While doing a little background reading into more historical accounts of the Somerset dialect yesterday, I found this rather intriguing entry by Ossi Ihalainen (a Finnish Linguist who has studied much of the South West of England’s dialects – particularly Somerset) in the Cambridge History of the English Language. It comes from Daniel Defoe – best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe – who took a tour around Britain and wrote about it in the rather obviously titled Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Britain in 1724 (ish) . In that, about Somerset, he wrote:
It cannot pass my Observation here, that when we are some this Length from London, the Dialect of the English Tongue, or the Country way of Expressing themselves in not easily Understood… (I)t is so in many Parts of England besides, but none in so gross a Degree as in this Part; This way of Boorish Country Speech,m as in Ireland, it is call’d the Brogue upon the Tongue; so here ’tis call’d Jouring… It is not possible to Explain this fully by writing, because the Difference is nor so much in the Orthography of the Words, as in the Tone, and Diction; their abridging the Speech, cham for I am; chil for I will, don, for put on, and Doff, for put off; and the like.
About a school in Martock, he wrote:
(H)is lesson was in the Cant. (Song of Solomon) 5.3. of which the Words are these, ‘I have put off my Coat, how shall I put it on, I have wash’d my Feet, how shall I Defile them?’
The Boy read thus, with his Eyes, as I say full on the Text. ‘Chav a Doffed my Cooat, how shall I Don’t, Chav a wash’d my Veet, how shall I Moil’em?’
Now – you can read the further discussion of this in the Cambridge History of the English Language (p.198). But what interested me about this was the use of ‘ch’ in place of ‘I’ in the amalgamation of ‘I am’ (‘chav’). Other sources tell us that ‘I’ was pronounced in Somerset as ‘ich’ for a while, although according to Ihalainen, by reading local author Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones he is unsure as to whether this was still in use by the early 18th century. I have never heard this myself, so find that intriguing. It may still be in use in some parts of the county – or perhaps it has now passed into obscurity. I can’t tell from Defoe’s description whether ‘ich’ is pronounced ‘itch’ or ‘ick’. The use of the ‘ch’ would suggest the former, but that doesn’t seem like a natural alternative, especially when we consider that it is likely to have come from the Old English ‘ic’ for ‘I’.
This all highlights some of the challenges that historical linguists have when trying to determine when a change has occurred and in what way. As Ossi Ihalainen points out, we can’t really know if features such as ‘chav’ for ‘I have’ really represented the pronunciation of ‘ich’, and even if this was still in use when Henry Fielding was writing Tom Jones because the author may have chosen to eliminate some of the linguistic features of Somerset in the speech of some of the characters in order to make it more accessible to the wider English population.
Of course, that is merely speculation on my part. If any Somters know better, I’d love to hear from you!