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24 September 2014

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Local dialects are gradually dying out

The voices of Devon

As part of the BBC Voices project, our reporter Kirk England has been exploring the theme of accent, dialect and language - discovering the words, phrases and stories behind the way we sound and the language we use across Devon.

A UK-wide study of local accents by the BBC has discovered an astonishing variation in the number of words used across the country to describe common terms and expressions.

Around 32,000 people around Britain took part in the BBC Voices Project. It confirmed the suspicion that many rural dialects are gradually dying out.

But as lifestyles change people are as inventive as ever in creating new terms and expressions for things that are relevant to them.

Interestingly there are many more accents to be heard on city streets than in the past. It also seems that the big regional accents are remaining strong, and that second-generation incomers readily acquire the local lingo to show up their upbringing.

Researchers found an amazing variation across the country, with nearly 500 ways of saying cold, 521 different words for friend, and more than 700 ways to describe playing truant.

Dartmoor residents
Accents can still be found on Dartmoor

"It's too early to draw any firm conclusions as linguists have been largely in ignorance of the distribution of words in the UK for a long time," said Dr Clive Upton from the School of English at the University of Leeds.

"The mass of information we've received from the Wordmap Survey does show that variation in the language is alive and well and driven by local enthusiasm."

As part of the project BBC Radio Devon has been exploring the accents, dialect and language used by people in Devon - discovering the words phrases and stories behind the way we sound.

From fishermen in Beer to farmers on Dartmoor, we've been exploring how and why we sound the way we do and what it means to sound real Devonshire.

For the county's older generation, the Devonshire accent is a badge of honour which they still wear with pride.

Over the centuries fishermen in the close-knit community of Beer in East Devon have developed a language all of their own to help make each other understood.

It's something that has persisted even after the introduction of GPS satellite technology and CB radio. 

"Down on the beach we do talk broader than a lot of them," said Cyril Newton.

"If we were out at sea crabbing and perhaps we didn't go to the right spot, I'd say 'go up drew a bit' - which means up through. We say 'up drew' or 'down drew'

Dialects vary from town to town

"It's probably from my father, you've been down the beach with all the fishermen like, so you pick it up. I suppose it's only natural, if you've heard them talking like it you're bound to do it to.

"When we had new teachers come to the school they tried to learn you what they called the Queen's English. But when we went home at night we would still go back into the Devon lingo."

But the origins of some phrases seem more difficult to pin down - like the phrase 'don't buck my hair', a favourite with Plymouthian Lee Young.

"Don't buck my hair means don't touch it or mess it up," said Lee. "So when I've done it and it's looking nice - if anyone touches it, that's bucking my hair."

Devon is one of the largest and most sparsely populated counties in England - so it's hardly surprising there's such a vast array of accents which vary from town to town.

Some experts believe the location of Dartmoor right at the centre of Devon is one of the reasons the accent varies from East to West and from North to South.

Murray Laver spent many years as the dialect recorder for the Devonshire Association. He believes strong local accents develop in specific geographic circumstances often found in Devon.  

"It's a feature of isolation. If you think of places that are isolated by their geographies or by their predominant trade, this leads to a growth in very localised speech.

"In North Devon they were isolated by Exmoor on one side and Dartmoor on the other, this really cut them off from anybody except themselves,.

"This led to differences in grammar, differences in pronunciation and differences in vocabulary."

Listen to our special features on Devon dialect
audio Voices: Dialect feature part 1 >
audio Voices: Dialect feature part 2 >
audio Voices: Dialect feature part 3 >
audio Voices: Dialect feature part 4 >
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last updated: 06/06/07
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