The Sussex Dialect

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How Would our Ancestors have Spoken?

It was not uncommon in the 19th Century (and sometimes later!) for working class people to be unable to read and/or write. The recording of their names was therefore, in the case of emigrants, left to a shipping clerk or agent to record as best he could. William and Ann's surname in the shipping records of the 'Maitland' is shown as 'FAIRALL', so probably this was the way they pronounced it, and then it was in the ship's passenger list spelt that way.

An example of a Sussex dialect speaker is embedded in this page as two different types of sound file, which should play in most browsers. If it doesn't play then perhaps you need to update your web browser! Note that some versions of Internet Explorer may require your permission to play the sound file, so click on PLAY again after granting permission.

This recording was made by the BBC in 1998, as a part of the Southern Counties section of their Regional Dialects series, but it was unfortunately removed from the BBC web site quite a few years ago. My application for Consent to use this material was dated 28 March 2008.

From the link at the bottom of this page, you can read two recent articles from the Sussex Family Historian, which add more insights to the history and usage of this dialect.

A Sussex Speaker: Leslie Luff

Amanda, a BBC interviewer, is talking to Leslie Luff (who was born on 24 January 1916), as Leslie recalls his school days and early life on the farm. Note especially Leslie's pronunciation of the "R" sound, and imagine he was saying "Fairhall" or "Fairall" - it could easily be misspelt!


Follow the transcript (below) as you listen

Amanda: Now tell me about your schooldays.
Leslie: Oh, my schooldays. I went to school when I was five, had nearly two mile to walk to school.

Amanda: What, and what school was it, where was it?
Leslie: Hollycombe. 'Hollycombe University' I always calls it. And, uhm.

Amanda: And where was that?
Leslie: Uhm, uh, I don't know what to. I suppose, well, it was just outs, outside of Milland, anyway.

Unidentified speaker: Hollycombe.
Leslie: Uh, one thing I always remember there: there used to be a nice, old postman from Liphook used to cycle round. And, uh, I was lucky sometimes: he used to pick me up and put me on his old, uhm, front-carrier and gave me a ride nearly home. Hmm.

Amanda: And what were your teachers like?
Leslie: Teachers, oh, they were very good. Yeah, never had no problem with them.

Amanda: Were they strict?
Leslie: To a point, yes, hmm.

Amanda: What did you, did you used to get a, did you ever get caned?
Leslie: No. No, uhm, well, soon after I started school, don't ask me why, cause I don't know, uh, one of the boys over there started calling me 'Goodie'. And that name've stuck, stuck to me till today. A lot of people I went to school with don't even, didn't even know my name. Hmm.

Amanda: And what did you used to do for fun when you were little?
Leslie: Pardon?

Amanda: What did you used to do for fun?
Leslie: For fun? Work! Yes, I used to go to work when I was about seven. Used to milk the old nanny-goat. I used to tie, tie the old nanny-goat up to the post, you see, and the old farmer what was there, he'd gave, gave, gave me a hand [inaudible] the old goat, take the milk back, go back to the goat, hop up on her back, out with my knife, cut the string and away we used to go. But sometimes we never used to get very far before I was on the ground.

Amanda: And how much did you used to get paid for this, then?
Leslie: Nothing. And when I was, I couldn't've been more than eight year old and my brother, he was three year older than me, the old farmer sent us up to drill some swede seed. The land was all ridged out and we had a, a, a pony with a, with a drill. We'd drill one row at a time. So one led the horse and the other one held the handles of the drill. I was only about eight, must've, I couldn't've been any older, cause the farmer went away when I was nine. Hmm.

Amanda: And is the farm still there?
Leslie: The farmer?

Amanda: The farm?
Leslie: The farm's still - I worked there all my life.

Amanda: So what was, was that your job, if you like, out of school?
Leslie: Pardon?

Amanda: Was farming your first job out of school?
Leslie: Yes, yes, hmm.

Amanda: What was it like, then?
Leslie: What, what farming? Well, you just, you got paid very well. About time, about time I was fourteen I got twopence-halfpenny an hour. That's in old money. I worked from seven o'clock in the morning Saturdays to five o'clock at night. So that, take hour out for lunch, that'd be nine hours. I got one-and-tenpence-halfpenny for that.

Amanda: Goodness me!
Leslie: Hmm.

Amanda: And, and what, is it very different to farming now, do you think?
Leslie: Definitely.

Amanda: How?
Leslie: They got it too easy today. Hmm. We had to work then, in my time. Hmm.

