Mapping the dialect of place

‘Oi mush, you're all out of bog roll!’

You can take the girl out of Pompey, but you can't take Pompey out of the girl. My Eliza Doolittle moment as my husband called it, when I stumbled out of the ladies loos in a trendy hotel bar in Brighton, to notify the barman in a loud voice that they needed to refresh their bathroom supplies.

My mask momentarily slipped. I am Pompey.

Despite my running away as soon as I could.

Running away from a large yet in many ways deeply conservative and insular island city. Running away from my father. Running away from my then boyfriend,(I'd fallen into a teenage ‘marriage’ after leaving home at sixteen). Running away from patriarchal control. Running away from all the ‘isms’.  I was running away from my home turf, yet Pompey was, and is, still with me.

You couldn't be ‘out’ and proud in Pompey in the mid 1980s without being called a ‘farkin poofter’ or worse. Despite having an art college, where Grayson Perry, Britain's favourite crossdresser began early explorations into his alter ego. You couldn't be black without being called Chalky. Regardless of its lively alternative music scene and various tribal youth groups with their particular fashions, all of which at some point I identified, Pompey felt too small for me.

I felt I was running towards freedom. Intellectual freedom. Creative freedom. Political freedom. Running towards Brighton to take up a degree in International Relations at Sussex University. Brighton, a place which felt much more open and tolerant. Probably stemming from its original gay days of excess marked by the Prince Regent and his ostentatious Pavilion dinner parties. Brighton, the long established playground of the London set.

In those student days, returning to Portsmouth during the academic breaks filled me with heavy gloom. “Why d’ya want to live in Brighton, it's full of woofters?” scoffed some of my more prejudiced Portsmouth acquaintances. Not much diversity going on back then. But that was a familiar pattern across the country, think This is England. So I'd avoid going back when I could. Yet, Pompey was still with me. Bursting through the veneer of a private girl’s school education. “Oi, you dinny! “ would trip off my tongue with ease at the right moment.  ‘You dinny dinlo’ has to be one of my favourite phrases in the Pompey vernacular. We were all then sailing on the ship of fools into Portsmouth Harbour.

By the time I was a teenager, it had been drummed into me by parents and teachers that I should on no account slip into the local dialect. Listening to my mother now on old videos, there is no trace of a Portsmouth accent; she spoke a received pronunciation, very BBC. This was before her stroke. Her father came from an old Portsmouth family; bootmakers to Queen Victoria and her children when they were staying on the Isle of Wight. Although she was born in Portsmouth, my mother was a child of the army so moved around. No chance then to develop a local accent. Then she emigrated to Canada for ten years before returning to Portsmouth in the early 1960s.

Her mother, my grandmother, had a glorious Devon burr. She taught me Devon words like crewkey down and dimpsey. My father was an incomer too, having arrived in Portsmouth from Newcastle when he was young. My mother couldn’t understand his thick accent but was captivated by it. He still had remnants of a Geordie lilt when I was born. His father was Glaswegian. Another accent I love with a very rich and colourful vernacular.

Yet as a teenager, wanting to be accepted as part of the local tribes, to ‘fit in’ at the local Mod revival soul night at the Tipner youth club when I was 13, I'd find myself putting on a heavy local accent. Speaking loike a local when I was goin dain tain to meet my friends by the Jubilee fountain in Commercial Road. At 14, we'd smoke fags, drink cider and black with backcombed hair and studded belts and shop for the latest Cure album; watching the heart of Pompey drift in and out of Landports, Chelsea Girl, Snob, The Village and the dark recesses of Virgin and Domino Records. Vintage fashion stall One Legged Jockey sprang up about that time too. Now it's the sole shop survivor from my teenage era, apart from U Need Us.

Back then there were still plenty of Pompey girls wearing the classic black long leather coats (from Mr Clive) and big gold hooped earrings. However, for a man to wear a long leather coat in Portsmouth in the mid 1990s risked being called a farkin nonce on a Somers Town street, as my first husband found out at his peril. He used to tease me for pronouncing gone as ‘garn’. But he was from Twickenham and a public Caterham School background. No deep rooted indigenous vernacular in his bones, popping out after a few jars.

“You farkin squinny,” I should have retorted. You don't hear that outside Pompey.

In recent years, I've learned to love my rough, tough hometown with its unique tones and dialect; learned to accept the Pompey side of myself. That I carry it inside me with pride. It’s part of who I am.  A part of me will feel rootless when one day my family home there is garn. I hang Jodie Silsby’s Vernacular Map of Portsmouth on my wall, stand back and listen to its rhythm.

Just don't get me started on the politics of the place.


For further insight into the history of the  Pompey dialect watch this video.