John Cary's Map of Hertfordshire (1787)

Tongue Tied

5th August 2011

Do you speak Hertfordshire, asks Clare Finney

If there’s one thing that I really wanted when I was younger – more than Italian blood, more even than a baby doll that cried real tears – it was an accent. It wasn’t a completely outlandish request; my dad is from Aberdeen, while my mum’s family hails from a part of the country as famous for its accent as it is for its tea and its puddings. Yet whereas my dad still ‘takes a wee luk’ and rhymes ‘food’ with ‘foot’, my voice continues to sound just how you’d expect a Kensington-born girl raised in the Home Counties to sound: bland.

It was with managed expectations, therefore, that I set out to discover whether the voice of my own home county of Hertfordshire has any of the unique vocabulary or pronunciations that mark England’s more interesting accents. I’d been inspired by the British Library’s Evolving English exhibition: a three room, 300-exhibit-strong exploration of the English language from AD450 to the present day. The old copies of Punch and the letters from Swift’s Proposal were remarkable; the original King James’ Bible even more so. Yet the item that struck me most was an educational guide, published in 1582 by the head-master of our very own Merchant Taylors’ School.

‘Forenners and strangers do wonder at vs, both for the vncertaintie in our writing, and the inconstancie in our letters,’ writes Sir Richard Mulcaster disapprovingly in his Elementarie, before setting out rules and suggestions for over 8000 words.

Over half of Mulcaster’s proposals are still in use today. Adding a silent ‘e’ to show long vowels (to distinguish between ‘mad’ and ‘made’, for example), removing the doubling of letters after short ones (‘had’ rather than ‘hadd’) – all these rules and many more can be attributed to the headmaster of one of Hertfordshire’s most prestigious local schools, and, while being the birthplace of the original spelling bee might not be hugely exciting, it was a start.

Honorable though these contributions towards the spelling of English were in general, they still didn’t explain how the dialect of Hertfordshire, in particular, developed – nor how, having done so, it managed to fall off the academic agenda. Wandering wistfully through the ‘Accents & Dialects’ section of the exhibition, I found studies of Scouse, critiques of Cockney, whole guidebooks devoted to Geordie. Yet when it came to the humble Hertfordshire tongue, there was barely a murmur. A short interview recording with a family from Watford seemed to be all that stood between us and linguistic obscurity. Are our voices really that featureless?

To find out, I tracked down Jonnie Robinson, lead curator of sociolinguistics at BL and the main mind behind its exhibition. A resident of fellow Home County Buckinghamshire himself, Jonnie agrees the area’s dialects were often overlooked. He argues, however, that it was the significance, not the insignificance of the tongue that had lead to its marginalisation.

“Standard English [the English that, up until very recently, was deemed right and proper by teachers and authorities] developed from the English used in the Home Counties and particularly in the London-Oxford-Cambridge corridor,” he explains. And of course, Hertfordshire, we need hardly point out, is “slap bang in the middle of that area”.

Situated so near London, it was at the centre of the country “economically, politically and socially”, while, with commuters having dominated the area for years, it had a disproportionate number of middle class city workers in what would otherwise have been a small and rural population. With the expansion of the middle class and an education system which thanks to people like Mulcaster derived from their ‘norms’, it really is little wonder that by the end of the twentieth century the dialect was so mainstream that it seemed bland.

Such conclusions, argues Jonnie, are both misleading and reductive. Had York remained the capital of the country then it would be their broad ‘nowts’ and ‘ey ups’ that were deemed normal, and our own voices that would be considered strange. “It is still the south east of England,” Jonnie points out, “so it is still a dialect of English. We only call it Standard English because of our view of London, and because it percolated through the education system”.

It might seem that we became the victims of our own success. Yet Jonnie maintains that there is a lot more to the language of Hertfordshire and Middlesex than its ‘Radio 3’ status. “As with any area the more you pick away at it the more you realise it has linguistic interest,” he explains and, to demonstrate, he points to a few of its more distinctive words and expressions.

