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Linguistic East Anglia

Together with the county of Norfolk and parts of north-east Essex, Suffolk represents the core of ‘linguistic East Anglia’. Within this region, dialect varieties have been subject to much change due to their tumultuous histories over the years, and this continues to the present day. 

From a historical perspective, Suffolk and Norfolk formed the Kingdom of the East Angles, which was an independent kingdom formed in the early 6th Century. This independence came to an end when, following the death of Edmund the Martyr, the region saw a permanent Viking settlement. However, this wouldn’t last for long as, following many attempts to stave off aggressions from the Kingdom of Wessex, East Anglia finally became part of Wessex in 917. It took another 100yrs for the region to gain part of its former identity through the naming of the Earldom of East Anglia, which included Suffolk and Norfolk. 

Rural Suffolk - Photographed by James Phillips

The Viking (particularly Danish) legacy remains clear for all in the region to see, even in the present day. It’s important to note that the type of settlements and integration by the Vikings during this period was much closer and ‘day-to-day’ than we’ve seen with other invading forces (such as the Normans) and, as such, this contact led to an established shared cultural history and markedly different types of language influences. Most prominently, this can be seen in the place names the county boasts, including Thwaite (meaning isolated piece of land, clearing or meadow), and ‘-toft’ (meaning, simply, plot or piece of land) in Lowestoft ( - Hloðvér's land). Other naming elements of the region include:

‘-by’: meaning ‘farmstead’ in Danish (and also ‘village’, hence the term by-law).

There are approximately six hundred place names across the country integrating this Danish marker, with Suffolk names including – Ashby (ash+farm), Barnby (child’s+farm), and Risby (brushwood+farm).

and ‘-thorpe’ : meaning ‘daughter settlement’ or ‘outlying farmstead’.

There are approximately three hundred place names incorporating this marker across the country, but, within the county of Suffolk, we have – Ixworth Thorpe (now known as simply Ixworth, outlying farm belonging to Ixworth), Westhorpe (outlying farm to the west) and Thorpe Morieux (outlying farm of the Morieux family). 

However, it’s not just Old Norse influences which have left a mark on Suffolk’s identity. The geographical structure of the region, with shipping and fishing industries to the east and more isolated agriculture to the west, has left the region linguistically divided in its development. Indeed, Ellis notes in 1889 that, whilst there are some features which pervade across the county (such as er and ur becoming (aa) - as in Thursday ‘thaazdi’), ‘it seems necessary to distinguish two varieties, e. and w., which appear to be tolerably distinct’. Of note, Ellis observes that pronunciation differences between East and West Suffolk include the differing vowels in words such as name – with West Suffolk pronouncing more ‘naim’ (rhyming ‘time’), and East Suffolk more akin to ‘neem’ (sounding like the vowel in ‘them’, but longer). However, there was also much variation noted across vowels in the region. For example, washing was realised with a long ‘a’ in Pakenham (waashin), a more rounded ‘or’ type vowel in Framlingham (woshan), and an ‘e’ type vowel in Southwold (weshan).

Finally, and, probably, most famously, Suffolk (and East Anglia), is well-known for its lexical variation, or distinct traditional words and phrases. Whilst conducting dissertation research at the University of Suffolk, Angela Bell (2023) investigated the status of many Suffolk words and phrases. Using a three-part methodology, her results show that only participants over the age of 42 were able to identify more traditional words, such as jackeys (frogs/ toads), snob (cobbler), bishybee (ladybird/ladybug), and having a mardle (chatting). Unfortunately, this suggests a decline amongst her research population in the awareness of these heritage words. However, whilst there was a sense of negative attitudes relating to the Suffolk identity (borne from the national image it has adopted), there was also a sense of positivity and pride in dialects being part of local heritage. Therefore, whilst we may sometimes feel the pressures of conforming to the trends and demands of modern life, the words we speak and the sounds from which we make them cannot disguise the ongoing evolution of our region and the magnificent history encoded within.

Dr Jenny Amos, Senior Lecturer at the University of Suffolk 


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