The Flash Girl and A Little Bit of Cucumber

NICK Jenkins is from Suffolk and has a bit of a thing for accents and voices from the past – not surprising when you consider he used to be a radio producer.

When he heard last year of a CD called How To Speak Essex, he was keen to get his mitts on one. But he was too late: the limited-edition disc produced by Martin Astell of the Essex Sound and Video Archive had already sold out.

Nick didn’t retreat back to Suffolk and wallow in despair, though. Determined that as many people as possible should have the chance to hear dialect that has either slipped away or is at risk of extinction, he arranged to reissue the CD under licence through his Halesworth-based publishing company Sounding Board Productions.

Using material from the Essex Record Office’s archive, featuring more than 100 voices and songs such as A Little Bit of Cucumber and The Flash Girl, Martin Astell takes listeners on a dialect journey across the county. Anyone who believes there is and always has been just one, uniform, Essex accent will have to think again after hearing the variety of speech on the 77-minute CD.

“He has divided the county into 10 regions, and you get a sense for how the accent in Essex changes,” Nick tells the EADT.


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“In the northern regions it sounds often like Suffolk, but as you go down you can almost hear it transforming into more familiar London accents.

“With the earliest recording from 1906, you are listening to some Essex accents that barely exist any more.

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“Given that the Essex accent is generally derided and made fun of in the media, this CD shows that the stereotype is quite inaccurate. But it also has a more serious point: it makes available accents that are on the verge of extinction as the influence of London sweeps northwards” – victim of mobility, migration and other social changes.

“The voices that Martin has chosen are often quite engaging and you also get some interesting glimpses into 20th Century Essex life, when it was much more rural than it is now.”

Such is the metropolitan media’s obsession with Essex girls, white socks, White Van Man and other stereotypes, the launch of the CD last summer proved something of a sensation. Some reports didn’t seem to grasp the finer points, however.

Many headlines suggested it was part of a campaign to “save” the Essex accent, says Martin, “in the sense that we were trying to stop the spread of whatever accent is being used today.

“In fact our aim is to preserve it in the sense that the archive in general and the CD in particular give people an opportunity to hear something which they may not hear in their daily lives and which may surprise them”.

He remembers that original launch causing an enormous amount of interest – much more than expected.

“We sold out within about three months of it being released. It was mentioned in two or three of the national newspapers.

“I was a guest on the BBC Essex (radio) breakfast show and was filmed by both Anglia News and BBC London news. If I had not been out of the country at the time I would also have been on Radio 4!

“I do not get a lot of people saying ‘We must keep these dialects alive’ but wherever I go in Essex people say it is shame that we do not hear the old accent very often now.”

He adds: “The vast majority of people living in Essex now do not speak with the old Essex accent. However, when I give a talk, or the subject comes up in conversation, I am usually given the name of somebody I should go and record because they do retain that accent.

“I am myself an example of the decline of the traditional accent. I was born and raised in north Essex but you would be unlikely to deduce that from the way I speak.

“I suspect most people would recognise that I am from the south of England but would be unable to be more specific than that.”

He says dialect is constantly in a state of flux and will continue to change.

“It is interesting to note that people have been saying that Essex dialect is dying out and being overtaken by the London accent at least since the 1880s.

“Also, I do not like the idea that there is a right way to speak and a wrong way – it always amuses me that some people seem to think that what is generally referred to as ‘Estuary English’ is wrong in some sort of moral sense.”

One of the reasons for producing the CD is that there are folk unaware of the traditional Essex accent. Another is that nostalgia sometimes creates unrealistic memories of how people sounded.

“The intention, then, was to provide lots of genuine examples of ordinary people’s voices from all parts of the county.

“The recordings in the Essex Sound and Video Archive are held primarily because of their content.

“For instance, we have a wealth of material on the subjects of pre-industrial farming, fishing and other maritime activities, textile factories, domestic service, the Home Front in the Second World War etc.

“The fact that many of these stories are told in ordinary but often wonderful Essex accents is an added bonus. And, obviously, as we continue to receive interviews and other recordings, the way people in Essex speak now will be preserved for the next generation.”

n The CD costs �9.99, including postage, and can be ordered from www.essexdialect.co.uk or bought from most branches of Waterstones in Essex.

How to speak the lingo – a beginner’s guide

ANYONE who thinks there’s just one uniform – and often lampooned – Essex accent should read what David Britain has to say. Formerly an academic at the University of Essex, he’s now Professor of Linguistics at the University of Bern and has written a mini-essay to accompany the CD.

