West Country English
Native toEngland
RegionWest Country
Early forms
DialectsWest Country dialects
Language codes
ISO 639-3
The official region of South West England, approximately co-extensive with the areas where "West Country" varieties are spoken.
Coordinates: 50°43′N 3°43′W / 50.717°N 3.717°W / 50.717; -3.717
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West Country English is a group of English language varieties and accents used by much of the native population of the West Country, an area found in the southwest of England.[1]

The West Country is often defined as encompassing the official region of South West England: Cornwall, and the counties of, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Bristol and Gloucestershire. However, the exact northern and eastern boundaries of the area are hard to define. In the adjacent counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Hampshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, it is possible to encounter similar accents and, indeed, much the same distinct dialect, albeit with some similarities to others in neighbouring regions. Although natives of all these locations, especially in rural parts, often still have West Country influences in their speech, their increased mobility and urbanisation has meant that in the more populous of these counties the dialect itself, as opposed to the people's various local accents, is becoming increasingly rare.

Academically the regional variations are considered to be dialectal forms. The Survey of English Dialects captured manners of speech across the South West region that were just as different from Standard English as any from the far North of England. There is some influence from the Welsh and Cornish languages depending on the specific location.

In literature, film and television

In literary contexts, most of the usage has been in either poetry or dialogue, to add "local colour". It has rarely been used for serious prose in recent times but was used much more extensively up until the 19th century. West Country dialects are commonly represented as "Mummerset", a kind of catchall southern rural accent invented for broadcasting.

Early period

17th century

18th century

19th century

20th century

History and origins

Until the 19th century, the West Country and its dialects were largely protected from outside influences, due to its relative geographical isolation. While standard English derives from the Old English Mercian dialects, the West Country dialects derive from the West Saxon dialect, which formed the earliest English language standard. Thomas Spencer Baynes claimed in 1856 that, due to its position at the heart of the Kingdom of Wessex, the relics of Anglo-Saxon accent, idiom and vocabulary were best preserved in the Somerset dialect.[9]

The dialects have their origins in the expansion of Anglo-Saxon into the west of modern-day England, where the kingdom of Wessex (West-Saxons) had been founded in the 6th century. As the Kings of Wessex became more powerful they enlarged their kingdom westwards and north-westwards by taking territory from the British kingdoms in those districts. From Wessex, the Anglo-Saxons spread into the Celtic regions of present-day Devon, Somerset and Gloucestershire, bringing their language with them. At a later period Cornwall came under Wessex influence, which appears to become more extensive after the time of Athelstan in the 10th century. However the spread of the English language took much longer here than elsewhere.

Outside Cornwall, it is believed that the various local dialects reflect the territories of various West Saxon tribes, who had their own dialects[10] which fused together into a national language in the later Anglo-Saxon period.[11]

As Lt-Col. J. A. Garton observed in 1971,[12] traditional Somerset English has a venerable and respectable origin, and is not a mere "debasement" of Standard English:

The dialect is not, as some people suppose, English spoken in a slovenly and ignorant way. It is the remains of a language—the court language of King Alfred. Many words, thought to be wrongly pronounced by the countryman, are actually correct, and it is the accepted pronunciation which is wrong. English pronounces W-A-R-M worm, and W-O-R-M wyrm; in the dialect W-A-R-M is pronounced as it is spelt, Anglo-Saxon W-E-A-R-M. The Anglo-Saxon for worm is W-Y-R-M. Polite English pronounces W-A-S-P wosp; the Anglo-Saxon word is W-O-P-S and a Somerset man still says WOPSE. The verb To Be is used in the old form, I be, Thee bist, He be, We be, Thee 'rt, They be. 'Had I known I wouldn't have gone', is 'If I'd a-know'd I 'ooden never a-went'; 'A' is the old way of denoting the past participle, and went is from the verb to wend (Anglo-Saxon wendan).

In some cases, many of these forms are closer to modern Saxon (commonly called Low German/Low Saxon) than Standard British English is, e.g.

