hero Sir Francis Drake hailed from Tavistock in Devon. Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Pirates of Penzance may also have added to the association. It has also been suggested that Westcountryman Robert Newton's performance in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island may have influenced people's preconceptions of what accent a pirate "should" have.
Additional selected vocabulary
Some of these terms are obsolete, but some are in current use.
- "Acker" (North Somerset) friend
- "Allernbatch" (Devon) old sore
- "Alright my ansum" (Cornwall & Devon) How are you, my friend?
- "Alright my luvver" (just as with the phrase "alright mate", when said by a person from the West Country, it has no carnal connotations, it is merely a greeting. Commonly used in Cornwall and Devon.)
- "Anywhen" At any time
- "Batch" (North Somerset) hill - used in place names, e.g. the Vern Batch
- "Beast" (North Somerset) animal, particularly cattle
- "Benny" (Bristol) to lose your temper (from a character in Crossroads)
- "Beamer" (Bristol) to go red in the face with embarrassment.
- "Blad" (Bristol) idiot
- "Chinny reckon" (North Somerset)— I do not believe you in the slightest
- "Chuggy pig" (North Somerset) woodlouse
- "Chump" (North Somerset) log (for the fire)
- "Chuting" (North Somerset) (pronounced "shooting") guttering
- "Comical" (North Somerset) peculiar, e.g. "'e was proper comical"
- "Coupie" (North Somerset, Dorset & Bristol) crouch, as in the phrase "coupie down"
- "Crowst" (Cornwall) a picnic lunch, crib
- "Cuzzel" (Cornwall) soft
- "Daddy granfer" (North Somerset) woodlouse
- "Daps" (Bristol, Dorset, Somerset)— sportshoes (plimsoles or trainers) (also used widely in South Wales)
- "Darzet" (Dialectual name for the county of Dorset)
- "Dimpsy" (Devon) describing the state of twilight as in "it's getting a bit dimpsy"
- "Doughboy" (North Somerset) dumpling
- "Dreckley" (Cornwall, Devon & Somerset) soon, like "manana" - but less urgent (from "directly" once in common English usage for "straight away")
- "Emmet" (Cornwall and North Somerset) tourist or visitor (derogatory)
- "Et" (North Somerset) that, e.g. "Giss et peak" (Give me that pitchfork)
- "Gleanie" (North Somerset) guinea fowl
- "Gockey" (Cornwall) idiot
- "Grockle" (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire) tourist or visitor (derogatory)
- "Gurt" (Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Bristol, South Glos) big or great, often used to express a large size "That's a gurt big tractor!" Although often "Gurt" is thought of as meaning "Great" in fact a better meaning is "Very".
- "Haling" (North Somerset) coughing
- "Hark at he" (pronounced "'ark a' 'ee"), "listen to him"
- "Hilts and gilts" (North Somerset) female and male piglets, respectively.
- "Hinkypunk" Will o' the wisp
- "Huppenstop" (North Somerset) raised stone platform where milk churns are left for collection - no longer used but many still exist outside farms.
- "In pig" (of a pig) pregnant
- "Janner" (Devon, esp. Plymouth) a term with various meanings, normally associated with Devon. An old term for some who makes their living off of the sea. Plymothians are often generally referred to as Janners, and supporters of the city's football team Plymouth Argyle are sometimes also referred to thus. In Wiltshire, a similar word ' jidder ' has similar meaning - possible relation to 'gypsy'.
- "Jasper" - a North Devon word for wasp.
- "Keendle teening" (Cornwall) candle lighting
- "Kimberlin" (Portland) someone from Weymouth
- "Love", "My Love", "Luvver" terms of endearment. Even used by heterosexual men to one another.
- "Ling" (Cornwall)— to throw Ling 'ee 'ere - Throw it here
- "Madderdo'ee" (Cornwall) Does it matter?
