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24 September 2014

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Roger Evans

Don't Tell I, Tell 'ee

Roger Evans
Whirr be gwain to? Tiz getting dimpsey, zo cummin yer an wet thee's whistle. Yer, which o they jars is owern? Thicky ones yourn, inner? Dang I if there ain't a gurt big wapse innun.

These scraps of Somerset dialect could be a foreign tongue, but they are the language of my youth, dialect which survives in the school playground, in the bars of village pubs and the homes of farming communities.

Most of us, as we mature, lose our dialect. It is our way of dealing with a shrinking world.

We hold telephone conversations with people hundreds of miles away and watch countless hours of 'well-spoken' television. Our dialect fades.

But I have never lost that love of well-spoken dialect and have the same passion for its discovery as I do for any foreign language.

And that is dialect. It is not English spoken with a funny accent, legitimised by adding lots of "ooh-aars" and eventually with some reference to Zummerzet Zyder.

It contains its own vocabulary with words such as dimpsey - the Somerset expression for that half-light which comes at the end of the day - and dumbledore for Bumble Bee.

I once watched an episode of the BBC television programme Call my Bluff, where unusual words are given three definitions by the members of one team whilst the members of the other try to guess which is correct.

I couldn't believe it when no one guessed the answer for dimpsey. I had grown up with the word in my vocabulary and had never realised it was so localised.

Anglo-Saxon remnants

In the Somerset dialect, we can find the remnants of Anglo-Saxon. The pronunciation is an ancient one where S is often, but not always, sounded as a Z; F sounds as a V and vowel sounds gain an R. It's the sounds and words of the court of King Alfred.

I remember when I took my O level French oral examination. The examiner remarked that never before had he heard French spoken with such a strong Somerset accent. I wasn't sure if that was a complement or a criticism.

In later years I was fascinated to discover that, whilst working in both France and Canada, with French-speaking Canadians, my 'Somerset' French was better received in Canada.

It perhaps reflected how so many West Country folk emigrated to North America in the centuries during which the dialect of the New World was evolving.

I commend the reader to experience the pleasures of well-spoken Somerset dialect, especially by visiting some remote country inns, frequented by locals - just sit back and listen, the later it is in the evening, the stronger the dialect.

Local variations

Somerset is a large county and the dialect varies considerably. Saxon invaders came to England in clans, each clan with its own dialect and the dialects heard today across the county mark the areas in which those clans settled.

In Somerset, the Britons were driven westward but the River Parrett, which had formed a natural barrier between Celtic tribes, proved a barrier to the advance of the Saxons.

Hence in eastern and central Somerset the dialect is practically Anglo-Saxon. To the west of the Parrett, especially around the Brendon Hills and Exmoor, the dialect is spoken with a Celtic accent and closely resembles that of Devon.

Many Celtic words survive such as bastick (basket), woh (a command for a horse to stop), fagot (bundle of wood) and mattock (a cutting tool).

And so we can understand how dialect in Somerset can vary as we travel the county.

Apart from the East-West divide formed by the River Parrett, the area to the north of the Mendip Hills also has its own dialect. One notable example of this is in the way that words are sounded when they end in a vowel.

The Bristolian 'L'

A good idea in Bristol and its surrounding area become a good ideal in that aerial. In the rest of Somerset, they become idee-yer and airier.

Hence L's or R's are added to the ends of words according to geographic location.

Generally speaking, in Somerset dialect, it is the R sound which is the noticeable clue to the county.

Hence my wife's name, Lorna, is pronounced locally as Lorner, to which she is accustomed. But she cannot tolerate hearing her name collecting the North Somerset 'L'.

When introduced to a Bristolian, she introduces herself simply as 'Lorn', dropping the trailing 'a'. It can also be unfortunate for ladies by the names of Eva and Ida who become evil and idle!

I have often observed how the Somerset dialect is disappearing. The older dialect can still be heard amongst the senior members of the remoter communities, but the newer Somerset dialect is much softer than that of earlier generations.

This mix of old and new can cause confusion. Whilst talking to some locals in a North Somerset pub, I picked up on a particularly strong dialect from a lady in the bar.

"Whirr be she vrom?" I asked my friend. "Alasker," came the reply.

I knew there was no way this lady was from North America and was surprised at my friend's response. She was broad Somerset.

"She ain't niver vrom Alasker" I replied. "No," said my friend, "I 'ant ast 'er yet."

I then realised his "Alaska" was "I'll ask her". He turned to the lady and enquired: "Yer, skews I, but ifee doan mine I askin, which part of county be thee vrom?" She replied: "Banes."

He looked at me quizzically and replied: "She do talk bloody good Zummerzet vur a vorraner."

To this day he remains totally unaware of the new county administrative boundaries where BANES is Bath and North East Somerset.


Dialect continually evolves. In Somerset, the remnants of the language of King Alfred form just one part of our heritage. It is rich in vocabulary and pleasant to the ear.

English is the expressive language of poets because of that variety. Somerset dialect adds to that richness, not just with pronunciation, but with words not found further afield.

If we lose that dialect, our language will lack the richness it once had. It is important, therefore, to record and preserve this evolving part of our cultural heritage. Use it or lose it.

Treat it like an endangered species or while you're not watching, the words will disappear forever.

The above article is an extract from a soon-to-be-published book by Roger Evans. You can pit your wits against Roger's quiz by following the link at the top of the page.

last updated: 26/10/05
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