Highways and Byways in Sussex/Chapter 41

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French words at Hastings and Rye—Saxon on the farms—Mr. W. D. Parish's Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect—The rules of the game—The raciest of the words—A Sussex criticism of Disraeli—The gender of a Sussex nose—A shepherd's adventures—Sussex words in America—"The Song of Solomon" in the Sussex vernacular.

The body of the Sussex dialect is derived from the Saxon. Its accessories can be traced to the Celts, to the Norse—thus rape, a division of the county, is probably an adaptation of the Icelandic hreppr—and to the French, some hundreds of Huguenots having fled to our shores after the Edict of Nantes. The Hastings fishermen, for example, often say boco for plenty, and frap to strike; while in the Rye neighbourhood, where the Huguenots were strongest, such words as dishabil meaning untidy, undressed, and peter grievous (from petit-grief) meaning fretful, are still used.

But Saxon words are, of course, considerably more common. You meet them at every turn. A Sussex auctioneer's list that lies before me—a catalogue of live and dead farming stock to be sold at a homestead under the South Downs—is full of them. So blunt and sturdy they are, these ancient primitive terms of the soil: "Lot 1. Pitch prong, two half-pitch prongs, two 4-speen spuds, and a road hoe. Lot 5. Five short prongs, flint spud, dung drag, two turnip pecks, and two shovels. Lot 9. Six hay rakes, two scythes and sneaths, cross-cut saw, and a sheep hook. Lot 39. Corn chest, open tub, milking stool, and hog form. Lot 43. Bushel measure, shaul and strike. Lot 100. Rick borer. Lot 143. Eight knaves and seven felloes. Lot 148. Six dirt boards and pair of wood hames. Lot 152. Wheelwright's sampson. Lot 174. Set of thill harness. Lot 201. Three plough bolts, three tween sticks. Lot 204. Sundry harness and whippances. Lot 208. Tickle plough. Lot 222. Iron turnwrist [pronounced turn-riced] plough. Lot 242. 9-time scarifier. Lot 251. Clod crusher. Lot 252. Hay tedder." From another catalogue more ram=alogues, these abrupt and active little words might be called, butt at one. As "Lot 4. Flint spud, two drain scoops, bull lead and five dibbles. Lot 10. Dung rake and dung devil. Lot 11. Four juts and a zinc skip." Farm labourers are men of little speech, and it is often needful that voices should carry far. Hence this crisp and forcible reticence. The vocabulary of the country-side undergoes few changes; and the noises to-day made by the ox-herd who urges his black and smoking team along the hill-side are precisely those that Piers Plowman himself would have used.

Another survival may be noticed in objurgation. A Sussex man swearing by Job, as he often does, is not calling in the aid of the patient sufferer of Uz, but Jobe, the Anglo-Saxon Jupiter.

A few examples of Sussex speech, mainly drawn from Mr. Parish's Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect will help to add the true flavour to these pages. Mr. Parish's little book is one of the best of its kind; that it is more than a contribution to etymology a very few quotations will show.

Mr. Parish lays down the following general principles of the Sussex tongue:—

a before double d becomes ar; whereby ladder and adder are pronounced larder and arder.

a before double l is pronounced like o; fallow and tallow become foller and toller.

a before t is expanded into ea; rate, mate, plate, gate, are pronounced rėȧt, mėȧt, plėȧt, gėȧt.

a before ct becomes e; as satisfection, for satisfaction.

e before ct becomes a; and affection, effect and neglect are pronounced affaction, effact and neglact.

Double e is pronounced as i in such words as sheep, week, called ship and wick; and the sound of double e follows the same rule in fild for field.

Having pronounced ee as i, the Sussex people in the most impartial manner pronounce i as ee; and thus mice, hive, dive, become meece, heeve, and deeve.

i becomes e in pet for pit, spet for spit, and similar words.

io and oi change places respectively; and violet and violent become voilet and voilent, while boiled and spoiled are bioled and spioled.

o before n is expanded into oa in such words as pony, dont, bone; which are pronounced p[dot above o][dot above a]ny, d[dot above o][dot above a]nt, b[dot above o][dot above a]n.

o before r is pronounced as a; as carn and marning, for corn and morning.

o also becomes a in such words as rad, crass, and crap, for rod, cross, and crop.

ou is elongated into aou in words like hound, pound, and mound; pronounced haound, paound, and maound.

The final ow, as in many other counties, is pronounced er, as foller for fallow.

The peculiarities with regard to the pronunciation of consonants are not so numerous as those of the vowels, but they are very decided, and seem to admit of less variation.

Double t is always pronounced as d; as liddle for little, &c., and the th is invariably d; thus the becomes de; and these, them, theirs—dese, dem, deres.

d in its turn is occasionally changed into th; as in fother for fodder.

