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The Dialect of our Sussex Ancestors

by Dr Graeme Davis

Our Sussex ancestors spoke with a Sussex dialect. This is a part of their everyday life we can seek to understand, and additionally information about their manner of pronouncing names may even help us trace records of them.

Today the Sussex dialect is effectively extinct. There are a very few people whose speech retains a Sussex accent (the sound-system of Sussex). The place names around us are full of Sussex words: down (chalk hill), dean (down-land valley), bostal (steep, down-land footpath). A handful of genuine Sussex words may be used in some people’s speech. Most Sussex born-and-bred residents today speak not Sussex but Standard English. This Standard English may have a regional twist, but this local identity frequently comes as much from the general South-Eastern Home Counties English of the polo-mint around London as from Sussex. Many in Sussex like to add the occasional Sussex word as an expression of their self-identity as Sussex people. For example twitten (an alleyway between two hedges or walls) has become popular in recent years. It is indeed genuine Sussex, but it had all but died out by the mid nineteenth century and was deliberately revived in 1957, at first by Brighton Council and subsequently elsewhere in Sussex. Many today make a conscious decision to speak not of an alley but rather of a twitten. Save for a very few survivals and revivals, Sussex is dead.

There was a regionally distinctive form of speech in Sussex during the Anglo-Saxon period as the dialect of the kingdom of the South Saxons. The South Saxons were cut off from Kent and Surrey by the Weald Forest and developed a distinctive form of the Anglo-Saxon language along the Sussex coast. This dialect fractured in the late Middle Ages (as dialects did throughout England) creating a situation where every town and surrounding villages had its own manner of speech. What we think of as the Sussex dialect was a new creation towards the end of this period of chaos, and dates from the start of the Tudor period, say 1485. It flourished for about three centuries, but the Napoleonic wars accelerated an already established decline, a trend which continued throughout the nineteenth century. The very last generation of true Sussex speakers were born and grew up before the disruption of the First World War, and even these mostly modified their way of speech as they went through life. For all practical purposes Sussex died out in the 1930s. The life span of the dialect – the Tudors to the inter-war years - is therefore the centuries in which we mostly trace our Sussex ancestors. We do know something about this dialect.

Sussex dialect was part of a continuum of Southern dialects of English from the West Country to Kent, not a form of speech sharply delineated by the county boundary. In Eastern Sussex the dialect was in effect that of Eastern Kent: certainly Rye should be regarded as Kent for dialect, and even Hastings appears to be more akin to Kent than Sussex. Western Sussex merged into Hampshire, while the Sussex Weald spoke what was in effect the dialect of Western Kent and Surrey.

The Sounds of Sussex

The closest survivor of the sounds of Sussex that we are likely to encounter today is to be found not in the county but further west. Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset have speakers still using an accent close to that of by-gone Sussex. Characteristic of the sounds of Sussex was the emphasis on the /r/ sound. This sound was pronounced even when Standard English would not pronounce it, and elsewhere was given more emphasis or trilled. After a vowel the /r/ is sounded, so nearly becomes nee-arly, fourteen four-teen, Saturday Sat-tur-day. Elsewhere the /r/ is trilled – faRm, afteR, gaRden. Sussex also tended to insert the /r/ sound after /a/, so not ask but arsk. This emphasis on /r/ is termed rhotic, a feature Sussex shared with other Southern dialects and which today is still encountered in West Country English.

It is worth considering the pronunciation of our ancestors’ surnames in Sussex dialect. When I look at the surname Moase (a name I’ve found in West Chiltington) my Standard English approach is to read it as if it rhymes with rose. However Sussex would have inserted an /r/ so the name would once have been sounded Mo-arse. Moase produces plenty of transcription errors not down to dialect (Moore is very common) but is rarely (if ever) found with the intuitive miss-spelling Mose. It is however found as Morse. Sussex would have made similar adaptations to first names. The name David has its spelling fixed by familiarity with the Bible, but in speech becomes Darvid in Sussex, or alternatively the rhotic tendency is deliberately over-corrected in careful use to create Da-o-ved. Mary has a similar emphasis on the /r/ and in speech would have been more-or-less identical with Marie, and the two spellings in Sussex probably represent the same name.

