Saturday, 10 July 2010


On Q&A forums, a quite frequent question is: "What's the closest living language to English?" The standard answer is Friesian, but it's a bit moot: Scots is closer, but in its modern form it's heavily mixed with English anyway), and there are many English-based creoles that are highly intelligible to Standard English speakers apart from their non-English vocabulary imports. But, largely due to our isolation from mainland Europe, we don't have the experience of many Europeans: contact with adjacent and distinctly different languages that nevertheless skate on the edge of mutual intelligibility. Native English speakers can't understand Friesian to the level that speakers within the Norwegian/Danish/Swedish or Ukrainian/Russian/Belorussian groups can understand each other.

This, however, hasn't always been the case. While browsing for William Barnes (the Dorset dialect poet and philologist) I ran into an extinct language I'd never heard of: Yola. It was a remarkable geographical isolate that would be impossible nowadays, arising when an enclave of Anglo-Saxon speakers went to County Wexford with Norman barons in 1169. In these baronies, Bargy and Forth, it went its own way (with minor imports from Irish Gaelic), completely missing the Great Vowel Shift that characterised the change from Middle English to Modern English. It shared many characteristics with Devon and Cornwall English - commentators say its accent was similar - and lasted for some 600 years before being swamped in the 19th century by Hiberno-English following the 1830 Irish Education Bill that fostered English literacy through Ireland.

Relatively few samples have been preserved, but one of the largest appears in the 1890 book Chronicles of the County Wexford, which reprints a Wexford Independent report from 15th February 1850, telling of an address composed in Yola to Earl Musgrave, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, when he visited in 1836. (I've interlaced the translation).

To’s Excellencie Constantine Harrie Phipps, y’ Earle Mulgrave, Lord Lieutenant-General and General Governor of Ireland. Ye soumissive Spakeen o’ouz Dwelleres o’ Baronie Forthe, Weisforthe.

To his Excellency, Constantine Henry Phipps, Earl Mulgrave, Lord Lieutenant-General, and General Governor of Ireland. The humble Address of the Inhabitants of the Barony of Forth, Wexford.

MAI’T BE PLESANT TO TH’ECCELLENCIE, - Wee, Vassalès o’ ‘His Most Gracious majesty’, Wilyame ee Vourthe, an, az wee verilie chote, na coshe and loyale dwellerès na Baronie Forthe, crave na dicke luckie acte t’uck neicher th’ Eccellencie, an na plaine grabe o’ oure yola talke, wi vengem o’ core t’gie ours zense o’ y gradès whilke be ee-dighte wi yer name; and whilke we canna zei, albeit o’ ‘Governere’, ‘Statesman’, an alike.

MAY IT PLEASE YOUR EXCELLENCY – We, the subjects of his Most Gracious Majesty, William IV, and, as we truly believe, both faithful and loyal inhabitants of the Barony of Forth, beg leave at this favourable opportunity to approach your Excellency, and in the simple dress of our old dialect to pour forth from the strength (or fullness) of our hearts, our sense (or admiration) of the qualities which characterise your name, and for which we have no words but of ‘Governor’, ‘Statesman’, etc.

Yn ercha and aul o’ while yt beeth wi gleezom o’ core th’ oure eyen dwytheth apan ye Vigere o’dicke Zouvereine, Wilyame ee Vourthe, unnere fose fatherlie zwae oure diaez be ee-spant, az avare ye trad dicke londe yer name waz ee-kent var ee vriene o’ livertie, an He fo brake ye neckares o’ zlaves.

In each and every condition it is with joy of heart that our eyes rest upon the representative of the Sovereign, William IV, under whose paternal rule our days are spent; for before your foot pressed the soil, your name was known to us as the friend of liberty, and he who broke the fetters of the slave.

Mang ourzels – var wee dwytheth an Irelonde az ure genreale haim – y’ast, bie ractzom o’honde, ee-delt t’ouz ye laas ee-mate var ercha vassale, ne’er dwythen na dicke waie nar dicka.

Unto ourselves – for we look on Ireland to be our common country – you have with impartial hand ministered the laws made for every subject, without regard to this party or that.

Wee dwyth ye ane fose dais be gien var ee guidevare o’ye londe ye zwae, - t’avance pace an livertie, an, wi’oute vlynch, ee garde o’ generale reights an poplare vartue.

