Voices of Kent
PUBLISHED: 17:11 10 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:43 28 February 2013
When you hear someone speaking with a rural burr, it's usually places such as the West Country or East Anglia that come to mind. And yet there was a time when speaking with a slight twang was common across Kent
Althougha Kentaccent often gets lumped together as one, Mike McDonnell, who has lived in Shoreham all his life says that there are actually several older Kentish accents.
When I was younger, you could always tell where a person was from by the way he spoke, he says. Those who lived around the borders of London had a touch of cockney in their accent and in the rest of the county there was a real east/west divide, with each part having their own way of speaking.
Then youve got the Romney Marsh, where the people sounded different from the rest of Kent. Most of these accents had a slightly rural sound to them but there were definite differences.
According to Dr David Hornsby of the University of Kent, who worked on the BBC Voices project in the county, despite their differences, these accents share some common characteristics.
I would say that several aspects of these older Kentish accents can be defined, he explains. The first is what we call yod dropping. So, someone speaking this accent would say toon, Toozdy and doo for the words tune, Tuesday and dew.
Another way that you can define them is through the o sound in words such as go, road and boat, which in these accents would be pronounced goo, rood and boot.
And the last characteristic is the present participle or ing. This has three variations in English speech. The middle classes will pronounce each vowel and consonant in what we would think of as standard English, in urban areas the g will be left off and in many rural accents, such as those in Kent, the g will be left off and the i replaced by an e.
So to give you an example, for the word running you get the middle classes saying running, urban speech producing runnin and those with an older Kentish accent saying runnen.
Marian Sargeant has lived in Goudhurst all her life and fears that these type of accents will soon completely disappear. When I was a younger girl, you really had two accents in the village, the rural one, which had a twang to it, and which I guess I have a touch of, and the posher one, which was used by the landowners and those higher up the social scale and which I would describe as a bit plummy.
Kent once has its own lexicon, words that were common but are now either no longer in usage or used and understood by only a few
Well, the second one is still around and if anything getting more prevalent, she says. Lots of well-off people have moved to villages like ours from London and settled down and had families, so this type of accent has really spread.
When it comes to the older rural one, nowadays its only really spoken by the more mature members of the community. In its place is I guess what some people call a cockneyish accent or Estuary English. Among most people in the village its these two accents that dominate now and the older rural one is slowly disappearing.
And its not just the accent that is in decline. According to Mike McDonnell, Kent once has its own lexicon, an array of words that were common but are now either no longer in usage or used and understood by only a few.
Like the accent, there were different words from different places. People from the marshes often had different names for something than those coming from Thanet. But there were lots of words that were common across the county.
We had words like chavy, which meant young child, or starters, which were little rabbits. There were plenty of words that centred on farming, like middlings, which were small or unripe apples and cherries left on the trees, and lishey, which meant plants, shrubs and crops that grew too fast.
We also had different ways of saying some words, so a heron became a herne. Some of these are still around but just like the accent, the trend seems to be one of decline.
Which raises the question why? Part of this can be explained by the fluid nature of language.Its always changing, adapting with time to different social pressures. Accents and words dont stand still and so some degree of change is inevitable. Differing social influences have always been felt in the county.
An 1888 dictionary of Kentish dialect is quoted as saying that: the dialectal sewage of the Metropolis finds its way down the river and is deposited on the southern bank of the Thames, as far as the limits of Gravesend-Reach, whence it seems to overflow and saturate the neighbouring district.
What is different in Kents instance today is that the older rural accents and language have diminished so quickly and so comprehensively throughout the county.
One of the main causes of this, as lifelong West Malling resident Anne Turner explains, has been the enormous change than has taken place in Kent over the last 50 years.
There is almost no comparison between the West Malling of my youth to the one I live in today, she recalls. When I was young, this was a small village in which most of the people who lived here worked on the land. Thats all gone now. The village is more like a small town and people work elsewhere, sometimes as far away as London. It used to be quite a self-contained community but now its totally different and more and more people have settled here from elsewhere, which has altered the way people speak.
Kent has seen dramatic change in the last 50 years. London has expanded further into the county, towns and villages have grown, levels of internal and external migration have escalated, wealth has increased.
Kent has also seen people move from working on the land to working mainly in the service industry, often in places some distances from where they live. These changes have radically impacted on the way people speak, exposing the older Kentish accents to a myriad of different influences.
Into this mix has been added Estuary English. Emanating from London, this is essentially a watered down version of cockney and as such shares many its phonological features. These include the glottal stop (dropping of t within words), L-vocalisation (where an l sound occurring at the end of a word or before a consonant is replaced with the semi-vowel w, resulting in pronunciations such as miwk for milk) and H-dropping, (dropping the h in stressed words, such as ave instead of have).
Across the UK there has historically always been some linguistic expansion from urban centres into surrounding rural areas. The difference today is that because social and technological change has been so dramatic, this is happening faster and to a greater extent than ever before.
You can see the same trend repeating itself with urban centres throughout the country as their accents spread quickly outwards, altering or eroding those they encounter. The effect is that in the Home Counties people increasingly sound like Londoners, around places such as Rochdale and Oldham the population is sounding more and more Mancunian, and on the Wirrall the predominant accent is increasingly becoming Scouse. The difference with the south east is the size of the urban centre in contains. London will always have a greater reach than Manchester, Liverpool or Newcastle because it is so large.
But does all this mean that the older rural accent is doomed to extinction? Dr. David Hornsby thinks that this is too simplistic a way of looking at things. The social pressures affecting the county have impacted upon the older Kentish accents and will probably continue to do so in the future.
But this doesnt mean to say that the accent or many of the words associated with it will disappear altogether. Accents and words are very fluid things. If you take Estuary English as an example, it is not one homogeneous mass.
The way people speak it in Gravesend differs from the way it is spoken somewhere else in the county and this is because accents mix together to produce new and different varieties. The old might continue in some form in the new and so live on. Thats the beauty of language, although its always changing and developing there is always a link to the past.
The British Library Online
The online archive holds many recording of accents from around the country, including Kent
BBC Kent Voices Online
Listen to recordings of Kent residents and analysis of the countys phonological features, which were made as part of the BBCs Voices project in 2005.
The following old Kentish words have either died out or are in decline
Besom: a deliberately naughty child
Bobbery: Squabbling, arguing, rowing
Checker: depressed, annoyed
Fago: A stink, a foul smell
Haffy-graffy: Almost, near enough
Gimmer: A female employer of men and women
Minnies: Tearful, depressed, fed up; the miseries
Survey of dialects
During the 1950s, a survey of dialects was undertaken in Kent, taking seven reference points in the county: Stoke (Isle of Grain), Goudhurst, Appledore, Staple, Denton, Farningham and Warren Street. The survey found that across Kent there were often many different words for the same object, the choice of word depending upon where in the county you came from.
Sowing basket: trug (Appledore), cord (Denton), seedbodge (Stoke), seedcob (Farningham)
Runt, ie the weakling of a pig litter: dolly-pig (Isle of Grain); darling (Western and Southern Kent), Anthony (Steple & Denton), Daniel (Appledore)
Ants: ammets (Stoke, Warren Street, Denton, Goudhurst, Appledore), emmets (Staple), pismires (Farningham)
Scarecrows: bo-boys (Denton), bull-boys (Appledore)
Tea dregs: grouts (Denton), grounds (Goudhurst), drains (Appledore)