A key feature of Sussex pronunciation is that the accent doesn’t particularly like consonant clusters and tends to insert a vowel. In Sussex it’s not pretty but purty. As well as changes in sounds there were changes to the beat of the language. Sussex dialect had a stronger word-stress than is usual in Standard English – it had a heavy beat on the stressed syllables, which in English tend to be the first syllable of a word. Unstressed syllables tend to be lost, particularly those in the middle of a word. Take Brighthelmstone. The initial stress gives BrI-, then sounds that are not stressed are lost, and it ends with a final weakly-stressed –ton. It’s perfectly regular Sussex for Brighthelmstone to become BrI-ton, and just a bit of conservative spelling that keeps the unsounded –gh- in Brighton. The heavy initial stress is kept (compare Britain, with a Standard English more even stress). Chalvington shows the rhotic tendency to put /r/ after /a/ and the loss of its middle syllables, so the pronunciation in Sussex dialect is Charnton, though the spelling hasn’t quite kept up and we still write Chalvington. Once syllables are unstressed it is easy for stray sounds to creep in. Selmeston starts with /se/ and ends /on/ without a great deal of clarity about what goes in the middle, but Sempson is a reasonable Sussex solution. (I’m aware many people spell the pronounced form Simpson, but Sussex dialect should not change the vowel here and I suspect Sempson is a more accurate representation of the traditional pronunciation.) Town and parish names are likely to be spelt correctly in sources which genealogists use because there was an established “correct” spelling, but farm names and field names are very likely to be garbled in their spelling.

People remember words (in any language) first of all by their stress pattern, and with a dialect with the punchy stress of Sussex it is easy to get words confused. This is particularly prevalent with a new word. The Victorian doctors introduced Sussex people to bronchitis, but in Sussex this became brown-kitis.

Sussex Words and Grammer

Sussex vocabulary was set down in A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect by Rev W D Parish of Selmeston, first published in 1875, working under the guidance of the English Dialect Society. Parish aimed to present words which were used within the county of Sussex and which were not accepted as Standard English words. He was aware that many of the words he was recording were found in only a part of Sussex. Additionally the majority of words he records are not unique to Sussex but are found also in neighbouring dialects, particularly those of East Kent, Surrey & West Kent, and Hampshire.

Many Sussex animals have a dialect form. Among birds is brownbird (thrush, probably parallel with blackbird), cutty (wren) and yaffle (green woodpecker). Insects include ammot (ant), mousearnickle (dragonfly) and dumbledore (bumble bee), while sneg is snail. There are many local names for wild flowers, though it is sometimes difficult to identify precisely which plant is referenced by a word. Some seem secure: old man’s beard (wild clematis), old man’s nightcap (hooded bindweed), snottgogs (yew berries). Few of these forms are unique to Sussex. J K Rowling called her Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore conscious that this word means bumble bee, but she took the word not from Sussex but from her native Gloucestershire. Dumbledore meaning bumble bee is found from Devon to Kent and at least as far north as Gloucester. Sometimes Sussex has just a pronunciation difference of a form found in other dialects. An apple-core in Sussex is a chog which may be regarded as a specific Sussex variant of chug, found in many Southern dialects.

Sussex has distinct words for things characteristic of Sussex. The sticky yellow clay found in parts of the Sussex Weald is pug. The mud of Rye harbour which is covered by a tide-spread layer of river silt is called stoach. Lignite (low quality coal gathered from Sussex beaches and which burns with a sulphurous smell) is called strombolo (after the volcano Stromboli), a curiously high-brow allusion. Five-stones is the Sussex name for a variant of the widespread children’s playground game better known as knucklebones or five-jacks. Stoolball is a true Sussex invention first found in the fifteenth century; this “cricket in the air” was originally played by women and with a milk-maid’s stool as the wicket. Dialects rarely have established spellings, but Sussex can offer distinctive spelling variation of lane as laine, in origin probably no more than a scribal affectation (used to make the word lane cover more space on some estate maps) but now used with pride for Brighton’s North Laine. Sussex has some distinctive phrases, including bread-and-cheese friend for a lifelong, true friend.

