Heritage: Essex speak – dialect or language?

St Andrew’s School and teaching staff in Romford in about 1900. The school was also known as the Lon

St Andrews School and teaching staff in Romford in about 1900. The school was also known as the London Road National School. Picture: Brian Evans - Credit: Brian Evans

Prof Ged Martin looks at the way Essex people spoke 100 years ago

A century ago, Essex folk had their own way of talking. Their dialect was stamped out by the school system, by the BBC and the advance of London.

Luckily, it was immortalised in 1923 by the Reverend Edward Gepp, vicar of High Easter, in his Essex Dialect Dictionary.

Was Essex speech a funny variant of standard English? Or was it really a distinct but related language, as Swedish is close to Danish, or Spanish to Portuguese?

Examining Essex speech means looking at more grammar than you’ve suffered since schooldays (and, maybe, not even then!).

Let’s start with pronouns. By instinct, we know that I, he, she, we and they are subjects, words that do things, while me, him, her, us and them are objects, words at the receiving end of actions. “I love her, she hates me.”

But in Essex, they were mixed up. When Gepp arrived in his village, one local remarked, “Parson’s comin’ to live atween we; us’ll have to moind our manners”.

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“I don’t know her” became “I don’t acquaint along o’ she.” Bad English – or a different language?

The possessive pronouns, hers, ours, yours and theirs, were replaced by hern, ourn, yourn and theirn.

Now let’s look at verbs. (Wake up at the back!)

Most verbs form the past tense by adding –ed: chew becomes chewed. A few change their vowel sound: grow becomes grew, I dig today, I dug yesterday.

Essex speech was all over the place. Instead of blew, knew and threw, Essex people said blowed, knowed and throwed. We say floated, heated, snowed and weeded. They used flet, het, snew and wed. Instead of helped, they said holp, hoed was replaced by hew, dug became digged and came was comed.

Other past tenses were shortened: for cleaned, heaved, peeled and scalded, Essex peasants said clent, heft, pelt and scolt.

Participles (you’ll know them when you hear them) were changed too, frorn for frozen, gove for given and took for taken.

Singular and plural verbs were interchangeable. We might say “those plums were ready for picking”, but in bygone Essex you’d hear “them there plums was good and ripe”. We’d say “she lives nearby”, their version was “she do live near”.

It sounds like a foreign language, doesn’t it?

Adverbs, which modify adjectives and qualify verbs, generally end in –ly – but not always in Essex, where “wonderfully kind” became “wunnerful kind”. Our commonest adverb, well (“you did that well!”), doesn’t end in –ly – and it hardly existed in Essex, where people said “I’ve clent that there up good.” (“I have efficiently cleaned that location.”)

Mostly we form plurals by adding the letter s. In Essex, this sometimes became an extra syllable, nestes for nests, waspes for wasps. A few words become plurals by changing their vowel sound: one mouse, two mice. The Essex plural was meece.

Three words in modern English preserve an early plural form, by adding the letters –en: oxen (from ox), brethren (from brother), and children (from child). The plurals men (for man) and women (from woman) are related forms.

But there used to be many more examples. Shakespeare, for instance, used shoon for shoes.

In Essex, slone was used instead of sloes, and fitten for feet – the word sometimes indicating footprints.

The local plural of house was housen, much easier on the ear than our modern “howziz”. Housen was identical in pronunciation to the related plural word in Dutch (huizen).

In 1935, there were cottages at Upminster called Bluehousen. The modern scholarly expert on the term found it was still used in Thurrock in the 1950s. Modesty forbids me to name this polymath.

Housen was one of the “incorrect” terms targeted by schoolteachers anxious to spread civilization among the benighted youngsters of Essex.

Essex people preserved older forms of English – and maybe they were speaking not dialect but a slightly different language.