Scarcity of information on Cambridgeshire speech up until the 1970s

Anna-Liisa Vasko 2010b

This article aims to supplement the information given in Vasko (2010), which is a revised and extended version of Ojanen (1982).

Cambridgeshire has attracted very little attention in studies of regional speech, especially in studies from before the 1970s. This is partly due to three assertions: that Cambridgeshire speech does not differ much from either (a) the standard language, or (b) the dialect(s) of the neighbouring counties, and that Cambridgeshire speech is (c) similar to Cockney.

I will first discuss the three assertions detailed above. After this I will focus on the earliest documents on the language of Cambridgeshire. Finally, I will present a short overview of the Cambridgeshire material in Ellis (1869-1889, 1890), Wright (EDD, EDG) and The Survey of English Dialects.

1. Assertions and Evidence

In studies up to the early 20th century, whether written for linguistic or non-linguistic purposes, three assertions stand out above all others. It is claimed that the speech of Cambridgeshire does not differ much from either (a) the standard language, or (b) the dialect(s) of the neighbouring counties. Furthermore, it is claimed that Cambridgeshire speech is (c) similar to Cockney. I shall deal with each assertion in turn.

1.1 Cambridgeshire speech – not substantially different from the standard language

The study of Cambridgeshire speech long proceeded on the assumption that it did not differ much from Standard English in any respect. This view was reinforced by the emphasis placed by regional studies on vocabulary. The absence of a category ‘East’ in Grose’s Provincial glossary (1787) suggests that “as far as vocabulary was concerned, to Grose eastern English was not clearly differentiated from StE” (Ihalainen 1994: 210).

Nall (1866: 484) excluded Cambridgeshire from his Glossary of the Dialect and Provincialisms of East Anglia, lamenting that Cambridgeshire had no published collection of dialect words. The fact that Cambridgeshire had no dialect glossary is significant, since the neighbouring counties, Norfolk and Suffolk, had already been represented by Forby’s Glossary of East Anglian Words and Phrases (1830), by Spurdens’ supplement to Forby (1830; reprinted by Skeat in 1879) and by Moor’s Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823).

In his History of Cambridgeshire, Conybeare (1906: 42-43) claimed that the dialect was wholly Mercian and “thus devoid of the charm of provinciality”. The Mercian dialect of Anglo-Saxon contributed substantially to Standard English in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation. Conybeare, however, considered the river Cam [1] to be the boundary between the East Anglian and Mercian (proper) “districts of the English Name”, and pointed out the observable difference “in dialect and local custom between adjoining parishes, separated by only so narrow a stream, bearing testimony to this day of their several origins.” It is true that during the Anglo-Saxon Period and before the drainage of the Fens (starting with the drainage scheme by James I in 1621 and continuing, with interruptions, till the 19th century), the ‘meadows’ adjoining the Cam were marshes sufficiently inconvenient to form a decided barrier between the populations on either bank (e.g. Jennett 1972: 3-4; http://www.waterscape.com/canals-and-rivers/river-cam/history 01.09.2009 [link no longer available, see e.g. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/cambs/xxxii-lviii ]). Conybeare may thus be right in regarding the Cam as a barrier hindering communication across the river and thus ‘promoting’ the preservation of local speech habits on either bank of the river. Following this line of reasoning, I consider it possible that the Cam acted as a boundary differentiating the East Anglian and Mercian (proper) dialects. In his English Dialects, Skeat (1911: 65-79) also classed Cambridgeshire speech as a Mercian dialect, just as Conybeare had done. However, Skeat does not mention any possible differences in speech within the Mercian dialect. The area of the Mercian dialect is shown in Map 1.


Map 1. The Mercian dialect area. Based on Map 3.1, The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, in Fennell (2001: 57).

There are a number of other studies that claim identity between Cambridgeshire speech and Standard English. Miller & Skertchly (1878; Ch. 4) claim that Standard English is the language of the Fenland (including the Cambridgeshire fenland area), as follows:

Written English, (‘Standard English’ in the phrase of Mr Oliphant [2]) is certainly neither the Northumbrian of York, nor the Saxon of Winchester. It is the intermediate Anglian speech of Eastern Mercia.

Miller & Skertchly go on to quote a paper read before the Lincoln Architectural Society in 1875 (Freeman on Lindum Colonia), stating: “It was a Lincolnshire man, a Bourne man, who gave the English language its present shape.” Referring to a passage in the paper, they make the following claim:

[It] will convey to the reader the idea that the folks of the fens, especially of the area assigned to the Cyrwas, have no dialect; it is our purpose to demonstrate this. Even more than this, we can assert that the genuine educated Fenman of South-West Lincoln and the Isle of Ely has few, if any, provincialisms, even of accent. (Miller & Skertchly 1878: 115-16).

Miller & Skertchly want to “show that the Fenland was the cradle of modern classic English; that there was the fusion of those elements of speech into a dialect which was to grow into a model language.” The circumstances that favoured the development and spread of this East Midland Dialect were, quoting Miller & Skertchly, “a cluster of monastic institutions in the Fens where men had the leisure and opportunity to think and write.”

It is true that the part of England which contributed most to the formation of Standard English was the East Midland district, and that it was the East Midland type of English that became its basis, since to a large extent it became particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London (Baugh 1935: 236-237). Several factors contributed to this: (a) as a Midland dialect, the English of this region occupied a middle position between the extreme divergences of the north and south; (b) the East Midland district was the largest and most populous of the major dialect areas, and (c) the universities of Oxford and Cambridge played a part, the latter being the main supporter of the East Midland dialect (Baugh 1935: 238). As Wakelin (1972: 116-118) puts it, “Cambridge has some share in the glory of the conquest won so noiselessly,” the reason being that Cambridge “lay within the boundary of this Midland Speech, and her students, who came from all parts of England, helped, no doubt, to spread the dialect.” Wakelin may be right in saying that the students of Cambridge helped to spread the dialect of this area, since the University of Cambridge became increasingly important, due especially to the migration of scholars and students from Oxford in the 13th century (Conybeare 1906: 122-123). Its influence on dialect may also have grown with the development of the college system in the 14th and 15th centuries. The students were at first lodgers in the houses of townsmen; later they took lodgings in lodging-houses or “hostels” (Jennett 1972: 15-16; Conybeare 1906: 125) in which local servants were in attendance. The students thus had relatively close connections with local inhabitants. Map 2 shows the East Midland area.