The final sp in such words as wasp, clasp, and hasp are reversed to wapse, clapse and hapse.

Words ending in st have the addition of a syllable in the possessive case and the plural, and instead of saying that some little birds had built their nests near the posts of Mr. West's gate," a Sussex boy would say, "the birds had built their nestes near the postes of Mr. Westes' gate."

Roughly speaking, Sussex has little or no dialect absolutely its own; for the country speech of the west is practically that also of Hampshire, and of the east, that of Kent. The dividing line between east and west, Mr. Cripps of Steyning tells me, is the Adur, once an estuary of the sea rather than the stream it now is, running far inland and separating the two Sussexes with its estranging wave.

Mr. Parish's pages supply the following words and examples of their use, chosen almost at random:—

Adone (Have done, Leave off): I am told on good authority that when a Sussex damsel says, "Oh! do adone," she means you to go on; but when she says, "Adone-do," you must leave off immediately.

Crownation (Coronation): "I was married the day the Crownation was, when there was a bullock roasted whole up at Furrel [Firle] Park. I dȯȧn't know as ever I eat anything so purty in all my life; but I never got no further than Furrel cross-ways all night, no more didn't a good many."

Dentical (Dainty): "My Master says that this here Prooshian (query Persian) cat what you gave me is a deal too dentical for a poor man's cat; he wants one as will catch the meece and keep herself."

Dunnamany (I do not know how many): "There was a dunnamany people come to see that gurt hog of mine when she was took bad, and they all guv it in as she was took with the information. We did all as ever we could for her. There was a bottle of stuff what I had from the doctor, time my leg was so bad, and we took and mixed it in with some milk and give it to her lew warm, but naun as we could give her didn't seem to do her any good."

Foreigner (A stranger; a person who comes from any other county but Sussex): I have often heard it said of a woman in this village, who comes from Lincolnshire, that "she has got such a good notion of work that you'd never find out but what she was an Englishwoman, without you was to hear her talk."

Frenchy (A foreigner of any country who cannot speak English, the nationality being added or not, as the case seems to require): thus an old fisherman, giving an account of a Swedish vessel which was wrecked on the coast a year or two ago, finished by saying that he thought the French Frenchys, take 'em all in all, were better than the Swedish Frenchys, for he could make out what they were driving at, but he was all at sea with the others.

Heart (Condition; said of ground): "I've got my garden into pretty good heart at last, and if so be as there warn't quite so many sparrs and greybirds and roberts and one thing and t'other, I dunno but what I might get a tidy lot of sass. But there! 'taint no use what ye do as long as there's so much varmint about."

Hill (The Southdown country is always spoken of as "The Hill" by the people in the Weald): "He's gone to the hill, harvesting."

Ink-horn (Inkstand): "Fetch me down de inkhorn, mistus; I be g'wine to putt my harnd to dis here partition to Parliament. 'Tis agin de Romans, mistus; for if so be as de Romans gets de upper harnd an us, we shall be burnded, and bloodshedded, and have our Bibles took away from us, and dere'll be a hem set out."

Justabout (Certainly, extremely): "I justabout did enjoy myself up at the Cristial Palace on the Forresters' day, but there was a terr'ble gurt crowd; I should think there must have been two or three hundred people a-scrouging about."

Know (Used as a substantive for knowledge): "Poor fellow, he has got no know whatsumdever, but his sister's a nice knowledgeable girl."

Lamentable (Very): This word seems to admit of three degrees of comparison, which are indicated by the accentuation, thus:—

     Positive—Lamentable (as usually pronounced).

"'Master Chucks,' he says to me says he, ‘’tis larmentable purty weather, Master Crockham.' 'Larmentȧȧble!' says I."

Larder (Corruption of ladder): "Master's got a lodge down on the land yonder, and as I was going across t'other day-morning to fetch a larder we keeps there, a lawyer catched holt an me and scratched my face." (Lawyer: A long bramble full of thorns, so called because, "When once they gets a holt on ye, ye dȯȧnt easy get shut of 'em.")

Leetle (diminutive of little): "I never see one of these here gurt men there's s'much talk about in the pėȧpers, only once, and that was up at Smiffle Show adunnamany years agoo. Prime minister, they told me he was, up at Lunnon; a leetle, lear, miserable, skinny-looking chap as ever I see [Disraeli, I imagine]. 'Why,' I says, 'we dȯȧn't count our minister to be much, but he's a deal primer-looking than what yourn be.'"

Loanst (A loan): "Will you lend mother the loanst of a little tea?"