- "Maggoty" (Dorset) fanciful
- "Mackey" (Bristol) massive or large, often to benefit
- "Mang" (Devon) to mix
- "Old butt" (Gloucstershire, Forest of Dean) friend
- "Ooh Arr" (Devon) multiple meanings, including "Oh Yes". Popularised by the Wurzels, this phrase has become stereotypical, and is used often to mock speakers of West Country dialects. In the modern day "Ooh Ah" is commonly used as the correct phrase though mostly avoided due to stereotypes.
- "Parcel of ol' Crams" (Devon) a phrase by which the natives sum up and dismiss things (a) they cannot comprehend, (b) do not believe, (c) have no patience with, or (d) may be entertained by but unwilling to praise.
- "Piggy widden" (Cornwall) phrase used to calm babies
- "Plimmed, -ing up" (North Somerset) swollen, swelling
- "Poached, -ing up" (North Somerset but also recently heard on The Archers) cutting up, of a field, as in "the ground's poaching up ,we'll have to bring the cattle indoors for the winter".
- "Proper job" (Devon, West Dorset, Somerset) Something done well
- "Pummy" (Dorset) Apple pumace from the cider-wring (either from "pumace" or French "pomme" meaning apple)
- "Rainin' pourin'" (North Somerset) raining very hard - said as if one word ("It's rainin-pourin")
- "Scag" (North Somerset) to tear or catch (“I've scagged my jeans on some barbed wire.”)
- "Scrage" a scratch or scrape usually on a limb BBC Voices Project
- "Slit pigs" (North Somerset) male piglets that have been castrated
- "Smooth" (Bristol & Somerset) to stroke (e.g. cat or dog)
- "Somewhen" At some time (still very commonly used)(compare German; irgendwann)
- "Sprieve" (Wiltshire) Dry after a bath, shower or swim by evaporation.
- "Thic" (North Somerset) that - said knowingly, i.e. to be make dialect deliberately stronger. E.g. "Get in thic bed!"
- "Where's it to?" Where is it? ("Dorchester, where's it to? It's in Dorset.")
- "Youngan", "Young" (Somerset, Dorset) Generally used to address someone younger than you. E.g. "Alright youngan?"
- "Zat" (Devon) soft
- "Zummerzet" (Dialectual name for the county of Somerset)
Social Stigma and Future of West Country Dialect
Owing to the West Country's agricultural history, the sound of the West Country accent has for centuries been associated with farming and, as an effect, with lack of education and rustic simplicity. This can be seen in literature as early as the 18th Century in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals, set in the Somerset city of Bath.
As more and more of the British population moved into towns and cities during the 20th Century, non-regional, Standard English accents increasingly became a marker of personal social mobility. Most recently of all, a national obsession with "Chavs" has harmed the reputation of regional urban accents via a well-known, vile character in the popular British comedy series Little Britain, Vicky Pollard, who speaks with a broad Bristolian accent.
A West Country accent continues to be a reason for denigration and stereotype: "The people of the South West have long endured the cultural stereotype of 'ooh arr'ing carrot crunching yokels, and Bristol in particular has fought hard to shake this image off".
As is the case with all of England's regional accents and dialects, increased mobility and communication during the last century seem to have strengthened the influence of Standard English throughout England (much less so in Scotland), particularly amongst the younger generations. The BBC Voices series also found that many people throughout Britain felt that this was leading to a "dilution" or even loss of regional accents and dialects. In the case of the West Country however, it seems that also social stigma has for a long time contributed to this process.
- John Kjederqvist: The Dialect of Pewsey (Wiltshire), Transactions of the Philological Society 1903-1906
- Etsko Kruisinga: A Grammar of the Dialect of West Somerset, Bonn 1905
- Bertil Widén: Studies in the Dorset Dialect, Lund 1949
- Clement Marten: The Devonshire Dialect, Exeter 1974
- Norman Rogers: Wessex Dialect, Bradford-on-Avon 1979
- Clemet Marten: Flibberts and Skriddicks - Stories and Poems in the Devon Dialect, Exeter 1983
- Sounds Familiar? Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects from across the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website