Writing Dorset dialect: a treasury of words


William Barnes: a poet plucked from obscurity in a Dickens-like-happy-ending who wrote the Glossary of Dorset Dialect – which holds the key to understanding terms such as ‘ninnywatch’ and ‘Dumbledore’.

Some years ago, I got it into my head to set a story in the last years of peace before railways arrived ruined everything. As ideas go, it was predicated on some fairly heavy assumptions, but it had the advantage of being inspired by a pub. The pub in question is about 8 miles outside Wimborne Minster and is called The World’s End. So my first assumption was that there was once a time when you could maybe walk that far out of town but beyond that — well, that was the End Of The World, so everything beyond it was a mysterious realm of weirdness. And then, I assumed, the railways arrived and everything started to become ever more mundane.

What happened next was that I started doing research and my vision of a idyllic rural past collapsed like a sodden haystack. Railways came to Wimborne in 1847, around about the time the corn laws were making food prohibitively expensive, the enclosures acts were removing access to the common land that ordinary folk used as pasture; poor laws were damning struggling paupers to the workhouse, and the gradual mechanisation of farming was destroying all rural employment. I learned about the levels of infant mortality, lack of sanitation and the rates of emigration and I gradually realised that there really wasn’t that much for the railways to ruin.

But there was one discovery that cheered me up. I got my hands on a copy of William Barnes’ Glossary of Dorset Dialect. Originally published in 1867, this glossary is a rarity because Barnes was a complete one-off. He was in the unique position of having been born to a family of relatively poor farmers and subsequently receiving an education. This meant he grew up learning to talk with the local dialect, but then, because he was clearly too fragile for farming and showed some acumen at ‘book-work’ he was packed off to school and had the Dickens-happy-ending sort of good-fortune to be plucked from obscurity and sent to university. There can have been very few historical figures to have spoken Greek, Latin and fluent Dorset. And Barnes — bless him — he wrote it all down.

Readers would be spirited into a long-lost world of cider, button-making and eccles cakes…”

My first intention was to use Barnes’ Glossary to give my story flavour. I thought of it as a sort of linguistic spice rack. I would write Dorset characters and have them use a few authentic phrases and you, dear readers, would be spirited into a long-lost world of cider, button-making and eccles cakes. It was an irresistible idea because the phrases in the Glossary were delicious. There were just so many definitions that sang about the world they came from. The first one I employed properly was the word brags. To make one’s brags is to boast. So I got to write the sentence, “He was making his brags”.

Next came the old Dorset intensifiers. Some of these are still in use, others should be revived. Girt is still understood to mean ‘large’ and Banging makes it larger. A  banging girt bridge is larger than a girt bridge. It could also be Brushing, of course, which means much the same as Banging or even Lincen or Trimming. Although, whether a trimming girt hare is bigger than a lincen girt hare or smaller than a banging girt hare or a brushing girt hare is anyone’s guess—but it is clear that Dorset folk did not lack ways of saying that things were large. What sort of things would they have been talking about? It doesn’t much matter because anything complicated would have been called tackle. A Dorset man with aspirations to become a sailor and climb a ship’s mast would have wanted to get a-top all that tackle. That is, of course, unless he or she found the prospect a little intimidating, in which case, he might have called it a turk of a thing. There’s a self-confidence in this sort of one-word reductivism; a hint of humour too.

What I love most about these evocative phrases is how much they reveal a lot about the world they come from. What do you know — immediately — about a world in which it is an insult to call someone Cow-heart? If nothing else, it says they knew cows, and didn’t hold them in high esteem. And maybe it also reveals the true origins of the term ‘coward’ (more conventional etymology has it from the Old French couard — something to do with the tail).

