West Country accent

From Academic Kids

The West Country accent is a generic term applied to any of several English accents used by the indigenous population of the south west of England, popularly known as the West Country. This is the region centred on the counties of Devon (Devun), Cornwall (Corrnwahll), Somerset (Zummerzet), Wiltshire, parts of Gloucestershire (Glahstershire), Oxfordshire (Ahxfodshire) and Dorset (Darrzut). Immigration to the towns from other regions means that the accents are now only commonly encountered in rural areas.

In the neighbouring counties of Berkshire, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, it was possible to encounter comparable accents and indeed distinct local dialect until perhaps the 1960s. Although natives of such locations, especially in western parts, can still have West Country influences on their speech this is less than in the true West Country counties. The increased mobility and urbanisation of the population have meant that local Berkshire, Hampshire and Isle of Wight dialects (as opposed to accents) are today essentially extinct.

Strong south western accents can still be difficult for speakers of Standard English to understand. Although popularly considered to be only accents, academically the regional variations are considered to be dialect forms. The dialects are versions of Standard English and should not be confused with Cornish, which is a separate language with Celtic roots.

Contents

Characteristics

The characteristic features of the accent of the region include:

  • A slower, drawling manner of speech, with lengthened vowel sounds (this is less pronounced among the Cornish and Bristolians, who actually speak quite rapidly).
  • The initial "s" is pronounced as "z".
  • "r"s are pronounced far more prominently than in Standard English.
  • An initial "f" may become pronounced "v", as in varmer Joe
  • In the Bristol area a terminal "a" is often followed by an intrusive "l". Hence the old joke about the three Bristolian sisters Evil, Idle and Normal. Also the name "Bristol" itself (originally Bridgestowe, variously spelt).

In various districts there are also distinct grammatical and syntactical differences:

  • The second person singular thee (or ye in parts of Devon) and thou forms used, thee often contracted to ee.
  • Bist may be used instead of are; ow bist? = how are you.
  • Use of male (rather than neutral) gender with nouns; put he over there = put it over there.
  • An a prefix may be used to denote the past tense; a-went = gone.
  • Use of they rather than them or those; they shoes be mine = those shoes are mine.
  • Am used exclusively in the present tense, usually contracted to 'm; you'm = you am = you are.
  • In other areas, be may be used exclusively in the present tense, often in the present continuous; Where you be going to? = Where are you going?

West country accents also share certain characteristics with the accents of other isolated rural areas, for example those in parts of East Anglia. There is a popular prejudice that stereotypes speakers as unsophisticated and even backward, due possibly to the deliberate and lengthened nature of the accent. This can work to the West Country speaker's advantage, however: recent studies of how trustworthy Britons find their fellows based on their regional accents put the West Country accent high up, under southern Scottish English but a long way above Cockney and Scouse. Presumably anyone who sounds like a simple farmer is thought to be incapable of guile!

The West Country accent is probably most identified in American English as "pirate speech" -- cartoon-like "Ooh arr, me 'earties! Sploice the mainbrace!" talk is very similar. This may be a result of the strong seafaring tradition of the West Country, both legal and outlaw. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) was a native of Bristol, and privateer and English hero Francis Drake hailed from Tavistock in Devon.

The accent has arguably been given most prominence outside its native region by The Wurzels, a comic North Somerset/Bristol band from whom the term Scrumpy and Western music originated. In an unusual regional breakout their song Combine Harvester reached the top of the UK charts in 1976, where it did absolutely nothing to dispel the "simple farmer" stereotype of Somerset folk. It and all their songs are sung entirely in a local version of the accent.

Origins

Until the 19th century the West Country and its dialects were largely protected from outside influences due to its relative geographical isolation.

The West Country dialects derive not from a corrupted form of modern English, but reflect the historical origins of the English language and its historical pronunciation. Much of it was derived from Old English and its Saxon roots. It is thought that the various local dialects may reflect the territories of various Saxon clans (who had their own dialects of Saxon), while the progress of their occupation explains the greater dominance of a more Germanic accent in the earlier and more heavily occupied eastern parts of the region, while the slower and lower density Saxon infiltration into Devon enabled more of a Celtic accent to be retained.

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