Book Review: The Dialects of England by Peter Trudgill

This review originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 1, Issue 4 (Winter 2000-1)

This book was an important one for Wessex Society. It featured the dialect maps (reproduced above) which helped us to define the boundaries of the Wessex cultural region. In fact, we held back a little. A look at the maps and their accompanying text in the books reveals that Shropshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire (as well as Cornwall, but let’s not open that particular can of worms again) could also have been included had we been as expansionist as some of our critics claim.

In The Dialects of England, Peter Trudgill surveys the evolution of English dialects and at the same time, offers a rousing defence of them against those who would impose the East Midlands dialect known as “Received Pronunciation” upon the rest of us.

Trudgill identifies the main feature of the South West dialect region as the fact that it pronounces the letter r in words such as “arm” and “car”. The only other area that does this is the small dialect region of Central Lancashire, and there the r-sound is very different, a uvular rather than a rhotic ‘r’. So prevalent is this feature that when mocking Wessex folk, people only have to say “ooh arrr” and the dialect is instantly recognisable. Incidentally, I have a theory that Ford named their supermini the Ka in order to shift more units outside Wessex, hoping that the grockles will walk into a showroom and say “I’d like to buy a cah, please” and end up getting sold a Ka by mistake. But I digress.

Other features of the wessex dialect include: Pronoun Exchange (saying things like “him’s a good hammer”), a feature also shared with parts of Essex; substituting ‘z’ for ‘s’ (e.g. “zeven”) and ‘v’ for ‘f’ (e.g. “varmer”)’; the fact that it uses the third person singular “thee” (Northern dialects use “thou” while elsewhere, the third person singular has disappeared altogether); the use of “do” and “did” in front of a verb (e.g. “I do see”) and the use of the verb form “I be”, “you be” etc. The latter is widely ridiculed, but it actually demonstrates that Wessex English is much purer than Standard English, with its mongrelised “I am”, “you are” and so on

Trudgill also points out a couple of individual dialect words, “maiden” for a young girl (which I hadn’t realised was a Wessex word) and “wops” for a wasp. He doesn’t mention another word for wasp that I remember from my childhood, “jasper”, but I suspect that may just be a Bristol word. There are a couple of other words that are only common to parts of Wessex, “daps” for sneakers (another word I remember from my childhood) and “theirn” for theirs.

In an age when Wessex English is ridiculed rather than praised (one comedian, referring to trip-hop star Tricky’s accent, called Bristol “the only place where even the black people don’t sound cool”) and where everyone is frantically trying to drop their r’s so that they don’t “sound like a yokel”, a book like this one, which stands four-square for linguistic and cultural diversity is a breath of fresh air. So “zay it loud, I be a wurzel and I be proud”!

Review: Broadchurch Season 2

This review originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 16, Issue 1 (Spring 2015)

Broadchurch returned this year for a second series. The first was always going to be a tough act to follow. Critics soon dubbed its sequel ‘Boredchurch’, accusing lead writer Chris Chibnall of implausible plot turns and of repeatedly disregarding legal procedure in the interests of a good story. And yes, there was a lot of legal procedure. The second series picked up where the first left off, murder suspect Joe Miller unexpectedly pleading his innocence in a trial that proceeded to challenge much of what viewers believed to be the case against him.

David Tennant returned as the sickly Scots cop DI Alec Hardy, with Olivia Colman as his sidekick DS Ellie Miller. So too did the sparse, tension-building background music by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. Alec Hardy’s ex-wife appeared for the first time in series two, her name being Tess Henchard. As it had to be, if he’s the result of Chibnall’s juggling of Donald Farfrae and Alec d’Urberville.

Chibnall seems to have great fun naming his characters, as when his barristers are the white Knight for the prosecution and the black Bishop for the defence. Note too how many Broadchurch locals have traditional rural trades for surnames (Carter, Fisher, Miller, Wright). The Latimers take their name from latimmier, a keeper of records in Latin. Mark Latimer is a plumber, the only one of these trades named from a specifically Latin base. And the vicar – well, what else would a man of the cloth be than the Rev. Coates?

With the trial unfolding as the main theme, there was plenty else building around it, centred on ‘the Sandbrook case’, the unsolved murders tormenting Hardy from his earlier employment with the South Mercia force. This introduced a range of new characters and took Hardy and Miller up and down the M5 and across to Portsmouth in pursuit of the truth.

