Bats, mice, and battymice

South-eastern dialects are not all the same. They vary from place to place. For example, Survey of English Dialects fieldworkers found that a bat was called a flittermouse in Sussex, a battymouse in Hampshire and a flinterbat in Kent. Meanwhile, a dormouse was called a whitebelly in Surrey, a peaked-nose in Sussex, and a mouse-mole in Kent. Molars are known, rather literally, as grinders across most of the region, but in Surrey it’s eyeteeth, and jawteeth can be found in western parts of Hampshire. Then there’s learn and teach. These have separate meanings in Standard English, and yet in many dialects they are used interchangeably. For example, you learn a dog in Hampshire and Kent, train it in East Sussex and teach it in West Sussex.

There’s variation in pronunciation across the South-East too. The Hampshire accent often sounds more ‘West Country’ than Sussex, Surrey or Kent. This is because it used to be part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, along with Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset.  

‘The answers of informant Mr Francis recorded by fieldworker Michael Barry in Sutton, West Sussex, relating to words for animals.’ ( LAVC/SED/2/2/40/3/3)

A common language

No description of the dialects of the South-East would be complete without mentioning the New Forest. The Commoners of the New Forest are people occupying land with common rights over the forest, who typically manage free-roaming livestock on the heathland. 

Many Commoners have family heritage in the forest stretching back hundreds of years. This small, close-knit group has a unique way of speaking known as New Forest Commoners’ Language. This mixes a West Country English accent with Anglo-Norman and Old French words – a reminder that dialects are shaped by communities and social groups as well as by geography. Much of the vocabulary reflects the Commoners’ intimate knowledge of the forest flora; for example, a hill trot is a wild carrot, hum-water is a cordial made from horse mint and cammock is a word for St John’s Wort.

Another important part of the New Forest’s linguistic landscape is Angloromani – a language spoken by the Romani community with roots in Punjabi and Urdu. Several Standard English words – like pal and lollipop – have come from Romani. The language has also contributed words like cushty (from kushti, meaning good), scran (food), chav (from chavvi, meaning boy) and dinlo (fool) to regional dialects all over the country. The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture has a rich collection of materials relating to traveller communities all over England, including the South-East. 

‘Burley (Hampshire)' ( LAVC/PHO/P2061) By Herbert Voitl