Most of these are so everyday that it is almost impossible to believe they’re not used elsewhere. Plimsoll, for example – a word which dominates most school uniform lists - would be unrecognisable in the north (where they call children’s gym shoes ‘pumps’) or in the west country (‘daps’). In Watford, wounds fester; in Wolverhampton, they gather. Equally prone to being lost in translation is the common slangword ‘bunking’; not because they don’t miss school north of the Watford Gap, but because when they do it’s generally called ‘playing truant’. Another north/south divide is ‘stew’ vs ‘brew’ (for a pot of tea). The very fact that we don’t expect these differences is testimony to just how ‘standard’ we assume our dialect to be.

In fact, as far as pronunciation is concerned you could argue that it is anything but. Prolific though the clipped, polite tones of Standard English might seem, the range of pronunciation across Hertfordshire easily exceeds that in other counties.

“One of the things that linguists tend to stress about the home counties is that it is not a single linguistic beast,” Jonnie explains. “It’s got a range of voices according to social class, occupation, education, social background… A county like Hertfordshire compared to, say, Yorkshire will find much greater differences in pronunciation between town and country – between rural Hertfordshire and Watford or one of the New Towns.”

Much of this is, again, down to the presence of the commuters who cluster around the county’s train stations and rarely hail from the area. The Hertfordshire language has also been the victim (or beneficiary) of the various upheavals that came with the clearance of London slums, the expansion of the suburbs and the creation of New Towns after the Blitz.

“Migration patterns show that out-migration after the war to places like Hertfordshire has had a huge impact on the voices you hear. Seventy years ago Watford was far more rural and New Towns like Stevenage didn’t exist. This was a rural county populated by the rural working class.” Since then their voices have been progressively drowned out by Londoners in a process that has popularly been dubbed as ‘Estuary English’.

In many ways this term is misleading, says Jonnie. “You get the media quite obsessed with Estuary English, saying everyone sounds like Londoners these days. Yet this is not London English proper. It’s a sort of diluted form of London English that is spoken in parts of the home counties by some social groups because they are the descendants of Londoners, living in rural Hertfordshire and mixing with the more rural voices that were originally there”.

Today these softer, original Hertfordshire voices are hard to come by. Peer pressure – the main agent of all linguistic change – ensures that “even if your parents are the most rural working class people on earth, if you mix with people from other backgrounds you’ll adjust your voice to fit in.” Schoolkids vie for vocal conformity, commuters bring the office home, and in the end what emerges is a sort of ‘halfway house voice’ between inner city London, the rural working class and the middle class commuters.

Venture a bit deeper into the countryside, however, and you might be surprised at what you hear. In the 1950s the BBC made some recordings of some Hertfordshire farmers – rural people whose families had lived and worked on the land for over three generations. The results – a huge data bank of local words and pronounciations – are quite astonishing to modern ears.

‘Price’ becomes ‘proice’. ‘Mouth’ becomes ‘Ma-ooth’. A mid-morning snack is called a ‘bever’. ‘Rs are emphasised. It all sounds a bit Farmer Joe – but, as Jonnie points out, “these were farmers. Those ‘ou’ vowel sounds are far more London-esque now: ‘maath’ [mouth], haase [house]’, but nonetheless, that pronunciation of that vowel isn’t absolutely London. It’s not like you’d hear in Eastenders.”

Very few native speakers are still around these days. We are more than ever a place of transience, and while in other counties you will find towns where many families have lived for generations, down here it’s difficult to think of one.

This makes our ‘language’ rather difficult to define; most linguists agree Hertfordshire is part of a “continuum of south east dialect”, not something that can really be studied in isolation. But it also makes us unique. Where places like Sheffield offer a window into the past as their dialect is handed down father to son, the volatile population of Hertfordshire and the home counties means it shifts and mutates almost yearly.

My own voice, marked by London, family and school, is very different from that of the drawling Hertfordshire of yore. My brother, six years and several dropped ‘Hs’ younger, is different again. On their own such small mutations seem barely worth mentioning. Together, Jonnie believes, these incremental changes are what have made Hertfordshire “like a mirror into the future of English”.

For more info, visit the online dialect archive at and/or the 'Map Your Voice' project
that ran during the Evolving English exhibition at
The BL and the 'Map Your Voice' project hope to issue renewed calls for contributions on this platform.
Jonnie Robinson did mention that more contributions from Hertfordshire people would be very welcome…

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