Low German Somerset Standard British English
Ik bün I be/A be I am
Du büst Thee bist You are (archaic "Thou art")
He is He be He is

The use of masculine and sometimes feminine, rather than neuter, pronouns with non-animate referents also parallels Low German, which unlike English retains grammatical genders. The pronunciation of "s" as "z" is also similar to Low German. However, recent research proposes that some syntactical features of English, including the unique forms of the verb to be, originate rather with the Brythonic languages. (See Celtic language influence below.)

In more recent times, West Country dialects have been treated with some derision, which has led many local speakers to abandon them or water them down.[13] In particular it is British comedy which has brought them to the fore outside their native regions, and paradoxically groups such as The Wurzels, a comic North Somerset/Bristol band from whom the term Scrumpy and Western music originated, have both popularised and made fun of them simultaneously. In an unusual regional breakout, the Wurzels' song "The Combine Harvester" reached the top of the UK charts in 1976, where it did nothing to dispel the "simple farmer" stereotype of Somerset and West Country folk. It and all their songs are sung entirely in a local version of the dialect, which is somewhat exaggerated and distorted.[14] Some words used aren't even typical of the local dialect. For instance, the word "nowt" is used in the song "Threshing Machine". This word is generally used in more northern parts of England, with the West Country equivalent being "nawt".

Celtic-language influence

See also: Cornish dialect and Brittonicisms in English

The shifting of the linguistic boundary in Cornwall from 1300 to 1750

Although the English language gradually spread into Cornwall after approximately the 13th century, a complete language shift to English took centuries more. The linguistic boundary between English in the east and Cornish in the west shifted markedly in the county between 1300 and 1750 (see figure). This is not to be thought of as a sharp boundary, and it should not be inferred that there were no Cornish speakers to the east of the line and no English speakers to the west. Nor should it be inferred that the boundary suddenly moved a great distance every 50 years.

During the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549, which centred on Devon and Cornwall, many of the Cornish objected to the Book of Common Prayer, on the basis that many Cornish could not speak English. Cornish probably ceased to be spoken as a community language sometime around 1780, with the last monoglot Cornish speaker believed to be Chesten Marchant, who died in 1676 at Gwithian (Dolly Pentreath was bilingual). However, some people retained a fragmented knowledge and some words were adopted by dialect(s) in Cornwall.

In recent years, the traffic has reversed, with the revived Cornish language reclaiming Cornish words that had been preserved in the local dialect into its lexicon, and also (especially "Revived Late Cornish") borrowing other dialect words. However, there has been some controversy over whether all of these words are of native origin, as opposed to imported from parts of England, or the Welsh Marches. Some modern-day revived Cornish speakers have been known to use Cornish words within an English sentence, and even those who are not speakers of the language sometimes use words from the language in names.[15]

Brythonic languages have also had a long-term influence on the West Country dialects beyond Cornwall, both as a substrate (certain West Country dialect words and possibly grammatical features) and languages of contact. Recent research on the roots of English proposes that the extent of Brythonic syntactic influence on Old English and Middle English may have been underestimated, specifically citing the preponderance of forms of the verbs to be and to do in South West England and their grammatical similarity to the Welsh and Cornish forms as opposed to the forms in other Germanic languages.[16]

Bos: Cornish verb to be

Present Tense (short form) Present tense (subjunctive) Standard British English
Ov Biv I am (dialect: "I be")
Os Bi You are (dialect: "(Th)ee be")
Yw Bo He/she/it is
On Byn We are
Owgh Bowgh You are (plural)
Yns Bons They are

The Cornish dialect, or Anglo-Cornish (to avoid confusion with the Cornish language), has the most substantial Celtic language influence because many western parts were non-English speaking even into the early modern period. In places such as Mousehole, Newlyn and St Ives, fragments of Cornish survived in English even into the 20th century, e.g. some numerals (especially for counting fish) and the Lord's Prayer were noted by W. D. Watson in 1925,[17] Edwin Norris collected the Creed in 1860,[17] and J. H. Nankivel also recorded numerals in 1865.[17] The dialect of West Penwith is particularly distinctive, especially in terms of grammar.[vague] This is most likely due to the late decay of the Cornish language in this area. In Cornwall the following places were included in the Survey of English Dialects: Altarnun, Egloshayle, Gwinear, Kilkhampton, Mullion, St Buryan, and St Ewe.

