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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: August 2016

9 - Respecting local speech


In the section that follows, I write about various ways in which our society would be a better place if there was more respect than is currently the case, on the part of metropolitan, social and educational elites, for local habits of speaking and local ways of using language.

He in't watchen on the marshes

When he was conducting his 2012 anti-Norfolk dialect campaign from the safety of the other side of the Suffolk border, one thing Ken Hurst did was to contrast the Norfolk dialect with the dialect of North Yorkshire. He quoted the famous Lyke Wake Dirge:

When thoo frae hence away art passed, ivvery neet an’ all …

“There, Norfolk dialect lovers,” he wrote gleefully, “is proper dialect for you!”

You can see what he means. The language is impressively different. But Ken was being provocative – and I am provoked into saying that he was being unfair. The Lyke Wake Dirge dates from the 1500s, so it is bound to look very different from modern English. (The word lyke, by the way, means ‘body’. We still have it in Norfolk in the form of lych, as in the lychgate to churchyards, where the first part of funeral services used to be held.)

North of England dialects do seem more “dialectal” than southern dialects like ours because Standard English originated in London, with some input from Oxford and Cambridge – and from Norfolk. Norwich was the second largest city in the realm, and there was a lot of immigration into London from Norfolk; so it is not so much the case that Norfolk dialect is quite like Standard English as that Standard English is quite like the Norfolk dialect!

Today, dialects north of the River Humber are more conservative than English dialects anywhere else in the world. Linguistic changes in England normally begin in London and spread outwards from there, so the far-northern dialects still have mediaeval pronunciations like “hoose, moose, oot” rather than modern “house, mouse, out”. The London-based change from the one vowel to the other, which reached Norfolk centuries ago, hasn't arrived there yet.

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