Map 2. East Midland area. Extracted from the map The Dialects of Middle English in Baugh (1951: 235).

A close connection between Cambridgeshire and StE has been also asserted more recently. Trudgill (1990: 44), in discussing the pronunciation of English Traditional Dialects, claims that Cambridgeshire is linguistically quite close to the standard language. Trudgill’s view is based on eight pronunciation features. A more detailed study of the phonological characteristics of the Cambridgeshire dialect will have to be left for future studies. However, Vasko (2010) shows that there are a number of differences between the Cambridgeshire dialect and the standard language.

1.2 Cambridgeshire speech – not substantially different from that of the neighbouring counties

In his dictionary, Halliwell (1847, I: xi-xx) suggests:

[there is] little to distinguish the Cambridgeshire dialect from that of the adjoining counties. It is nearly allied to that of Norfolk and Suffolk […] What is dialectal in Huntingdonshire is not distinct from that of Cambridgeshire.

A similar view is expressed by Forby (1830: 66-67): “The East Anglian dialect is spoken of as one.” Comparing the speech of East Anglia to species “in Natural History”, he further claims that “in Norfolk and Suffolk at least, they are mere varieties, and even slight ones, of the same species.” He states his belief that “if they ever were two dialects, they have been long ago completely blended and identified by contiguity and perpetual intercourse.” As can be seen, strictly speaking, Forby discusses only Norfolk and Suffolk dialects. However, the incidental references Forby makes to Cambridgeshire, and the Cambridgeshire subscribers (Forby 1830: ix-xii) mentioned in his work, support the view that, in Forby’s opinion, the speech of Cambridgeshire has similarities with the Norfolk and Suffolk dialects – though one must admit that his words “to say nothing, for the present, of Cambridgeshire” do seem to indicate a scarcity of material on the Cambridgeshire dialect.

On the basis of the lexical and morphological evidence collected by Lowman, Jr. in Southern England and parts of the Midlands in the 1930s, Cambridgeshire, together with Huntingdon and Bedford, is linked with the northern area comprising the east of Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Lincolnshire, at least with regard to morphology (Viereck 1980: 31). Contrastingly, Cambridgeshire, together with Bedford and Huntingdon, tends to be lexically linked with the eastern central counties, with the Home Counties [3] as the focus of this group. All in all, the speech of Cambridgeshire primarily appears to have both lexical and morphological similarities to that of Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. However, there are also similarities, mainly on the lexical level, to the speech of Hertfordshire and Essex, as well as morphological links with Lincolnshire. Such a mixed picture is not surprising, since dialect boundaries do not usually coincide with county boundaries, even if the division into various dialects tends to be made on the basis of county boundaries for practical reasons. What is noticeable is that, according to Lowman’s evidence, Cambridgeshire is not closely linked with Norfolk, Suffolk and the north of Essex, i.e. with East Anglia proper.

The situation thus described scarcely corresponds to the lack of distinguishing features described by Halliwell (above). Admittedly, this may be due to the lexical and morphological changes that took place in the language during the hundred years or more between Halliwell’s and Lowman’s observations. However, the difference may also result from the criteria used by the scholars in question (Halliwell’s evidence was lexical; Lowman’s evidence was both lexical and morphological).

In his work The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich, Trudgill (1974: 8) defines eastern Cambridgeshire speech as having ‘East Anglian’ linguistic forms. Trudgill’s eastern Cambridgeshire is not clearly defined. It may correspond roughly to East Cambridgeshire, which is a local government district formed in 1974 through the merger of Ely Urban District, Ely Rural District, and Newmarket Rural District (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Cambridgeshire 01.09.2009). It might also refer to a somewhat larger area, extending eastwards from the River Cam. On the other hand, in his later work The Dialects of England, when discussing the pronunciation of Traditional Dialects, Trudgill (1990: 44) emphasises the difference between (1) the Eastern Counties, i.e. Norfolk, Suffolk and north-eastern Essex, and (2) the Central East, i.e. (the whole of) Cambridgeshire, most of the central and eastern parts of Northamptonshire, non-metropolitan Hertfordshire, and Essex (apart from the north-east). Cf. also Trudgill (2001: 10-11).

1.3 Cambridgeshire speech is similar to Cockney

Cambridgeshire speech has also been described as having similarities to Cockney. T. McK. Hughes & M. C. Hughes (1909: 88) found “little peculiarities of pronunciation, especially in some of the vowel sounds, such as we commonly associate with the Cockney speech”. This view apparently received some support, since in 1933 Teversham, an antiquarian interested in the speech of the county, from place names to dialect in general, protested against it, saying “We are constantly being told that we have no distinctive dialect but only a bastard cockney form of speech” (Cambridge Chronicle 15/3/1933). According to Coates (1976: 4), one reason for claiming the similarity of Cambridgeshire speech with Cockney may be standard speakers’ willingness to use this similarity as a useful stick with which to beat the non-University vernacular.

As late as 1957, Hudleston connected Cambridgeshire speech with Cockney, claiming:

the youngest Cambridge town folk, especially the women with their higher pitch, are definitely Cockney; the older generation in the town, and most of the country people, (save a few young ones trying to sound refined and only succeeding in sounding Cockney) speak slower, clearer.

