The English Language in Hampshire

Talks and presentations


Christopher Mulvey

The story of the English language in Hampshire is central to the story of the English language itself so it is necessary to start with the story of English. The first thing to say is that it has no real beginning. If we went back to the year 400, just as the Romans were about to leave Britannia, we would already find a few Germanic people speaking the earliest form of what we might call English English rather that what we might call Continental English. The proper name for that is West Germanic, the language from which modern Dutch, modern German and modern English have all descended. Cousin languages of West Germanic were North Germanic and East Germanic. East Germanic has died out altogether, but North Germanic has become Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. (Robinson, O. 248) The original of all of these languages is called Proto- Germanic, a language spoken by a people who arrived in the Scandinavian peninsula perhaps three thousand years ago (Wiik 262-63).

Proto-Germanic gives us what we might call the basic English word set. It included words like father, mother, head, foot, winter, sun, moon, honey, apple, wolf, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. The quite amazing fact is that forms of these words can be found in Gaelic to Gujarati, in Albanian to Yagnobi, in several hundreds of ancient and modern European and Indian languages. All those languages, including English, are derived from a much guessed at original language called Proto-Indo-European. It was, some say, the language of a tribe living on the Caspian steppes six thousand years ago.

(Fortson 46) The real starting point of English is the starting point of language itself, and a possible date for that is 100,000 years ago. (Johansson 85) But in order to focus on the English language in Hampshire today, we need a more concrete starting point, and that might best be the year 410 AD. In 410, the Romans withdrew altogether from the province that they called Britannia, and Germanics began crossing the North Sea in increasing numbers.

(Ertl 253) The tribal names for these people are Angles, Saxons and Jutes. By the year 500, there were at a lower estimate 10,000 and at a higher 200,000 of them inhabiting the land not yet called England (Thomas).

The popular name for the language of these people is Anglo-Saxon, but that is misleading since it leaves out the Jutes. So Old English is the name preferred by linguists for the language from the fifth century to about 1100. Middle English is the name for the language from that date up to the late-fifteenth century. Modern English is the name for the language from about 1500 to the present day. (Horobin 1) Old English had four major dialects: Kentish, West Saxon, Mercian and Northumbrian.

Using the modern county names, we can say that the Jutes invaded Kent. The Saxons invaded Sussex and Essex. The Angles invaded north and south of the River Humber, creating two separate kingdoms that reached from the Thames to the Forth: from London to Edinburgh in modern terms. (Cheyney 37-38) If you can picture all that, you can see that the Jutes had got themselves bottled up in Kent. They could not move west through the Weald because of the South Saxons nor north across the Thames because of the East Saxons. But, they could go by sea to the Isle of Wight, and from there, they moved into Hampshire before being forced back by Saxons who, moving west from Sussex, came to be called the West Saxons. Hampshire was, then, a point of political conflict as it is, now, a place of dialect contention. Hampshire was and is fairly in the middle of things. It needs to be said that the Hampshire under discussion is the old Hampshire, Hampshire the Ceremonial County, the Hampshire that includes Portsmouth, Southampton, Christchurch and Bournemouth.

From 500 AD for three hundred years, English evolved in a commonplace way. It took on board a large number of words so that people could talk about Christianity. Those words came from Latin. But that particular increase in vocabulary made no profound change in Old English. The first real change came with the influence of the Norse language spoken by Danish invaders in the eighth and ninth centuries, but the Danes settled down and became North Country men and women. The Danes’ was a Germanic language, and it blended with the merging forms of the English language used by the former Angles, the men and women now living in Mercia and Northumberland.

It was in 1066 that something linguistically profound began to take place. Invaders arrived in sufficient numbers with sufficient military power and they stayed for a sufficiently long time to bring about major changes in the grammar of English. These invaders produced a blend of Old English with Norman French. Grammatical gender was replaced by logical gender; most noun endings were lost; word order was affected. English ceased to be a typical Germanic language. The overall change was so great that, as Peter Strevens says, ‘English first came into existence in roughly the form in which we know it today around 1350, when the influence of 300 years of Norman French occupation had been assimilated into a basis of Germanic dialects.’ (Strevens 29) That level of impact of one language upon another is a linguistically rare event. Languages change their vocabularies easily; they change their pronunciations slowly; they change their grammars grudgingly.

