Talking point: Do you celebrate your dialect?
Next month Devon will host National Dialect Day, an annual event which draws participants from across the country. Organiser Bill Murray is appealing for dialect speakers and people in the West to celebrate their vernacular.
I came to live in Devon in 1965 – North Tawton to be precise, where the first language of most of the locals was the Devonshire dialect. In those days, the main employer in North Tawton was North Devon Water Board and Archie Gregory was running a medium-sized road transport company.
I had the pleasure of listening to Archie read one of Jan Stewer's stories in the Devonshire dialect. My grandmother, who was from Exeter, had taught me rhymes when I was a tot but now, for the first time, I realised dialect could be in the written form.
At grammar school in Okehampton there were some Devonshire dialect speakers but on the bus to school it was my friends who attended Top School who, not surprisingly, spoke with the richest dialect.
The true dialect speaker is unaware of their art until they go to school and find out that there is a "correct" way to speak. In the past, the use of dialect words and local accent were often discouraged by educationalists. I wonder if this suppression made youngsters more enthusiastic about maintaining them.
There is no doubt that there are fewer Devonshire dialect speakers around today than there were in 1965, but is the dialect dying out or just changing with the passage of time? Lois Lamplugh, in her book Four Centuries of Devon Dialect, includes the following extract from Exmoor Courtship and Scolding...
Thomasin: "How! Ya gurt chouting, grumbling, glumping, zower zwaped, yerring trash."
Wilmot: "Don't tell me o' glumping oll the neighbourhooden know thee to be a veaking, blazing, tiltis hussey."
Strong stuff indeed from the 18th century. In the 19th century, Henry Baird, who worked in a solicitor's office in Exeter, wrote dialect pieces under the name of Nathen Hogg. Details of his daily experiences in and around Exeter are described with wit and humour in his Letters to es Brither Jan. The subjects of his writings were not always humorous and in one letter entitled Bout tha Rieting and dated May 25, 1847, he writes of food shortages. "Last vriday wis week as I pakid down droo Exter strais, I wis tole thit a mortal baloo wis aun, an thit hummen and childern be swarms, wis braiking in winders, an aul up in harms."
You don't have to be a dialect speaker to appreciate the subject and to write about it. Some dialect writers were not dialect speakers. Eden Phillpotts could pen dialogue between the characters in his novels and plays in a mild but accurate accent and dialect. Likewise, Sarah Hewett, author of The Peasant Speech of Devon and Nummits and Crummits, collected all sorts of folklore and dialect pieces from the people in and around Tiverton. She was, I believe, the first to analyse the Devonshire speech, finding it both quaint and interesting, and like many others was concerned it would very soon die out. Writing towards the end of the 19th century she commented that "the so-called higher education of the working classes was swiftly and surely banishing the Saxon element from our midst".
At about the same time, W Gregory Harris, in his preface to Sketches of the West Countree, wrote: "As the years pass on, dialect will come to be considered a curious speech by the average man and will form more and more a study for antiquarians and philologists."
That was written more than a hundred years ago but still the Devonshire dialect survives and pride will ensure that it continues to be a very important part of our lives for many years to come.
William Weeks, who was born in Dolton in 1855, was another well-known dialect writer. Bits O' Broad Devon, Devonshire Yarns, 'Twas Ordained and Random Rhymes are collections of stories, rhymes and songs, including the famous Mortal Unlucky Old Chap, a song in North Devon dialect and a parody of the less well-known Happy Go-lucky Old Chap. Perhaps these publications helped to sustain dialect, but true speakers learn it in the cradle from their parents and family and later on in life from school friends and workmates.
The best known of all Devonshire dialect writers is undoubtedly Jan Stewer (A J Coles) who was born in 1876 at Woolwich Arsenal, where his father was stationed. He became a schoolmaster at Puddington, a village to the north of near Crediton, and in 1900 wrote his first piece entitled The Talk at Uncle Tom Cobleigh's Club for The Devon & Exeter Gazette. He was still contributing weekly In the Devon Dialect stories for The Western Times more than 50 years later.
The Devonshire Association has also, for the past 150 years, recorded in its annual Transactions the dialect and folklore of the county.
I hope dialect speakers and writers across the West, will be well represented at next month's celebration of regional speech.
National Dialect Day is at the Barnfield Theatre, Exeter, on Saturday October 19, with events across the weekend.
See devondialect.org for times and further details of the event.
Do you speak with a dialect? Can you understand dialect? Do you think it is an out-dated way of communicating and isolating? Post your comments below.