The Devonshire Dialect Dictionary – Chronology of Lexical Items

Introduction · References · Bibliographic resources · Chronology · Guide · The Dictionary

Of those dialect words whose entry into the language has been recorded in this dictionary, the chronological span is considerable. According to Professor Barbara Strang [STRANG, 1970, repr. 1982, p.389], the word seine (“fishing-net”) is early West Saxon “seʒ́ne”, possibly even as early as fourth century continentally. If this is so, then the Devonshire dialect has a lexical history of 16 centuries! The etymon of the dialect word for caterpillar, “maskel” or “mawlscrawl” probably dates from the latter part of the seventh century: mascha = larva [OED]. In the eighth century, 5 dialect words are attested; in the ninth century 11 words, and in the tenth century 9. Thus, at a conservative estimate, the Devonshire dialect today can count nearly 30 words that were actually in use at a time when there were still Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the county.

If we group first attestations of Devonshire dialect words into the general periods of the history of English, we see that by 1200, roughly the end of the Old English period, 58 words had entered the language; by the end of the Middle Ages, in 1500, some 190 words had been added; in the following two centuries of the Early Modern English period another 338 words appeared; in the 1700s a further 190 words are recorded. The attestations of dialect vocabulary in the nineteenth century are extremely numerous, what with the growing interest in recording vernacular English, but since the 19th century publications of dialect are cumulations of earlier data (and even at times of themselves), it is difficult to judge what items actually originated in that century alone. Consultation of the OED does not solve this problem, since it too has incorporated most of the dialect glossaries extant, even obscure volumes such as Sarah Hewett’s “Peasant Speech of Devon” and Elworthy’s recherché “West Somerset Word Book”. Suffice it to say that Hewett has nearly a thousand headword entries in her work, and the “English Dialect Dictionary” over six times as many, approximately 6,250 EDD entries for Devon. The following chart gives an indication of the general growth of Devonshire dialect vocabulary, insofar as I have been able to date lexical items.

Geoffrey Dearson