Death of the Chesterfield Accent: “Cheese” vs “Chays”.
Language, particularly accent, changes over time. Some may have noticed the influence of London in “fing” (thing) and “fought” (thought), innit? Or, the rising intonation that many would associate with Australia. But while we’re great at noticing incoming features to the Chesterfield accent, we might not be so good at recognising what the Chesterfield accent is, or remembering what it was.
Some people say that there isn’t a Chesterfield accent. Others say that it sounds “lazy”, like we’re all farmers, and “friendly” yet “aggressive”! Most mention the “aye up mi ducks” and “youth”. Some go as far as to say it’s the same as the Sheffield accent, or is becoming that way. Bolsover poet, J.R. Booker, wrote about Chesterfield/Sheffield differences in his poem, Fishin’ Dee-Dars (written sometime in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century). He begins:
Now, from Spiretown to Sheffield it’s only about 10 miles,
As the crow flies, it’s not very far,
But folk theer arnt Chezzies, they don’t talk like us,
Thas entered the Land of Dee-Dar…
Booker suggests that despite Chesterfield’s close proximity to Sheffield, people from Sheffield (Dee-Dars) speak differently to Chesterfield natives. However, he ends the poem joking that his Dee-Dar pal, Al, had influenced his own accent:
I asked how he’d gone on fishing
“Net full” he said, “And I’ve fished wi’ chays all day”
He’s got me this time. Squats, pinkies- I know ‘em all,
But what on God’s Earth is a CHAY? ...
Weeks later, summat happened,
And the twirling finally stopped
Al were locked art – he’d forgot his door-KAYS,
At last, at last! I could feel the penny as it dropped!
Al was a Dee-Dar rate enough,
It was Sheffield he was born and bred in,
Now I’ve put COIL in HOIL, I’ll have to gerra WESH,
Oh, my God – Dee Dar is spreading!!
This poem is funny, tongue-in-cheek, and observant. Whether Chesterfield accents are just like Sheffield accents is something that I’m exploring in my research, but I don’t think I’ll give the ending away if I say they’re not quite the same. While researching this, I found some interesting historical data about one aspect of Chesterfield’s accent that seems to have died out: The way that we pronounce “ee”.
The oldest record I’ve found about the pronunciation of “ee” in Chesterfield is from the 1880s/1890s in Samuel Pegge’s “Two Collections of Derbicisms” based on his observations from Old Whittington. Interestingly, Thomas Hallam wrote here that “the dialect of Whittington was representative in the 1880s/90s of the dialect area beginning in the north with Dore and Dronfield, extending south through Whittington, Chesterfield, Brampton, and Ashover, and ending in the south with Alfreton and South Wingfield” (p. xxv). Pegge observed that:
“ee is ẽi; feit, feet; cheise, cheese; apeice, apiece; especially in the Peak.” (p.ix)
While difficult to decipher, I think Pegge meant that something like “fate” is used for feet, “chays” for cheese, and “apace” for apiece. This suggests that the “ay” sound is used in words that usually have the “ee” sound across a large area of Chesterfield.
A much later record of this same pronunciation comes from a magazine produced for Robinson and Sons, called The Link. In March 1932, The Link published an article entitled “Broad Brampton” written by a member of staff using the pseudonym “Evitan” (which is “native” backwards). S/he comments on the unique nature of “Broad Brampton”, which s/he suggests was at one time different from the rest of Chesterfield (p.11). Evitan observes that the Sheffield dialect “encroaches” from the north as does the Mid-Derbyshire dialect from the south (p.11), so even then accent change was an issue. Yet, one example given of a then-surviving “Brampton” variant is the pronunciation of meat as “meight” (or “mate”). Together with Pegge’s observations, this suggests that the “ay” for “ee” pronunciation had been around since the 1880s, but was once wider spread across Chesterfield than they had realized. It’s possible that by the 1930s this feature had already started to die out, and was then local to Brampton but, potentially, the writer just hadn’t realized how widespread it remained.
One of the final examples of this pronunciation is from the 1950s, for the Survey of English Dialects (SED). The SED interviewed mostly elderly males from rural areas across England, because this was where traditional dialects were thought to survive. No one was interviewed in Chesterfield, but there is a recording of a Youlgreave farmer, who was born in 1879, made in 1955. Pegge had noted that the “ay” sound instead of “ee” was typical of “the Peak” in the 1880s, and it can still be heard in this farmer’s voice in the 1950s. The farmer can be heard to say nineteen as “ninetayn”, which appears to adhere to both Pegge and Evitan’s descriptions. It would make sense for this pronunciation to have died out first in the accents of central Chesterfield, where visitors from all over Derbyshire and beyond would have visited its markets, potentially influencing pronunciation, but remain longer in the speech of people in more isolated rural areas.
But finally, one thing does still bother me: Wasn’t J.R. Booker confused by his Sheffield pal’s pronunciation of cheese as “chays”? He thought this was a Sheffieldism, but might it once also have belonged to us Chezzies? After all, Pegge noted that the “Whittington” dialect extended as far as Dore; it’s not impossible to imagine this feature extending further to the land of Dee-Dar. Maybe we’re not so different, after all?
Finally, if you know anyone who still speaks this way, please contact me at C.Ashmore@shu.ac.uk
Words: Claire Ashmore
Illustration: Paul Chapman
Excerpts of Fishin’ Dee-Dar published with thanks to the family of J.R.Booker. References: Booker, J.R. (N.D.). Fishin’ Dee-Dars. Accessed from http://www.jrbooker.ukpoets.net/html/fishin__dee-dars.html; Evitan, (March 1932). Broad Brampton. The Link. Issue 56. Robinson and Sons. ; Pegge, S. (1896). Two Collections of Derbicisms, Part 1. Henry Frowde, OUP. ; Sounds (2016). ; Survey of English Dialects recording in Youlgreave, Derbyshire. (1955). Accessed from http://cadensa.bl.uk/uhtbin/cgisirsi/?ps=OKQAaPEMys/WORKS-FILE/135140049/123