Talking for Britain

At the moment I’m reading a fascinating book about the English language in the UK called Talking for Britain – A Journey Through the Nation’s Dialects, by Simon Elmes. It draws on the BBC’s Voices survey and shows that regional English is very much alive and well, and constantly changing. Although many of the old rural dialects are disappearing, new urban ones are evolving.

One of the things the book discusses is terms of affection or greeting, which include me ‘ansum (my handsome) in Cornwall; my lover, in Bristol and the West Country (Wess Vinglun); mi duck, loov (love), yowth (youth) or cock in the Midlands; and chuck in Lancashire. These are generally used by anyone to anyone, though can lead to misunderstanding when used to people from other areas.

Other interesting words I’ve come across include tiddy oggy, a potato pie or pasty in Cornwall and Devon; ferniggle, to play truant in the West of England; agger-jaggers, sea mist in Kent; obzocky, unattractive – from Trinidad; mollycrosh, to hit – from Wigan; gennel, snicket or twitchel, an alley in different parts of the Midlands; and skopadiddle/skopadiggle – a mischievous child in Sheffield.

There are more examples here, and there are clips of interviews with people from all over the UK on the Voices site. I found some of the Cornish people most difficult to understand.

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13 Responses to Talking for Britain

  1. Ben L. says:

    Only been to London once- I belive a cabbie actualy called me “lord”.

  2. Wow, a few of those definitely could be misunderstood here in the States! “Cock,” unless referring to a rooster, tends to take on a very bawdy meaning…”lover” would also sound very inappropriate unless addressed to one’s actual love interest!

  3. Nikki says:

    Snicket is a word we use a lot in North Lincolnshire, but hardly anyone outside of here knows what it means. The first time I had to explain what it meant, I was at a loss for words! “A snicket’s a snicket! What else am I supposed to call it!?”

  4. Paul says:

    There are definitely some indispensably useful English dialect words (many that I’ve learned from my wife) that defy translation into standard English: “broggle” (verb), meaning to use an instrument to poke around a bit in the hope of retrieving something that you can’t actually see … one might broggle an item out of a hole with a stick, or a duck might broggle around in a puddle for something to eat … it’s a surprisingly useful word, given its highly specific meaning!

    Certainly nothing I can think of in standard English gets across the same feeling of blind searching and chance retrieval. I suspect that’s a Lincolnshire one, too, but I could be wrong.

  5. Paul says:

    I’ve just found “broggle” in the dictionary (well, *a* dictionary) … Webster’s Revised Unabridged, 1913.
    http://machaut.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/WEBSTER.sh?WORD=broggle

    To broggle is to poke around with a “brog”, which is a pointed instrument for broggling with! Beautiful.

    The definition just says “Prov. Eng.”, it doesn’t give a geographical area. I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s native Lincolnshire! The O.E.D. also gives it as the name of a method for fishing for eels, which seems right.

  6. Josh says:

    I think the regional dialects in Britain are some of the hardest to understand. I have a good friend in Blackpool that I have a hard time understanding- especially when he gets excited or tipsy. For a while I would just try to decipher what he meant through context until I got comfortable enough to ask him what he was talking about. He’d talk about how I was “off” my “tree”- or how he’d gotten “bollocked” by his mom, or how he was completely “knackered”. He oftens greets me with ” ‘Ey up, cock”- to which I responded the first time with “UM, EXCUSE ME?”.

    An expression I hear many English people say is “What are you on about?” I know what it means, but it’s so odd sounding to my american ears. How can you be “on about” anything? I think the US equivalents to this are “What are you talking about” or “What’s wrong with you”. Why is UK English so much more varied than English here in the states? I’d think with more people and more regions it’d be the opposite.

  7. Paul says:

    Josh – I think it’s just down to time!

    The UK’s had about 1,500 years to develop its range of English dialects and accents from the ‘seed’ of a whole bunch of Germanic dialects (and you’ve got to remember that for most of those 1,500 years, people didn’t move around a lot, so local dialects had the opporunity to get really insular and weird!) – the US, on the other hand, developed its own blend of Englishes in a relatively short time from a whole melting pot of people (for many of whom it was a second language), so some of the weirder corners of speech had to be knocked off … and that was “only” 500 years ago, much closer to the invention of the printing press, which obviously tended to standardise things a bit further.

    But I can’t be the only person who finds some American-English accents pretty wayward and difficult to deal with?

  8. Josh says:

    I have a friend from upstate New York who I have to really listen to sometimes, but on the whole I think US accents are fairly easy to understand. The only accents I can imagine people having trouble understanding are the various accents scattered across the southeast. I have difficulty understanding some of the English spoken in the river bottoms and along the South Carolina coast- it’s borderline patois… it’ll have random french and/or african words scattered throughout. We call it “geechy”, but that may be derogatory- so my apologies if I offend. I live in the south though, so for the most part southern accents pose no problem.

  9. I’m not sure what part of the country you’re from, Josh, but if you’re from the south, some accents up north can be tough to pick up on. I think it’s the entire Eastern seaboard that has the most variation (because it’s the oldest, maybe?).

    BTW, I believe the official name of the language you’re referring to is Gullah, in case you were curious. :-)

  10. Josh says:

    I’m from North Carolina, so yeah, some of the Northern accents throw me off a little bit at times. Really thick southern accents can get me sometimes too, though.

    Yes, I’m aquainted with Gullah somewhat- but I wasn’t really referring to the Gullah language so much as I was referring to some Gullah speakers’ attempts at standard American english. There’s this one guy that goes to my church who’s from somewhere near Charleston, SC and I rarely understand what he’s saying… makes an awesome gumbo, though.

  11. Paul says:

    It’s the whole Californian / valley-girl speak that really does for me …

  12. Rurality says:

    Interesting… I found the Cornish speakers some of the easiest to understand (and the Scots most difficult). The Cornish accent seemed to be not as different from the southern US accent than the others I listened to. (I’m from Alabama.)

  13. ben wallis says:

    Very interesting site, anyone know of origonal English accents still used in US? I read Cornish still prevails in the Cheasapeake Bay area