So who gave us the words bungalow, pyjamas and skedaddle?
PUBLISHED: 12:04 12 March 2017 | UPDATED: 18:38 20 March 2017
Charlie Haylock’s new book tells the story of the English language
It’s the village that rarely fails to trip up a stranger trying to say its name. After all, how else could Stiffkey sound? Norfolk knows. But not many folk beyond its borders do. Not that the naïve should take their mistake to heart, for there’s good reason why the pronunciation seems so bonkers, as Charlie Haylock says.
The explanation’s in his new book, In a Manner of Speaking: The Story of the English Language – along with a nice cartoon by his pal, the Beano artist Barrie Appleby, to push the point home.
It’s all about the interchangeability and inconsistency of some letters a fair while ago. “In the Domesday Book” – we’re talking more than 900 years back, after the Normans seized England and started meddling – “a Norfolk village was recorded as Stiuekai (pronounced stewkey).” The U was then pronounced, by the newcomers, with a harder F sound “and the settlement became known as Stiffkey, though it was still referred to as Stewkey by some of the locals; both versions are shown on the village sign”.
Charlie’s got an ear for language. His first book, 2004’s Sloightly On Th’Huh, outsold The Da Vinci Code in Ipswich Waterstones, and he does lots of talks across East Anglia.
“It literally was the demand from U3A talks in north Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk – likewise from the WI, history groups and similar organisations – that inspired me to write the new book,” he tells me. “I had decided to retire completely from writing and just carry on giving my talks on the history of spoken English, but members of these groups repeatedly asked for a book along the lines of my talk, so I eventually responded to their requests and hopefully we have done exactly what they asked for: a serious book with humour, rather than just a ‘funny’ book, on the history of the English language.”
Speaking of dialect, we should never, never – NEVER – be ashamed of it. “Makes me a little annoyed, when you think that some people with their Queen’s English dialect say the Suffolk and Norfolk dialects – and other regional dialects – are lazy ways of speaking English,” Charlie says. “They are rich with linguistic traditions and replete with history, with many ancient words and phrases deriving from Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse origins – much more so than Standard English. They are part of our heritage.”
The book looks at questions such as: Why are there 10 different pronunciations of ough? Why do we say lefftenant, when it’s spelled lieutenant? Why is English grammatically the easiest European language, and yet the most difficult for its various spellings and pronunciations?
Charlie’s voyage of discovery begins with the Ancient Celtic Britons – tribes such as the Iceni in East Anglia. Many English place-names have Celtic origins.
Then, of course, the Romans invaded and stayed for nearly 400 years. They Latinised place-names. Mam became Mancunium and, later, Manchester. “Caesaromago, meaning ‘market of Caesar’, was later called Chelmsford, which translates as the ford belonging to an Anglo-Saxon called Ceolmaer.”
The Romans employed Germanic troops and mercenaries as their occupying force, some of whom − along with their families − continued to live in Britain after the Roman occupation. “The seeds of a future Germanic tongue were being sown”. Trade with northern Europe meant “Britons were now meeting and interacting with many people speaking a Germanic tongue on a daily basis”.
After the Romans left in 410 things weren’t quiet for long. Germanic tribes from northern Europe pillaged in the 5th, 6th and 7th Centuries, and many stayed.
They were mainly Angles, Saxons (from present-day north-west Germany), Jutes (from Jutland; mainland Denmark) and Frisians (northern part of today’s Netherlands). They spoke the same Germanic language, but with different dialects. “Back in their homelands, these Germanic dialects have grown apart and become separate languages, albeit closely linked, but in England they merged together to lay the foundation for the English language”. The Angles, or Engelisc, came from Angeln, south of today’s Danish/German border. “Some historians have suggested that Angeln is located in that area of north-western Europe which was inhabited by Vikings, and that the Angles were in fact the southern faction of the Scandinavian people,” writes Charlie, who like Barrie lives in the Sudbury area of Suffolk. “It is believed that the Wuffingas, the ruling hierarchy of the East Angles, who had links with the Swedish royal dynasty, occupied the same part of Jutland as the Angles. Later in time, they arrived on the east coast and became the kings of the East Angles...” He explains: “Their first established settlement was called Gypes Wic, pronounced yippes wich, modern-day Ipswich; many historians argue that Ipswich is the oldest English settlement, with Colchester being the oldest recorded British settlement.
“The Angles conquered the eastern Britons and became known as the kingdom of the East Angles: present-day Norfolk, Suffolk and part of Cambridgeshire.” The “conglomeration of invading pagan Germanic tribes would collectively become known as Engelisc (English), mainly due to the fact that the Angles were the biggest invading force”.
And as the years passed, more and more people influenced our language. From its history with India, England took words such as bungalow and pyjamas. Skedaddle, joyride and many more have blown across the Atlantic.
The computer age adds more words. Charlie says that where languages have been rigidly standardised – such as with Ancient Greek – they have effectively died. “English does not have that problem because it continues to respond and adjust to modern advances and keeps abreast of changes in society.
“It is these qualities in the English language that make it the richest language in the world. It will continue to be so if future grammarians, lexicographers and phoneticians simply record the development and evolution of the English language, rather than prescribing how it should be written or pronounced.”
n In a Manner of Speaking is from Amberley Publishing at £14.99
Why sports commentators and newsreaders get my goat!
Are there any words or phrases that bug Charlie? “One word I do struggle with is the way newsreaders and TV presenters, in their so-called Queen’s English dialect, pronounce hypothermia as hyperthermia… exactly the same as ‘hyperthermia’, with the complete opposite meaning!
“A phrase that should be banned is ‘C’mon City!’ Only joking! Whilst I support Ipswich, I don’t hate Norwich. I like the friendly banter, and do follow Norwich and wish them well… except when they play Ipswich, of course. Eventually I would like to see them both back in the premiership, and a top-flight Old Farm derby.
“Seriously now, I really detest the sports commentators starting to say ‘v’ instead of ‘against’ or ‘versus’. It is now ‘one v one’ instead of ‘one against one’, or ‘two defenders v one attacker’. “Just doesn’t sound right.”