Similarly, Bloom (1953: 220) claimed that Cambridge urban speech shows “little radical difference from that of the Mile End Road.” In his opinion, however, it was East Anglian speech that had influenced Cockney, rather than vice versa or reciprocally. According to Coates (1976: 5), “there is plausibility in this view, if one considers the great nineteenth century migrations to the towns and in particular to London.” I share Coates’s view concerning substantial migration from Cambridgeshire to London. Two things in particular promoted this migration: first of all, the fact that Cambridge was connected to London by regular passenger vehicles (stage-coaches weekly from 1753; express trains daily from the late 19th century); and secondly, the widespread agricultural discontent that resulted from the Enclosure of the county and the lowering of wages (Conybeare 1906: 235-269). On the other hand, I agree with Matthews (1972: 215-216) that, although we may be certain that regional dialects have contributed to London speech, much work will have to be done on English dialects in the early modern period (1500-1800) before we can with any certainty make such attributions to particular dialects.

2. Written Documents for Linguistic and Non-linguistic Purposes

2.1 The earliest written documents

The earliest literary documents focussing on aspects of speech in Cambridgeshire [4] are those dealing with the University of Cambridge (Coates 1976: 2). Cambridge University “as a source of facetiae had been well exploited since the seventeenth century” (Coates 1976: 1). One example of this is The jokes of the Cambridge coffee-houses in the seventeenth century, a university-oriented collection of tales from that century, dealing with local characters (Halliwell 1842). The first dictionary of words and phrases peculiar to the University is the Gradus ad Cantabrigiam (1803). This gives some direct glosses of University words and a variety of mainly humorous quasi-etymological explanations. By contrast, Dictionary of the University of Cambridge (Dickens 1884) is a comprehensive glossary which leaves aside all historical data that would require the assumption of implausible or untestable chains of events.

It is not surprising that the earliest works paying attention to Cambridgeshire speech centred round the University, the institution which has made the name of this county so famous. There is nothing to suggest, however, that the words and forms under investigation were anything other than local varieties of the standard language, or that they were spoken by other than Received Standard speakers (Coates 1976: 2).

Early interest in regional variation was mostly unsystematic and intuitive, although regional varieties of English had attracted attention ever since the 12th century, at first merely as a matter for comment (e.g. Trevisa’s 1387 translation of Higden’s Polychronicon), but later also in the form of dialect imitations in literature (e.g. Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale) (Wakelin 1972: 34). However, our knowledge of non-standard dialects from the 16th century up until the first systematic description towards the end of the 19th century comes mainly from sources such as (i) spellings in documents, (ii) the comments of antiquaries, orthoepists and grammarians, (iii) local glossaries, and (iv) occasional references to local speech in travel literature. In addition, there are representations of non-standard dialects in literary texts.

2.2 The earliest dictionaries and glossaries

A word, defined as “a distinct conceptual unit, uncomplicated in the minds of the layperson by thoughts of grammatical rule” (Upton 2000), is a linguistic phenomenon that every speaker can take an interest in. Thus, it is not surprising that vocabulary was the field mainly dealt with in early studies of non-standard speech. The first attempt at a dialect dictionary in English was A Collection of English Words Not Generally Used by Ray (1674). Ray distinguishes between “North-Country” words and “South and East-Country” words. Evidence for east-country speech is given from regions such as Norfolk, Essex, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire (Ihalainen 1994: 201). Ray’s evidence includes examples such as the item mawther ‘girl’ from Norfolk (cf. Poussa 1995: 138-152).

In the 18th century, another collection of provincialisms was published by Grose. In this Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (1787; Ihalainen 1994: 210), Grose relied heavily on Ray’s Collection, but used also dialect texts published in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Bobbins’ Lancashire Dialect. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order, but some indication of the area is given using the initials N, S, W (North, South, West). It is significant that there is no ‘E’ (East), on the grounds that “the East country scarcely afforded a sufficiency of words to form a division” (Wakelin 1972: 45; Ihalainen 1994: 210).

From the beginning of the 19th century onwards, glossaries became very frequent. [5] Two nineteenth-century general glossaries are particularly worthy of mention: Halliwell’s Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs from the Fourteenth Century (1847) and Thomas Wright’s Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (1857). According to Coates (1976:19), the former cites a few Cambridgeshire provincialisms listed by C. Warren and J. J. Smith (Halliwell 1847: xi) and also a wordlist collected by Horner and relating to Huntingdonshire (part of Cambridgeshire since 1974). Warren and Smith’s list includes a few irregular preterites (such as hit-hot, sit-sot, and spare-spore) heard in Cambridgeshire. Five specific clusters emerge from Halliwell’s “notes”, one of which is in East Anglia. Cambridgeshire and Essex have linguistic links to Norfolk and Suffolk. According to Ihalainen (1994: 210-211), Halliwell’s Dictionary is perhaps the most useful general treatment from the viewpoint of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Thomas Wright’s (1857) work contains words from “the English writers previous to the 19th century which are no longer in use, or are not used in the same sense, and words which are now used only in the provincial dialects.” In addition, there is a glossary entitled “Fen provincialisms” by Egar in Fenland Notes and Queries (1889-1900; Vol. 1: 48, 88, 151; Vol. 2: 97, 135, 180, 272, 326, 359, 392; Vol. 3: 21, 78, 167, 201, 248, 258, 347; Vol. 4: 87, 12, 139, 179, 213). However, Egar does not specify how many of his entries relate to Cambridgeshire alone, rather than to Fenland in general.

