There’s life left in the Norfolk dialect

Author of a new collection of Norfolk dialect writing, KEITH SKIPPER reckons there is still a case for talkin' diff'runt in the 21st century...

Allan Francis Smethurst, who pedalled blithely towards short-lived fame and fortune as The Singing Postman, started out as a special delivery on this day 84 years ago.

Yes, the most unlikely of pop stars, who took the Norfolk sound to places it had never been before with his catchy anthem Hev Yew Gotta Loight, Boy?, arrived on November 19, 1927. Legend has it the midwife hailed a 'first-class male'.

Ironically, a performer regarded by many as the quintessentially Norfolk icon was born in Lancashire and spent his last 30 years as a virtual recluse in a Salvation Army hostel in Grimsby, where he died just before Christmas 2000.

His mother came from Stiffkey and young Allan's formative years along the North Norfolk coast were to provide a rich source of inspiration for wistful and witty compositions crammed with potent images of a rural world fast disappearing even as he wrote and sang about it.

The Singing Postman, of course, signed in immediately when I called up a host of enthusiasts and experts for my latest book, an overdue celebration of Norfolk dialect writing spanning the best part of 200 years. Come Yew On, Tergether! features the biggest number of such scribes and supporters ever assembled under one Norfolk roof.

Perhaps a gentle entertainer who didn't fit into any obvious niche encapsulates the dilemma let loose every time our dialect is up for debate. There are those all too eager to dismiss him as an embarrassing reinforcer of the yokel stereotype shuffling across a pantomime stage built on national misconceptions and rosy nostalgia.

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Others, like me, feel his life and work, however flawed, add up to an intriguing and valuable chapter in our local history. And he deserves hearty applause for putting his homely stamp on a national reminder that Norfolk is not wedged somewhere between Devon and Dorset.

While my commitment to our cultural cause has remained fervent and firm since being introduced to the gloriously home-made humour of The Boy John Letters and Harbert's News from Dumpton in local newspapers of the 1950s, I have spent far too much time and energy fending off cynics and critics who adore the label 'anachronism'.

They simply cannot understand why anyone claiming to be part of a modern media world belting along the international information super-highway should be stuck down a hemlock-choked country lane exchanging droll yarns, dialect phrases and dogmatic points of view.

My customary response, prefaced with the traditional inquiry 'He' yer fa'r got a dickey, bor?' centres on Norfolk's remarkable powers of absorption, even in the 21st century. The old place permits a parochial renegade not only the right to exist with impunity but also to flourish without apology in a climate where 'dew diffrunt' sunshine still bursts through dull clouds of uniformity.

If that fails to impress, I can point to our dialect's outstandingly durable qualities. Well, it is in good fettle for something reckoned to be on its last legs more times than I've said 'electrocution lessons'. Even ardent champions have expressed deep misgivings about the future while launching their glossaries and other salutes to our local tongue.

The Rev Robert Forby saw little hope for popular dialects in his introduction to the Vocabulary of East Anglia compiled in the early 1800s. He lamented: 'Will they not be overwhelmed and borne down by the general onset of various plans and unwearied exertions for the education of all ?'

Harry Cozens-Hardy, one of an impressive legion of local journalists to wave the dialect flag with relish, edited the first Broad Norfolk booklet published in 1893 from letters sent to the Eastern Daily Press. He prophesied the dialect would be dead within a generation under the influence of Board schools.

My old friend and colleague Eric Fowler, who wrote with style and distinction for the EDP as essayist Jonathan Mardle, compiled two more Broad Norfolk collections in 1949 and 1973 amid fresh grim forecasts of impending extinction. He issued a defiant call to arms worthy of an encore whenever someone is misguided enough to suggest dialect days are surely numbered:

'I would like true Norfolk to survive because of its expressive vocabulary and vivid turn of phrase – so much more vigorous (and honest) than the gobbledegook of the bureaucrats and sociologists with which we are nowadays so smothered that the language itself is in danger of losing its meaning. The English country dialects, if they do indeed remain alive, may well become the last repository – outside of old books – of good plain English.'

Mardle had the measure of a jargon junket being prepared while he lauded good wholesome grub still being served up on Norfolk plates. He knew squit would be on hand to reduce 'worst-case scenario' to 'suffin' bad' and 'positive feedback' to 'wholly good.' Trendybabble had to make way for propaspeak, sensible if old-fashioned Norfolk words and expressions.

Thankfully, there still are people at the end of the day on a level playing field who can hear what you say and see where you're coming from when all is said and done and able to exclaim with unbridled glee; 'Cor, blarst me, I hent got a bloomin' clew woss a 'gorn on!' That is one of the virtues in being bilingual, an uncanny ability to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Dialect can lend much-needed perspective when life gets too complicated, too fast and too serious. It may continue to suffer from dilution and will have to adapt to stay afloat in some areas. National television and radio drama producers seem likely to carry on sinking in murky Mummerzet waters. But it is far too strong and too precious to let go.

When I set up Friends of Norfolk Dialect in 1999 it was clear how survival spirit needed a hefty nudge towards revival passion if fond intentions for a new millennium were to be taken seriously. It was all very well admiring a vibrant cultural heritage untroubled by passing fancies but it had to be rendered relevant to a fast-changing world, especially in local schools.

National curriculum pressures leave little scope for dialect delights but I can vouch for genuine classroom enthusiasm when they are invited in. It is so rewarding to spend a day with primary schoolchildren eager to write a poem or story about a mardling mawkin, botty mawther, duzzy dodman in a puckaterry and a hungry harnser looking for wittles.

There is a strong academic argument in favour of keeping the vernacular alive. Norwich-born Professor Peter Trudgill, one of the world's leading authorities on dialects, leads our Norfolk defence with powerful pride and no-nonsense pronouncements as he watches and hears indigenous cultures and languages dying out all over the globe.

Never mind the 'Canute' jibes my ole bewties. Norfolk must keep on polishing this colourful badge of individuality and wear it as a mark of real affection and respect for something well worth preserving, promoting – and using at every turn.

As The Singing Postman might well warble on his birthday round... 'I ent gorn nowhere – I'm jest a'comin' back'. Our Norfolk dialect should continue to ignore all misguided orders to go away.

? Come Yew On, Tergether! Is published by Mousehold Press of Norwich, priced �14.99.