Friday 29 September 2023

Reading in accents

Reading in accents

When an author depicts a character as living in or from a particular geographic location I find myself reading in the accent of that character. This is fine if all the characters are ‘local’ but if the story includes individuals from diverse parts of the country it can become quite trying.

Some authors are adept at writing in the distinctive speech rhythms and patterns of different localities, but others are not and it can be quite jarring. With yet other authors it doesn’t matter at all and I read in my normal voice. I don’t read aloud, of course . . . well, not often.

I have recently read books set in Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Dorset and Kent, with all of whose cadences I am familiar. I have family in Norfolk and Dorset, went to college in Lincolnshire and was born and brought up in Kent. I have also lived in Ireland, Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire and West Midlands (and Germany, where I spoke poor German!) and for much time past have lived in Berkshire.

Although familiarity with a regional accent is useful it does not prepare one for a ‘deep-dyed’ local. One day, my son-in-law, Paul, met an acquaintance in Dorset and started talking to him. I happened to be there but could not understand a word his acquaintance said. It was a most extraordinary experience.

I learnt later that the Dorset dialect stems from Old West Saxon and is preserved in the Blackmore Vale, where this encounter took place. Paul was speaking standard English with a Dorset inflection while his acquaintance was responding in rapid dialect. It was fascinating and quite musical and completely incomprehensible to an outsider.                                       

The following is from William Barnes’ book, ‘Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect’.

Ees; now mahogany’s the goo,

An’ good wold English woak won’t do.

I wish vo’k always mid auvord

Hot meals upon a woakèn bwoard,

As good as think that took my cup

An’ trencher all my growèn up

(‘Wold’ is ‘old’, ‘woak’ is ‘oak’, ‘vo’k’ is ‘folk’ . . . )

William Barnes (1801-1886) was a polymath, poet, priest and artist among other things. He believed strongly that foreign words should not be brought into the English language, saying that ‘strong old Anglo-Saxon speech’ should prevail.

Everyone who has read or watched Harry Potter knows at least one Dorset word. Dumbledore is dialect for bumblebee.

  This is the 1972 Yetties version of "Dorset is Beautiful", originally written by Bob Gale from Beaminster....

Oh! Dorset is a'beautiful wherever you go

 And the rain in the summer-time makes the wurzle tree grow

 When you're sitting in the spring-time in the thunder and the hail,

With your true love, on a turnip plant, to hear the sweet nightingale...

As I was a'walking one morning with a lass,

Two Dorsetshire farmers I chanced for to pass.

And one said to the other as we went strolling by;

"There be more birds in the long grass than there be in the sky"

Oh! Nellie is my girlfriend and I loves her so.

Her's as big as an haystack and 40 years old.

 Farmer says hers ginormous and loud do he scoff

For you has to leave a chalk mark to show where you left off.

 Farmer looks at young Gwendoline and he looks at young Ned

"What a handsome young couple, they ought to be wed".

Farmer says sadly "It's impossible of course

For Gwendoline is my daughter and Ned he is my horse".

One day as her went milking with Nellie the cow,

Her pulled and her tugged but her didn't know how.

So after a short while, Nellie turned with a frown,

                    Saying "You hang on tight love and I'll jump up and down".


  1. That's a funny song. I know nothing of accents, so imagine everyone I write about or read about, speaks just like me.

  2. So what happens when you read an American book? Or an Australian? Now that would be funny.
    I'm afraid Mr Barnes would be rather disappointed with modern English speaking.
    R's great nephews in Newcastle, one 20, one 22 are easy enough for me to understand when they are speaking to me. But a few times I heard them talking to each and what they were saying was quite incomprehensible to me. It seemed many words were omitted. Yet their mother speaks very clearly, of course with the local accent.

    1. I'm not good with American accents, so Bronx or Californian. All Australian accents are 'strine' to me, though I knew one Australian who sounded like a South African. It's funny about the great-nephews - even dialect can be adapted for 'company'.

  3. How interesting. I never knew that Dorset had a "deep-dyed" dialect. As mentioned in a comment earlier this week, NE Scotland certainly does have a strong (and still quite widely spoken) local dialect known as Doric, and it took me a few years living up here to tune in. Even native Scots from the Central Belt make jokes about Aberdonians being incomprehensible!
    Cheers, Gail.