Master (Pronounced Mass). The distinctive title of a married labourer. A single man will be called by his Christian name all his life long; but a married man, young or old, is "Master" even to his most intimate friend and fellow workmen, as long as he can earn his own livelihood; but as soon as he becomes past work he turns into "the old gentleman," leaving the bread-winner to rank as master of the household. "Master" is quite a distinct title from "Mr." which is always pronounced Mus, thus: "Mus" Smith is the employer. "Master" Smith is the man he employs. The old custom of the wife speaking of her husband as her "master" still lingers among elderly people; but both the word and the reasonableness of its use are rapidly disappearing in the present generation. It may be mentioned here that they say in Sussex that the rosemary will never blossom except where "the mistus" is master.

May be and Mayhap (Perhaps). "May be you knows Mass Pilbeam? No! dȯȧn't ye? Well, he was a very sing'lar marn was Mass Pilbeam, a very sing'lar marn! He says to he's mistus one day, he says, 'tis a long time, says he, sence I've took a holiday—so cardenly, nex marnin' he laid abed till purty nigh seven o'clock, and then he brackfustes, and then he goos down to the shop and buys fower ounces of barca, and he sets hisself down on the maxon, and there he set, and there he smoked and smoked and smoked all the whole day long, for, says he, 'tis a long time sence I've had a holiday! Ah, he was a very sing'lar marn—a very sing'lar marn indeed."

Queer (To puzzle): "It has queered me for a long time to find out who that man is; and my mistus she's been quite in a quirk over it. He dȯȧnt seem to be quaint with nobody, and he dȯȧnt seem to have no business, and for all that he's always to and thro', to and thro', for everlastin'."

Reynolds ("Mus Reynolds" is the name given to the fox): When I was first told that "Muss Reynolds come along last night" he was spoken of so intimately that I supposed he must be some old friend, and expressed a hope that he had been hospitably received. "He helped hisself," was the reply; and thereupon followed the explanation, illustrated by an exhibition of mutilated poultry.

Short (Tender): A rat-catcher once told me that he knew many people who were in the habit of eating barn-fed rats, and he added, "When they're in a pudding you could not tell them from a chick, they eat so short and purty."

Shruck (Shrieked): An old woman who was accidentally locked up in a church where she was slumbering in a high pew, said, "I shruck till I could shruck no longer, but no one comed, so I up and tolled upon the bell."

Spannel (To make dirty foot-marks about a floor, as a spaniel dog does): "I goos into the kitchen and I says to my mistus, I says ('twas of a Saddaday), 'the old sow's hem ornary,' I says. 'Well,' says she, 'there ain't no call for you to come spanneling about my clean kitchen any more for that,' she says; so I goos out and didn't say naun, for you can't never make no sense of women-folks of a Saddaday."

Surelye: There are few words more frequently used by Sussex people than this. It has no special meaning of its own, but it is added at the end of any sentence to which particular emphasis is required to be given.

Tedious (Excessive; very): "I never did see such tedious bad stuff in all my life." Mr. Parish might here be supplemented by the remark that his definition explains the use of the word by old Walker, as related by Nyren, when bowling to Lord Frederick Beauclerk, "Oh," he said, "that was tedious near you, my lord."

Unaccountable: A very favourite adjective which does duty on all occasions in Sussex. A countryman will scarcely speak three sentences without dragging in this word. A friend of mine who had been remonstrating with one of his parishioners for abusing the parish clerk beyond the bounds of neighbourly expression, received the following answer:—"You be quite right, sir; you be quite right. I'd no ought to have said what I did, but I dōānt mind telling you to your head what I've said a many times behind your back.—We've got a good shepherd, I says, an axcellent shepherd, but he's got an unaccountable bad dog!"

Valiant (Vaillant, French. Stout; well-built): "What did you think of my friend who preached last Sunday, Master Piper?" "Ha! he was a valiant man; he just did stand over the pulpit! Why you bēānt nothing at all to him! See what a noble paunch he had!"

Yarbs (Herbs): An old man in East Sussex said that many people set much store by the doctors, but for his part, he was one for the yarbs, and Paul Podgam was what he went by. It was not for some time that it was discovered that by Paul Podgam he meant the polypodium fern.

Such are some of the pleasant passages in Mr. Parish's book. In Mr. Coker Egerton's Sussex Folk and Sussex Ways is an amusing example of gender in Sussex. The sun, by the way, is always she or her to the Sussex peasant, as to the German savant; but it is not the only unexpected feminine in the county. Mr. Egerton gives a conversation in a village school, in which the master bids Tommy blow his nose. A little later he returns, and asks Tommy why he has not done so. "Please, sir, I did blow her, but her wouldn't bide blowed."