So what about Hampshire: what kind of English is spoken in Hampshire? Before we look at modern Hampshire, we need to look again at old Hampshire. Hampshire was one of the first districts to be organized as a ‘shire’. It took its name from the town of Hammtun, a name that means ‘farmstead on flatland by a river”. In 962, it came to be called Southampton, in 962, to distinguish it from the Hampton in the Kingdom of Mercia, a hundred miles to the north (Cameron 56). Hammtun or Hamtun was in Ham-shire, a part of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, where the form of English then spoken was West Saxon. Wessex eventually included the counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, Somerset, and Gloucestershire. Those are now the counties of the West Country, and the English spoken in the West Country is no longer called West Saxon English; we call it simply West Country English. But it was once the language of King Alfred. His court translators produced the first Standard English, the first classical English (Crystal, Stories 52, 56). Alfred died in 899, and, Alfred’s Court English, at its zenith at his death, was replaced as the prestige language by Norman-French in 1066. After that the English of Wessex, and that of Hampshire with it, became a rural dialect. The story of West Saxon is like the story of the D’Urbervilles – once noble but later peasant. Tess Durbeyfield is always given a broad West Country accent, as she should be. However, had Winchester remained the capital of England, Tess’s English would now be the Queen’s English.

The rural, shire accents of England have not been lost, but they have been overlaid in the last sixty years by the development of modern dialects, created by population movements and the arrival of English-speaking immigrant groups. Present-day Hampshire is in ‘a tricky situation as it would have been described as a West Country dialect area until relatively recently, but most commentators now put it in a “transitional area” between the West and the South East.’ (Robinson, J.) Hampshire lies in the middle of new dialects.

West Hampshire English is a version of what is now called Central Southwest English.

That includes not only the old West-Country counties but also Oxfordshire, West Berkshire, and some of Bedfordshire. East Hampshire English is a version of Home Counties English which includes Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire, and east Bedfordshire (Crystal, Encyclopedia of English 325). Dominating the Home Counties is London, and London is the main modern dialectal force. In 1944, two small places in Hampshire - Andover and Basingstoke - were selected by the war-time government as sites for expanded towns to take the ‘overspill’ of London’s population in the expansion expected after the war. (See the County of London Plan prepared by John Henry Forshaw and Sir Patrick Abercrombie in 1943.) That expansion duly came, and, then, in due course, came the M3, built between 1971 and 1995. The motorway has ensured a continuous streaming of London English into Hampshire.

A further factor has to be taken into account in the description of Hampshire English. In England, we not only have regional accents, we also have class accents. These are called sociolects rather than dialects. The dominant, non-regional English accent is called Received Pronunciation or RP. The number of people who learn RP at home, that is, as children, is about 5 per cent of the population, roughly coinciding with the percentage of people getting private education. That is why RP was initially called Public-School English.

It is also called a BBC accent because once upon a time the BBC would only employ people who spoke like public-school boys and girls. The RP accent is heard a great deal in Hampshire, and it is heard a very great deal in Winchester because of its Cathedral, Law Court, College, and wealth. RP has its upper end; people who say ‘hice’ for ‘house’ and ‘ite’ for ‘out’; it has its lower end in the world of the professions.

Upper-class English is a matter of vocabulary and accent, not grammar and syntax.

Upper-class pronunciation produces many differences: fórmidable not formídable; int’resting not interesting; marse not mass and Cartholic not Catholic; jest not just as in ‘jest in time’; cetch not catch; forrid not fore-head; tortoise not tortoys; clart not claret. And upper-class vocabulary produces an equally long list: lunch not dinner; sick not ill; wireless not radio; rich not wealthy; lavatory-paper not toilet-paper; note-paper not writing paper; pudding not sweet; false teeth not dentures; spectacles not glasses. (Ross: 27; Mitford 38-40).

In 1954, Professor Alan Ross used the shorthand ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ to distinguish these differences, and Nancy Mitford caused a storm with this material in 1956. She set the English middle-classes on a witch-hunt for non-U indicators. The U accent is one that many of its users assert is the right one; and, for them, it is the only proper English accent.

