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The West Country is often defined as encompassing the counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, the City of Bristol and Gloucestershire; Herefordshire is sometimes also included. However, the northern and eastern boundaries of the area are hard to define. In the adjacent counties of Berkshire, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and Oxfordshire it is possible to encounter similar accents and, indeed, much the same distinct dialect but with some similarities to others in neighbouring regions. Although natives of such locations, especially in rural parts, can still have West Country influences in their speech, the increased mobility and urbanisation of the population have meant that in Berkshire, Hampshire (including the Isle of Wight), and Oxfordshire the dialect itself, as opposed to various local accents, is becoming increasingly rare.
Academically the regional variations are considered to be dialectal forms. The Survey of English Dialects captured manners of speech across the South West region that were just as different from Standard English as any from the far North of England. There is some influence from the Welsh and Cornish languages depending on the specific location.
In literary contexts, 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 until the 19th century. West Country dialects are commonly represented as "Mummerset", a kind of catchall southern rural accent invented for broadcasting.
Until the 19th century, the West Country and its dialects were largely protected from outside influences, due to its relative geographical isolation. While standard English derives from the Old English Mercian dialects, the West Country dialects derive from the West Saxon dialect, which formed the earliest English language standard. Thomas Spencer Baynes claimed in 1856 that, due to its position at the heart of the Kingdom of Wessex, the relics of Anglo-Saxon accent, idiom and vocabulary were best preserved in the Somerset dialect.
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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) had been founded in the 6th century. As the Kings of Wessex became more powerful they enlarged their kingdom westwards and north-westwards by taking territory from the British kingdoms in those districts. From Wessex, the Anglo-Saxons spread into the Celtic regions of present-day Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire, bringing their language with them. At a later period Cornwall came under Wessex influence, which appears to become more extensive after the time of Athelstan in the 10th century. However the spread of the English language took much longer here than elsewhere.
Outside Cornwall, it is believed that the various local dialects reflect the territories of various West Saxon tribes, who had their own dialects which fused together into a national language in the later Anglo-Saxon period.
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 modern Saxon (commonly called Low German/Low Saxon) than Standard British English is, e.g.
|Low German||Somerset||Standard British English|
|Ik bün||I be/A be||I am|
|Du büst||Thee bist||You are (archaic "Thou art")|
|He is||He be||He is|
The use of masculine and sometimes feminine, rather than neuter, pronouns with non-animate referents also parallels Low German, which unlike English retains grammatical genders. The pronunciation of "s" as "z" is also similar to Low German. However, recent research proposes that some syntactical features of English, including the unique forms of the verb to be, originate rather with the Brythonic languages. (See Celtic Language Influence below.)
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 "The Combine Harvester" reached the top of the UK charts in 1976, where it did nothing to dispel the "simple farmer" stereotype of Somerset and West Country 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 "nawt".
Although the English language gradually spread into Cornwall after approximately the 13th century, a complete language shift to English took centuries more. The linguistic boundary, between English in the east and Cornish in the west, shifted markedly in the county between 1300 and 1750 (see figure). This is not to be thought of as a sharp boundary and it should not be inferred that there were no Cornish speakers to the east of a line, and no English speakers to the west. Nor should it be inferred that the boundary suddenly moved a great distance every 50 years.
During the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, which centred on Devon and Cornwall, many of the Cornish objected to the Book of Common Prayer, on the basis that many Cornish could not speak English. Cornish probably ceased to be spoken as a community language sometime around 1780, with the last monoglot Cornish speaker 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 parts of England, or the Welsh Marches. Some modern day revived Cornish speakers have been known to use Cornish words within an English sentence, and even those who are not speakers of the language sometimes use words from the language in names.
Brythonic languages have also had a long-term influence on the West Country dialects beyond Cornwall, both as a substrate (certain West Country dialect words and possibly grammatical features) and languages of contact. Recent research on the roots of English proposes that the extent of Brythonic syntactic influence on Old English and Middle English may have been underestimated, and specifically cites the preponderance of the forms of the verbs to be and to do in the southwestern region and their grammatical similarity to Welsh and Cornish in opposition to the Germanic languages.
