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   Inside Out - South West: Monday January 10, 2005

THE DEVON DIALECT CHALLENGE

David Stafford
David Stafford tries to pass himself off as a Devonian born and bred

Which accent is most pleasant to your ears?

If you live in the West of England unsurprisingly West Country accents rank highly on the most desirable accents to be had, that's according to a new BBC survey.

So why not try and teach the rest of the country about the wonderful West Country lilt?

With this in mind we challenge David Stafford, a "Brummie" by birth, to adopt a Devon dialect and explore the wonders of rural Devon.

His able coach for the project was John Germon, Chairman of the Devon Dialect Club.

John has been championing the Devon dialect for years as a presenter on BBC Radio Devon, and is keen to try and displace David's Brum tongue.

David's challenge is to go to Holdsworthy Livestock Market in North Devon and mingle with the natives, and make sure they don't get a sniff of his Brummie credentials

Origins

David describes the Devon dialect as;

"An amalgam apparently of Anglo-Saxon, Old French, and vintage cyder"

Indeed, the Devon dialect harks back to a much older variation of English than is spoken today. Much of it was derived from Old English and its Saxon roots.

David Stafford in a devon pub
Parlez-vous Devon? Traces of old French can be heard in the dialect

The various dialects of the West Country are thought to reflect the territorial spreads of various Saxon clans.

Devon saw a slower rate of settlement by the Saxons, which means that traces of the area's previous Celtic settlers can still be found in the dialect.

Devon was one of the last places to speak the Celtic language in England. It is reputed to have died out in Devon in the middle ages, but the traces are still there in current Devon dialects.

Because of the area's relative isolation, dialects were well preserved into the 19th Century, until the growth of Devon's towns and cities started attracting newcomers who dliuted the traditional dialects.

Characteristics

West Country accent characteristics

  • A slower rhythm to speech, partly caused by the lengthening of vowel sounds (the Cornish are exceptions, they actually speak quite fast).
  • Initial letters in words can often be replaced with closely related letters - hence "s" is pronounced as "z" and "f" may become pronounced "v"
  • "r"s are stressed far more than in Standard English.

In various districts there are also distinct grammatical and syntactical differences:

  • "You" becomes "Ye" in Devon dialects
  • Objects are refered to using the male gender rather than a neutral one; put he over there = put it over there.
  • An a may be added to a word to denote past tense; a-went = gone.
  • they may be used in place of them or those; they shoes be mine = those shoes are mine.

Source: Wikipedia

John Germon explains that the pace that Devon speakers talk is slower than other areas of Britain. The characteristic relaxed cadence of Devon speech with its lengthened vowels is however a mixed blessing to some.

There is a popular prejudice that suggests slowness in speech belies slowness in thought.

Indeed the BBC's own "Voices" survey into accents and dialects shows how this continues to irk some West Country speakers:

"My accent makes me sound thick and gives the impression that I have straw coming out of my mouth." Anon

"Everyone thinks we are country people and live in a barn." Anon

Over a quarter of the people from the South West who talked to the BBC in the survey said they didn't like, or at least weren't proud of their accent.

However the very same dialect has also been attributed to Devonians being seen as extremely honest.

In another study, this time looking at how trustworthy Britons view each other based on their regional accents, West Country accents ranked highly, with speakers being perceived as an honest lot.

The Devon Windsucker

John Germon
John schools David on the art of the "Devon Windsucker"

As John coaches David on the finer points of the Devon dialect, he also points out that to pass yourself of as a Devonian you need to do more than simply "talk the talk".

It's the little details such as adopting the "Devon Windsucker" that could help pass off David as a native.

John describes the Devon Windsucker as a quick inhalation of breath. It is also he says, "the answer to everything". It appears up to the person who asked you the question to interpret what the windsucker means in each situation.

Dress to impress

David at Oldsworthy Livestock Market
In the market for some Devon smalltalk? David fails to deliver

So all that remains to be done is kit David out in authentic Devon farmer's regalia (a flat hat and green wellies) and it's off to the market.

Here David tries to engage locals with his stock of common Devon sayings but with little success. He is easily spotted as a fake, and some even spot the Brum lurking behind his fake Devon accent.

David concedes defeat, as he says;

"You can put the boy in Devon, but you can't put Devon in the boy."

More from Devon

You can learn more about Devon dialects by visiting the BBC's Devon website. John Germon has set his own Devon dialect quiz and compiled an A-Z of Devon dialect words and phrases. The site also has a messageboard where you can submit your own examples of Devon phraseology.

The BBC is carrying out a national survey on accents and dialects. If you would like to get involved visit their website at bbc.co.uk/voices or call our freephone number 0800 056 6787 for more information about how you can become part of history.

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
Midlands Dialect
Southern voices
Geordie dialect
North West accents
West Country accents
Cockney accent

On bbc.co.uk
Devon dialect A-Z
Devon dialect messageboard
Voices

On the rest of the web
West Country Accent (Wikipedia)
Folklore, Culture, Customs and Language of Devon

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Ben
I also live in Somerset and have a public school accent. Half the people I work with don't use a 't' or dont talk properly in some way or another. Its sad that the youth of today (and those older as well) seem to celebrate the dumbing down of society. When people say "Your a bit posh" - What the hell does that mean/ What the hell are these people implying??!! - I don't say "Your a bit common/ working/ middle class" or whatever! A proper English accent IS a public school accent. Like Samantha says even the BBC have presenters like Ian Wright who can't talk properly OR, even sadder, is that they now (to justify my point) skirt around employing anyone with a public school accent and instead get the better sounding regional accents like Scottish or Welsh.

William Campbell
Your item on a Brummie trying to pass himself off as a Devon farmer at Market was the funniest thing I have watched on television for a long time! I don't know when a TV programme last made me laugh so much. I thought it was splendid and wish it could also be shown on nationwide television. Thank you for that item. Who said that Comedy on Television was dead?

Samantha
I live in Somerset but have a public school accent, due to my education which I am proud of. However I love hearing the Somerset accent but unfortunaly today accents are getting confused with sloppy pronunciation and bad language this is not helped by presenters like Ian Wright who never learnt the letter 't' at school.



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