The Vocabulary of East Anglia by Forby (1830) includes a few references to Cambridgeshire; its main focus, however, is on the vocabulary of Norfolk and Suffolk. This collection contains some 2,500 words, of which about 600 are to be found among the total of 3,500 words in Grose’s and Samuel Pegge’s collections, the latter being a Supplement to Grose’s Provincial Glossary. More important from the point of view of Vasko (2010) are the general observations on pronunciation (43 pages) and grammar (36 pages) that are included in Forby’s work.

2.3 Works with non-linguistic purposes

One source of information on Cambridgeshire speech is works that are not written to discuss speech. A History of Cambridgeshire, by Conybeare (1906: 42-43), lists a number of ‘local’ words, such as frorn for frozen, meese for mice and horkey for harvest-home. Similarly, The Fenland Past and Present, a natural history of the Fenland by Miller & Skertchly (1878), includes some local words. It also includes a few pages on supposed Danish words in the Fenland speech (89-91), as well as a list of words of Scandinavian origin occurring in the neighbouring counties, Lincolnshire and Norfolk (126-131). A History of the Fens, by Day (1954), repeats the list of Danish words given by Miller & Skertchly, adding ten more words and a number of place names. Lore and Laughter of South Cambridgeshire, by Hudleston (1957), includes notes on agricultural vocabulary.

Sayings and items of local vocabulary can also be found in the works of folklorists. A list of Cambridgeshire sayings and proverbs, especially those of the Fens, is given by C. Dack, a Peterborough scholar, in ‘Fen proverbs and sayings’, published in Fenland Notes and Queries 1 (1889-1891), and by S. Egar in ‘Fenland phrases and folklore’, published in Fenland Notes and Queries 7 (1907-1909). Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, by Porter (1969), includes structures such as I goes, I gets and I runs in material from Willingham (175; a recording in 1966 from Mr F. Jeeps). Porter also includes some Cambridgeshire sayings (Appendix III) and a ‘Select Glossary of Cambridgeshire Words in Use within living memory’ (400-401). However, the latter contains material from a much wider area than Cambridgeshire.

Names of streets, areas, fields and buildings sometimes cause problems for the non-local investigator, especially as they are often pronounced in a typical local way. For the Cambridgeshire area, various sources of information on names are available. A pioneering work in this field is The Placenames of Cambridgeshire, by Skeat (1901). A more comprehensive work on place names is The Place-Names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, by Reaney (1943). Fell’s (1977) Placenames of Three Cambridgeshire Parishes deals with Burwell, Reach and Swaffham Prior.

There are also a number of works dealing with one village only. A History of Grantchester, by Widnall (1875), includes a list of the words of Grantchester (139-143), a village two miles south-west of Cambridge. According to the author, these words were still used by older inhabitants. The chapter ‘People – Race, Dialect, Settlements’ (85-89) in the geography of Cambridgeshire, by T. McK. & M. C. Hughes (1909), contains a list of words heard in Cottenham, a village five miles north of Cambridge. This list of ancient words and phrases, still used in this district (88-89), was collected by the Misses Bull of Cottenham. The authors admit that these words may not be restricted to Cambridgeshire alone.

One further source is the small booklets or folders written by laymen about their own villages. These are usually reminiscences of the past by a single writer, such as My School Days. Fred Gambie remembers life for a farm labourer’s family living in Thriplow before the First World War, by Gambie (1973/1974). They are also collections of recollections to celebrate certain noteworthy events, such as Willingham Looks Back (Robinson & Kirkman 1977), which was prepared for the Silver Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Maps may be included, as in Gamlingay Reminiscences (n.d., probably 1973/1974), which has a map of the village from the turn of the 20th century, and Village of Haslingfield (n.d., probably 1974), which has a map of the village by Forbes dated 1913.

One additional source of information exists in recordings in which older speakers talk about their native villages. For example, the Burwell House collection (1977) contains interviews with speakers from Burwell and Fordham.

2.4 Literary dialect

Another source for dialectal speech is literary dialect, the representation in fiction, drama or verse of a variety of speech markedly different from standard. For instance, A Son of the Fens, by Emerson (1892), has dialogue in dialect. Set My Hand upon the Plough, by Barraud (1946: 51), is a collection of reminiscences with some representations of the local speech of Cambridgeshire, in the style “Cor, boy!”, he exclaimed, “air you got the whole family’s bacon ration agin in your dockey?” A similar source is Tail Corn (1948), by the same author.

The village of Over, nine miles north-west of Cambridge, is described in The Fens, by Bloom (1953). This work includes recollections of the past by older inhabitants of the village, with extracts of their stories written as imitations of their speech style (especially pages 1-27). The speech of the neighbouring village, Willingham, is represented in a similar way (Chapter 26).

In his article on dialect “Get to the point – with Dialect. Mr. T. F. Teversham and a Hobby”, Teversham (1958) gives his views on dialect in general:

Dialect may be defined as the inherited speech characteristic of a particular neighbourhood or countryside, a village or county, or part of a county. Dialect is uninhibited, unregulated, unfettered, unrefined and unadulterated – in short, it is crude yet pure English speech.

In the same short article, Teversham describes the Cambridgeshire dialect: “Cambridgeshire dialect is fullthroated, and the people avoid what is unnecessary.”

In a similar vein, in an article entitled “Remember before Dialect died, bor?”, Hammond (1975) recollects farmworkers’ speech at the turn of the 20th century. For instance, a farmworker might explain how he had stopped work on a frorn (‘frozen, very cold’) morning to chimble (‘gnaw’) on his dockie (‘dinner’).

Marshall’s (1967) Fenland Chronicle is a representation of the dialect of Ramsey Heights, Huntingdonshire, but the morphological, phonological and lexical marks of this dialect, such as What’s ’e say? and allus for ‘always’ are valid for a larger area, including Cambridgeshire.

