Thursday, September 16, 2010

Old Devon Accents

My ancestry, well half of it, can be traced back to Devon.

At one point I had a discussion with one of my family contacts about why an ancestor, Samuel Halls, would be assigned an Irish ancestry in census and death records, when we knew he was from England. That lead us to speculate about what kind of an accent that our ancestors would have had. I guessed that Samuel and his brothers had an accent that sounded Irish to the untutored ear of the late 1800's and early 1900's.

Since then I have found sound recordings of Devon residents born in the late 1800's, and books describing the accent written in the 1800's. The recordings were made in the late 1950's and early 1960's, so I suspect that what we are hearing is echoes of the old Devon accents, flattened out after most of a lifetime of exposure to radio and later tv. I have listened to the recordings, and the accents change every once in a while when the speaker talks. At times the accent seems to become stronger, and then it fades to something closer, but not identical to, a modern "english" accent. There are, to me, echoes of an Irish lilt, but they are not strong. Perhaps to an outsider, coming amongst native Devonians (Devonites?) at the time (1800's) that accent may have sounded Irish. And of course, Samuel Halls had spent almost 65 years in Canada before he died, so who knows how his accent would have sounded when he died in 1906, compared to when he came over in the 1842?

Historically, from what I understand of the history of the area, it would be possible to have some sort of Celtic/Gaelic language influence on the English dialect of Devon. Geographically Devon is bounded on the west by Cornwall, on the northwest and west across the water are Wales and Ireland, to the south is Brittany. Only to the east are there english speaking areas, Somerset and Dorset, all the other areas mentioned speak (or spoke) a language from the Gaelic group of languages.

If you are interested, here are the books on Devon accents:

The Peasant Speech of Devon, by Sarah Hewett published in 1892. You can download/read it at

Jim and Nell: A Dramatic Poem in the Dialect of North Devon, published 1867. It can be download/read it at

The last is A Dialogue in the Devonshire Dialect, published in 1837, but compiled sometime in the mid 1700's! It can be read/downloaded at

The sound files can be found at the Survey of English Dialects which opens up the page that contains Devon. Check for the birthdate of the speaker once you open a link. Alternately you can start at the Archival Sounds Homepage of the British Library.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

So You've Decided to Visit a Cemetery

So You've Decided to Visit a Cemetery. Congratulations. No doubt you're all aquiver with anticipation of what you will find, expecting all sorts of good things. Not so fast! Before you go there are a few things you should do, or seriously consider doing, and/or bring.
  1. A camera
    • if you are sufficiently skilled bring UV and infra-red filters. I have never tried it but I suspect it would help to read some of the more eroded inscriptions.
  2. A soft paint brush.
  3. A plastic trowel.
  4. Some sort of probe, e.g. a hand held weed digger.
    • be extremely careful with this. I only recommend it to help you locate ground level markers that are overgrown or sunken and if they are made of granite. If you suspect marble then use the plastic trowel and fingers to uncover the marker.
  5. A spray bottle with lots of water both for cleaning, and to increase the contrast of carved and uncarved areas.
  6. Paper and pen for notes (or your choice of handheld device).
  7. Insect repellent.
  8. If you are going to a cemetery that may not be well maintained then clippers for grass/small branches can help.
  9. A GPS unit to mark exactly where your gravestones are so that you or other people can find the same headstone again.
Some things you should never do:
  1. Never clean a headstone of attached moss or lichen. Marble is especially fragile, and taking off the moss/lichen can remove bits (large or small) of marble too.
  2. Never re-attempt to assemble a headstone, you may chip the edges or otherwise damage it.
  3. Don't use wire brushes to clean off loose dirt or debris.
  4. Don't use any cleaner other than water. Even vinegar is an acid and can etch stone. Houshold cleaners and some soaps are worse.
  5. Never use sand to clean any headstone.
  6. Do not pry a headstone out of the ground, if there are hairline cracks, they can suddenly become less hairline, much to your regret.
When all is said and done, do no harm to the graveyard and headstones in it. If in doubt leave the headstone alone until you can find a willing archaeologist or conservator to help you.

You're all ready now. Have fun!

Reflections on Graveyards

If you are reading this, it is likely that you are interested in genealogy and family history, and that means that you have visited more than your fair share of graveyards.

Graveyards are a wonderful place to find information that is not otherwise easily discovered. If the person you are looking for died less than 75 years ago (at least in Ontario) you can ususally find a date of death, which in turn can lead to the obituary/death notice in the local paper, which can lead to the names of other family members, in-laws, etc. Often you will find family plots with the children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other in-laws all buried in close proximity.

Even information that is not there can be of assistance. Consider a headstone that has birth and death dates of the husband on it, but not that of the wife, or only the birth date of the wife, but not a death date, even if the wife must clearly be dead by now.

The assistance one can get at a graveyard varies wildly. Many rural cemeteries have no office, and the boards are not easy to contact. Cemeteries that are defunct or abandoned, whether rural or urban, almost never have assistance of any description. In the case of Ontario you can use the OCFA, or the OGS Ontario Cemetery Ancestor Search, but they do not cover every cemetery in the province, and rely on volunteers to transcribe microfilms of old records, which brings in a whole new area for errors to be made. The best bet for rural cemeteries is to simply wander among the gravestones until you find what you are looking for.

Urban cemeteries usually have offices, but the quality and hours of service vary wildly. I know of one group of cemeteries in Toronto where the operating company has decided that none of the offices will be open on weekends. Their records are also completely paper based. They are a 9 to 5 operation. The staff are not exactly the friendliest people in the world either. All in all my dealings with them have had a slight air of the surreal. Contrast that to another major cemetery group in Toronto where the records are computerized, the staff are friendly and helpful, and they have office hours at their sites on the weekends.

Many cemeteries, especially in rural areas, but also some in the cities, are in very bad condition. Headstones toppled through vandalism or neglect, botched restorations of headstones (Never, ever use iron/steel pins to put a headstone together again), encroaching vegetation. Old marble headstones are especially vulnerable to the elements and mistreatment.

If you do visit cemeteries, take pictures of the headstones, and then share them. There are many sites that allow you to upload or submit headstone photos: the CanadaGenWeb Cemetery Project, FindaGrave, Northern Ontario Canada Gravemarker Gallery, and the Gravestone Photographic Resource Project.

In the end, graveyards are both a source of joy and sadness for both family members, and for genealogists. Joy for finding the relationships, dates, and relatives you never knew, and sadness in the realization that someday we will all be there, with only a stone to mark our place, and sometimes not even that.