Bos: Cornish verb to be
|Present Tense (short form)||Present tense (subjunctive)||Standard British English|
|Ov||Biv||I am [ dialect: I be ]|
|Os||Bi||You are (dialect: "(Th)ee be")|
|Owgh||Bowgh||You are (plural)|
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 (especially for counting fish) and the Lord's Prayer were noted by W. D. Watson in 1925, Edwin Norris collected the Creed in 1860, and J. H. Nankivel also recorded numerals in 1865. The dialect of West Penwith is particularly distinctive, especially in terms of grammar.[vague] This is most likely due to the late decay of the Cornish language in this area. In Cornwall the following places were included in the Survey of English Dialects: Altarnun, Egloshayle, Gwinear, Kilkhampton, Mullion, St Buryan, and St Ewe.
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 and the examples Hazeley Combe and Combley Great Wood (despite spelling difference, both are pronounced 'coombe') are to be found as far away as the Isle of Wight. Some possible examples of Brythonic words surviving in Devon dialect include:
Some of these terms are obsolete, but some are in current use.
|acker (North Somerset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight)||friend|
|afear'd (Dorset)||to be afraid, e.g. Dorset's official motto, "Who's afear'd".|
|Alaska (North Somerset)||I will ask her|
|Allernbatch (Devon)||old sore|
|Alright me Ansum? (Cornwall & Devon)||How are you, my friend?|
|Alright me Babber? (Somerset), Gloucestershire and Bristol||Similar to "Alright me ansum".|
|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 across the West Country)|
|anywhen (Hampshire, Isle of Wight)||at any time|
|'appen (Devon)||perhaps, possibly|
|Appleknocker (Isle of Wight)||a resident of the Isle of Wight.|
|arable (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight)||(from "horrible"), often used for a road surface, as in "Thic road be arable"|
|Bad Lot (North Somerset)||e.g. "They'm a bad lot, mind"|
|baint (Dorset)||am not e.g. "I baint afear'd o' thic wopsy".|
|bauy, bay, bey (Exeter)||boy|
|Beached Whale (Cornwall)||many meanings, most commonly used to mean a gurt emmet|
|Benny (Bristol)||to lose your temper (from a character in Crossroads)|
|Billy Baker (Yeovil)||woodlouse|
|Boris (Exeter)||daddy longlegs|
|Bunny (West Hampshire/East Dorset)||steep wooded valley|
|Caulkhead (Isle of Wight)||a long-standing island resident, usually a descendent of a family living there. This refers to the island's heavy involvement in the production of rope and caulk.|
|cheers (Dorset/Wiltshire/Gloucestershire)||Goodbye or see you later, e.g. Bob: I've got to get going now, Bar. Bar: Ah? Cheers then, Bob.|
|cheerzen/Cheers'en (Somerset, Bristol)||Thank you (from Cheers, then)|
|chinny reckon (North Somerset)||I do not believe you in the slightest (from older West Country English ich ne reckon 'I don't reckon/calculate')|
|chine (East Dorset/Isle of Wight)||steep wooded valley|
|chuggy pig (North Somerset)||woodlouse|
|chump (North Somerset)||log (for the fire)|
|chuting (North Somerset)||(pronounced "shooting") guttering|
|comical (North Somerset, Isle of Wight)||peculiar, e.g. 'e were proper comical|
|combe (Devon,Somerset,Wiltshire, Isle of Wight) (pronounced 'coombe')||steep wooded valley|
|coombe (Devon, North Somerset, Dorset)||steep wooded valley. Combe/Coombe is the second most common placename element in Devon and is equivalent to the Welsh cwm.|
|coupie/croupie (North Somerset,Wiltshire, Dorset, Isle of Wight & Bristol)||crouch, as in the phrase coupie down|
|crowst (Cornwall)||a picnic lunch, crib|
|daddy granfer (North Somerset)||woodlouse|
|daps (Bristol, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire)||sportshoes (plimsolls or trainers) (also used widely in South Wales)|
|Diddykai, Diddycoy, Diddy (Isle of Wight, Hampshire, Somerset, Wiltshire)||Gypsy, Traveller|
|dimpsy (Devon)||describing the state of twilight as in its getting a bit dimpsy|
|dizzibles (Isle of Wight)||state of undress (from French deshabille)|
|doughboy (Dorset, Somerset)||dumpling|