David explains that the geographical position of the county, sandwiched between East Anglia and London, holds the key to understanding the way its residents speak – “the county has long been a meeting point of the rather distinct dialects of these two parts of southern England.

“Like all dialects, it has few, if any, unique characteristics, but acquires its singularity from a complex combination of dialect features.

“Social differences are important too. The often derided ‘Estuary English’ – itself a mixture of London, Standard and more local varieties of English – is not a characteristic of working class speech but a reflection of the rapid increase in geographical and social mobility and the expansion of service sector employment that the country, and particularly the South-East, has seen in the past half-century.

“Standard English accents and dialects are certainly minority accents in Essex, as they are pretty much everywhere in England.

“So Essex houses a wide diversity of language variety (despite the often negative portrayals of it in the media and in popular culture).”

He points out that some Essex dialects have great similarities with London: such as the dropping of an h (“me ‘usband”, for example) and the swapping of an ow sound for air (“We all tried to swim airt of the

h-air-s (house)”.

Others have more in common with Suffolk: ow pronounced as eu, say. (“We don’t get nothing of that neu (now)” and “beautiful” being uttered as “bootiful”.)

Meanwhile, on the website www.essexdialect.co.uk, archivist Martin Astell points out some of the trademarks of Essex-speak over the years. One signature is failing to change a tense. So we have come instead of came: ”They come out them two behind us.”

Words and phrases are contracted as much as possible, too – “demonstrated by the fact that the town of St Osyth is known to some as Tozy. This easing of speech can also be seen in the use of adjectives as adverbs. We would expect to say ‘You can easily see him.’ But why bother with the –ly when you can say ‘Ye can easy see’m.’”

Another example of the economy of speech comes with the use of the same word for the past tense and the past participle – “He took it”, and “That’s bin took.”

Martin adds: “Here are some basic rules of thumb to follow if you want to sound like you are speaking Essex.

“Firstly, vowel sounds. One of the most noticeable habits of the Essex speaker is a lengthening of the vowel sound of a word.

“There are numerous examples for all of the vowels. Indeed, there are many times when the vowel is extended so far that it ends up being two syllables.

“However, if there are supposed to be two vowel sounds in a word, the second is often significantly shortened. So that, for instance, rhubarb becomes roobub.

“Vowel sounds can be changed in a multiplicity of ways. A can become e (catch becomes cetch) or i (again becomes agin). A can become u (always becomes alwuz).

“E can be changed to i (whelks becomes whilks, been becomes bin). Er becomes ah (particularly at the end of a word), as in motah, togethah, etc.

“And one of the most distinctive sounds of the Essex accent is that ee becomes oi (see becomes soi, three becomes throi).

“I can become a (it becomes at) or ar (fire becomes faar)... As with ee above, i distinctively becomes oi (right becomes roight, five becomes foive).

“O can become a (potatoes becomes pataytas), or u (goes becomes guz) and sometimes aw (across becomes acrawse) or oo (go becomes goo).

“And there is another change which is difficult to describe.

“It is ow becoming a soft oo sound which can be heard in the pronunciation of words like plough and ground. And in the south west of the county, ow becomes ah, so that out is pronounced ahht and Southend is rendered Sahfend.

“In the south of the county u is sometimes ah (so London becomes Lahndon) and in the north the Essex accent sometimes echoes the Suffolk and Norfolk habit of turning ew into oo (so few becomes foo and pure becomes poo-err).

“We should also mention the word old, which is used when referring to almost anything, as in the old sergeant and the little old sweet shop. And also the use of the word boy to refer to any male person.

“Both of these terms are used regardless of age, so any Essex man can be referred to using the contradictory term the old boy.”

Meet the man, hear the talk

A SPIN-off from the original How To Speak Essex CD has been a series of talks by Martin Astell, in which he looks at the disappearing accents and dialects of the county.

“People seem to enjoy it and afterwards they give me examples of things they have heard, or that their grandfather used to say: either to back up what I have said in the talk or to point out elements that I have missed,” he says.

“It is always interesting to watch the audience, because some of the recordings I play just make people smile simply because they sound so good.”

The talks are free events, lasting about an hour and with the chance to ask questions, but places must usually be booked in advance with the venue.

n Upcoming dates include:

Saturday, May 15 May, 7.30pm, United Reformed Church, Market Hill, Maldon (following the AGM of the Friends of Thomas Plume’s Library). No booking necessary. 01621 853582

Wednesday, June 2, 7.30pm, Lakeside Theatre, University of Essex, Colchester. 01206 573948

Thursday, July 8, 7.30pm, Braintree District Museum, Manor Street, Braintree. Lesley/Charlotte 01376 325266.

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