Rolling R’s in Haslemere?

Rolling Rs, mouth vowels and scribs – can you still tell our born and bred? 

As Haslemere CLT continues its search for sites, and Londoners snap up more prime property, Martin James listens out for the authentic voice of the true locals – but does a local accent still exist?

You get some funny looks when asking High Street passers-by to repeat this sentence: “I work 14 hours Saturdays for a far older farmer.” But doing so carries less risk than a question such as “Excuse me, madam, do you roll your Rs?” which is likely to get your face slapped. 

After recently writing a Herald article about an influx of Londoners pushing up house prices and edging out our young people and workers, I was now wondering if it’s actually possible to tell a born-and-bred local from an incomer – and perhaps one way is to listen for the local accent.

“What local accent?” many would say, believing that any such speech pattern there might once have been across the area is now diluted beyond recognition by the swamp of Estuary English. This flat, classless, all-purpose accent has washed in strongly here since the war, also gradually merging with the often heard Received Pronunciation (sometimes called BBC English, or described as “well spoken” and “posh”).  

But, in amongst it, this local accent does survive – you pick it up here and there in village shop or country pub, whispers from our rural and less mobile past slowly fading as years, and people, go on their way. It’s a Surrey-Hampshire-West Sussex border accent, with a kind of “burr” and sort of phonetic quirks that sound… Well, maybe trying to describe it is best left to an expert, and there are none better placed than Jonnie Robinson, Curator of Spoken English at the British Library.

(see the links below to hear recordings curated by the British Library)

“There are clearly identifiable markers in the speech of older and more rural-dwelling members of your community,” says Robinson, “and the farther west you travel within it, the more the accent sounds rather West Country. Key things to listen out for around Haslemere and Farnham are ‘rhotic’ speech (rolling of the R sound in words such as ‘farm’) and what is called the ‘mouth vowel’ that turns ‘house’ into more like ‘hewse’. Also notable is what is known as the ‘price vowel’ that bends ‘price’ towards ‘proice’.”

Hopefully, readers will have got some idea from that and it will have rung a bell or two. Certainly it did with Charles Beckerson, headteacher of St Bart’s Primary in Haslemere. “That sounds right to me,” he says. “I’ve grown up here to the age of 43 now and, while my speech passes unremarked around the area, when I travel away people often say that I sound a bit West Country.” 

But while the local accent is more discernible in older residents, children everywhere have at least one “giveaway” in their speech – and Robinson points to the school playground for clues. “Children always have a word for calling a kind of time-out, pause or surrender in a game of chase or a tussle,” he says, “and this ‘truce word’ varies from place to place. Round your way I think you’ll find it is ‘scribs’.”  

After the tricky encounter with the “rolling Rs” woman in the High Street, I wasn’t going to risk further and deeper trouble by entering school playgrounds asking kids what they would say if chased into a corner. Robinson’s theory therefore remains untested – but no doubt readers and their children will confirm or deny the possibly controversial “scribs” hypothesis.

Our aim as the Haslemere Community Land Trust is to help local young people and key workers who are struggling to afford a home to be able to stay in the area and put down the kind of roots that keep such accents and idioms alive. But to do that we need sites suitable for affordable housing. Please give it some thought and see if you can help with the suggestion of a plot or patch of ground for us to build homes for our own. 

Local voices come alive via the following links, kindly provided by Jonnie Robinson, which take you to recordings held by the British Library.

Recorded in Thursley in 1959

Courtesy of British Library © BBC

Recorded in Milland, West Sussex, in 1998

Courtesy of British Library © BBC

Recorded in Elstead in 1998

Courtesy of British Library © University of Leeds

Haslemere Herald

The content of this news post was published in the Haslemere Herald today (5th August 2021)