The dialect of the Fens appears to have been a source of inspiration for several writers and there are numerous reminiscences in books, articles and television programs dealing with this area. Day’s (1974) publication Rum owd boys gives some dialect in stories, such as “The last of the fen fowlers”, “A fenland bird charmer” and “The old fen road of ghosts”. In Arthur Randell: fenman, talking to Dick Joice, Joice (1977) has a few words spelt phonetically, but most of this small book is written in a style imitating dialect.

“Cambridgeshire Dialect 50 Years Ago”, by Patterson (1980), is a reproduction of dialect from Cambridgeshire (area unspecified). Of interest are, passages such as the following: “a good ole fashioned remedy for they; As Oi’m just gooin to tell ee; Take the kick out on em; To goo down to market; But it ware a code ode jurney” and “Oi can ear ole Daisy and Butter-cup a callin arter Oi.” These features are also typical of nearby areas such as Suffolk.

The use of dialect in literary works provides phonological and lexical data, but also some syntactic and morphological information, the latter with varying validity as dialect evidence.

3. The Beginning of Systematic Dialect Study

Summarizing the main dialect features that appear in the literature from the late 18th century up to about 1870, Ihalainen (1994: 213) states that most of the relevant sources were reprinted by the English Dialect Society in the late 19th century. Ihalainen further observes that Skeat’s Nine Specimens of English Dialects (1896; EDS 76) has good samples of northern, south-western, southern and East Anglian dialect. East Anglian features are presented by Ihalainen (1994: 215) as follows:

East Anglian features


Norwich a

Rabbin ‘Robbin’, Narwich ‘Norwich’

That for it

That’s raining ‘It’s raining’

uninflected present-tense form of a main verb

He know

uninflected do, have

He don’t know, It have happened

otiose of

She’s ollas a-eating o’ thapes ‘She’s always eating gooseberries’

Serious work on English dialects did not really begin until the last quarter of the century, after the founding of the English Dialect Society in 1873 and the editing and publication of glossaries of English regional varieties.

According to Ihalainen (1994: 213), the features listed above are not only typical of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century dialect, they also figure prominently in later treatments of English dialects, such as those by Ellis (1889), Wright (EDD, EDG), Wakelin (1979), and Trudgill (1990).

3.1 Ellis and Cambridgeshire

According to Coates (1976: 4), no serious studies of the pronunciation of East Anglian non-standard speech appeared before the 1880s. The first person to describe East Anglian speech was A. J. Ellis (1869-1889), [6] in his study of all the dialects of England On Early English Pronunciation, supplemented by The Existing Phonology of English Dialects Compared with that of West Saxon Speech (1889). Ellis (1869-1889: 449) took the view that “it is only by serious study of phonology that we can raise dialectology to the rank of philology.” He continued, “When we know the words, then we can go really to work on meaning, descent, idiom, grammar, thought.”

Ellis intended “to determine with considerable accuracy the different forms now, or within the last hundred years, assumed by the descendants of the same original word in passing through the mouths of uneducated people” (1889: 1). Ellis’s voluntary helpers gathered data from 1,454 localities. On the basis of the information obtained, Ellis was able to define six “Divisions” in which there were “sufficiently distinct differences and characters”: Southern, Western, Eastern, Midland, Northern, and Lowland (Scottish). These Divisions, based on “transverse lines” (i.e. isoglosses), were further divided into forty-two “Districts” on the grounds that in each of these there prevailed “a sensible similarity of pronunciation”. He further subdivided half of these into “Varieties” and, in eight cases, even into “Sub-varieties”.

Ellis included Cambridgeshire and its adjoining counties in Divisions D16 and D18. Note that Division 18 covers approximately the area of pre-1974 Cambridgeshire (cf. Vasko 2010: 1.2, Map 1.1), as shown in Map 3. Brief notes were provided on the southern Cambridgeshire localities of Cambridge, Soham, *Sawston, Willingham and *Wood Ditton, and on the northern Cambridgeshire localities of *March, Chatteris, Ely, Haddenham, Whittlesford and *Wisbech. Texts, phonetically transcribed, each seven sentences long, were given for the places marked with an asterisk (*).

Ellis believed that “the peasantry” were the least exposed to Standard English and hence the “best” informants. His concern to elicit “genuine” dialect, however, also prevented him from collecting the data himself, since even the peasantry, he claimed, was bilingual or bidialectal, and would thus modify their speech in interaction with an educated and unfamiliar person. Ellis’s Cambridgeshire informants included one ‘Mid Cambridgeshire’ informant, a Dr. John Perkins of Downing College. This individual was “very familiar with the peasant speech”, but Ellis “could assign no particular locality” to what he dictated (1889: 249). The Sawston passage was dictated by “Mr John Mullett, native, 18, and three years latterly in Nottingham, son of the foreman to a paper mill”. The Woodditton passage was dictated by “Miss Walker of the Vicarage” (1889: 34).


Map 3. The area of Cambridgeshire (18). Map extracted from English Dialect Districts, by Ellis (1889).

Ellis’s main purpose was to establish broad dialect areas and to determine diagnostic features for each area. He characterized Cambridgeshire speech as south-eastern, with minor differences from the neighbouring counties, including the following:

Cambridgeshire differs from Huntingdonshire, especially in A-words, which are no longer (éi) as a rule, though of course there are exceptions near the border of Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Essex, but are simple (ee).

Ellis’s phonological picture of Cambridgeshire is deficient in various respects. First of all, his informants were educated people who did not speak the dialect themselves. Secondly, his material appears to have been of a very limited range, and he made no overall analysis of any of the localities. Thirdly, his material lacks coherence, since it was elicited using different tools (a “Dialect test” and a “Comparative specimen”) in different localities. Fourthly, his method of notation, his “palaeotype”, was imprecise. Finally, Ellis’s use of Old English as a reference point for all the modern dialects raises the question of whether this reference point is too distant in time for proper consideration of the development of the English language, especially since Modern Standard English is largely a descendant of the Mercian dialect (Fennell 2001: 85), not the West Saxon variety chosen by Ellis. Ellis’s choice of the West Saxon variety may be due to the fact that there is more documentary evidence from this variety than from the other Old English varieties.