As before, much of the action was shot at Clevedon in Somerset and Bridport and West Bay in Dorset. To the list of locations last time, which also included Bristol, Portishead, Shepton Mallet, Weston-super-Mare and Yate, series two added Bracknell, Charmouth, Exeter, Lynton, Reading, Weymouth and other Wessex places. The University of Exeter’s Forum Building served as both the Wessex Police Headquarters and the Wessex Crown Court. Hardy (Thomas rather than Alec) would surely have been pleased at such a variety of places, spread right across Wessex and apart from studio scenes shot in Surrey and Yorkshire making few forays beyond it.

There will be a third series but, for those who just can’t wait, Erin Kelly, in collaboration with Chris Chibnall, has already penned a series of eight short stories based around themes from each of the recent episodes

Review: Thames – Sacred River

This review originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle volume 14, issue 4 (Winter 2013-4)

Thames - Sacred River by Peter Ackroyd. Vintage Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0099422556

This book is a companion piece of sorts to Ackroyd’s 2001 biography” of London, and was subsequently turned into a TV series. Ackroyd is a Londoner with a deep-rooted love of his city, and so you might expect him to write as though the source of the Thames lies at Teddington Lock, but nothing could be further from the truth. He provides an overview of the entire length of the river “from source to sea”, frequently echoing Thomas Hardy’s dichotomy between Wessex (in the form of the clear waters of the Upper Thames) as representing purity and simplicity, while London acts as a metaphor for pollution, both physical and moral. I am drawing a discreet veil over Buckinghamshire and Surrey, as they mess up the analogy somewhat! The name Isis, which these days is rarely used to denote anything other than the Thames in Oxford, once referred to the river anywhere above Dorchester-on-Thames. Perhaps Wessex Society could attempt to reclaim the original usage, as the contrast between the pure water of the Isis in Wessex and the filthy open sewer that flows through London could serve as a vivid reminder of that which we seek to preserve (the Thames in London may be cleaner now that at any point in its recorded history, but tonnes of raw sewage are still regularly discharged into it during periods of flooding). Possibly those of a pagan bent could also read something into the fact that the Isis is feminine, named after a goddess, while the Thames is commonly referred to as masculine (one of only two masculine rivers in England, according to Ackroyd, the other being the fast-flowing, aggressive Derwent). Though perhaps one should be careful when talking about “Isis defiled”, as such language could very easily get a bit rapey.

The book is divided into 45 chapters, organised somewhat haphazardly into 15 sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the river. Some of these chapters come across as little more than laundry lists, but all of them contain at least one nugget of fascinating information, and most of them contain many more. The bulk of the book is ordered thematically rather than topographically, but there is a section at the end tracing the course of the river from its source in Gloucestershire to the Isle of Sheppey, after which it empties into the North Sea.

It is impossible to do justice to the scope of this book in such a short review, and it would be hard to imagine anything connected to the river that Ackroyd doesn’t cover in its pages. While not specifically a book about Wessex, it has much to say to Wessex Society members in their quest to articulate an identity for the region, or at least its northern half. For this reason, I heartily recommend it.

The Rebirth of England and English

The following review originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle volume 2, issue 2 (Summer 2000)

(Published by Anglo-Saxon Books price £9.95 ISBN 1-898281-17-3)

Subtitled The Vision Of William Barnes, this masterly study does not concentrate so much on Barnes's poetry, which has already been covered in numerous other books, as on his philosophy of life. Actually, "philosophy" is probably the wrong word, due to its Greek origin, but more on this anon.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one, The Rebirth Of England, starts with a brief biography of Barnes, and follows it with six chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of Barnes's outlook. The chapters are: Religion; Nature and Art; Marriage; Society; Economics and Politics.

In truth, these views are not so easily compartmentalised, and there is considerable overlap between the chapters. Also, the heading of chapter 4, "Marriage", is rather too narrow, as it really deals with the whole vexed question of the relations between the sexes. Barnes was no feminist, but neither was he a male chauvinist pig, believing that women should be second-class citizens, even though he lived in an age when they were widely regarded as such.

Part two, The Rebirth Of English, concerns Barnes's efforts to "purify and fix" the English language by coming up with native English equivalents for foreign loan-words. More importantly for us, he wrote poems in his native Dorset dialect, which he argued was the language of Wessex. He was something of a mentor to Thomas Hardy, and the book tells us that "Hardy…got his idea of 'Wessex' directly from Barnes" (we would of course dispute that Wessex was Hardy's idea!).