There’s plenty to be learned from other Dorset insults and the things they insulted. Gawk-Hammer is a fool’s bladder, the implied meaning being ‘empty-head’ while the simple term Gawk, meaning ‘fool,’ is still in use through the phrase gawking (staring mindlessly). My personal favourite is Dough-beaked. It doesn’t take much interpretation to understand that a bird with a beak make of dough isn’t too useful. I also love the word, ninny, and its more capacious cousin, ninnywatch. Barnes’ explanation for this term is a feast:

“The following is a bit of talk about the word Ninnywatch between a worthy Dorset gentleman and two of his parish folks: “There see; the policeman told I somewhat that put me in a terrible ninny-watch.” And what’s that?” says I. “What does it mean?” “I d’know ‘tain’t got no meaning, sir; ‘tis only one they words we poor folk do use.” “Old P. tells me it means ‘trouble’” ”Trouble sir?  Don’t mean trouble no more than do mean Richard.” “Well then, how do you use it?” “Well, sir, if I’ve a-seed anybody in a-bit of a bumble about his work—a-peeping about—in a kind of stud, like—I’ve a-heard em say “What be you got a ninny-watchen about?” Ninny watch is most likely a “ninny’s outlook” as for he knows not what.”

There’s lots to that paragraph. You might have spotted the word ‘somewhat’ which is said, ‘zummit’, and sounds like ill-educated mispronunciation of ‘something’. But as Barnes points out, Dorset is logical and consistent in its structure. It uses somewhat alongside somewhen and somewhere, making conventional English seem the less consistent.

The Glossary contains more vignettes like the one above and they are revealing to a level that single-term definitions cannot achieve. Here’s another example; it is an explanation that accompanies the term ‘Dewbit’:

“The first meal in the morning, not so substantial as a regular breakfast. The agricultural labourers, in some parts of Dorsetshire, were accustomed to say that in harvest time they required seven meals in the day: dewbit, breakfast, nuncheon, cruncheon, nammit, crammit, and supper.”

Eagle-eyed readers will recognise this from Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring, in which one of the hobbits says much the same about the number of meals in a day. This link is unsurprising given that Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and it is evident that many of the obscure terms in Barnes’ Glossary can be traced to Anglo-Saxon roots.

There are other echoes of The Shire in Barnes’ Dorset. It has that same sense of homeliness and good humour. This is a people for whom a bumble-bee was a Dumbledore, a deep laugh was a hobble, a short laugh was a sniggle and who would label someone colourless as Dunducky.  If you were lazy you’d be slack-twisted, if you were brave they’d shout Good Jeminee! if you were strong, they’d say spry, or if heavy, they’d say soggy. And yes, soggy also meant damp and sinking, with the meeting of meaning around the notion of something being pulled down—sinking through weight or ‘sogginess’. It was a world in which the empty-headed were mocked, and concerns focussed on harvests, plants, animal disease and birds; there are innumerable references to birds.

For a word-obsessed writer it was all too much fun. However, after shamelessly cherry-picking Barnes’ Glossary, I started to be dissatisfied with the dialogue that I was writing because, even though it had a good Dorset tone to it, there wasn’t that truly authentic ring you’d find in Barnes’ poems. At first I told myself this was because I always veered away from phonetic spelling, but eventually I came to realise there were rules I was simply not following. I was using individual terms as spice, but the overall recipe was still modern. This revelation came with the words en and em.

En and em are not random terms, nor are they, as it first appears, phonetic representations of bad diction. They are particles of grammar. En is Dorset for him. And em is Dorset for them. So a Dorset woman would say “Don’t think that of en.” Importantly, Barnes insists these terms have good provenance. He traces them to Fresian and makes the link to the original language of the Angles, before it was corrupted by those uncouth marauding Saxons. En and em are grammatically correct within their own sphere. And there’s more to it than that. There are verb forms that follow Dorset rules. Much like the North German and Southern Scandinavian languages that would have given us the English of the Angles, Dorset has a strange sort of preterite and a complex present tense. So in Dorset, the verb is adjusted if it relates to a plural subject. One bird flies, but a flock of birds do fly. A man runs, but men do run. And the habitual context in which I do write is not the same as singular instance when I am a-writing.

With these different (and in some instances, complex) rules in mind, Barnes has no patience for the stereotype of the dim-witted yokel. His poetry champions Dorset dialect as almost a distinct language, but he also illustrates its deep roots in the Germanic and Norse origins of pre-Norman peasantry. This is not an ill-educated population so much as a society that retains a language (and therefore, presumably aspects of a culture) that was thought dead 800 years previously.

