Monday, 30 June 2014

The Devonshire Dialect - Clement Marten


Yer! Duz us tok prapper Engliz dan yer in Deb'n or what?
Or to put it another way: I say! Do we talk proper English down here in Devon? Yes or no?
Not so very long ago when visiting Exmouth, if you wished to understand what the natives were saying then a book such as The Devonshire Dialect by Clement Marten would have been essential.

On entering any local tavern, for example, the bar would inevitably fall silent as everyone turned to see who the 'vurriners' were. 'Vurriners' as in foreigners, and to be 'vurrin' you didn't necessarily have to be from another country; you could just as well be from another town or parish within the same county.
You'd be approached by the landlord and asked to lay your guns on the table which could be meant metaphorically or to actually physically do so. As soon as it was established you were harmless - or armless - and you'd ordered your cider then everyone would resume their rudely interrupted conversations. At this point you might cast an eye around the tavern and take in the customary pentagram chalked on the wall above the log fire and then wonder what fevered language was being spoken by the people there. There'd be no talk of bagging a pheasant or any such civilised matter but simply a constant stream of surreal comments:
"Yer! I snores, I do. I snores so loud I wakes mezel' up but I think I've sorted it now. I sleep int' udder room, an' no mistake...."
"Yer! I got wan foot bigger an udder but my mate eez complete appasite eez got wan foot smaler an udder...."
Or anecdotes (as relayed in Clement Marten's book) such as the one about a young man walking down a lane at night with a young lady. He's carrying a piglet in one hand and a lantern in the other. The young lady suddenly starts to cry so the young man says to her: "Yer! Wat be 'bout maakin' awl thick awl scritch ver?" So the girl says "Wull I be vrit y'um gwain taak 'vantage o' me." So he asks "Ow c'n I taak 'vantage ov ee?" "Wull", she says "Yu mite ztart kissin' an cuddlin' o' me." So he says "Doan't ee be sa maazed gurl, ow c'n I be kissin' an cuddlin' uv ee, way a peg een wan 'and an' a lantern een t' other?" "Wull," she says "I cud 'old the lantern ver ee'..."

Was this the sound of cider tripping off the locals' tongues or had a block from the Tower of Babel somehow embedded itself in the depths of Devon? For any passing 'vurinner' twuz a right experience, an' no mistake.

But as renowned writer and aficionado of all things opiate William Burroughs once pointed out: language is a virus. And as we all know - viruses mutate. So nowadays the Devonshire dialect of old is changing though unlike a lot of other places in the country it's not heading down the path of Thames Estuary mockney, Australian soap opera inanity or gangster Jafaican patois. The Devon accent still sounds like music to the ear even when the person talking is threatening to "stave yer 'ead in, my babber - an' no mistake".
Many of the old Devon words are also still in use to this day so for example, David Cameron could be called a 'strapper'; meaning an unskilled person - an odd-job man - often applied to someone who undertakes a job for which he's not qualified and ends up making a mess of it. Holiday makers - particularly the type who are a nuisance and block the country lanes with their caravans - can be called 'grockles'. Whilst anything from the invasion of Iraq to the plans of Exmouth town council can be called a 'Saltash rig', meaning any enterprise that has been unsuccessful and summed up as "a wet arse and no fish".

So the answer to the question about whether or not we talk proper English in Devon is a most definite 'Yes'. Though we might be at the end of an age - and Clement Marten's book is a nod to a bygone era - it's a mighty fine thing that we retain our accents and our words and that we don't talk in the same way as everyone else.
An' no mistake.

Language is a virus from outer space
John Serpico

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