We behold in you one whose days are devoted to the welfare of the land you govern, to promote peace and liberty – the uncompromising guardian of the common right and public virtue.

Ye pace – yea, we mai zei, ye vast pace whilke bee ee-stent owr ye londe zince th’ast ee-cam, proo’th, y’at wee alane needeth ye giftes o’generale rights, az be displayth bie ee factes o’thie goveremente.

The peace – yes, we may say the profound peace – which overspreads the land since your arrival, proves that we alone stood in need of the enjoyment of common privileges, as is demonstrated by the results of your government.

Ye state na dicke daie o’ye londe, na whilke be nar fash nar moile, albeit ‘constitutional agitation’, ye wake o’hopes ee-blighte, stampe na yer zwae be rare an lightzom.

The condition, this day, of the country, in which is neither tumult nor disorder, but that constitutional agitation, the consequence of disappointed hopes, confirms your rule to be rare and enlightened.

Yer name var zetch avancet avare ye, e’en a dicke var hye, arent whilke ye brine o’zea an dye craggès o’noghanes cazed nae balke.

Your fame for such came before you even into this retired spot, to which neither the waters of the sea below nor the mountains above caused any impediment.

Na oure gladès ana whilke we dellt wi’ mattoke, an zing t’oure caulès wi plou, wee hert ee zough o’ye colure o’ pace na name o’ Mulgrave.

In our valleys, where we were digging with the spade, or as we whistled to our horses in the plough, we heard the distant sound of the wings of the dove of peace, in the word Mulgrave.

Wi Irishmen ower generale houpes be ee-boud – az Irishmen, an az dwellerès na cosh an loyale o’ Baronie Forthe, w’oul daie an ercha daie, our meines an oure gurles, praie var long an happie zins, shorne o’lournagh an ee-vilt wi benisons, an yersel and oure gude Zovereine, till ee zin o’oure daies be var aye be ee-go to’glade.

With Irishmen our common hopes are inseparably bound up – as Irishmen, and as inhabitants, faithful and loyal, of the Barony Forth, we will daily and every day, our wives and our children, implore long and happy days, free from melancholy and full of blessings, for yourself and our good Sovereign, until the sun of our lives be gone down the dark valley (of death).

Edmund Hore, who consulted with Yola speakers to write the address, commented:

In all probability it was the first time regal or vice-regal ears were required to listen to words of such a dialect; and it is even still more probable that a like event will never happen again; for if the use of this old tongue dies out as fast for the next five-and-twenty years as it has for the same by-gone period, it will be utterly extinct and forgotten before the present century shall have closed.

The major documentation of the language was done by Jacob Poole around 1800: see Jacob Poole Of Growtown - And the Yola Dialect. His 1700-word glossary was published, edited by William Barnes, 40 years after his death, and is available in full online: A glossary, with some pieces of verse, of the old dialect of the English colony in the baronies of Forth and Bargy (1867). The glossary features a few examples of Yola folk songs.

The Graphic and Historical Illustrator for 1834 has an article on the district and dialect, Observations on the social habits and dialect of the Baronies of Forth and Bargy (commonly called "the English Baronies," in the County of Wexford, which has the following anecdote:

And here it may be related, as a singular fact, that the Rev. William Eastwood, Rector of Tacumshane, Barony of Forth, while amusing himself one day in his field with a volume of Chaucer, fancied some of the obsolete words which met his eye resembled those which also met his ear, as his workmen conversed together: he accordingly called them around him, and commenced reading a page or two of old Geoffrey aloud, to their great delight, as they well understood the most obscure expressions, and often explained them better than the glossarial aids of Dryden and Johnson.

"Yola", incidentally, means "old" in this language. It doesn't appear to be what its speakers called it - they referred to it, in its moribund days, as " oure yola talke" ("our old dialect") - but seems to have grown up among philologists due to the noted citation of a folksong, "a yola zong" ("an old song"). Several modern books repeat the factoid that Yola stands for "ye olde language" ("ye olde language" presumably - see Google Books), but this is bilge. No contemporary commentators mention this derivation, and pre 20th century acronyms are invariably suspect.
- Ray

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