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Keeping the Norfolk vernacular alive and kicking

PUBLISHED: 17:07 23 August 2019 | UPDATED: 17:14 23 August 2019

Ploughing match at Guestwick with local characters close to the land in an era when dialect furrows shone in the community sun

Ploughing match at Guestwick with local characters close to the land in an era when dialect furrows shone in the community sun

Archant

Keith Skipper is helping to proudly keep the Norfolk dialect alive - and says we must all play our part in helping

I continue to spend far too much valuable energy and time fending off critics and cynics who adore the label "anachronism" when it comes to sizing up our local dialect.

They simply cannot comprehend why anyone claiming to be part of a modern media world belting along the international information super-highway should be stuck down a hemlock-choked country lane exchanging droll yarns, homely phrases and dogmatic points of view.

My customary response centres on Norfolk's legendary powers of absorption, even in the 21st century. The old place permits a parochial renegade not only the right to exist with impunity but also to flourish without apology in a climate where "dew diffrunt" sunshine can still burst through dull clouds of uniformity.

If that fails to impress, I can point to our vernacular's outstandingly durable qualities. Well, it's in good fettle for something reckoned to be on its last legs more times than I've said,: "electrocution lessons".

Even ardent champions over the past two centuries expressed deep misgivings about the future even while launching their own glossaries and other uplifting salutes to our local tongue.

The Rev. Robert Forby saw little hope for popular dialects in his introduction to the Vocabulary of East Anglia compiled in the early 1800s. He lamented: "Will they not be overwhelmed and borne down by the general onset of various plans and unwearied exertions for the education of all?"

Harry Cozens-Hardy, one of an impressive legion of local journalists to wave the flag with relish, edited the first Broad Norfolk booklet in 1893 from letters sent to the Eastern Daily Press. He prophesied the dialect would be dead within a generation under the influence of Board Schools.

My old colleague and friend Eric Fowler, who wrote with style and distinction for the EDP as essayist Jonathan Mardle, compiled two more Broad Norfolk collections in 1949 and 1973 amid fresh grim forecasts of impending extinction.

He issued a defiant call to arms worthy of an encore whenever someone is misguided enough to suggest dialect days are surely numbered: "I would like true Norfolk to survive because of its expressive vocabulary and vivid turn of phrase - so much more vigorous (and honest) than the gobbledegook of bureaucrats and sociologists … "The English country dialects, if they do, indeed, remain alive, may well become the last repository - outside of old books - of good plain English".

Dick Bagnall-Oakely, outstanding local teacher, naturalist and broadcaster, claimed in the early 1970s that "Norfolk" could not be written down: "Its accents and vowel sounds are too subtle, too varied and too rich for the alphabet which suffices for rest of the English language"

Happily, Dick, like many others before and since, managed to defy all those doubts to leave a rich legacy of Norfolk yarns and smiles.

When I set up Friends Of Norfolk Dialect in 1999, it was clear how survival spirit needed a hefty nudge towards revival passion if fond intentions for a new millennium were to be taken seriously. It was all very well admiring a vibrant cultural heritage untroubled by passing fancies but it had to be rendered relevant, especially in local schools.

There's a strong academic argument in favour of keeping our vernacular alive. Norwich-born Professor Peter Trudgill, one of the world's leading authorities, leads our Norfolk defence with powerful pride and no-nonsense pronouncements as he watches and hears indigenous cultures and languages dying out all over the globe.

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Dialect can lend much-needed perspective when life gets too complicated, too fast and too serious. It may continue to suffer from dilution and will have to adapt to stay afloat in some areas. National television and radio drama producers seem likely to carry on sinking in murky Mummerzet waters.

Even so, it's far too strong and too precious to let go. Never mind the "Canute" jibes, my ole bewties, Norfolk must keep on polishing this colourful badge of individuality and wear it as a mark of real affection and respect for something well worth preserving, promoting - and airing at every turn.

Friends Of Norfolk Dialect's 20th anniversary celebration is being staged at Norwich Central Baptist Church on Friday, September 27 (7.30 pm). Entrance free. Bucket collection. FOND's annual meeting is at Yaxham Village Hall, near East Dereham, on Sunday, November 24 (2.30pm). Fresh blood needed to keep this serious fun flowing!

SKIP'S ASIDE:

A labour of family love in tribute to a colourful local character has come to fruition after more than five years of poring over documents, letters, photos and memories.

Carrie Hayes of Poringland has proudly pieced together the fascinating story of her father's wartime evacuation to Canada, a journey destined to inspire a passion for voluntary work in Norfolk.

John Colby Clarke spent his early years in Ipswich before evacuation to family in Vancouver as a 10-year-old in 1940 with his sisters Mary and Biddy. He was so impressed by kindness shown across the Atlantic that he vowed to dedicate spare time to helping local organisations in later life.

John, who became a dairy farmer in south Norfolk, duly served on Pulham St Mary Parish Council and other village groups. He was chairman of the Norfolk Village Halls Association, vice-chairman of the National Association of Local Councils and Director of WREN - Waste Recycling Environmental Ltd.

We joined forces on seven summer safaris in search of Norfolk's best-run village halls on a busy final lap of the 20th century. When John died at 81 in 2011, I recalled how he could muster an occasional old-fashioned look when ribbing of his favourite football club, Ipswich Town, went into extra time.

However, he was always on the ball with experience and wisdom to help teams of volunteers reach their goals. The essence of that drive to make a bit of a difference is captured effectively in two volumes under the title of There and Back Again.

His daughter uncovered ample material during her marathon project to render a double bill inevitable. One book recalls John's Canadian adventures while the other features original documents involved, including official papers needed to get him home across rhe Atlantic.

While these collections will primarily interest Clarke family members, they carry a wider interest for those researching what life was like for overseas evacuees and families left behind in Britain.

For more information, or to purchase books, email emhayes@hotmail.com

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