In the foregoing examples Mr. Parish has perhaps made the Sussex labourer a thought too epigrammatic: a natural tendency in the illustrations to such a work. The following narrative of adventure from the lips of a South Down shepherd, which is communicated to me by my friend, Mr. C. E. Clayton, of Holmbush, is nearer the normal loquacity of the type:—"I mind one day I'd been to buy some lambs, and coming home in the dark over the bostal, I gets to a field, and I knows there was a g[macron e][macron a]t, and I kep' beating the hedge with my stick to find the gēāt, and at last I found 'en, and I goos to get over 'en, and 'twas one of these here gurt ponds full of foul water I'd mistook for the gēāt, and so in I went, all over my head, and I tumbles out again middlin' sharp, and I slips, 'cause 'twas so slubby, and in I goos again, and I do think I should ha' been drownded if it warn't for my stick, and I was that froughtened, and there were some bullocks close by, and I froughtened them splashing about and they began to run round, and that froughtened me; and there—well, I was all wet through and grabby, and when I got home I looked like one of these here water-cress men. But I kep' my pipe in my mouth all the time. I didn't lose 'en."

The late Mr. F. E. Sawyer, another student of Sussex dialect, has remarked on the similarity between Sussex provincialisms and many words which we are accustomed to think peculiarly American. One cause may be the two hundred Sussex colonists taken over by William Penn, who, as we have seen, was at one time Squire of Warminghurst. "In recent years we have gathered from the works of American comic writers and others many words which at first have been termed 'vulgar Americanisms,' but which, on closer examination, have proved to be good old Anglo-Saxon and other terms which had dropped out of notice amongst us, but were retained in the New World! Take, for instance, two 'Southern words,' (probably Sussex) quoted by Ray (1674). Squirm:—Artemus Ward describes 'Brother Uriah,' of 'the Shakers,' as 'squirming liked a speared eel,' and, curiously enough, Ray gives 'To squirm, to move nimbly about after the manner of an eel. It is spoken of eel.' Another word is 'sass' (for sauce), also quoted by Artemus Ward.... Mrs. Phoebe Earl Gibbons (an American lady), in a clever and instructive article in Harper's Magazine on 'English Farmers' (but, in fact, describing the agriculture, &c., of Sussex in a very interesting way), considers that the peculiarities of the present Sussex dialect resemble those of New England more than of Pennsylvania. She mentions as Sussex phrases used in New England—'You hadn't ought to do it,' and 'You shouldn't ought'; 'Be you'? for 'Are you'? 'I see him,' for 'I saw.' 'You have a crock on your nose,' for a smut; nuther for neither; pȧssel for parcel, and a pucker for a fuss. In addition she observes that Sussex people speak of 'the fall' for autumn and 'guess' and 'reckon' like genuine Yankees." So far Mr. Sawyer. Sussex people also, I might add, "disremember," as Huck Finn used to do.

I should like to close the list of examples of Sussex speech by quoting a few verses from the Sussex version of the "Song of Solomon," which Mr. Lower prepared for Prince Lucien Buonaparte some forty years ago. The experiment was extended to other southern and western dialects, the collection making a little book of curious charm and homeliness. Here is the fourth chapter:—


1. Lookee, you be purty, my love, lookee, you be purty. You've got dove's eyes adin yer locks; yer hair is like a flock of goäts dat appear from Mount Gilead.

2. Yer teeth be lik a flock of ship just shared, dat come up from de ship-wash; every one of em bears tweens, an nare a one among em is barren.

3. Yer lips be lik a thread of scarlet, an yer speech is comely; yer temples be lik a bit of a pomgranate adin yer locks.

4. Yer nick is lik de tower of Daöved, built for an armoury, what dey heng a thousan bucklers on, all shields of mighty men.

5. Yer two brestès be lik two young roes, what be tweens, dat feed among de lilies.

6. Till de dee break, an der shadders goo away, I'll git me to de mountain of myrrh, and to de hill of frankincense.

7. You be hem purty, my love; der aünt a spot in ye.

8. Come along wud me from Lebanon, my spouse, wud me from Lebanon: look from de top of Amana, from de top of Shenir an Hermon, from de lions' dens, from de mountain of de leopards.

9. Ye've stole away my heart, my sister, my spouse. Ye've stole away my heart wud one of yer eyes, wud one chain of yer nick.

10. How fair is yer love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is yer love dan wine! an de smell of yer ïntments dan all spices.

11. Yer lips, O my spouse, drap lik de honeycomb; dere's honey an melk under yer tongue; an de smell of yer garments is lik de smell of Lebanon.

12. A fenced garn is my sister, my spouse, a spring shet up, a fountain seäled.

13. Yer plants be an archard of pomegranates wud pleasant fruits, camphire an spikenard.

14. Spikenard an saffron, calamus an cinnamon, wud all trees of frankincense, myrrh, an allers, wud all de best of spices.

15. A fountain of garns, a well of livin waters, an straims from Lebanon.

16. Wake, O north win, an come, ye south; blow upon my garn, dat de spices of it may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garn, an ait his pleasant fruits.