My mother, Alma Hardy (née Britton), was the only one of Daniel and Alice Britton’s ten children to live her adult life outside of Devon. She left in her early thirties after she met and married my father, Cyril Hardy, a soldier stationed in Devon during World War 11. We spent most of my childhood years living in the Cotswolds, where the locals have the soft, rural accent of the West Country, but Alma always sounded a bit different and some of my friends didn’t understand her. My sister, Julie, and I would sometimes tease Mum. “Willy put the kettle on”, Mum requested. “Willy’s not here”, we would reply, “So who’s going to do it?”

Mum’s Devonshire dialect was diluted over the years, but some aspects were never lost. She had a propensity for referring to ‘people’ as ‘volk’ (folk) and saying that she would do something ‘dreckly’, when she meant the exact opposite of doing anything ‘directly’, which might commonly be understood as ‘immediately’. Dan Britton picked-up on this use of ‘dreckly’ in the lyrics of ‘Song of the Western Brittons,’ which you can listen to in the ‘Britton Songs and Videos’ section of this Hartland Britton Website.

Grandad Daniel Britton died when I was three, but I remember him commenting about me – then his toddler granddaughter, “Her be a proper little maid her be”. There’s a lot of Devonshire dialect in that one small phrase. There’s the use of ‘her’ rather than ‘she’ and ‘be’ rather than ‘is’. ‘Proper’ is a widely used adjective meaning something like ‘as it should be’, and ‘maid’ means ‘girl’.  As a young teenager I spent several summers with Mum’s sister, my Auntie Elsie Heal (née Britton). Her husband, Uncle Frank, had a broad Devonshire accent that completely bamboozled me. I tried to cover for my incomprehension by answering “I don’t know” to every question asked. “How many slices of meat do you want?” he asked, as he carved the roast. “I don’t know.” “Did you ride the horses today?”  ……… “I don’t know.” These days, if I dare attempt a Devonshire accent, it’s the phrases I learned at Auntie Elsie’s that come to mind.

  • “Where be ye gwen to?” (Where are you going?)
  • “I be gwen abed noo.” (I’m going to bed now)

I grew up and ‘moved away’, as Mum put it, and I’ve lived in Australia for most of my adult life. In 1981, I took my Australian husband, Lyall Hunt, to meet my UK family. Our cousin, Greta Ward (née Britton), organised an afternoon tea for the Brittons in the old school hall at Peter’s Marland, where mum and her siblings, and some of their children, had attended school. It was thought best to ‘mix us all up’ so that we could get to know each other. It was a good idea but I was apprehensive about Lyall. As he was whisked away from me I did see him as a lamb to the slaughter. Would he understand these people? He didn’t. But, no matter, because they couldn’t understand his Australian accent either.

Our cousin, Dan Britton, has similar memories. “When I was a teenager I took a friend called Wes down from Leicestershire to stay with Gran and Granf. Wes was from a farming background and I thought would have things to talk to Granf about, but I didn’t count on the clash of accents! I literally had to interpret as if they were speaking different languages! Wes would say something and Granf would look at me to interpret, then Granf would reply and Wes would look at me to decipher! Very funny for me, but a bit embarrassing for them!”

In 1988, Lyall and I took our children, Ruth and Sam, to the UK to meet their kith and kin. We attended a Britton family reunion that rolled into a country dancing evening, organised by our cousin, Marina Crocker. Lyall was not a fan of dancing. To use an Australian idiomatic expression, he considered it to be ‘Walking in agony’. So he looked askance at the prospect of an evening of country dancing. Various nephews and cousins saved the day and Lyall was carted off, at higher speeds than he might have liked on those narrow country roads of Devon, to a rather excellent pub at Sheepwash. I stayed and danced with my kids and spent much of the evening chatting with Auntie Elsie. When Lyall returned, she looked him in the eye and asked, “’ave ye been to church, then?” He responded in kind agreeing that he’d been to church. “That be the one where the prayer books ‘ave ‘andles, be it?” she enquired – meaning she knew that he’d been to the pub.

It’s not just the use of particular words that distinguish the Devonshire dialect. It’s also pronunciation, particularly of vowel sounds. This is difficult to describe in writing, but an example might be found in the word ‘about’, which in a Devonshire accent sounds more like ‘aboot’. On my first trip to Canada, in 1988, to meet the descendants of the Canadian Brittons, I became aware that their pronunciation of the ‘ou’ sound is close to the Devonshire accent. Rightly, or wrongly, I’ve concluded that the Devonshire accent has influenced the Canadian accent.

Gwen Britton

An interview with Gwen Britton

The Devonshire dialect has now been diluted by television, social media and migration into Devon. I wish we had recorded older relatives. Fortunately, Dan Britton did record his Gran, Gwen Britton, so we can still listen to her.