Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

23 October 2015

Is Derbyshire 'the best of all dialects'?

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Burton upon Trent, Belper, Two Dales, Heanor and Swadlincote. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Derby. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Two Dales, Heanor and Swadlincote also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

These linguistic descriptions, created by researchers in the Library’s Voices of the UK project, identify and celebrate the fascinating combination of local, vernacular and archaic vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar that make up our regional accents and dialects. The following passage, recorded in Swadlincote, illustrates a number of intriguing features of broad dialect:

and that’s why I cudna spell at school they said teacher used say to me sound it and write it how you sound it well (so we did) if I was if I was calling my next door a gel and I’d got write girl I cudna write ’cause hoo were a gel to me so I wrote G E L gel (gel gel) so I cudna spell never could spell and I canna now cause I were always taught the wrong teacher used tell me off for not not sounding it and when I sounded it I sounded it as I said it (yeah) and I were wrong (that’s right) so whichever road I did it I were wrong

There are a number of grammatical constructions here that are typical of speech in the area. Firstly, the speaker forms negative statements by adding the suffix <na> to the verb rather than the more common variant <n’t> that occurs in most parts of England. In an area centred on the Peak District and the Potteries some speakers say, for instance, dunna for ‘don’t/doesn’t’; inna for ‘isn’t’; anna for ‘hasn’t/haven’t’ ; and adna for hadn’t and – as here – canna and cudna for ‘can’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ respectively. Derbyshire dialect also exhibits the so-called bare infinitive – that is the word ‘to’ is omitted with verbs such as ‘want to’, ‘have to’ and – as here – got write [= ‘got to write’] and used say [= ‘used to say’]. This construction occurs more widely in dialects across the East Midlands and North West England and crops up regularly, for instance, in the dialogue of the BBC sitcom Peter Kay’s Car Share. In the final episode (22 May 2015) John, played by Bolton’s Peter Kay, presents Kayleigh with a novelty lamp to mark their last car-share trip together, explaining how he’d struggled to find one but ‘I managed _ track one down in Preston’.

Perhaps the most intriguing item here, though, is this speaker’s use of the feminine pronoun hoo [= ‘she’] (like many speakers in England he drops the initial <h> sound so it sounds like he says ‘oo were a gel’). Research carried out for the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s uncovered a handful of examples of ‘hoo’ in a similar area of the North West Midlands. An extraordinary example of the survival of the Old English pronoun ‘heo’, it was considered extremely rare even then and most observers expected it to disappear within a generation. Yet here we are at the start of the 21st century and a Derbyshire dialect speaker is using a historic form perfectly naturally and spontaneously.

Maybe Mrs. Gardiner was right when reassuring Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that ‘Derbyshire is the best of all counties.’


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