Despite these criticisms, however, Ellis’s work was the first survey of English dialects based on rich, systematically collected evidence, and it remains an important source of data for English dialectology.

3.2 Wright and Cambridgeshire

In his English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), Wright (1898-1905) aimed to record all dialect words current or known to have been in use during the previous two hundred years. He drew on dialect glossaries and other sources, including county histories, accounts of industries, agricultural surveys, and natural histories, and he supplemented this material with the results of a postal questionnaire sent out to 12,000 people.

The last part of the EDD included Wright’s English Dialect Grammar (EDG) (also published separately in 1905). This work relied largely on the material collected for the Dictionary, as well as on the results of a postal inquiry and, to some extent, Ellis’s On Early English Pronunciation (1889). The EDG contained the following sections: (i) an index, (ii) alphabetically-listed everyday items and their dialect variants; (iii) phonology, i.e. a diachronic treatment of sounds and their various combinations; and (iv) accidence, which could more appropriately be called morphology. The index took up about half of the work, phonology 70 pages, and accidence – which from the point of view of Vasko (2010) is the most interesting section – 12 pages only.

Wright’s Cambridgeshire material is very limited. He cites Darwood’s glossary of words in use in the county of Cambridge as well as, according to Coates (1976: 19), various collections of Cambridgeshire words compiled by W. M. Brookes (no date) and Fennell (no date). The latter was a member of the English Dialect Society in 1877, with numerous publications on classical matters, but who probably had no larger interest in English non-standard speech. Wright’s other sources included two Agricultural Survey Reports, both entitled General View of the Agriculture of the County of Cambridge, one by Vancouver (1794) and the other by William Gooch (1813). All in all, it is not possible to systematically recover the Cambridgeshire material from the EDD. Similarly, the vagueness of the locality designations, such as “east country English” (the term is Ellis’s) and “used in east Anglia (e. A)”, reduces the usefulness of the list of features in Wright’s Dialect Grammar. Nevertheless, the EDD and EDG provide useful material for comparison between the grammatical features attested in Cambridgeshire in Vasko (2010) and those attested in other counties and areas by Wright.

3.3 The Survey of English Dialects and Cambridgeshire

The purpose of the SED was to collect traditional vernacular by means of a questionnaire, and later also by tape-recording. [7] The fieldwork for the SED was carried out between 1948 and 1961. The survey includes one locality, Elsworth, in southern Cambridgeshire and one, Little Downham, in northern Cambridgeshire. [8]

More than fifty per cent of the SED questions were oriented towards the lexicon, although the Survey’s main interest was phonological, as shown, according to Upton (2000: 1-2), by the large number of maps containing phonological items (249 out of a total of 474) in The Linguistic Atlas of England (Orton et al. 1978). Upton further observes that, “given the diachronic orientation of Orton and Dieth, which orientation has essentially to do with the tracing in the mid-twentieth century vernaculars of reflexes of Middle English sounds”, the subordinate position of lexicon to phonology is not surprising. In the SED, morphology and syntax receive only minor attention.

Due to this scarcity of morphological and syntactic material in general and the very small amount of material from only two localities in Cambridgeshire, the SED in fact provides little Cambridgeshire evidence for Vasko (2010). Nevertheless, findings from other counties, especially from those bordering Cambridgeshire, serve as valuable clues in the search for the linguistic features of Cambridgeshire speech.

4. Conclusion

“Cambridgeshire is commonly held to be a district singularly devoid of interest, both physically and historically.” These words by Conybeare (1906: viii), the author of The History of Cambridgeshire, could also characterize the interest generally shown in the language of Cambridgeshire. The English Dialect Society (1873-1896) bibliography, which covers dialect texts and studies of dialect up to 1877, indicates the amount of attention that had been given to various regional varieties. Cambridgeshire is not among the top counties, the ten most popular being Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumberland, Cornwall, Northumbria, Devon, Westmoreland, Dorset, Somerset and Norfolk (Ihalainen 1994: 231). In “A directory of English dialect resources: the English counties”, by Edwards (1993: 245-340), comprising 95 pages, only three sources from Cambridgeshire are included. These are Lore and Laughter of South Cambridgeshire by Hudleston (1957), and two BA theses, namely A Study of the Chatteris Dialect, by Beauchamp (1977), and A Survey of Phonological Variables in Cambridge, by Stratton (1976).

Nevertheless, as discussed above, small pieces of information are to be found in various works and articles written mainly for purposes other than to describe the language. These early studies (dating from before the turn of the 20th century) on non-standard speech in Cambridgeshire were, however, too brief and insufficiently localized to provide detailed evidence on the speech of this area, and even since then, Cambridgeshire has been more or less a blank spot on the linguistic map. In discussions of linguistic features it has often been treated simply as part of East Anglia, usually being grouped together with Norfolk and Suffolk. Just as often, it has been ignored entirely. Thus, Brook (1963) does not mention Cambridgeshire at all in his work English Dialects, although several other counties are dealt with. Even the comprehensive SED contributes little to filling in this blank spot, since its fieldworkers visited only two localities in Cambridgeshire. This matter is also discussed by scholars such as Trudgill (1990: 44), in his work The Dialects of England, in a chapter dealing with the pronunciation of Traditional Dialects. According to Trudgill, “This dialect area is probably one of the least known of all English dialects areas in the sense that few English people have preconceived ideas or stereotypes of what the dialect is like.” In particular, little attention has been paid to the morphosyntax of the county (but cf. Ojanen 1982, Vasko 2005 and Vasko 2010).


