The Changing Norfolk Dialect

Professor Peter Trudgill

November 2013

Professor Trudgill is a respected academic in the study of languages and dialects. He is Professor at universities as far afield as Agder, Norway, La Trobe, Melbourne, and the UEA.  He’s also a Fellow of the British Academy.  But he’s a Norfolk boy born and bred, is Honorary President of the Friends of Norfolk Dialect, and writes regularly for the EDP.  His links to us are even closer, as he’s descended from Martham folk through his great-grandmother.  In a way, he was coming home!

A capacity crowd packed Martham Village Hall in November to hear international language expert, Professor Peter Trudgill, explain why we do that different here in Norfolk. 

Peter explained that England is divided into two main types of dialect.  Those from up north who keep their vowels short, and those from further south who are the ‘innovators’.  Yes, we heard it right.  Norfolk people are at the cutting edge of dialect change.  Originally everyone pronounced the ‘path’ and ‘bath’ with a short ‘a’ as in ‘at’.  Gradually from the 1700s, Londoners, and then southerners in general, started to pronounce it as ‘parth’ and ‘barth’.  This even explains why the Americans and Australians have such different accents.  Those in America descend from people who emigrated before the short vowels became longer, but early Australians emigrated after the change.

What became the Norfolk dialect used to be heard as far west as Hertfordshire and as far south as Essex.  But those in Norfolk and Suffolk resisted further change.  For example, most of the country drops the ‘h’ at the start of words.  We don’t, except in Norwich.  And our ‘sit you down’, ‘go you home’, and ‘shut you up’, all come from a medieval form of polite grammar.

However, Norfolk has its own innovations.  The dropping of the ‘t’ in the middle of words comes from Norfolk, and now everyone’s doing it.   But our pronunciation of words, like ‘roof’ and ‘road’, and saying ‘that’ instead of ‘it’, as in ‘that’s raining’ not ‘it’s raining’, is unique.

And there’s more.  Saying ‘he go’ and ‘she go’, not ‘he goes’ and ‘she goes’, dates from the late 1500s when 37% of Norwich citizens had fled Catholic Europe and didn’t speak English.  At that time, the word, ‘goeth’ was becoming ‘goes’, (Shakespeare used both forms), but those learning English in Norwich found it easier just to say ‘go’.  Certain words heard in Norfolk also date from the influx of ‘strangers’ or foreigners.  ‘Dwile’ (floor cloth) and ‘to fye out’ (clean up) were both originally Dutch words.  Also, Norwich’s Plains, as in Bank Plain, and St Andrew’s Plain, come from the Dutch ‘plein’ which means open area.  The word ‘staithe’ was originally Viking, whereas ‘loke’ was Anglo Saxon.

So, the Norfolk dialect is a mixture of the old and the new.  It’s unique but, like all language, is changing all the time.  This was a truly fascinating evening.

Nicola Hems


Professor Peter Trudgill

(Above: Professor Peter Trudgill)

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