One of the interviewees on the most recent episode of Helen Zaltzman’s excellent podcast The Allusionist said something that reminded me of my grandmother. The episode was about the Scots language; the guest Ishbel McFarlane, said “So for example ‘thae’ is Scots word for ‘those’, T H A E, and that’s often seen as ‘wrong English’ by people.”
My grandmother is not Scots. She lives, and has always lived, where I grew up, in the Blackmore Vale on the edge of the West County, in the corner of Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset. As a child I always found the way she spoke funny, not just with the same broad accent as my mother but also using strange words such as ‘thik’ for ‘that’ and ‘be’ for ‘with’ (“oi had lamb be carrots and gravy”). I just accepted it as one of those funny things elderly people said, like “I’ll have your guts for garters”; it didn’t occur to me that we might have had a distinct dialect too.
Then, at university, I read Thomas Hardy’s poem The Ruined Maid, in which a simple country girl addresses a former friend who has moved to the town and attained both material success and moral ruination:
—“At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
It suddenly clicked that that ‘thik’ was my grandmother’s thik, and my grandmother represents the very tail end of the people Hardy was writing about.1
Since becoming an adult I have felt not a loss of identity, but an awareness that I lack a distinct one in the first place; I am generically Southern English, which means that I am the assumed default UK citizen (also, I am white, straight, &c.). I don’t want to complain about the privilege this brings: I never have to explain where I’m really from, or put up with ill-informed stereotypes based on the part of the country I grew up in. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes I’m jealous of people with a strong regional identity. It feels so lonely being in the majority, sometimes I’d like to be a minority, to define myself in opposition to something, and to associate myself with a group with distinctive traditions.
I have long lost almost all of even the mild accent I had in my youth. It’s certainly too late for me to start saying thik oon and theäs oon. But that poem always makes me think of my grandmother and makes me feel connected to something, even if only in memory.
I also learned from a different Hardy poem that ‘Dumbledore’ is an old dialect word for a bumblebee. I’m too late to save that one from J. K. Rowling’s clutches though. ↩︎