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24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

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   Inside Out - South East: Monday January 17, 2005


People with banners with words
Voice of the region? Is there a distinctive South East dialect?

What kind of accent do you have? Language experts say that everyone speaks with an accent - even if you think that you speak the Queen's English.

Inside Out goes in search of the definitive South East accent, and asks what makes our regional voice special.

There's a perception that there's only one accent in the South East, a type of cockney estuary English.

In reality language experts have discovered that there's many variations on accent and dialect across the region.

There's as many different sounds from Tunbridge to Tonbridge and from Margate to the Medway.

But the more that our language expert Dr David Hornsby from the University of Kent tried to uncover one distinctive sound, he was constantly surprised to find a much wider range of influences in our southern voices.

"We've got northern English features slap bang in the middle of the South East."

Fishing for words

Hastings is famous for its fishing industry and, in common with many maritime towns, there's a rich vocabulary associated with this heritage.

Dialect words like "chopbacks" are still used to describe fishermen, a throwback to earlier times.

Word power

Do you recognise these
South East words and phrases?

  • Mushmalt - masculine looking, ugly woman
  • Beazled - exhausted
  • Lodge - East Kent word for a shed
  • Pom sarnie - jam sandwich
  • Chopbacks - Hastings fishermen
  • Kelter - miners' word for rubbish or trash

The origins of the word go back centuries to the days of piracy on the southern seas.

In the 18th Century Hastings was at the centre of a healthy trade in smuggling.

In 1768 members of Ruxley's Crew, a smuggling gang involved in piracy, were hanged after killing the master of a Dutch ship off Beachy Head.

They were given the name "Ruxley's Chopbacks”. The word is still in use today, but is hardly known outside Hastings.

The glottal stop

Today in Hastings you're most likely to hear another characteristic of the southern tongue - the "glottal stop".

It's heard in words like "'Bri'ish'", shortened from the standard "British" and "sor' of'" for "sort of".

Man with sculpture
Word power - do you sound like a Londoner?

Young women in the South East have been particularly picking up this way of speaking from nearby Londoners.

"Mother" is becoming "mutha" whilst "think" is changing to "tink" and "father" has transmuted itself into "fatha".

The strange-sounding "labial dental or palatal approximant" is another feature of southern speech.

It means that some south easterners pronounce their "rs" like "ws", just like TV's Jonathan Ross!

1066 and all that

Hastings has played an important role in the import of foreign words into the English language.

The Norman Conquest brought thousands of French words into the language.

Battle of Hastings reconstruction
Fighting with words - Hastings has a place in linguistic history

When William the Conqueror landed in Hastings and seized power, the French language came with him.

Although the majority of ordinary people continued to speak Old English, certain French words began to creep into their vocabulary.

Ten thousand words entered English as a result of the invasion, including enemy, battle, peace, religion, miracle, beauty, romance as well as many words for food.

Living voices

Kent is well known for its distinctive dialect, much of which has developed in its mining and rural communities.

Dick Richardson is a Kent miner who plays in the Snowdown Colliery Welfare Male Voice Choir.

The band were formed by the Kent coal miners in the 1920s, but today he's the only ex-miner left.

Living in the Aylesham area, Dick has kept much of his regional accent, which he says has been influenced heavily by working in the mining community.

"Kent and Sussex are surprisingly rich in accents and regional words"
Dr David Hornsby, University of Kent

Words like "ramel" and "kelter" were common in mining areas, but Dick is one of a dying breed.

Dick also has a distinctive way of pronouncing words. For example, he says "truuble" instead of trouble, adding an extra "'u".

It's strange but this is a northern vowel feature slap bang in the middle of the South East.

This perhaps comes down to the fact that miners like Dick moved between the northern and southern coalfields.

But Dick has also picked up traditional Kentish speech patterns such as "o"' in "doied", and he says "moi" for "my".

Cockney twang?

Lee Isham is a former West Ham footballer who has lived in the Medway towns for most of his life.

Lee Isham
The former West 'am player speaks with a mix of sounds

His style of speech betrays a foot in both the London and the South East language camps.

Lee says "footbawl" for football, reflecting his South East routes, but pronounces Athletic as "Afletic", betraying his cockney influences.

However he's not a cockney because he says "West Ham", not "West 'am".

What Lee illustrates is how the South East and London dialects influence each other, sometimes combining in the same sentence.

Tongue tied?

Deep in the heart of the South East countryside farming vocabulary and traditional words can still be heard in rural communities.

In Boughton Monchelsea village, isolated from big cities, the Chappell family illustrate how traditional dialect still plays a role in modern living.

Maureen Chappell says "gooin" for "going" with a long vowel sound. Good old-fashioned jam is called "pom", a very old Kentish word for a traditional countryside produce.

But even this family's accents reveal trace of two or three different influences. The old sounds in their speech are mixed with more modern influences.

"I had no idea that the way we talk has two or three accents in it," says Maureen Chappell.

See also ...

Inside Out: South East
Gypsy travels

On the rest of Inside Out
Geordie dialect
Devon dialect
East Midlands voices
West country accents
North West comedy accents


On the rest of the web
University of Kent School of European Culture and Language
University College London - dialect
The English Association
Plain English Campaign
Universal Teacher
Whoo Hoo Translator
Language Varieties

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.

Maria Hewitt
I've been told by some people that I have a local Sussex accent, but I am totally unaware of it I think it may be quite mild. I think that it is only when you are away from your area that most accents are really obvious, given the fact that we now move around so much and pick up other sounds. My friend and her young family very quickly picked up firstly a Scottish acccent and now a New Zealand accent on their travels.

I was brought up in Hastings, E.Sussex, where my late father's family had been for at least 7 generations. He used to say 'gooin' for going. Called food 'scran', dogs 'jooks" and 'twitten' for an alley between houses. I do believe there may have been a Romany connection to some of his words, but I have not found the source. Is Romany a known influence in Sussex? However, my favourite Sussex word is 'swallacky' meaning the darkening of the sky just before a storm. I still use these words today, and hope to have passed them on to my children, even though we live in Oxfordshire and they were brought up in Somerset!

Rikki How
The word 'ackle' or 'akkle' to mean 'come together' is one I have only heard in the Medway towns. It is usually used negatively. i.e.: it won't ackle means that two things that should join together, won't. Or that the join doesn't work. The glottal stop is most common among the youngsters of the Towns as in "a bo''le of Cha''am wa''er". My own two boys spoke properly at home but usually in Cha''m when at school. They were virtually bilingual.

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