Matthew Parris

George Eliot’s dialects live on in my corner of Derbyshire

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A slow reader but someone who has to plough through stuff for work, I skim and flick uneasily, and by middle age had almost completely lost my teenage habit of unhurried reading for pleasure. But in the last decade I’ve started again in a gentle way to read fiction and biography for amusement alone. It was George Eliot who tempted me back. Middlemarch fair blew me away. The Mill on the Floss followed, then Silas Marner. And while in Africa last month I decided to tackle her first novel, Adam Bede.

Eliot’s reputation has no need of my support. Suffice it to say she’s the reason I’ve never attempted a novel: after George Eliot, what would be the point? The chord she strikes in my soul resonates on every page.

But years of reading-for-work have left me almost unable to tackle a printed page without a pencil in hand; I make marginal notes reflexively, for no particular purpose. So reading Adam Bede in aeroplanes, hotels and on the road — and struck most forcefully with the similarity of the rural dialect in which her characters speak, and that of the more homespun natives of the Derbyshire-Staffordshire borders where I live today, I began to note down similarities and differences between her rural English and that spoken in the same places some 150 years later.

I’m pretty sure they’re the same places. ‘Oakbourne’ must be Ashbourne, of course; but, more tentatively, I think (from her physical descriptions) that Wirksworth is probably her ‘Stoniton’ or ‘Snowfield’. Insofar as the main story is set anywhere, I think it lies not far off the A515 road from Ashbourne to Draycott-in-the-Clay … but enough of my Derbyshire-centric theories. Here is my list of changes and similarities in language.

First, pronunciation: having as a local MP crowned unnumbered village beauty queens and smiled to hear the royals-for-a-day pronounce themselves ‘’Appy and hhonoured’, it’s sweet to find that country people were making just the same mistake when Eliot wrote. ‘He’ll be comin’ of hage this ’ay ’arvest, sir …’ says Mr Casson. But curious to note that ‘wonderful’ has entirely changed meaning (‘It’s wonderful she doesn’t love the lad’ means it’s strange); and ‘doubt’ has almost reversed its meaning: ‘ … for I doubt Adam’s heart is so set on her’ means the speaker surmises that indeed it is. This usage has now been lost in Derbyshire, as has the use of ‘country’ as a noun to mean not ‘state’ or ‘nation’ but ‘region’ or ‘part of the country’ (‘I could leave this country and go to live at Snowfield’). So has ‘careful’, used to mean ‘worried about’ — as in ‘Do not be careful and troubled for me, Adam.’

Lost not only in Derbyshire but in British English, but living on in American English, is Eliot’s characters’ use of ‘sure’ to signal assent (‘Yes, sure. Let me know if you’re in any trouble’). Likewise the use of ‘axed’ to mean ‘asked’: dead in Derbyshire, this survives in West Indian English. Only in French and Spanish, though, does ‘direction’ still mean ‘address’ today: ‘ … there might be a delay in the [letter’s] delivery, from his not knowing an exact direction’. And a really useful word Eliot uses in her own voice, ‘benignant’, seems to have been lost: a pity, because ‘benign’ is not quite the antonym of ‘malignant’ for which one sometimes searches.

I was fascinated by the weird and very common use of the word ‘nor’ in nothing like its present meaning but, it seems, to mean ‘than’: as in ‘for there’s more workmanship nor material in [cabinet-making]’ (meaning more value-added than raw material); or ‘An’ them French are a wicked sort o’ folks, by what I can make out; what can you do better nor fight ’em?’ Here the sentiment if not the phraseology seems to have survived!

Having for years railed against the sloppy modern and horribly Blairite (as I thought) use of ‘do the right thing’, I was depressed to encounter it falling from the estimable Adam Bede’s own lips a century and a half ago: ‘for I believe he’s one o’ those gentlemen as wishes to do the right thing, and to leave the world a bit better than he found it …’; but pleased to find the modern-sounding ‘in a minute’ used in the same way: ‘I’ll send for him in a minute.’ Likewise ‘my old man’ — meaning ‘my husband’. Or this: ‘They say the gaol chaplains are mostly the fag-end o’ the clergy’!

And here’s an oddity: ‘Yes; a young woman started from our country to see Dinah, Friday was a fortnight.’ Repeated use of this formulation suggests it meant ‘a fortnight last Friday’. This too has died out in the north Midlands.

But not the ubiquitous exclamation that Eliot renders ‘eh’ throughout, but which is almost certainly what we now render as the northerners’ ‘ee’ —  as in ‘Ee by gum’. Eliot’s notation causes me to realise that Derbyshire folk do not quite say ‘ee’ but in fact pronounce it rather closer to Eliot’s ‘eh’.  

Surprised once to find that French doesn’t seem to have an idiomatic way of saying ‘look forward to’ (anticiper avec plaisir is a bit plonking), I was interested to find that earlier 19th-century English doesn’t seem to have that sense of the phrase either: ‘This possibility heightened the anxiety with which he looked forward to Arthur’s arrival.’

‘Happen’ — meaning ‘perhaps’ — remains very familiar in Derbyshire: ‘He isna cliver enough for thee, happen; but he’d ha’ been very good t’ thee’. And almost as I write, those thees and thous are drawing their last breaths in isolated pockets of Derbyshire in 2012. My generation may be among the last to hear them used as part of daily idiom. How I’d love to walk with Eliot around Ashbourne market this Saturday, and tread the backways with her to Cubley, to Yeldersley and to Norbury; and let her see and hear the persistence, and the change. 

Written byMatthew Parris

Matthew Parris is a columnist for The Spectator and The Times.

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