In other areas, Celtic vocabulary is less common, but it is notable that "coombe", cognate with Welsh cwm, was borrowed from Brythonic into Old English and is common in placenames east of the Tamar, especially Devon, and also in northern Somerset around Bath and the examples Hazeley Combe and Combley Great Wood (despite spelling difference, both are pronounced 'coombe') are to be found as far away as the Isle of Wight. Some possible examples of Brythonic words surviving in the Devon dialect include:




"Dreckly" on souvenir clocks in Cornwall

Some of these terms are obsolete, but some are in current use.

Some dialect words now appear mainly, or solely, in place names, such as "batch" (North Somerset, = hill but more commonly applied to Coalmine spoil heaps e.g. Camerton batch, Farrington batch, Braysdown batch), "tyning", "hoe" (a bay). These are not to be confused with fossilised Brythonic or Cornish language terms; for example, "-coombe" is quite a common suffix in West Country place names (not so much in Cornwall), and means "valley".


Social stigma and future of the dialect

Owing to the West Country's agricultural history, the West Country accent has for centuries been associated with farming, and consequently with a lack of education and rustic simplicity. This can be seen in literature as early as the 18th century, for instance in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals, set in the Somerset city of Bath.

As more and more of the English population moved into towns and cities during the 20th century, non-regional, Standard English accents increasingly became a marker of personal social mobility. Universal primary education was also an important factor as it made it possible for some to move out of their rural environments into situations where other modes of speech were current.

A West Country accent continues to be a reason for denigration and stereotype:[28]

The people of the South West have long endured the cultural stereotype of 'ooh arr'ing carrot-crunching yokels, and Bristol in particular has fought hard to shake this image off

— Anonymous editorial, Bristol Post, 7 August 2008

In the early part of the twentieth century, the journalist and writer Albert John Coles used the pseudonym Jan Stewer (a character from the folk song Widecombe Fair) to pen a long-running series of humorous articles and correspondences in Devon dialect for the Western Morning News. These now preserve a record of the dialect as recalled with affection in the period.[29] The tales perpetuate – albeit sympathetically – the rustic uneducated stereotype as the protagonist experiences the modern world.

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. Recent polls put the West Country accent as third and fifth most attractive in the British Isles respectively.[30][31]

The West Country accent is probably most represented in film as "pirate speech" – that cartoon-like "Ooh arr, me 'earties! Sploice the mainbrace!" way of talking is very similar.[32] This may be a result of the strong (both legal and outlawed) seafaring and fisherman tradition of the West Country. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) was a native of Bristol,[33] and privateer and English hero Sir Francis Drake hailed from Tavistock in Devon. Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Pirates of Penzance may also have added to the association. West Country native Robert Newton's performance in the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island is credited with popularising the stereotypical West Country "pirate voice".[32][34] Newton's strong West Country accent also featured in Blackbeard the Pirate (1952).[32]

