East Anglian English

East Anglian English

Linguistic East Anglia is a lot smaller than it was two hundred years ago, as the English of London and the Home Counties has encroached on the region; but East Anglian English is still spoken today in northeastern Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, except for the Fens of western Norfolk and northwestern Suffolk. This is, in essence, the area dominated by Norwich as the region’s largest city. Until the industrial revolution, Norwich was the second (or third or fourth) largest urban centre in England, but these days it is well down the list.


The English of the region is characterized by some distinctive grammatical features. The traditional East Anglian dialect had an interesting use of the word do as a conjunction meaning ‘or’ or ‘otherwise’:

  • ‘You better go to bed now, do you’ll be tired in the morning’
  • ‘I hope that don’t rain, do we shall have to go home’

And time was used in the sense of ‘while’:

  • ‘Sit you down time I get the dinner ready’

Modern East Anglian English grammar still has a number of special characteristics which you can readily hear if you walk around the streets of Ipswich or Norwich. East Anglian speakers use that rather than it, though only where it is the subject of a verb: ‘that’s raining’, ‘that’s cold in here’, ‘I’ve got a new book—that’s on the table’. When it is the object of a verb it is still used: ‘I’ve already read it’.

They will also say ‘I’m now coming’, rather than ‘I’m just coming’, and will give instructions using forms such as:

  • ‘Sit you down’; ‘Go you on’

And East Anglians also say:

  • ‘He say’; ‘She go’; ‘That hurt’; ‘He like her very much—Oh, do he?’

East Anglian forms are likewise evident in manuscript and published literature. In correspondence, Admiral Lord Nelson, who came from north Norfolk, wrote of how ‘Captain Lambert have been very fortunate’, and ‘The Lady Parker have done a great deal of mischief around the island’. In his Essex Ballads, published in Colchester in 1895, the journalist and inventor, Charles Benham, wrote:

I loike to watch har in the Parson’s pew
A Sundays, me a-settin’ in the choir;
She look jest wholly be’tiful, she do.
That fairly seem to set my heart a-fire.
(Miss Julia: the Parsons’ Daughter)

This very sensible verb system omits the –s which Standard English has in these forms—it is redundant, after all, communicating no meaning of any kind. One explanation for this streamlined system is that it came about as a result of the ‘invasion’ of Norwich and Colchester in the sixteenth century by the ‘The Strangers’, thousands of Protestant refugees fleeing from religious persecution by the Spanish in the Low Countries. By 1600 these Dutch and French-speaking refugees formed an astonishingly high proportion—about 35%—of the population of Norwich. And of course third-person –s is well known to cause difficulties for foreign learners of English.

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The refugees also added some words to East Anglian vocabulary. There are a number of places in Norwich, and other urban areas, which elsewhere would be called ‘squares’ but which are called plainsBank Plain and St Mary’s Plain in Norwich are examples—which remind us of the identical use of plein in northern Belgium and the Netherlands. They also left behind a number of other words such as dwile ‘floorcloth’ (Dutch dweil), fye out ‘clean up’ (Dutch vegen ‘to sweep’), and push ‘boil, pimple’ (Dutch puist ‘pimple’).

Certain other distinctive East Anglian words are due to the significant presence of Danes in the area for a couple of hundred years after the invasion of the Great Viking Army in 865: staithe ‘landing stage’, dag ‘dew’, dow ‘pigeon’, grup ‘small trench’, stroop ‘throat’. And the ‘b’ in the spelling of Tombland, an open area outside Norwich Cathedral, is a mistake. No tombs are involved—tom is still the modern Scandinavian word for ‘empty’.

Most local dialect words though are of purely Anglo-Saxon origin and include: dickey ‘donkey’, dodman ‘snail’, hutkin ‘finger protector’, mawkin ‘scarecrow’, mawther ‘girl’, gays ‘pictures in a book or newspaper’, milches ‘milts, the soft roe of male fish’, pit ‘pond’, quant ‘punt pole’, ranny ‘shrew’, sowpig ‘woodlouse’, and dene ‘ sandy area by the coast’ (dene is related to dune but does not mean exactly the same thing—dene can refer to flat areas of sand as well as hillocks). Bishybarnybee ‘ladybird’ is not an ancient word—instead it comes from ‘Bishop Bonner’s bee’. Bishop Edmund ‘Bloody’ Bonner, who had been vicar in the Norfolk town of East Dereham, became bishop of London in 1539 and was known as a ferocious persecutor of protestant martyrs during the reign of Queen Mary.

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The East Anglian accent is also very distinctive—and not very well known outside the area. It is typically rather badly imitated by actors, who infuriate East Anglians by putting on a West Country accent to indicate that they are meant to be in Suffolk. Rural East Anglians typically do not drop their ‘h’s, though truly local speakers in Ipswich and Norwich do. They pronounce words like David and naked  as ‘Dayvuhd ’, and ‘naykuhd’, like Australians and New Zealanders, rather than ‘Dayvidd’ and ‘naykidd’—East Anglian English may actually be one of the sources of the antipodean pronunciation. Many East Anglians also pronounce words like sure, pure, fury with the same vowel as nurse, so that surely is pronounced the same as Shirley. And older speakers may pronounce words like home, stone, boat with the short vowel of foot, so that boat and goat can rhyme with foot and put. A similar feature can be found in the northeastern USA, where it is called ‘the New England short o’. This comes as no surprise if we note that Massachusetts and neighbouring states are full of towns with names like Norwich, Yarmouth, Ipswich, Lynn, and Haverhill. Puritanism was a potent force in seventeenth-century East Anglia, and the Pilgrim Fathers included many migrants from this area.

The East Anglian do also found its way to the United States. One informant for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) wrote that during the 1920s in eastern North Carolina they remembered ‘hearing White people, speakers with moderate education, saying things like “Shut the door tight, do it’ll blow open before morning” and “Leave the note in the middle of the table, do she won’t see it”.’

Writers on East Anglian English have been predicting its demise for many decades now. In his Vocabulary of East Anglia, compiled in the 1820s, the philologist Robert Forby set out his concern that improved education and ease of transport would lead to the rapid disappearance of the dialect. It is true that the reach of linguistic East Anglia is now smaller than it was, and that the proportion of natives in the area is being reduced by in-migration from the Home Counties and elsewhere. But East Anglian grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are still alive and well, and still distinctive.

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