This ’ere senior voice be centuries old
- Credit: Archant
Before he died, Honiton historian Tony Simpson wrote one last feature, about the language of Devon, which we are publishing below. Tony, who had Welsh and Devon heritage, falteringly tries our native dialect (with apologies to those who know better)
Do ‘e speak Devonish? Or rather, can ‘e natter a bit o’ Debn?
The old senior voice is rarely heard now, though traces of the ancient Dyvnaint dialect still survive among older residents.
Some continue to be passed down, such as referring to Honiton as ‘uniton as in ‘uniton Show’. From our Senior Voice tent I heard a man refer to a ‘paasty’ and ‘zyder’ – the words being drawn out in a slow local burr.
Devon is said to be among the slowest languages, though beware of assuming this denotes slowness of thought!
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An old gent, sporting a carved walking stick, greeted me in the beer tent with ‘Zet ‘e down an zip zum’ (note, not a single ‘s’ sound).
Before I could sit, he cleverly asked me to get him a ‘zyder’. He told me he had worked on a ‘varm’ (farm) until he ‘ad bin droad off i’s ‘orse’ (thrown off his horse). Dropping the aitch was something I was used to in rural Wales, particularly after zipping zyder at ‘arvest...
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My farming acquaintance was not speaking Devon brythonic, the ancient tongue, but a common dialect which, over centuries, derived from it.
This still uses pro-nouns like ‘ye’ (you) and ‘yer’ (your). On Honiton market day I heard a typical Devon burr when a lady asked another lady ‘Wur be gwain m’ dear?’ (Where are you going my dear?). This was answered by ‘I be gwain ‘ome dreckly’ (going home directly).
The last time I heard the word ‘dreckly’ was during a visit to my favourite Cornish town, Wadebridge. The Brythonic language, drawn from early Saxon and Celtic also includes Bretagne, Cornish and Welsh.
It occurs in Devon place names and uses the Celtic ‘combe’ for valley as in Ilfracombe or Combe Raleigh.
In 1921, Mallory named the Mount Everest’s great valley Western Cwm using the Welsh ‘cwm’ (coom)– as in Cwm Rhondda (Rhondda valley).
This may explain why Welsh actress Angharad Rees, as Demelza, was able to manage a rather quaint version of West Country dialect spoken by native characters in the 1970s television version of Poldark, Winston Graham’s novel, one of the best historical dramas to emerge from the West Country. As actor Robin Ellis says, it put Cornwall and local dialect ‘on the map’.
Though the Brythonic tongue is said to have died out in the middle ages, Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have spoken in Devon dialect so broad he sometimes needed a translator at the Elizabethan court. True or not, it amuses one to imagine Sir Walter asking – ‘Ow be yer Medjesty?’
The late Peter Manley of Honiton - who could trace his Devon roots over many generations - wrote an epic satirical poem, 59 stanzas long, about an encounter with ‘mad’ King George during his visit to Exeter in 1789, a year after King George had been pronounced insane, following another bout of porphyria.
As the King received the usual ‘bows and scrapes and kisses’ from a long line of city tradesmen, one of them broke ranks and strode forward.
The old chap shook his hand and said ‘I hope yer Medjesty wull nere be maz’d agin’. The King demanded the meaning of the local word ‘maz’d’ (mad) from a simpering Lord Lieutenant.
Peter’s poem captures the moment : ‘Hem’ zed my Lord and blow’d his noze.
Hem, hem, Sir; tis I do suppose,
Sir an old Devonish word. I’ll try to vend it out’.
To everyone’s great relief no more is said. Whether the incident occurred or not, it is a clever use of both dialect and satire. I picked up a copy of another light hearted approach to the dialect published in Ottery St Mary called Ditties vrum Debn by Derrick Rugg.
His poem ‘Carnival Capers’ describes a local ‘boy meets girl’ at Cullompton -
‘I zid ’er there I can tell ee that
At Cullupn at the Carnival
I gid ’er a drink, us ’ad a chat
And all was gwain so very well’...
For what happens next (!) you’ll have to read Derrick’s book and learn a bit of Devon dialect which you can do from Ashburton author John Germon’s Handbook of West Country Brythonic.
Devon dialect also lives on the internet with a BBC website and quiz and a dedicated website to Celtic languages: An Ger Dewnansek. Thankee fur yer companee.
Tony Simpson - with apologies to native speakers.