That is an unusual linguistic claim. The Yorkshire man does not expect others to speak like him nor the Cockney women that others should speak like her. They are proud of their accents, but they do not say that it is proper English, only that it is their English.

Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, and John Betjeman not only embraced Alan Ross’s findings, they insisted that non-U speakers spoke badly. They also insisted that non-U speakers could never learn to speak properly. As Mitford said: ‘one U-speaker recognizes another U-speaker almost as soon as he opens his mouth.’ (Mitford: 40) That is true of any accent, but it had a particular implication for Mitford.

The upper-class accent or RP has come under an unusual kind of linguistic attack since the 1950s. It is not, for instance, the accent of the abusive Jonathan Ross even though he was employed by the BBC and is very wealthy, or should that be rich? Jonathan Ross – no son of Alan Ross - represents the opposite of the RP phenomenon, and he is said to speak Estuary English or Estuarian. This is the accent of the younger people in Eastenders.

London regional speech patterns have spread into Essex and Kent, and are now pervasive.

It is an accent which deliberately talks down not up. It is a modified form of Cockney, wide-spread, inclusive, embracing. Estuarian contradicts the elitist assumptions of RP. The Times calls this kind of English mock Cockney or ‘Mockney’. In 2008, it claimed that George Osborne was taking Mockney lessons to cure his ‘irritable vowel syndrome’.

(Whitworth) In additional to dialects and sociolects, there are also ethnolects in Hampshire, the English of ethnic groups. Southampton has a British-Indian Sikh community of 8000.

(Mead 5) Portsmouth has a British-Bangladeshi community of 3500. (Hantsweb) These speakers have distinct modern dialects, versions of the urban Asian dialects of London and Birmingham. British-Asian English is much influenced by the world’s largest community of English speakers, the 330,000,000 people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who use English. Of these, 60,000,000 are fluent English speakers. Influences of Indian English are to be found in the Estuarian of Jonathan Ross. ‘Innit’ as a sentence ending is an example. The future of English may be Indian, innit.

Hampshire is also the location of some very special kinds of Englishes. Winchester College’s Notions and the New Forest’s Commoners’ English are two examples. The first is perhaps 600 year old, and it is the language that a new boy to the school has to learn before Christmas, or else. At the beginning of their first term the Notions book is sent to New Men.’ Both ‘Notions’ (to mean words and phrases) and ‘men’ (to mean boys) are examples of this language. (Coleman 186-87) New Forest Commoners’ Language is also restricted to a very small group. It is used by the Agisters, Commoners, and Verderers who live in the New Forest and who maintain its many ancient customs. (Bamber 145) It is a rich mixture of old West Country English to which has been added a vocabulary taken from Romani, Old French and Anglo-Norman. Both Notions and Commoners preserve words that are hundreds of years old and are now used nowhere else.

To end this discussion of Hampshire English, it would be appropriate to say something about the place names of the county. There are some 300 of them, and, they contain a wealth of linguistics and history and, indeed, romance. All 300 are worth exploring, but a few examples will have to do. In the west of the county and near the beginning of the alphabet is Broughton. According to The Complete Atlas of the British Isles, England has thirteen villages called Broughton in counties all the way from Hampshire to Cumberland.

The name means either ‘Brook Farm’ or ‘The Farm by the Fort’. In the case of the Hampshire Broughton, it is glossed as ‘Brook Farm’. The first part of the name, ‘Brough’, comes from the Saxon word broc, which then meant fast flowing stream, and has become our modern word ‘brook’. (Reader’s Digest Association 169) The second part of the name comes from the Saxon word tun which gives us our modern word ‘town’. The Oxford English Dictionary says of the word ‘town’ that it comes from the Old English word tuun or tun. That initially had the meaning of an ‘enclosed place or piece of ground, an enclosure; a field’. It goes on to say that the modern sense developed after ‘the Norman Conquest, and corresponds to F. ville ‘town, city’, as similarly developed from L. villa ‘farm, countryhouse’.

Old English tun progressively meant a farm, a hamlet, a village and finally a town.

(OED). The word grew in meaning as the tuns grew in size.