The great majority of words identified as Sussex dialect have English roots, with very little evidence of French influence, despite the proximity of France. Certainly Sussex has one of the original Cinque Ports (Hastings) but this French name was an 1155 imposition from a French-speaking king Henry II rather than a true Sussex form. Boco (much) is sometimes asserted to be from French beaucoup, yet it seems to be related to the Standard English big which has a multitude of forms in Middle English and is probably ultimately Scandinavian. Sussex eschews the French-derived autumn using instead the English fall. The use of fall in American English appears to derive from the language of early Quaker migrants from Sussex to Pennsylvania.

Sussex grammar has a range of quirks that differentiate it both from Standard English and from many other dialects. Standard English has one word for the singular and plural sheep, but Sussex (as pronounced) has one sheep, two ship. Clearly this is a better system as there is a different singular and plural form. Sussex avoids plurals when they are implicit (after all, why waste energy on a needless /s/ sound or a needless vowel mutation?) In Sussex it’s a thirty year old farmer and a six foot tall farmer, a feature still encountered in Sussex and some other southern dialects. The pronoun used for animals is almost always she – so she’s a fine bull. In the grammar of Sussex the pronoun is being used to mark that the subject is an animal, not that it is a female. Early Sussex presumably used he to refer to people, and therefore he for a woman as well as a man. Verbs are somewhat different to Standard English. Where the noun makes the number clear Sussex feels the verb need not, so he have. Some weak verbs in Standard English (as drive, driven) had strong forms in Sussex (drive, druv). Today the motto of Sussex is we wun’t be druv! (We won’t be pushed around!)

Written in Sussex Dialect

Texts in Sussex dialect are regrettably scant. When people wrote they tried their best to use Standard English, a form they had learnt from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Our primary sources of Sussex come from the efforts of two generations of the Lower family. Richard Lower produced Tom Cladpole's Jurney to Lunnon, told by himself, and written in pure Sussex doggerel by his Uncle Tim (1830). This sold well, though many Sussex readers objected to Lower’s humour at their expense and questioned the authenticity. Lower appears to have used genuine Sussex forms, but he over-used them. In 1830 no-one in Sussex is likely to have been using Sussex dialect forms with the frequency set out, while many of the forms were already in effect extinct. Additionally Lower is interested in the comic potential of the dialect and therefore the idea of the Sussex yokel, and this influences his writing. Notwithstanding the text is approaching two centuries old and gives a glimpse of Sussex as it once was. Additionally the Preface sets out that the language is from half a century earlier, so that of the end of the eighteenth century: So I shall onny goo back to Tom’s Grandfuther, dat is to my Father, who about a half a hundred year agoo or dareaway, used a Farm ov about twenty acres under Squyer Squeezer about dat time de French kicked upa row an cut der King’s head off! Dat made our King so lamantable crass fer fear dey wou’d cut he’s head off too...

The story of Tom Cladpole’s trip to London is told in verse that would win no prizes for its literary qualities:

LAST Middlemus I ‘member well,
When harvest was all over ;
Us cheps had hous’d up all de banes,
An stack’d up all de clover.

I think says I, I’ll take a trip
To Lunnun, dat I wol,
An see how things goo on a bit.
Lest I shu’d die a fool!

A much better source of Sussex dialect is from a generation later. It is one which strives to be authentic: The Song of Solomon in the dialect of Sussex (1860) and is by Richard Lower’s son Mark Antony Lower, a Sussex antiquarian. It is a translation of a book of the Song of Solomon made for Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (nephew of the emperor Napoleon), who was a keen observer of dialect in the British Isles and elsewhere. The dialect translation (one of a series of dialect translations of The Song of Solomon) was produced with a view towards accuracy, though it uses forms that would have seemed out of date in 1860. In effect it is an impression of Sussex dialect not of 1860 but as the writer thought it was spoken at the start of the nineteenth century. It is far from perfect as a source of the language but it is the best we have. This section from the start of chapter four (or something quite like it) is how our Sussex ancestors from two centuries and more ago would have spoken:

1. Lookee, you be purty, my love, lookee, you be purty. You've got dove's eyes adin yer locks; yer hair is like a flock of goäts dat appear from Mount Gilead.

