West Country English has a fascinating history. In Medieval times, West Saxon was the form of English spoken in the kingdom of Wessex, which encompassed most of what we now call the West Country and some other counties besides. It also included Winchester in Hampshire, which was the capital of England at the time. 

As the dialect of King Alfred and his courtiers, West Saxon quickly became one of the most well-known Old English dialects. It is the dialect most of our remaining Old English literature is written in, whereas nowadays West Country English is thought of as a rural, ‘non-standard’ dialect. This is a good reminder of how attitudes towards language can change, and how historical circumstances have shaped them. If Winchester had remained the capital, West Country English would probably be our modern-day ‘standard’!

An ancient language

West Country dialects give us an insight into the English of the past. Because they are relatively isolated, Devon, Cornwall and Somerset in particular have preserved older ways of speaking. A good example of this is the rhoticity of accents in the South-West: in other words, the pronunciation of the ‘R’ sound after a vowel in words like water, park and first. In this recording, Survey of English Dialects informant Harry Welshman from Dunloe, Cornwall, tells a story about piskies (pixies). Listen out for the way he says water near the end of the recording and you’ll hear a typical West Country ‘R’ sound.

View looking towards the village of Avebury (Wiltshire), from the stone avenue which leads away from the Avebury stone circle (on left of the photograph)

( LAVC/PHO/P2019) by Herbert Voitl

Listen here

Harry Welshman, recorded in Dunloe, Cornwall, talks about piskies and his father being ‘pisky led’

( LAVC/SRE/A813r)

West Country English also includes elements from before Anglo-Saxon times. Cornish, the Celtic language spoken in Cornwall and large parts of Devon until well into the 18th century, has also had an influence on the dialect. For example, place names with combe or coombe (such as Widecombe and Parracombe) come from the Celtic word for valley. The landscape reaches even further back in time – Wiltshire is home to Stonehenge and Avebury.

The ‘Bristol L’

One of the most intriguing features of some West Country speech is the production of an ‘L’ sound at the end of a word after a vowel, popularly known as ‘Bristol L’ but found across Somerset and Wiltshire. This means that words like ‘window’, ‘idea’ and ‘area’ are often pronounced ‘windle’, ‘ideal’ and ‘areal’. In fact, this accent pattern is responsible for Bristol’s own name: Bristol used to be known as ‘Bristow’, but came to be ‘Bristol’ because of the local pronunciation. Fieldworkers for the Survey recorded the feature several times, with speakers from Wiltshire and Somerset discussing outbreaks of diphtherial (diphtheria).

West country grammar

The West Country is also full of interesting dialect words and grammatical forms, many of which derive from Old English. Here, pronouns behave differently and you might hear ‘her’ for ‘she’ and ‘he’ for ‘him’, as in the wonderful Somerset expression ‘hark at he driving the pigs home’ (said of someone snoring). ‘Hark at’ means ‘listen to’ and is common across the region. In Wiltshire, you’re likely to hear ‘somewhen’ and ‘anywhen’ rather than ‘sometime’ and ‘anytime’.

You’ll often hear south-westerners say either ‘see’ or ‘dost thou know’ at the end of their sentences, whereas in other parts of the country you might hear ‘isn’t it’, ‘innit’, ‘right’ or ‘you know’. These are all ways of marking that you’ve finished speaking and checking that your listener has understood you: linguists call them ‘utterance final discourse markers’. You’ll also often hear thick, thick there or even thicky there used to mean ‘this’ or ‘that’, as in ‘we went down to thick field’ or ‘thick there shoes are mine’.