In the middle of the Hampshire is the village of Micheldever on the River Dever. In the ninth century the name was recorded as Mycendefr. Linguists think that this is a Celtic name, a remnant of the Britonnic language, a language for which there is surprisingly little evidence in Old English. The meaning appears to be ‘boggy waters’. The second part of the name, defr, means ‘stream’ in Britonnic. River Dever means then River River. That is not uncommon. Avon and Ouse are also Britonnic words meaning ‘river’ so the River Avon is etymologically also the River River as is the River Ouse. The first part of the name Micheldever, from mycen, Britonnic for bog or dark, later became confused with the Old English word michel meaning great or big. (Ayto 755) The Oxford English Dictionary provides 167 variant spellings of the word between the seventh and the twentieth centuries. A single spelling of the name Micheldever would not have been agreed until the nineteenth century.

To the east of the county, and towards the end of the alphabet, is the village of Sheet. It is on the River Rother and the name comes from the Old English word sciete, meaning a ‘projecting piece of land, corner, or nook’. It was so named because it is located on the angle between two streams. The larger stream is called the Rother, an interesting name in itself. It is a backformation from the name of a bridge that once went over it. ‘Rother’ comes from Old English hryther, meaning cattle. So it was once simply the cattle bridge.

When the meaning of the Old English word became forgotten, people must have thought that Rother was the name of the stream over which the bridge passed. This loss of folk knowledge of old meanings is a constant force in the reshaping of place names. In fact the stream had been given a name by the Saxons; they called it the Shire from the Old English word scir, meaning bright or clear. (Ayto 936, 996) The Bright Stream at Sheet contrasts with the Muddy Stream at Micheldever, but we have to dig into Celtic and Germanic to discover that.

To the south of the county, we have already looked at the name of the city of Southampton so we can box the compass by looking to the north and to Basingstoke.

This name has three Old English elements: Basa + inga + stoc. Basa is the name of a Saxon leader. Inga is an element that appears in many English place names, and it commonly denotes possession of a place by the people led by the named person. Stoc means ‘outlying farmstead’. So put together Basingstoke means the place where you will find the isolated farm owned by the people once led by Basa. John Arlott, that most famous of West Country speakers, called his autobiography, Basingstoke Boy, because he was brought up in the then pretty market town in the first decades of the twentieth century. (Ayto 80-81, 568) The fact that Arlott was born so far to the north of the county shows the range and strength of the West-Country accent before the arrival of Basingstoke’s London overspill population in the 1960s.

A final Hampshire name - Winchester, the city at the centre of the county and the centre of its history. In Winchester, we have a linguistic treasure. The Romans named the settlement that they found there ‘Venta Belgarum’. That means ‘Chief Place of the Belgae’.

(Ayto 1209) Belgae was the name that the Romans gave to the Britons living in the area now called Hampshire, having previously met these people in what is now called Belgium.

The Romans set up military fortifications at the Chief Place of the Belgae, and the Roman word for those fortifications was castra--camps. After the Romans left in 410, the arriving Saxons called the city Wintanceastre. The Saxons palatalized and fronted the Roman castra to pronounce it as ‘chester’. We find ‘chesters’ all over England--Manchester, Colchester, Dorchester, Chichester, Winchester, Portchester, Rochester. They were all once Roman fortifications. The Saxons did not have a ‘v’ sound, and they pronounced the Roman ‘v’ as ‘w’ so ‘Venta Castra’ became ‘Winta-chester’. And through many forms and many spellings, it evolved into present-day Winchester.

The story of the English language in Hampshire is the story of but one county, and there are seventy-seven counties in the United Kingdom. The history of the English language shows that in all of them there is much that is common but that there is also much that is different. The English language is, in fact, extraordinarily varied throughout the British Isles. Hampshire’s story shows both how rich a county’s story can be, and it also shows that there has never been a greater diversity of forms of the English language in the county than there are now in the twenty-first century. Varied as the language is through time and varied as it in space, the fact that the English language has carried unfailingly the meanings of its speakers through all the changes and through all the years of sixteen hundred centuries shows the resilience and the power of human speech. That pattern of constancy in and through change is a source of wonder for linguists, and it should be a source of reassurance for those who fear that the English language might, today, be in a state of decline.


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