Why there’s still room for special sound of Norfolk

Farmers show what tractors are really for - somewhere to lean while having a good mardle at the vint

Farmers show what tractors are really for - somewhere to lean while having a good mardle at the vintage tractor event at the Showground over the weekend. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant © 2012

Local dialects such as Norfolk are now being studied by brain and language scientists. So what does the future hold for 'talkin' Norfolk' asks ROWAN MANTELL.

Professor Peter Trudgill in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith

Professor Peter Trudgill in Norwich. Photo: Bill Smith - Credit: Archant

The very first academic study of a local British dialect focused on Norfolk. That was in 1968, when regional accents were often looked down on as ugly, simple and incorrect. Today dialects and accents are more likely to be celebrated than ridiculed.

The Norfolk dialect even has its own fan club, and the president of the Friends of Norfolk Dialect is Professor Peter Trudgill – the man who wrote that first study of the Norfolk language.

An A to Z of Norfolk - 26 words that prove you come from this countyPeter, a regular EDP columnist, can both parse the grammatical construction of a sentence spoken in broad Norfolk and write witty rules for incomers keen to blend in to a community where 'here' sensibly rhymes with 'there' and that's the way we like that, (not 'it.')

Peter was born and brought up in Norwich and was doing a degree in modern languages at Cambridge when he discovered that he could actually be studying spoken Norfolk, rather than French or German. He went on to research regional accents (distinctive pronunciations,) dialects (a form of a language used by a particular regional or social group,) and languages all over the world. As a professor of linguistics he is an expert in anything from the new Norwegian dialect, emerging on an Arctic island to the tribal tongues of Papua New Guinea. But he can also reveal that the only two English regional accents where the letter 'h' is not routinely dropped are rural East Anglia and the Geordie heartlands of the north east.

He has even put together tips for actors playing Norfolk characters in television dramas. Rules include never sounding out the 'r' in words like cart or beard, unless you wish to be ridiculed as a master or mistress of Mummerzett. Advanced students will able to moon about the rude when they are actually complaining about the highways (moan about the roads.)

But there is also a serious side to The Friends of Norfolk Dialect, or Fond. It was founded in 1999 to conserve and record the county's linguistic and cultural heritage.

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Members collect Norfolk words, sayings, stories and songs, run writing competitions for children and adults and stage an annual pantomime – in dialect.

In 2006 Fond funded a project which helped nine Norfolk schools promote understanding and appreciation of the local dialect.

They are not suggesting schoolchildren should be taught in dialect – just that dialect should be accepted and celebrated, alongside standard English.

Peter grew up surrounded by the Norfolk dialect but the landscape and lifestyle which led to the development of a unique way of speaking now attracts so many people to the county that its language is being diluted and homogenised.

The role and fate of regional accents in a rapidly changing world is one of the subjects explored as part of National Science and Engineering Week later this month.

Dr Carolyn McGettigan is a neuroscientist and expert on spoken communication.

She has researched the science behind how the Norfolk accent developed and the likelihood of it surviving as a distinct way of speaking with its own sounds, vocabulary and grammar.

Historically an accent not only indicated where a person came from, but also communicated a lot of information about their class, status and even beliefs.

However, traditional accents are undergoing significant changes in many areas of the UK.

Dr McGettigan, of Royal Holloway University of London, said the Norfolk accent has seen relatively little change over time because its rural nature means it has had a fairly static population.

However, she says that over the past 10 years, more people have moved in and out of the area. So should we fear the loss of the Norfolk dialect? Not just yet.

'Regional accents continue to exist because in early childhood, we're more adaptable to learning new words, sounds and languages,' said Dr McGettigan. 'This becomes much harder as we get older and our brains become less malleable, so many sounds in our speech will always reflect the language environment we lived in as children.

'However, a regional accent is always developing as it is passed down through generations. Spending time in a new area can bring changes – people might make a concerted effort to be better understood by those around them, while some changes to pronunciation might come about less consciously. In the meantime, we can also pick up turns of phrase from our new environment, changing our speech further.

'It is also possible to make deliberate changes to your accent. Most of us can do impressions of other people (even if we're not quite able to hit the mark!)

'For example, Received Pronunciation is found all over the UK but 'BBC English' isn't the most desirable accent, in the way it used to be. Even the Queen has changed her accent to sound more 'standard', as shown by a famous study in the magazine Nature. Whether this is deliberate or a product of her changing linguistic environment, we can only guess.

'Meanwhile, young people are increasingly creating a tapestry of languages and accents which is constantly changing and says more about the culture of the area where they live, and their social circle, than their actual location. These accents are largely influenced by greater travel, for example, more young people going away to university, and by the media.

'Despite this, the Norfolk accent is unlikely to disappear completely because it is so important to people on a personal and behavioural level. Most people feel closely linked to the area they are from, and wish to maintain this regional identity if they relocate. There is a very close link between the way a person speaks and how they wish to be viewed, which will ensure that our unique accents continues to live on in some shape or form for many years to come.'

Peter Trudgill agrees that there is no need to blar (weep) for Norfolk yet.

'Yes! It will change, as accents always have done, but it will survive,' said Peter.

And everyone lucky enough to speak Norfolk, or hear Norfolk being spoken, can help.

'Be pleased about it, enjoy it, use it everywhere and to everybody, treat with pitying contempt the views of those bigoted people who dislike it and denigrate it,' said Peter.

'Be proud of your local dialect and don't go around putting down other people's dialects. There is a lot of prejudice out there. I think one of the main things is to try to engender an attitude that the Norfolk dialect is not wrong, it's not ugly, it's not backward; it's a very good and legitimate way of speaking.

'The Norfolk dialect is not what it used to be, but it never was!

'Languages and dialects are always changing and as long as there is a distinctive way of speaking in Norfolk, there will be a Norfolk dialect.'

And while some Norfolk words are dying out – often because they refer to particular farming techniques which are no longer used – others have crossed the globe.

Peter's wife, Jean, is from America, and he was delighted to discover that the American word for see-saw is teeter-totter, which must surely have come from the Norfolk tittermatorter.

Check out our A-Z of Norfolk woprds on www.edp24.co.uk For more about the Friends of Norfolk Dialect visit www.norfolkdialect.com Don't miss Peter Trudgill's column in the EDP every Monday. Dr Carolyn McGettigan is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway University of London. Her research concerns the neural and behavioural aspects of human vocal communication.