[1] For a map of the River Cam, see Vasko 2010c.

[2] The Mr Oliphant referred to by Miller & Skertchly is the writer of The sources of Standard English (1873).

[3] The Home Counties are the counties surrounding London: Essex (note the overlap with East Anglia), Hertfordshire, Middlesex, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey and Kent. http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Home+Counties 01.09.2009

[4] Cambridgeshire in Coates (1976) refers to Cambridgeshire with the post-1974 county boundaries, i.e. the former Isle of Ely, Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough are included.

[5] The dialect glossaries published by the beginning of the 20th century are listed in the Bibliography of Wright's English Dialect Dictionary, Volume VI. For some of those published since, see F. W. Bateson (1940: 45) The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature, I (600-1660) and G. Watson (1957: 30-32) Supplement.

[6] The first classification of English dialects was in fact published by His Imperial Highness Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (1876), who distinguished thirteen English dialects, eight of them “more or less transitional”. He noted the existence of a good many sub-dialects and an almost infinite number of varieties. The underlying assumption of Bonaparte was that English dialects were to be distinguished on a county basis (Viereck 1980: 25-26).

[7] One should not overlook the SED recordings, begun in 1953 and including at least one speaker from all but 76 of the 314 localities surveyed – this despite the fact that they are comparatively short (eight to ten minutes on average) (Klemola & Jones 1999: 19-20), and that none of them actually consists of a complete interview. A reason for this is that they were used primarily to gather incidental material, usually connected discourse of the ‘directed conversation’ type, and to check the impressionistic recordings of pronunciation (Francis 1983: 95).

[8] The localities from the neighbouring areas are: Warboys (Hu1), Kimbolton (Hu2), Great Chesterford (Ess1), Kedington (Sf4), Outwell (Nf7) and Therfield (Hert1), all very close to the county boundary.


Barraud, Enid Mary. 1946. Set my hand upon the plough. Worcester: Littlebury and Company.

Barraud, Enid Mary. 1948. Tail Corn. London: Chapman & Hall.

Bateson, F. W, ed. 1940. The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature I (600-1660). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baugh, Albert C. 1951. A History of the English Language. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul and New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Baugh, Albert C. 1993 (1935). A History of the English Language. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company.

Beauchamp, A. C. 1977. A study of Chatteris dialect. BA thesis, Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (CCAT), Modern Language project in linguistics.

Bloom, Alan. 1953. The Fens. Regional Books Series. Brian Vesey & F. L. S. Fitzerald (gen. eds). London: Robert Hale.

Bonaparte, Prince Louis-Lucien. 1876. “On the dialects of Monmouthshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, South Warwickshire, South Northhamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Middlesex, and Surrey, with a new classification of the English dialects”. Transactions of the Philological Society 16: 570-581.

Brook, George Leslie. 1963. English Dialects. London: André Deutsch.

Coates, Richard. 1976. “A history and annotated bibliography of the study of Cambridgeshire speech”. Cambridge College of Arts and Technology. Unpublished.

Conybeare, Edward. 1906. A History of Cambridgeshire. Popular County Histories. London: Elliot Stock.

Dack, C. 1889-1891. “Fen proverbs and sayings”. Fenland Notes and Queries 1.

Day, James Wentworth. 1954. A History of the Fens. London: George G. Harrap & Co.

Day, James Wentworth. 1974. Rum owd boys: on poachers, wildfowlers, longshore pirates, cut-throat islanders, smugglers & fen-tigers. Ipswich: East Anglian Magazine.

Dickens, C. 1884. Dictionary of the University of Cambridge. London: Macmillan.

Edwards, Viv. 1993. “A directory of English dialect resources: the English counties”. Real English: The grammar of English dialects in the British Isles, ed. by James Milroy & Lesley Milroy, 245-340. London: Longman.

Egar, S. 1889-1900. “Fen provincialisms”. Fenland Notes and Queries 1, 2, 3, 4.

Egar, S. 1907-1909. “Fenland Phrases and Folklore”. Fenland Notes and Queries 7.

Ellis, Alexander J. 1869-1889. On Early English pronunciation, with especial reference to Shakspere and Chaucer. Early English Text Society Extra Series. London: Trübner.

Ellis, Alexander John. 1890. English Dialects – their sounds and homes; being an abridgment of the author's “Existing Phonology of English Dialects”. English Dialect Society 60. London: Trübner.

Emerson, P. H. 1892. A Son of the Fens. Cambridgeshire Collection. London: Sampson Low, Harston and Company.

English Dialect Dictionary (EDD). 1898-1905. Joseph Wright (ed.). London: Frowde.

Fell, R. 1977. “Placenames of Three Cambridgeshire Parishes”. BA thesis, Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, Modern Language project in linguistics.

Fennell, Barbara A. 2001. A History of English: A Sociolinguistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.

Forby, Robert. 1970 (1830). The Vocabulary of East Anglia. 2 vols. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

Francis, W. Nelson. 1983. Dialectology: An Introduction. London: Longman.

Gambie, Fred. 1973/1974[?]. “My School Days: Fred Gambie remembers life for a farm labourer’s family living in Thriplow before the First World War”. A village booklet. Unpublished.

“Gamlingay Reminiscences”. 1973/74. A village booklet. Unpublished.

Gradus ad Cantabrigiam; or, a dictionary of terms, academical and colloquial, or cant, which are used at the University of Cambridge. 1803. London: W. J. and J. Richardson.

Grose, Francis. 1811 (1787). A Provincial Glossary; with A Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions, By Francis Grose, Esq. F. R. & A. S. S: A New Edition, Corrected. London: Edward Jeffery.

Halliwell, James Orchard, ed. 1842. The Jokes of the Cambridge Coffee-Houses in the Seventeenth Century. London: Tilt and Bogue.

