The constant churn of language change is an ever-present backdrop for every speaker and learner of a language. Sounds change, words come and go, phraseology shifts. What was common parlance a century ago can be a complete archaism today.
But the classic textbook examples – napron, methinks, thou art and such like – can often seem a bit dry, distant and theoretical on the page. It’s rarely that we see it up close and personal, not just in our first languages, but in our particular varieties of them. We’re used to thinking of traditional dialects as timeless, apart from Standard English; somehow they were always just so.
It made a nice change, then, to notice real-time language change in my own family vernacular of late. I’ve been conducting a piece of research into Black Country dialect, which has turned up all sorts of fascinating texts. And some of the forms in there had me boggling at how our local speech has altered in the last 150 years or so.
Vocabulary items, as you’d expect, drop in and out regularly over the course time. That doesn’t stop them being surprising when they pop up, though. My searches turned up things I’ve never heard a West Midlander say in my life. But there they are, in black and white, as examples of typical Black Country speech in newspaper articles both pillorying and honouring the dialect over time.
My first ooh – I’ve never come across that before! is the word welly for nearly. Take this lovely example from the story “How Leyvi Crafts Got Rid O’ The Mice“, which appeared in an edition of the popular “Tom Brown’s Black Country annual” in 1889. The narrator, bemoaning the stench from a bottle of poison, exclaims:
“The smell on it’s welly enough to kill a christian, let aloon a mouse!”
And then there’s the sign-off from a humorous letter to the editor in dialect, from the 1890s. After speaking his piece, the writer rounds off:
“well mr Editer i’n sed welly all as i wanted”
So what became of the welly? I’ve asked our resident Black Country expert (aka John, my stepdad), and he hasn’t a clue either.
Bear in mind that sometimes the word remains, but its form is different. Who knew, for example, that Black Country had an Old English -en plural for fleas, just like oxen? As one commentator in 1892 writes:
“…the Black Country mother may be heard to declare that ‘her babby has been peffled all o’er wi’ fleen.'”
I know. Not a nice image.
Better Nor That…
And then there are constructions that have changed a fair bit, too. I grew up around some very broad and proud speakers of Black Country English, who nonetheless formed comparisons as in Standard English: “better than that“, for example. Switch that out for nor, and you end up with the kind of phrase you’d more likely hear in the early 20th Century:
“…yow oughten to ha’ known better nor that…”
One of the most unusual lost phrases I’ve come across yet is the use of without as unless. It was nestling in a local yarn published in 1906:
“I dow know, without yow goo to Dr. Brown’s…”
Again, it’s lost on my family when I press them (no doubt ever nearing their limits of patience) for clarification. A hundred years can do a lot to a language.
How has your local speech changed in the last century or so? Let us know in the comments!