    1. Fascinating. I've just found out that Doric is the third official language of Scotland, with English and Scots Gaelic.

  4. Hi Janice - love the poem ... I can't do accents - even having lived and worked in various countries. I love learning the whereabouts of language ... but speaking such - is hopeless. Fascinating post and thanks for the link to Barnes. Cheers Hilary

    1. I'm sure my version of accents is very poor;-)

  5. HaHa! Made me chuckle this...
    Of course l live in Dorset..A town called Blandford..
    Came here when a year old...Though l have lived
    abroad, not so much in this country, l've lived in
    Sicily of course, two years in Germany, two years
    in Jersey, and 10mths across the pond in Detroit..!
    But! l do understand the Dorset dialect...and of course
    Dorset is God's own county, 'NOT' Yorkshire...! :).

    And, yes, the Yetties used to preform all over Dorset,
    even barns and sheds...HeHe! And named the Yetties,
    after the village of Yetminster, their childhood home..!
    The band announced their retirement in 2010 and held
    their last concert, in Sherborne, in 2011.”
    Sadly, Mac McCulloch passed away a decade later, in
    December 2021....!

    I love where l live..l love Dorset..would'nt live anywhere else!
    ♬·¯·♩¸¸♪·¯·♫ ♬·¯·♩¸¸♪·¯·♫ ♬·¯·♩¸¸♪·¯·♫♬·¯·♩¸¸♪·¯·♫ ♬·¯·♩¸¸♪

    1. Lovely county - well, it would be, with some of my family living in Blandford.

    2. HaHa! Perhaps you should mention to your family
      here in B' look out for a 6ft 3in fella, totally
      dressed in pink...HeHe! And sometimes l'll sign
      autographs for free...! :O). 🎀

    3. I keep meaning to ask Paul if he's met you. (Paul's a plumber so gets around a lot.)

  6. If I'm reading a book then I find it distracting to have one written in the dialect of a particular place. I prefer to imagine it if I need to.

  7. That's why I can never read Dickens - great stories but the dialect gets in the way.

  8. Which is the more difficult to get the mind around - accents or dialect/vocabulary?

    I lived with South Africans for a long time and within 6 months had very little problem with their vocabulary. But as much as I tried to replicate the accent, it fell apart after my first couple of sentences.

  9. Often it is the speed of delivery that impedes understanding, so long as the language is common to speaker and listener.

  10. I don't have your imagination. I read it a regular accent...which would be my own. Unless, like you say, the author is adept at translating the accent to words.
    Years ago, when I wrote a book with a couple of Russian characters, I worried I'd make them sound ridiculously stereotypical, so I kept the speech patterns "normal" but hired a Russian translator to pepper in some Russian. It seemed to work. I didn't get any hate reviews on the dialogue. At least not since the last time I checked. :)

    Beautiful song. Very romantic.

    1. To hire a Russian speaker to make your characters more believable is just brilliant!

  11. I have lived in Dorset for 75 years and the accent, much softer than Devon, was far more in evidence when I was at school inthe 50’s/60’s than now which is a huge shame. We read Barnes and Hardy at school, a lot and the Primary in Sturminster Newton is of course named after William Barnes. There used to be Volk who would recite Barnes with all the beauty of the accent but I don’t suppose schools touch him now. Dorset is indeed Gods own Country, hills and heath, coast and chalk tracks, skylarks and buzzards, I have never left and rarely venture outside the County. Thankyou for your post today, Sarah Browne.

  12. Thank you, Sarah. That is fascinating. I fear Barnes will have gone the way Chaucer did, and our regional accents will become 'ironed out'. Very sad.

  13. How interesting, but not totally strange to my ears. Each September, we spend a week or so in the West of Belgium, just a stone's throw from the French border. Quite a few of the villages across the border in France have Flemish sounding names, and in fact, the Flemish heritage is held high here, although people mostly speak French. One day, we got talking to a older man, who claimed to still speak "Vlemsch" (Flemish) and upon hearing we were from across the border proceeded to talk to us in that particular dialect. We had to switch to French as we couldn't understand a word he was saying! xxx

  14. It seems impossible not to be able to understand one's fellows, doesn't it? Somehow, I find it quite uplifting:-) x x x


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