Halliwell, James Orchard. 1847. A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century, volume I. London: John Russell Smith.

Hammond, Phil. 1975. “Remember before Dialect died, bor?” Cambridge Evening News. Jan. 10, 1975.

Hudleston, Nigel Andrew. 1957. Lore and Laughter of South Cambridgeshire. Cambridge: St. Tibbs Press.

Hughes, Thomas McKenny & Mary Caroline Hughes. 1909. Cambridgeshire. Cambridge County Geographies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ihalainen, Ossi. 1994. “The dialects of England since 1776”. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 5: English in Britain and Overseas: Origins and Development, ed. by Robert Burchfield, 197-274. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jennett, Seán, ed. 1972. Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely including Cambridge and its colleges. The Travellers Guides to the British Isles. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Joice, Dick. 1977. Arthur Randell, fenman, talking to Dick Joice. Bygones. Presented by Anglia Television, 1976. Ipswich: The Boydell Press.

Klemola, Juhani & Mark J. Jones. 1999. “The Leeds Corpus of English Dialects -project”. Dialectal Variation in English: Proceedings of the Harold Orton Centenary Conference 1998. Leeds Studies in English 30, ed. by Clive Upton & Katie Wales, 17-30. Leeds: School of English, University of Leeds.

Marshall, Sybil. 1967. Fenland Chronicle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matthews, William. 1972 (1938). Cockney Past and Present: a Short History of the Dialect of London. London: Routledge & Boston: Kegan Paul.

Miller, Samuel Henry & Sydney Barber Josiah Skertchly. 1878. The Fenland past and present. Wisbech: Leach and Son. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Moor, Edward. 1970 (1823). Suffolk Words and Phrases. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

Nall, John Greaves. 1866. An Etymological and Comparative Glossary of the Dialect and Provincialisms of East Anglia. London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer.

Ojanen, Anna-Liisa. 1982. A Syntax of Cambridgeshire Dialect. Licentiate thesis, University of Helsinki.

Orton, Harold, Stewart Sanderson & John Widdowson, eds. 1978. The Linguistic Atlas of England. London: Croom Helm.

Patterson, Susan. 1980. “Interpreting the Fens: People Places & Dialect”. Cambridgeshire Community Council. Unpublished.

Porter, Enid. 1969. Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Poussa, Patricia. 1995. “Substratum influence in the south-eastern lexicon: mawther and mawr”. Memorial volume in honour of Professor Ossi Ihalainen. English Department Studies 3, ed. by Kirsti Peitsara & Mary Hatakka, 138-152. Helsinki: Department of English, University of Helsinki.

Ray, John. 1674. A Collection of English Words Not Generally Used, With Their Significations and Original: in Two Alphabetical Catalogues: The One of Such as Are Proper to the Northern, the Other to the Southern Counties. English Dialect Society 6, Series B: Reprinted Glossaries XV–XVII. W. Skeat (ed.). London: Trübner. Revised and augmented edition 1691.

Reaney, P. H. 1943. The place names of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. English Place Name Society 19. Allen Mawer & F. M. Stenton (gen. eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, Amy & Bill Kirkman. 1977. Willingham Looks Back. Cambridge: Pendragon Press, Papworth Everard.

Skeat, W. W. 1901. The Placenames of Cambridgeshire. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. 8 vols. Series XXXVI.

Skeat, W. W. 1911. English Dialects from the Eighth Century to the Present Day. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stratton, Barbara. 1976. “A survey of phonological variables in Cambridge”. BA Thesis, Modern Language project in linguistics, Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.

Survey of English Dialects (SED). 4 volumes. 1962-71. Harold Orton et al. (eds.). Leeds: E. J. Arnold and Son.

Teversham, Traviss Frederick. 1958. “City Rotarians Told ‘Get to the Point – with Dialect’: Mr T. F. Teversham And a Hobby”. Cambridgeshire Independent Press 18 April.

Trudgill, Peter. 1974. The Social Differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 1990. The Dialects of England. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Trudgill, Peter. 2001. “Modern East Anglia as a dialect area”. East Anglian English, ed. by Jacek Fisiak & Peter Trudgill, 1-12. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Upton, Clive. 2000. “From the start there was the lexical item: a case for the dialectology of words”. Paper presented at The Fifth Conference of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE5), Helsinki, 25-29 August 2000.

Vasko, Anna-Liisa. 2005. Up Cambridge. Prepositional Locative Expressions in Dialect Speech: a Corpus-based Study of the Cambridgeshire Dialect. Mémoires de la Société Néophilologique de Helsinki 65. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique.

Vasko, Anna-Liisa. 2010. Cambridgeshire Dialect Grammar. Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English 4. http://www.helsinki.fi/varieng/journal/volumes/04/.

Viereck, Wolfgang. 1980. “The dialectal structure of British English: Lowman's evidence”. English World-Wide 1(1): 25-44.

“Village of Haslingfield: Some Notes on the History of Haslingfield”. n.d. Haslingfield Parish Council. Unpublished.

Wakelin, Martyn F. 1972. English Dialects: an Introduction. London: Athlone Press.

Wakelin, Martyn F. 1979. Discovering English Dialects. 2nd ed. Aylesbury: Shire Publications.

Widnall, Samuel Page. 1875. A History of Grantchester. Grantchester: printed, illustrated and published by the author.

Wright, Joseph. 1889-1905. The English Dialect Dictionary (EDD). London: Frowde.

Wright. Joseph. 1961 (1905). The English Dialect Grammar (EDG). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wright, Thomas (comp.). 1967 (1857). Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English: containing words from the English writers previous to the nineteenth century which are no longer in use, or are not used in the same sense, and words which are now used only in the provincial dialect. Detroit: Gale Research Company.