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Norfolk Dialect

The Great Tradition

Just like the Norfolk coastline, the Norfolk dialect is under constant attack. However, it's not from the destructive effect of the North Sea but from the spread of 'estuary English'.

The late, great Sidney Grapes: 'Do you mark my words, together?'

Norfolk's relatively isolated location has meant that Norfolk dialect has survived when many other local speech patterns have been subsumed. Yet, since the publication of The Vocabulary of East Anglia by the Rev. Robert Forby in 1830 many Norfolk words have undoubtedly been lost. Fortunately though, Norfolk dialect, or more accurately the Norfolk accent, is still alive and well thanks in large part to champions such as Keith Skipper who helped to found F.O.N.D. (Friends of Norfolk Dialect).

Keith Skipper receiving MBE

The Norfolk accent has also helped to preserve and nurture the county's unique sense of humour. In fact, the Norfolk accent lends itself perfectly to humour and particularly to that shrewd, under-stated type of rural wit. There is a long tradition of Norfolk 'stand-up' comedians and singers. Sidney Grapes - alias 'The Boy John' - was one of its outstanding, if unlikely, stars. A garage owner in Potter Heigham by day - but a popular local entertainer and writer of The Boy John Letters  by night - his work remains  quintessentially 'Norfolk'.

Following in his footsteps have come: 'The Kipper Family' (represented today by 'Sid Kipper') and 'The Nimmo Twins'. However, in the ranks of Norfolk dialect performers, Allan Smethurst, The Singing Postman was probably the most famous. For a short period of time in the 1960s his nostalgic and humorously romantic songs - all written in Norfolk dialect - were enjoyed through out the UK. In particular his song Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy? captured the popular imagination.

The Boy Kipper

One of the main problems with being a Norfolk dialect performer is that you are naturally restricting your audience. (It is a well known fact that Sid Kipper doesn't go down well at the Glasgow Empire.) However, in some ways, this only adds to its appeal.

The Boys Nimmo

Here are a few famous Norfolk dialect words:

Barney An argument
Bishy-barney-bee Ladybird
Bor Neighbour or boy
Buskins Leather leggings worn by farm workers
Buttle Bittern
Caddow/cadder Jackdaw
Carnser Causeway across a marsh
Chimley Chimney
Claggy Muddy or moist
Cockey Stream or dyke
Cooshies or cushies Sweets
Dene Sandy stretch of coastline e.g. South Denes at Yarmouth.
Dickey Donkey
Dodman Snail
Dudder To shiver or shake
Dwainy Weak or sickly
Dwile Floor cloth
Friz Frozen
Furrow-chuck Whinchat
Greenulf Greenfinch
Harnser Heron. (When Hamlet says that he can tell: 'A hawk from a handsaw' - some people have suggested this was transcribed wrongly and it should have read 'harnser'.)
Hedge Betty Hedge sparrow
Herring-spink Goldcrest
Hornpie Lapwing
Hull To throw
Jill-hooter Owl
Jollificearshuns Fun and games
King Harry Goldfinch
Loke Narrow lane or unmade-up road e.g. Heath Loke at Poringland.
Mawkin Scarecrow
Mawther Girl
Mardle To gossip, chat or talk
Mavish Song thrush
Mob To scold or nag
Muckwash Sweaty and dirty
Oven-bird Long-tailed tit or bluetit (from shape of nest)
Pightle Small field or enclosure
Puckaterry Muddle or confusion
Quant To pole or punt - as in a wherry
Queer Out of sorts/ill
Ranny Shrew
Rum Queer or odd
Shannock Native of Sheringham
Sowpig Wood louse
Spink Chaffinch
Squit Load of old nonsense
Teetermatorter See-saw
Titty-Totty Small
Tizzick Cough
Troshin' Threshing

Dialect on Film

Issues relating to the Norfolk dialect have also arisen recently due to its use (or, more accurately, its misuse) in TV and film productions.  Norfolk dialect is often rendered by 'foreign' actors as some kind of demented west country drawl with excessive 'oohs' and 'ahhs' - which causes great consternation to those who are trying to preserve it - namely F.O.N.D. Even in Kingdom - where we have a Norfolk-based production by the Norfolk-based Stephen Fry - there were many complaints to the EDP about inauthentic Norfolk accents. Obviously, when casting for roles in TV and film, it is hard for the directors to find competent actors who can also deliver lines faithfully in the vernacular. (Perhaps we need a Norfolk casting company?)

This is obviously a modern problem, but then Norfolk dialect has always been notoriously difficult to reproduce either in the spoken or written word. Even Norfolk-phile Arthur Ransome did not succeed in rendering the phonetic sound of Norfolk in his books Coot Club and The Big Six. Arnold Wesker tried valiantly in his Norfolk plays such as Roots. However, for a more realistic rendering try David Holbrook's Getting it Wrong with Uncle Tom - published by the Mousehold Press or, of course, go back to the master with The Boy John Letters.

Dialect Goes To College

In recent years the Norfolk dialect has also become the subject of academic study. Prof. Peter Trudgill is one of the foremost academics in this field and has taught at Essex, Reading, Lausanne and Fribourg Universities. David Britain - a lecturer at Essex University - and one-time PhD student of Prof Trudgill has also produced a body of work on the Norfolk dialect. Both are experts in its linguistic origins and phonetic construction. Peter Trudgill is also president of F.O.N.D.

Peter Trudgill

Dialect Poetry

Here is a piece of my own Norfolk dialect poetry which illustrates (hopefully) some of the humour and enjoyment to be had from using the vernacular. This poem was inspired by the Threshing Fair held in the village of Raveningham.

Ole Mr Blanchflower Wot Allus Do the ‘nnouncements At the Troshin' Fair Tell ‘em Wot’s On

Fust we hev on an expedition of thatchin’
Wot include layin’ and tyin’ and cross-hatchin’,
Follered at two by a tork on eel catchin’.

Then we hev the W.I. singin’ for yew
Thar own varsion of Jerusalem, wot’s bran new
(Tho’ Mrs Black int har cos she’s orf with the flu).

At three we’ll be a hevin’ the best tastin’ caerke
(Wot, this yar, ‘ll be judged by the Reverend Blake),
Then the Broadshire Battle Grup—arter a short break

Will be a doin’ thar Hastin’s (1066).
Larst we hev the Thrapston Morris Men and thar sticks,
Accompanied on harmonicals by Sid Hicks.


More Norfolk Dialect Photographs

Henry Skipper on Twitter





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