THE NORFOLK DIALECT is almost entirely a spoken form of language. The Boy John Letters by Sidney Grapes that enlivened the pages of the Eastern Daily Press when I was a boy made a valiant attempt to present the accent in print, but this is a very hard thing to do.  The under-stated humour of the Norfolk speaker comes through, but the particular nuances of Broad Norfolk do not translate well to the written page. There is no way to present the rise and fall of the voice.

Where the Norfolk dialect is authentically presented in written form it is Norfolk grammar that appears. This photo of the Falgate Inn at Potter Heigham is an example of this. The rhyme on the pub sign occurs on at least two other pubs in England, but in these the grammar is standard English; This gate hangs high and hinders none...  Norfolk dialect is a mixture of distinct words, local grammar and pronunciation. I cannot give you a better example of the grammatical peculiarity of Broad Norfolk than this pub sign.

There are in existence letters written by the Norfolk born Lord Nelson where he uses this same form of the third person singular verb; Captain Lambert have been very fortunate. We should be cautious before attributing Norfolk grammar to Nelson however. As my sister points out it was common in the early 19th century to use similar verb endings that would now be considered irregular. You was instead of you were for example was a common usage.

As an example of  words that only occur in the Norfolk Dialect I  give you ‘bor‘. Some commentators have connected this with an abbreviation of neighbour, while others suggest it means boy. Neither of these quite represent the way in which the word is used. Another common word is do (in the sense of or), as in “Shut the door, do that’ll be wholly cold.”  The use of that rather than it and wholly (short vowel) meaning very are also typical of the Norfolk dialect.

I would like to record spink, the Norfolk word for finch, as unique to our dialect. Fred Barnes (a good old Norfolk boy) assured me that it was, but in fact the word occurs in dialects as far north as Scotland. It is an Anglo-Saxon word, but I dare say it survived in the Norfolk speech far longer than elsewhere. In fact many of the words we regard as Norfolk’s own dialect are in fact Anglo-Saxon; many others like staithe (a landing-place), flag (yellow iris, preserved in the Flegg district of south-east Norfolk) and grup (a shallow trench) are Danish, reflecting the 9th century occupation of East Anglia by the Vikings. Still others have entered the dialect from the continent, brought in by the 17th century influx of Protestant refugees especially from Flanders.  A good example of these words is plain, which in Norfolk is used to signify a town or village square. Almost the same word is found in exactly the same context in Eindhoven (for example) and as far south as Beziers in France.

The Vocabulary of the East Anglian Tongue (which has a much longer title that I will not include here) was written by the Rev Robert Forby and posthumously published in two volumes in 1830.  Although written 200 years ago and perhaps in need of revision in some of its philological/linguistic assumptions, it is the bedrock for anyone who wishes to study the dialect.

Is there is any difference between Norfolk and Suffolk speech? In the grammar and words there is no difference, but there are subtle variations in pronunciation. The word note for instance would be said nut (with a short vowel) in some parts of East Anglia and noot in others, but don’t ask me which.

As far as pronunciation goes it is virtually impossible to fully represent in written English; however I will mention the word dog. It is always pronounced dawg in East Anglia. In this way Norfolk speech corresponds to the high-class drawl which is another departure from standard English. As the distinguished upper class man said to my grandfather in Cawston Post Office: “I say my man, does this little shop sell dorg biscuits?”.

When I was ten I had begun to pick up some Suffolk dipthongs from my country schoolmates at Bungay. I happened to remark on a road that we passed while out in the car, only I happened to call it a proivate droive. My Norwich High School educated sister burst out in hoots of derision; proivate droive, proivate droive, they kept saying. I soon learnt that received pronunciation was the way to speak if I wanted to get on in the world. This isn’t quite true; I had a friend at Oxford who spoke with a marked Lancastrian accent and that was accepted without demur, because when he wrote it was in standard English and you could not tell where he was born.

Accent is one thing but dialect, with its own grammar and vocabulary, is quite another. Whatever your views on the moral equivalence of dialect and ‘good’ English, standard English is required if you wish to write for national publication. The use of the written dialect is in humour, whether it is the newspaper columns of Keith Skipper or the Scottish of Neil Munro’s Para Handy, and even then local dialect is obscure to those who are not familiar with the original. The Scots dialect is fine on television, but try reading it as an Englishman! Especially as in this case it includes Gaelic. (It is worth the effort though, as it much funnier when read aloud from the book.)

I would like to mention my father who normally spoke in perfect received English, but who could, when the occasion was right, break into the broadest of Norfolk that he must have learnt as a child in Norwich during the First World War. In this respect he mirrored my schoolteacher Dick Bagnall- Oakeley who picked up his dialect at Hemsby Council School. My father was however also an expert in Neil Munro’s Scots dialect, and he never went nearer to Scotland than Derby. I should  thank Les Lawrence for suggesting that I turn my attention to the Norfolk dialect.




One response

  1. Excellent piece!
    At one time I was able to recognise several different Norfolk accents within the County: West to Mid-Norfolk, North Norfolk coastal area, Norwich, and finally the Gt. Yarmouth area. Nowadays, the ‘true’ Norfolk accent is fast disappearing, existing only in a few isolated rural areas.
    The Norfolk and Suffolk accents are noticeably different, I cannot explain it – possibly a different intonation; to me, the Norfolk accent sounds warmer (possibly because it’s my native tongue), with the Suffolk accent sounding much ‘flatter’.

    P.S. Skewz moiy gramma, as oiy wuz born-n-bred in Swarffum.


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