Is the Suffolk accent under threat of extinction?

PUBLISHED: 10:24 31 March 2020 | UPDATED: 11:40 31 March 2020

George Ewart Evans was born in Wales but settled at Blaxhall in Suffolk and spent his life collecting and recording oral history

George Ewart Evans was born in Wales but settled at Blaxhall in Suffolk and spent his life collecting and recording oral history

Why former EADT editor Terry Hunt believes the threatened extinction of the Suffolk accent is a catastrophe for our local heritage

How often do you hear the wonderfully rich, and often quirky, Suffolk accent nowadays? Not as regularly as in years gone by, I would wager.

Sadly, our unique way of speaking is on the endangered list and, if nothing is done to halt this terribly ‘disturbing trend, Suffolk’s distinctive accent will almost certainly disappear altogether within decades.

As has been well documented, the Suffolk accent has been under threat for years. For centuries, people tended to live, work and die in the same community as they were born. Hence, the way of speaking changed only very slowly.

In recent decades, movement has become much easier. People from other parts of the country, and indeed the world, have arrived in previously insular Suffolk communities. Their different accents have had a significant influence.

There is another factor. With the arrival of radio and TV, Suffolk people became aware of what supposedly ‘speaking properly’ sounded like. The Queen’s English, in other words. Since then, many parents have misguidedly reprimanded their children for using the Suffolk accent, chastisement inevitably including a message to ‘speak properly’. My own sad story is worth mentioning here.

As many of you know, I grew up in Cretingham, near Framlingham, in the 1960s. When I amazingly passed the eleven plus, in the absence of grammar schools I was sent to Framlingham College on a scholarship for ‘bright’ local boys.

On my very first day at the college’s junior school, Brandeston Hall, my broad Suffolk accent was ridiculed. Aged 11, I was desperate to fit in. So, overnight, my Suffolk accent was consigned to history. What a shame. I’m sure the pupils at Brandeston Hall are much more enlightened these days.

But does extinction of the Suffolk accent really matter? Well, yes. The way we speak is part of the unique character of our wonderful county. It is part of what being from Suffolk is all about. ‘Suffolk and Proud’, if you like. Let’s celebrate the Suffolk accent.

Make no mistake, it is one of the most difficult to mimic. You only have to recall the many hopeless attempts made by TV actors, who generally default to pseudo-West Country.

We cannot allow something so precious to die a slow, lingering death. Can you imagine the outcry if, say, the Liverpool or Geordie accents were under threat? I can’t see any parents in those parts of the UK telling their children to abandon the distinctive local accent.

All of this came to mind when I bumped into wonderful recordings made by George Ewart Evans of Suffolk characters in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. That collection, held by the British Library and available on the internet, is a goldmine. My personal favourites are the wonderful interviews with Sam Friend, from Framsden.

I knew Sam. He was a Suffolk horseman, born in 1888, who became famous locally, late in life, for his singing, dancing, and the stories he told which were recorded for posterity. His tales about the old days are precious. I don’t think young boys are sent out at night these days to catch sparrows for their mothers to put into a pie!

But just as evocative is the way he speaks. Even I struggle to understand some of what he says, and I grew up in the next village, at a time when most people spoke that way.

Thank goodness for the foresight of people like George Ewart Evans. Hats off also to Charlie Haylock, who works so hard to celebrate the Suffolk accent. But we all have a part to play.

If we are parents, or grandparents, we can encourage our youngsters to be proud of the local accent, instead of being embarrassed by it. We must all be aware of the danger of losing a precious part of our heritage.

As they say – use it or lose it.

George Ewart Evans was born in Wales but settled at Blaxhall in Suffolk and spent his life collecting and recording oral history. To listen to Sam Friend, and other Suffolk characters from the past, visit The George Ewart Evans Collection website here

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