Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

By Word of Mouth - How Your Ancestors Spoke


By Word of Mouth

[First published online in the now obsolete Discover My Past England] 

How do your family refer to death? As somebody ‘kneeling at the big gates,’ somebody ‘called to higher service,’ or somebody ‘crossing the bar’?  From whatever terms in which the information is expressed, you may learn something about your family history. The first is a likely indication of a Catholic inheritance, the second an expression commonly used by members of the Salvation Army, the third derives from a Victorian poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson indicating, perhaps, that the speaker (or those from whom he learnt the expression) has benefited from a good education.

Many proverbs and euphemisms are known by just about everybody in Britain, but there may be some that you have only heard within your own family. If these sayings are not common in the local area, you should consider them as all the more interesting. There are  a few topic areas in which regional differences of language are particularly apparent. Think about the words your family uses to describe emotions, (e.g. happy, angry, moody, grumpy, pleased, annoyed, jealous), personal appearances, food, getting drunk, going to the toilet, having sex, the devil, the police, and swearing.

Clues to your family history may also occur in songs and rhymes, or even in isolated phrases and words that have been passed down from one generation to another. When you speak to any member of the older generation, listen carefully to the way they speak. Traces of accents, odd words for common objects, riddles, limericks, tales and ditties may all betray aspects of their past. 


Language may say a great deal about your ancestors including:


·       Which Country They Came From




Individual words, proverbs and sayings can help you to trace your ancestors’ roots if they came to Britain from other countries. Nineteenth-century Irish immigrants to Liverpool and the West of Britain brought with them such colourful phrases as ‘Don’t give cherries to pigs or advice to fools, ’ and ‘A dimple in the chin; a devil within.’

If your ancestors came from other non-English speaking countries, they may have brought with them proverbs and sayings which when translated into English sounded more than a little odd. For example Italians brought the phrase, ‘When the wine is in, the wit is out’ and people of Czech origin are said to be responsible for the expression ‘He who cannot cut the bread evenly cannot get on with people!’

·       Which Region of Britain They Came From

Language may also betray which part of Britain your family originally came from. A relative may be talking in Standard English and then suddenly drop in a word such as ‘glee-eyed’ (meaning ‘cross-eyed’) suggesting that they (or their ancestors) must have been Geordies. A noticeable regional accent on certain words is also a dead giveaway to places of origin. In Lancashire, for example, ‘poached’ was traditionally been pronounced as ‘porched;’ book as ‘bouk;’ tea as ‘tay.’ In Somerset, warm was pronounced ‘wearm’ and wasp, ‘wopse.’

Grammatical constructions can be different in areas of the country located a long way from the seats of power. In Somerset and Devon, for instance, it is still common to hear the verb ‘to be’ conjugated as follows: ‘I be,’ ‘Thee bist,’ ‘He be,’ ‘We be,’ ‘Thee ‘rt,’ ‘They be.’ Some of these grammatical deviations from Standard English date back centuries and remind us of the longer history of Britain (in this case of the Saxon invasion of the West Country).


·       Their Religion and/or Culture


Language can contain clues to your family’s traditional religious and cultural beliefs. Catholics – even no longer devout branches of the family -  may refer to ‘the bell, book and candle.’ A Jewish inheritance may be apparent in the occasional use of untranslated words from Hebrew, Yiddish or German such as ‘chutzpah’ (meaning ‘cheek’) or  ‘schlep’ (meaning ‘drag’).


·       Their Level of Education



Regular recourse to quotations from Shakespeare or other ‘great’ authors may suggest ancestors who had a good (and perhaps a private or grammar school) education.


·       Their Occupations


Ancestors who worked on farms may have left a colourful legacy of rural expressions. ‘She’s ugly enough to wean a foal and ‘He’s as sulky as a bull’ are two delightful examples from Cheshire. Some occupations went even further. The miners of the North-East (Northumberland and Durham) coalfields had their own language known as Pitmatic. This differed from traditional Geordie in a number of ways not least in the large numbers of words it included associated with life in the mines. Other occupations such as maritime, medical, military, and legal professions may be reflected in the language your family still uses.


  • The Lives Of Their Womenfolk
Women, especially working-class ones have left little mark on the written record of previous centuries. But their presence can often be felt through inherited oral culture including rhymes, poems, stories and songs. My great-grandmother Mary Wilkinson worked in domestic service as a single woman and on her marriage took in washing as means of earning a living. The following ditty may not have originated with her, but its survival in my family is one means by which her hard toil is till remembered:

When you’re married and in the tub

Think of me between every rub

Be the soapsuds ever so hot

Lather away and forget-me-not.

There is, of course, a limit to what you can learn from the language and sayings that your family use. Many phrases that were once regional or perhaps appropriate to just one profession are now employed by just about everyone. People today, of course, move about more than they ever did (for schooling, work and leisure purposes) and they pick up vocabulary and mannerisms of speech from all sorts of places. Also, the mass media, provides us with regular examples of people speaking in other dialects -  and we inevitably incorporate some phrases learnt here (not least phrases from American and Australian English) into our own ways of speaking. At the same time, our education increasingly encourages us to abandon our dialects and adopt Standard English and Received Pronunciation. All these factors mean that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to place people (either geographically or in terms of class) from the way they speak.

Nevertheless, any aspect of language used by your family that strikes you as odd or unusual is worth scrutinising more carefully. You never know when a stray word or colourful expression may lead you unexpectedly back into the past.



Useful Books



Bill Griffiths, Pitmatic The Talk of the North-East Coalfield, Northumbria UP, 2007

Arthur Hughes, Peter Trudgill and Dominic Watts, English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles. Hodder Arnold, revised edit., 2005.

James Jennings, The Dialect of the West of England Particularly Somerset, The Echo Library, 2005.

Diarmaid O’Muirithe, Irish Words and Phrases, Gill and Macmillan, 2002.

David Paynter, Clive Upton and J. D. A. Widdowson, Yorkshire Words Today: A Glossary of Regional Dialect, Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1994.


Julian Sinclair, Let’s Schmooze: Jewish Words Today, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007.

Peter Wright, Lanky Twang: How it is Spoke, Dalesman Publishing, 1972.


Useful Websites



http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/ British Library pages on regional dialects.


http://www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/accents.html#survey The British Library Sound archive including collections of accents and dialects from around Britain.


www.ohs.org.uk  The Oral History Society.


www.quotationspage.com Usefully lists quotations by topic giving some idea of their origins.


http://www.britishempire.co.uk/glossary/glossary.htm Glossary of terms assimilated into English by virtue of British Imperial activity

Keywords: European ancestors, Europe, ancestry, family history, genealogy, oral history, England, English, language, immigrants, immigration, regions, regional, British Isles, UK, England, English, Irish, Jewish

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