Amanda: Tell me some of the differences. What about milking or, or?
Leslie: Oh yeah, well, uhm, first off there was no milking machines about. So when I first started milking I used to milk by hand. That was before I left school: run home from school to milk a cow and if there wasn't one for me to milk I used to cry my eyes out. I should blinking thought I should've run the other way; I should've run to school, walked home.

Amanda: And I understand you still work now?
Leslie: Yeah, not a lot.

Amanda: Tell me what you do now.
Leslie: Do a bit of gardening. Hmm, hmm. Yeah.

Amanda: Where at?
Leslie: Uh, local. Hmm, yeah.

Amanda: And has that changed a lot, do you think? Cause we're all a bit pre-occupied with our gardens now, aren't we? Were we always?
Leslie: Yes, hmm. Oh, I'm lucky really, cause the, the garden where I lives is only shrubs. So I got no kitchen garden or anything to worry about. Hmm.

Amanda: Now I understand, uhm, that you had to, uh, you were offered a lift on a shire horse one day?
Leslie: Oh yes, yeah.

Amanda: And it didn't turn out to be as good as you thought it was going to be? Tell me about that.
Leslie: Well, it was when the old boss took me along, along with him to Westbourne, if you know it, where that is, do you? Down near Emsworth. Cause he was going to buy a horse. So he, he, he and the old farmer was arguing about the price. So my bo, bo, well the bo, the boss, I don't think I was working then. I don't remember whether I was or not. He starts walking away from the other farmer, I thought, "Well, that's good - I ain't got to take that old horse home." And I suppose the other farmer changed his mind. So I was, the bloke I was with, he bought it. So I get up on its back to ride it home, but I couldn't ride very far before I had to get off. Cause his old backbone stuck up. Up the behind, like. So I had to walk all the way from Westbourne.

Amanda: Goodness me!
Leslie: You know.

Amanda: How far was it?
Leslie: Oh, I wouldn't like to say. Quite, quite, well it's ...

Amanda: How, about, it's about, what is it? Twenty miles?
Unidentified speaker: Must be.
Leslie: Hhm, fifteen, twenty miles perhaps. I walked from Alresford with two. Two carthorses. One of those poor devils got killed by a bull. The old bull cornered him and, uhm, ripped his inside out. Hmm.


NOTES
1. Places Mentioned
  • Hollycombe is just to the north of Milland (West Sussex).
  • Liphook is a Hampshire village to the north of Milland.
  • [inaudible] indicates a passage or phrase where the speaker's exact words are unclear.
  • Westbourne is a Hampshire village to the south-west of Milland.
  • Emsworth is a Hampshire village to the south-west of Milland.
  • Alresford is a town just to the north-west of Milland.

  • 2. Leslie's Sussex dialect
    Leslie uses a number of non-standard grammatical constructions that are typical of traditional Sussex dialect. Listen, for instance, to the additional "S" on the first person singular verbs in the statements "Hollycombe University I always calls it" and "the garden where I lives is only shrubs". Note also the use of the verb 'to have' unmarked for person in the phrase "that name've stuck to me till today", where Standard English would require "that name has stuck to me till today". Both of these verbal constructions were once commonplace across much of southern England, but are now only likely to occur in the speech of older speakers.

    Other non-standard constructions he uses remain part of contemporary spoken English. Listen to the statements "never had no problem with them" and "couldn't have been no more than eight year old. Multiple negation - the use of two negative particles in the same statement - is criticised by some as defying mathematical logic, but it has a linguistic history dating back to Shakespeare, Chaucer and beyond, and is very much alive in popular speech wherever English is spoken.

    In the statements "nearly two mile to walk to school" and "he was three year older than me" the nouns have no plural marker. Again this is pretty common in many varieties of English for a small set of count nouns that express measurements. Phrases such as ten pound, five mile and six month are extremely commonplace across the UK and even in Standard English we more frequently hear someone described as six foot tall or ten stone three rather than six feet tall or ten stones three.


    3. Rhotic speech
    There is one aspect of Leslie's accent that might mislead many modern listeners into thinking he comes from somewhere much further west than Sussex. Leslie is a rhotic speaker - he pronounces the "R" sound after a vowel. Listen carefully to the way he pronounces the words nearly, university, there, carrier, started, work, farmer, far, older, horse, worked, farming, fourteen, Saturdays, hours, for, first, gardening, garden, Westbourne, Emsworth, arguing, working, starts, poor and cornered. In fact the "R" in all these words would at one time have been a feature of speech across the UK and it remains very much a part of the English spoken in Scotland and Ireland. In present-day England, however, it is increasingly restricted to the West Country, the far South West and an area of Lancashire to the north of Manchester.



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    This page was updated on: 5 Dec 2016