2. Yer teeth be lik a flock of ship just shared, dat come up from de ship-wash; every one of em bears tweens, an nare a one among em is barren.

3. Yer lips be lik a thread of scarlet, an yer speech is comely; yer temples be lik a bit of a pomgranate adin yer locks.

4. Yer nick is lik de tower of Daöved, built for an armoury, what dey heng a thousan bucklers on, all shields of mighty men.

5. Yer two brestès be lik two young roes, what be tweens, dat feed among de lilies.

6. Till de dee break, an der shadders goo away, I'll git me to de mountain of myrrh, and to de hill of frankincense.

7. You be hem purty, my love; der aünt a spot in ye.

© Dr Graeme Davis
Professor of Humanities, University of Buckingham

From: Sussex Family Historian Vol.22 No.1 - March 2016
- © Reprinted with the permission of the author

More About The Sussex Dialect

by Anne Capewell

I read with interest the recent article by Dr Graeme Davis regarding the Sussex dialect. My mother can remember many of the words (and more) being spoken at home by her parents and other family members. However we do disagree with the author on a couple of points.

The word 'twitten' has never really disappeared from Sussex and I don't think that there was a 'deliberate revival' in the 1950's. There are a few of theories as to its origins:

  1. It is derived from Low German 'twiete' meaning an alley or lane.
  2. It is a corruption of betwixt and between.
  3. It is derived from Middle English 'twitchen' or 'twitchel', the latter a word still used in Nottinghamshire, north west Essex and East Hertfordshire for an alleyway.

The Twitten in Southwick is visible on a 1930's map. In 1875 it is a clear path providing a short curt between the Ship Inn and the Cricketer's Arms. By 1930 it is a defined road with houses built along it. I believe that many of these twittens became formally named as houses were erected and the paths widened for access. The path would have been known locally as 'the twitten' so it would have been obvious to planners to call the ensuing road by the same name. Similarly Twitten Way in Worthing was built sometime between 1913 and 1932.

I was born in Buckinghamshire but moved to Sussex aged 9 when my parents returned in the 1970s. I was told by my new school friends at the time that I sounded like a farmer! Despite not being a native and having moved away aged 18 I still struggle to find a word for a short cut between houses other than twitten.

Our second point is that the word 'laine' is not a misspelling of 'lane'. A 'laine' was an open tract of land at the base of The Downs. It is derived from an Anglo Saxon legal term for a type of land holding. North Laine is the most famous of these areas in Brighton and has its own website.

Originally there were 5 laines around Brighton created during the Medieval period. The open field system prevalent at this time divided the large fields (laines) around each manor or village into many strips of land. These strips (known as furlongs) were then cultivated by individuals or families. Originally they were not a fixed size but varied between manors. At some point a furlong became a standard measurement of land (220 yards).

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries Brighton expanded rapidly. Houses were built on the laines and many of the roads followed paths between the furlongs. This can be seen clearly on maps of the period and explains the grid-like appearance of the roads around the centre. The area to the north of the old village (now The Lanes) was North Laine and the area to the east of the Old Steine was Hilly Laine. I think from what I can make out from the 1792 map West Laine lay to the west of the village. There is another laine south of Hilly Laine - possibly South Laine? The names were not too imaginative!

It is a shame when dialects die out but we are fortunate that Britain as a whole has a great diversity of accents and dialects - even if they are incomprehensible to an outsider. It's part of what makes us British.


© Anne Capewell

From: Sussex Family Historian Vol.22 No.2 - June 2016
- Reprinted with the permission of the author

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This page was updated on: 5 Dec 2016