|Dreckley (Cornwall, Devon, Somerset & Isle of Wight)||soon, like mañana, but less urgent (from directly once in common English usage for straight away or directly) I be wiv 'ee dreckley or ee looked me dreckly in the eyes.|
|drive (Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset & Wiltshire)||any driver of a taxi or bus. The usual gesture when disembarking from a bus is cheers drive|
|Emmet (Cornwall and North Somerset)||tourist or visitor (derogatory)|
|et (North Somerset)||that, e.g. Giss et peak (Give me that pitchfork)|
|facety/facetie (Glos.)||stuck up, entitled, snobbish e.g. She's a right facety one (she is very snobbish)|
|gallybagger (Isle of Wight)||scarecrow|
|Geddon alt; geddy on (Crediton, Devon)||Get on, e.g. geddon chap! enthusiastic encouragement or delight|
|gert lush (Bristol)||very good|
|gleanie (North Somerset)||guinea fowl|
|grockle (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire,west Hampshire and the Isle of Wight)||tourist, visitor or gypsy (derogatory)|
|grockle shell (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight)||caravan or motor home (derogatory)|
|grockle can (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire and the Isle of Wight)||a bus or a coach carrying tourists (derogatory)|
|gurt (Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Bristol,Wiltshire, South Glos and the Isle of Wight)||big or great, used to express a large size often as extra emphasis That's a gurt big tractor!.|
|haling (North Somerset)||coughing|
|(h)ang' about (Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Hampshire & the Isle of Wight)||Wait or Pause but often exclaimed when a sudden thought occurs.|
|hark at he (Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight) (pronounced 'ark a' 'ee)||listen to him, often sarcastic.|
|headlights (Cornwall)||light-headedness, giddiness|
|hilts and gilts (North Somerset)||female and male piglets, respectively.|
|hinkypunk||Will o' the wisp|
|hucky duck (Somerset, particularly Radstock)||Aqueduct (Aqueduct was a rather new-fangled word for the Somerset colliers of the time and got corrupted to 'Hucky Duck'.)|
|huppenstop (North Somerset)||raised stone platform where milk churns are left for collection — no longer used but many still exist outside farms.|
|ideal (Bristol,North Somerset)||idea; In Bristol there is a propensity for local speakers to add an l to words ending with a|
|In any case|
|Janner (Devon, esp. Plymouth)||a term with various meanings, normally associated with Devon. An old term for someone 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 ' is used — possible relation to 'gypsy'.|
|Janny Reckon (Cornwall and Devon)||Derived from Chinny Reckon and Janner, and is often used in response to a wildly exaggerated fisherman's tale.|
|Jasper||a Devon, Wiltshire(also west Hampshire) word for wasp.|
|keendle teening (Cornwall)||candle lighting|
|Kimberlin (Portland)||someone from Weymouth or further away — not a Portlander|
|Love, My Love, Luvver||Terms of endearment when used on their own. Can also be joined to a greeting and used towards strangers, e.g. "Good morning my luvver" may be said by a shop keeper to a customer. See also "Alright my Luvver?".|
|Ling (Cornwall)||to throw Ling 'ee 'ere — Throw it here|
|Madderdo'ee (Cornwall)||Does it matter?|
|maid (Dorset, Devon)||girl|
|mackey (Bristol)||massive or large, often to benefit|
|mallyshag (Isle of Wight)||caterpillar|
|mang (Devon)||to mix|
|mush (Dorset, south Hampshire)||friendly greeting as in mate|
|nipper (Isle of Wight/Gloucestershire)||a young boy, also a term of endearment between heterosexual men used in the same way as 'mate'.|
|Now we're farming. (Somerset)||Term to describe when something is proceeding nicely or as planned.|
|old butt (Gloucestershire, 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.|
|Ort/Ought Nort/Nought (Devon)||Something / Nothing I a'en got ought for'ee=I have nothing for you 'Er did'n give I nought He gave me nothing|
|Overner (Isle of Wight)||not from the Island, a mainland person. Extremely common usage|