All this seemed to suggest that my original premise for writing about a world that ended eight miles outside the town was not as dough-beaked as I’d thought. For the language to have survived that long, the culture, the mentality and the manner of thinking of the people must also have survived—largely by them just staying put. When the Normans arrived they took control, but in the very act of doing so, they ensured the survival of Anglo-Saxon culture because the farm-workers were forced to stay in their villages. I was spurred towards deeper research.

The greatest extremity of my adventures into Dorset dialect was a teach-yourself course for learning Anglo-Saxon. Yes, such a thing exists and no, I didn’t become fluent. Not even sub-GCSE level. But I gained another insight into the style of thinking. Anglo-Saxon has its own thought-style. A way of melding terms to create evocative new phrases (called Kennings). It was a common Anglo-Saxon poet’s device to replace simple words, like ship, with something much more evocative, like wave-floater (wægflota). A dull Anglo-Saxon would say ‘the sea’, whereas a poet would call it a ‘whale’s way’ (hwæl-weġ). I brought a halt to my teach-yourself-Anglo-Saxon adventure because it became clear that while it was fun and helped me get more from Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, it wasn’t the same as learning Dorset dialect. the dialect took a form of its own

So I returned to William Barnes, immersed myself in his records, and eventually started writing. My aim was to create a sort of ‘restored’ Dorset dialect. I couldn’t re-create it, anymore than you can recreate an authentic 19th century farm, but I could manage a sort of restoration. Did I get it right? Maybe. You could spend a life-time studying and still not manage to quite get there. But I got close enough, I think.


The fourteen stories of ‘Crow Court‘ (Unbound) are steeped in Dorset dialect – pick yourselves up a copy using the discount code RULEBOOK to be immersed in a world of banging girt stories.

And I can tell you why I think that. The simple story I had originally planned grew larger and larger until it formed a whole novel, Crow Court.  As I was writing, I found that expressions came to mind that I hadn’t read and didn’t recall having heard. They just seemed right. I was making stuff up, which is what a novelist is supposed to do, but I was using a registry that sounded properly Dorset. In a key moment in a intricate plot, one of the characters tells his smuggling employer that he thinks the Customs men are onto them. This is how he says it;

“He’s snuffled your truffles, Charlie.”

Truffles, as you may well know, are fungi that grow underground. They are considered a great delicacy, but one of the best ways of finding them is by getting a pig to sniff them out. I don’t understand why the phrase, snuffle your truffles, doesn’t already exist. There is a meaning for ‘truffle snuffle’ but it’s rude and you’ll have to look that up yourself.

Another character came up with the expression “tickled his teats” meaning ‘pleased him’ – “You tickled his teats with somewhat…” I liked that because the language stays with farming and again, I couldn’t believe it didn’t already exist. Maybe it does, but I couldn’t find it. But my favourite moment of inspiration happened when one of my characters came up with the expression, “That’s a cat in a coop…” which refers to a cat getting into the hens’ enclosure. The advent of trouble, in other words. Again, why ‘cat-in-a-coop’ isn’t already an expression, I don’t know. It should be. It is now.

Perhaps I was overconfident making up my own terms, but I took it that the semi-spontaneous arrival of these inventions was a sign that I had steeped myself in Dorset dialect enough to have gained a feel for it. It seemed that way to me and it was thoroughly enjoyable to be writing with this gorgeous dialect in mind. Of course, I might be wrong—I might be totally delusional and the language might be completely off-key. I guess, ultimately, you’ll have to judge that for yourselves. Crow Court is lined up to be published by Unbound sometime early in 2020, but you can reserve yourself a copy by pledging support for the project on the unbound website; http://unbound.com/books/crow-court – just remember to use the discount code RULEBOOK to get 10% off.

For more information about William Barnes, his poetry and Dorset dialect, take a gander at the William Barnes society. Their website is here: https://www.williambarnessociety.org.uk/

About the author

AC Large.jpgAndy Charman was born in Dorset and grew up near Wimborne Minster. He has had short stories published in anthologies and journals. Crow Court is his first novel. He studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick, is married, has a daughter and now lives in Surrey. the first story to be finished, The World’s End, was originally short-listed in Cadenza magazine’s short-story competition in 2008, and was published in the anthology, Pangea, in 2012.




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