Phillips is keen to point out that the desire for "pure" English was not motivated by xenophobia, but by a love of plain speech. According to Barnes, his native English words were more comprehensible to Wessex folk and other Englishmen than their Latinate equivalents. This was not always the case, though, and some of his words were longer than their Standard English equivalents. Who but the most rabid nationalist would use "push-wainling" instead of "pram", for example?

Father Andrew also ventures his own Barnesian equivalents to more modern words, such as "upthinker" for computer and "farspeaker" for telephone. But the real selling point of the book is that it gathers together for the first time all Barnes's pure English words from the variety of works in which they were originally scattered. These include original words coined by Barnes (some of which have passed into common parlance, such as "folklore" and "foreword") as well as plain English substitutions for words derived from Latin or French (eg "spyglass" for telescope). This makes for fascinating reading, and the effect is quite infectious.

Whilst I would have liked to see more on Barnes's dialect works, this book does illustrate that Wessex dialect was the standard form of Old English, and that Wessex English is perhaps the purest form of English there is. The sneers of the metropolitan elite are historical in origin, reflecting the Normans' contempt for their conquered English subjects. Wessex people have no cause to be afraid of the way we speak. As this book puts it, "BBC English, the English of the upper class, is merely a Norman accent, that of invaders who could not speak English properly and then, ironically, passed on their accent to succeeding generations as a status symbol, the sign of their superiority and prestige over the English peasantry". Well, quite.

Wessex Aviation Industry, by Mike Phipp (Amberley Publishing, 2011)

This review originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle volume 14, issue 2 (summer 2013)

Mike Phipp has been watching planes come and go at Bournemouth’s airport since the
1960s, so is well-placed to write the definitive book on the Wessex aviation industry. This is not yet it. He confines ‘Wessex’ to Dorset and Wiltshire and the western parts of Hampshire and Berkshire. Can you write our aviation history and exclude Westland of Yeovil, makers of the Wessex and the
Wyvern? Or Bristol, birthplace of the Brabazon and Concorde?

Or Farnborough, home of military flying? That the book actually makes frequent passing reference to all three places, and others in Wessex, only underlines its chief shortcoming. At 317 pages, however, Mike Phipp’s work does offer plenty to be getting on with.

It arranges alphabetically 26 locations used by aircraft manufacturers. The firms range from Vickers-Supermarine, with 13 locations, to single-site operations like Sheriff Aerospace of Sandown or Jackaroo Aircraft of Thruxton. There is a short bibliography but unfortunately the only thing like an index is the contents listing. The aircraft and their manufacturers have been written about before. What is new is their placing in a geographical context, allowing us to understand how the industry came into being. The south coast’s boat-builders were ready to apply their traditional skills to making seaplanes. In 1912 Saunders and Sopwith collaborated on the Bat Boat, the first flying boat to be built in Europe, with a hull based on Saunders’ racing boat construction methods. In 1959 the same firm, by now Saunders-Roe – ‘Saro’ – of Cowes, built the first full-size hovercraft, the SR-N1. And what exactly IS a hovercraft? The Navy’s were classified as aircraft until 1979, and since then as ships, but really they’re a bit of both, just like the industry that built them. Some firms went back to boat-building when aerial orders were few, with slipways rather than runways the most essential piece of infrastructure they needed to possess. Inland, it was the making of furniture, cars and railway rolling stock that was put on hold for aircraft, especially when Supermarine began to disperse Spitfire production in the summer of 1940. (Just in time, as the Itchen and Woolston factories were bombed in September.) The change has not been all one-way: Honda’s Swindon car plant stands on the old Vickers site at South Marston, with the runway now the test track. Wessex Aviation Industry is not an easy read for the non-specialist, who will struggle to keep up with the stream of carefully recorded design changes and all the details of who ordered what from whom and when. There are enough photos to keep a timetravelling plane-spotter very happy indeed. It’s at its best when the people involved come to the fore: entrepreneurs, designers and sheer enthusiasts for making the most of the air. I’m left wishing there was more about such splendidly-named characters as Major Hereward de Havilland, the family firm’s man at Christchurch Airfield in the 1950s, or Alliott Verdon Roe, who developed not one but two firms in succession (Avro and Saro). This may not be the definitive book but it does whet the appetite.