Surely to goodness

'Surely to goodness you will not be my pub wanting from me', cried Llewelyn to the foreign gentleman.

‘Surely to goodness you will not my pub be taking from me’, cried Llewelyn to the foreign gentleman.


As an afterthought to yesterday’s post, I was distressed to hear the foot soldiers in Tietjens’ regiment, the Glamorganshires, speaking a hammy stage Welsh. Their speech abounded with arcane and weird phrases such as ‘surely to goodness’ – indeed one poor fellow could say little else. I have leafed through the Madox Ford novel but have not tracked down the offending passage: could it be Tom Stoppard’s intervention, or does this extraordinary language represent how a certain breed of English person thinks the Welsh peasantry actually speak? ‘Surely to goodness; indeed to goodness; a good man he is; on the table the tea is; it is his beer he’ll be wanting.’ Do these phrases actually exist outside the heads of English writers trying to “do Welsh”?

The problem of transcribing the language of people who are speaking a second language is a recurrent problem for the novelist.  It is related to, though not the same as, attempts made at rendering the syntax and word order of another language, but transcribed as though they were speaking English: Hemingway provides some hilarious examples of this in The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Spanish. For example, opening a page of the latter book at random, we find:

“Fernando,” Pilar said quietly . . . “take this stew please in all formality and fill thy mouth with it and talk no more. We are in possession of thy opinion.”

I am sure we could open this into a fascinating discussion, but I merely intended,  in the first instance, to make a note that it would be very weird, in 2012, to hear a ‘typical Welshman’ saying things like ‘Surely to goodness’. The truth is that never, but never, have I heard a Welsh person say any such thing. And while I can speak about the Welsh with some authority, I must also confess that I have never heard a Yorkshireman say ‘Ee bah gum’, or a Irishman say ‘Begorrah’, (although this does not necessarily mean that these things never get said and so leads us into speculation).  Representations of the other always have to be accompanied by some linguistic marker of ‘foreignness’. Welsh is a VSO (Verb-Subject-Object) language but this does not appear to have filtered into the English transcription of first language Welsh speakers attempting to communicate in English.

So, to return to Enid Blyton, and the seventeenth adventure of the Famous Five: Five get into a Fix. The kids go off to a place called Magga Glen and stay with a little grey haired old Welsh lady who speaks in the peculiar fashion I have described. She is, in many ways, a replica of another Mrs Jones (all Welsh people are called Jones, after all, and all their children run around barefoot, dressed in rags, stealing cheese). This other Mrs Jones runs the Inn in The Ragamuffin Mystery, another, lesser-known Welsh-set adventure by Blyton. There is an evil ornithologist (ornithologist was Blyton’s favourite long word, and she manages to get it into her stories with improbable frequency), and the lady of the Inn makes pronouncements such as: “He’s not bad is my Llewellyn, not wicked at all. It was those men, with their lies and their promises. They tempted my poor Llewellyn, they lent him money to buy the inn.” Note: in Blyton adventures ‘bad men’ are of two varieties: members of the ‘lower class’ and ‘foreigners’ (of indeterminate breed, but invariably unshaven and speaking ‘with an accent’).

And there’s the moral. Never borrow money from bad men, especially foreigner bad men, in order to buy a pub. Surely to goodness no.






3 Comments on “Surely to goodness

  1. Hello Richard

    As historical literary footnote, if you want a glorious example of stage Irish (Oirish) check out The Water Babies. It’s much enhanced by a frank elucidation of the core nature of the peasant paddy. Apparently it’s not that they are evil per se, or even malevolent. It’s rather that their character is enchanted by opportunities for dishonesty and cheating. More to be pitied than despised.

    I’d be sorry and surprised to learn that Stoppard inserted Welsh characatures into the TV script. I loved the book a lot but it’s 30 years since I read it so cannot recall. Stoppard did put parody ‘London cabbies’ – as boatmen on the Thames in Shakespeare in Love: “whot, south of the river at this time of night? You gotta be kidding mate….” But it was clearly for comic effect. I’d prefer to hold the great faker Ford Madox Ford responsible. Because he might well have been parroting learnt prejudices (which I find both better and worse than simply holding such views). Whereas Stoppard wrote The Coast of Utopia,the best political play since Shakespeare.


  2. ‘Surely to goodness; indeed to goodness; a good man he is; on the table the tea is; it is his beer he’ll be wanting.’ Do these phrases actually exist outside the heads of English writers trying to “do Welsh”?

    The attested features in that list found in genuine Welsh English are: ‘a good man, he is’ ‘on the table the tea is’; and (to arguable extent) ‘it is his beer he’ll be wanting’. Moving the noun phrase (and prep phrase) to the front of the sentence is a common Welsh English trait in South Wales. It’s known as ‘focus fronting’ or a ‘sentence initial focus marker’. Attested in the Survey of Anglo-Welsh dialects and subsequent surveys.

    I think the frequency of those grammatical forms are where the stereotypes are formed. A WE speaker is unlikely to use those forms sentence after sentence after sentence. 😉


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