|Overlander (Isle of Wight)||a non-resident of the Island, an outsider. Overner (see above) is the abbreviated form of this word, and 'Overlander' is also used in parts of Australia.|
|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|
|pitching (Bristol,Somerset, Wiltshire)||settling on the ground (of snow)|
|plim up, plimmed (North Somerset,west Hampshire)||swell up, swollen|
|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, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, Isle of Wight) Something done well or a general expression of satisfaction.|
|pummy (Dorset)||Apple pumace from the cider-wring (either from pumace or French pomme meaning apple)|
|scag (North Somerset)||to tear or catch ("I've scagged me jeans on thacky barbed wire. I've scagged me 'ook up 'round down 'by Swyre 'ed")|
|scrage||a scratch or scrape usually on a limb BBC Voices Project|
|scrope (Dorset)||to move awkwardly or clumsily through overgrowth or vegetation.|
|skew-whiff (Dorset & Devon)||crooked, slanting, awry.|
|slit pigs (North Somerset)||male piglets that have been castrated|
|smooth (Bristol & Somerset)||to stroke (e.g. cat or dog)|
|Sound (Devon & North Gloucestershire)||many meanings, but mainly to communicate gratitude, appreciation and/or mutual respect.|
|somewhen (Dorset, Isle of Wight)||At some time (still very commonly used)(compare German irgendwann)|
|sprieve (Wiltshire)||Dry after a bath, shower or swim by evaporation.|
|spuddler (Devon)||Somebody attempting to stir up trouble. e.g. That's not true, you spuddlin' bugger!|
|thic (Dorset, North Somerset)||that — said knowingly, i.e. to make dialect deliberately stronger. E.g. Get in thic bed!|
|thic/thac/they thiccy/thaccy/they (Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire)||This, that, those. e.g. Put'n in thic yer box. Put it in this box here. Whad'v'ee done wi' thaccy pile o'dashels? What have you done with that pile of thistles|
|tinklebob (Dorset)||an icicle.|
|wambling (Dorset)||wandering, aimless (see A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy)|
|wuzzer/wazzin (Exeter)||Was she?/Was he?|
|Where's it to? (Cornwall, Dorset, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire)||Where is it? e.g. Dorchester, where's it to? It's in Dorset.|
|wopsy (Devon & Dorset)||a wasp.|
|young'un||any young person "Ow be young un?" or "Where bist goin' youngun?"|
Some dialect words now appear mainly, or solely, in place names, such as "batch" (North Somerset, = hill but more commonly applied to Coalmine spoil heaps e.g. Camerton batch, Farrington batch, Braysdown batch), "tyning", "hoe" (a bay). These are not to be confused with fossilised Brythonic or Cornish language terms, for example, "-coombe" is quite a common suffix in West Country place names (not so much in Cornwall), and means a "valley".
Owing to the West Country's agricultural history, the sound of the West Country accent has for centuries been associated with farming, and consequently with a 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 English population moved into towns and cities during the 20th century, non-regional, Standard English accents increasingly became a marker of personal social mobility. Universal primary education was also an important factor as it made it possible for some to move out of their rural environments into situations where other modes of speech were current.
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— Anonymous editorial, Bristol Post, 7 August 2008
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. Recent polls put the West Country accent as third and fifth most attractive in the British Isles respectively.
The West Country accent is probably most identified in film 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. West Country native Robert Newton's performance in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island is credited with popularizing the stereotypical West Country "pirate voice". Newton's strong West Country accent also featured in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952).