See also


  1. ^ The Southwest of England (Varieties of English around the world T5) Archived 12 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Yardley, Jonathan (9 December 2003). "'Tom Jones,' as Fresh as Ever". Washington Post. pp. C1. Archived from the original on 3 November 2012. Retrieved 31 December 2006.
  3. ^ "Wiltshire — About Wiltshire – 'Vizes excizemen on tha scent'". BBC. Archived from the original on 3 July 2010. Retrieved 18 April 2010.
  4. ^ Buckler, William E. (1956) "Blackmore's Novels before Lorna Doone" in: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 10 (1956), p. 183
  5. ^ Harper, Charles G. (1909). The Somerset Coast. London: Chapman & Hall. pp. 168–172 – via Internet Archive.
  6. ^ Stone, Percy G (1932). Songs of the Soil. Newport, IW: Isle of Wight County Press.
  7. ^ Goldman-Armstrong, Abram (7 September 2015). "Scrumpy and Western: Cider Soundtrack". Cidercraft Magazine. Archived from the original on 6 October 2015. Retrieved 21 October 2023.
  8. ^ Santika, Rika (April 2016). "An Analysis of West Country Dialect Used by Hagrid in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter". Journal of Literature and Language Teaching. 7 (1): 25–35. doi:10.15642/NOBEL.2016.7.1.25-35.
  9. ^ The Somersetshire dialect: its pronunciation, 2 papers (1861) Thomas Spencer Baynes, first published 1855 & 1856
  10. ^ Origin of the Anglo-Saxon race : a study of the settlement of England and the tribal origin of the Old English people; Author: William Thomas Shore; Editors TW and LE Shore; Publisher: Elliot Stock; published 1906 esp. p. 3, 357, 367, 370, 389, 392
  11. ^ Origin of the Anglo-Saxon race : a study of the settlement of England and the tribal origin of the Old English people; Author: William Thomas Shore; Editors TW and LE Shore; Publisher: Elliot Stock; published 1906 p. 393
  12. ^ Garton, J.A. (1971). "A Somerset Dialect". Archived from the original on 26 April 2006. Retrieved 25 January 2013.
  13. ^ Sullock, Jason (2012). Oo do ee think ee are?. Lulu. p. 3. ISBN 9781291148411.
  14. ^ Milligan, Daniel (17 February 2014). "Ten words and phrases that prove you're Somerset born and bred". This is the Westcountry. Archived from the original on 8 December 2015. Retrieved 29 November 2015.
  15. ^ "Cussel an Tavaz Kernuak". The Cornish Language Council. Archived from the original on 17 May 2014. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
  16. ^ Tristram, Hildegard (2004), "Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or what was spoken Old English like?", in Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, 40, pp 87–110. Archived 3 November 2023 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ a b c "Cornish Language Study" (PDF). Cornwall County Council. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 August 2018. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  18. ^ a b c d e Heggarty, Paul; et al., eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh. Archived from the original on 26 April 2016.
  19. ^ Piercy, Caroline (2012) "A Transatlantic Cross-Dialectal Comparison of Non-Prevocalic /r/", University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Vol. 18: Iss. 2, Article 10.
  20. ^ a b c d e f Wells, J.C. (1982). Accents of English 2: The British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 343–345. Print.
  21. ^ Hughes, Arthur, Peter Trudgill, and Dominic Watt. English Accents and Dialects. 5th ed. Croydon: Hodder Education, 2012, p. 62. Print
  22. ^ Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2013) [First published 2003], Practical Phonetics and Phonology: A Resource Book for Students (3rd ed.), Routledge, p. 171, ISBN 978-0-415-50650-2
  23. ^ Trudgill, Peter. "Dialect Contact, Dialectology and Sociolinguistics" (PDF). University of Fribourg. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 30 May 2023.
  24. ^ Tristan Cork, "The theories behind why Bristol is called Bristol", Bristol News, 16 November 2019. Retrieved 28 December 2023
  25. ^ "H2g2 - A Conversation for Talking Point: Slang". Archived from the original on 15 July 2015. Retrieved 14 July 2015.
  26. ^ Jan Stewer (A. J. Coles) (1980). "A Parcel of Ol' Crams, London, Herbert Jenkins Limited, Author's Note.
  27. ^ "SND: thae". Dsl.ac.uk. Archived from the original on 9 March 2012. Retrieved 13 April 2013.
  28. ^ "This is Bristol; real life drama". Thisisbristol.co.uk. Archived from the original on 14 July 2014. Retrieved 2 July 2014.
  29. ^ Cock, Douglas J (1980). Jan Stewer: A West Country Biography. Bradford-on-Avon: Moonraker press. The dust cover of The Shop with Two Windows references The Daily Herald
  30. ^ "West Country accent 3rd sexiest in Britain". bristolpost.co.uk. Archived from the original on 5 July 2015.
  31. ^ "How sexy is the West Country accent? YouGov compile "sexiest UK accents" survey". northdevonjournal.co.uk. Archived from the original on 24 March 2015.
  32. ^ a b c Angus Konstam (2008). Piracy: The Complete History. Bloomsbury USA. p. 313. ISBN 978-1-84603-240-0.
  33. ^ Lee, Robert E. (1974). Blackbeard, the pirate: a reappraisal of his life and times. Winston-Salem, N.C: Blair. ISBN 978-0-89587-032-2.
  34. ^ "A.Word.A.Day – buccaneer". Wordsmith.org. 7 September 2006. Archived from the original on 1 April 2013. Retrieved 13 April 2013.

Further reading