Why is a plough not a ‘ploff’ and if that’s the case, why do we suffer from a ‘coff’, not a ‘cow’?
If you want an insight into that question, or the countless other baffling quirks of the English language, Charlie Haylock is your man.
His knowledge is encyclopaedic – encyclopedic if you’re American. And if you wonder where the ‘ae’ comes from, Charlie knows that too.
The story of the English language from its Celtic roots to computer-speak is told in the popular Suffolk author and entertainer’s latest book.
In a Manner of Speaking is a co-production with his great pal and fellow history fanatic, Beano cartoonist Barrie Appleby.
Charlie’s words and Barrie’s illustrations take readers on an informative but light-hearted trip through the history of English.
Previous books, starting 13 years ago with Sloightly on Th’ Huh!, have focused on Charlie’s beloved Suffolk.
He and Yorkshire-born Barrie have collaborated on a string of titles including A Rum Owd Dew! and Caw’d a Hell!.
At the heart of them all, along with the distinctive deadpan sense of humour, was the Suffolk dialect.
The county has always felt like home to Charlie – even though his Suffolk-born parents strayed south of the border and brought him up in Essex.
But he can switch from his native tongue to Scouse to Geordie to Somerset faster than an Ipswich Town fan can think of something rude to say about Norwich.
And he doesn’t just talk the talk. He is an expert on the reasons we speak as we do – not only how, but why.
So this time he is wearing his other hat – although actually it’s always the same trademark panama – as a researcher and historian.
In a Manner of Speaking is the book Charlie was never going to write, until his fans convinced him otherwise.
“I had packed up writing and decided I was just going to concentrate on talks, mainly on the history of spoken English, and my stints on Radio Suffolk.
“But I gave my talk in Bury, Mildenhall, Stowupland, Sudbury ... and everywhere people came up and said ‘is there a book to go with it?’
“So many asked I thought I’d better write one,” says the man who once outsold both Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code in Suffolk.
He didn’t want to it to be a dry, scholarly work.
“The history of spoken English can be hard. The difficult thing was to make it an easy read,” he says. “It’s a serious book with humour rather than a funny book.”
He has included a list of more academic works for people who want to study further.
Cartoons by Barrie, whose regular work includes drawing Dennis the Menace for Beano, appear throughout.
“They really lighten it up, but it always endorses what’s in the text,” says Charlie.
There are also easy-to-interpret maps showing how the tribes and invaders who provided the building blocks of our language spread through the country.
Author and illustrator finished up producing almost three times as many pages as they planned because publishers Amberley were so keen on the idea.
Barrie’s enthusiasm for early English history gave him a head start on his cartoons.
“I still had to do quite a bit of research to make sure things like costumes were right,” he says.
“St Paul’s Cathedral appears in one cartoon – but because of the date it’s not the Christopher Wren design we know today.
“I had to find out what the previous St Paul’s looked like. It was a Gothic-style building and very difficult to draw.”
Barrie and Charlie, who both live near Sudbury, met because their sons were at school together.
Their shared passion for history has been a bonus. “We’ve formed a small society called, in Old English, Ge Beorscipe,” says Barrie.
“It’s pronounced ‘beership’ and means friendship over a beer, which is exactly what it is.
“There are eight of us in the group now. We meet up in pubs, have a nice meal, and talk about the English language.”
Charlie’s fascination with the subject dates from his schooldays in Harold Hill – now part of London.
“I was a lad with a Suffolk accent in an east London school and I noticed a big difference in the way people spoke and wondered why.”
And being teased about his real surname, Alecock, prompted his first research.
“People took the mickey out of it so much I wanted to change it. But first I decided to find out what it meant.
“I discovered it was from Old English and means beer tap.”
In the end he kept the name, which turned out to be appropriate as later he became landlord of the Shoulder of Mutton in Assington.
After that he was an assistant teacher, then children’s rights and development officer at The Ryes special school. He retired in 2011.
Now everyone knows him as Charlie Haylock but that name came about by accident.
When he began his career as an entertainer he told tales about his Uncle Charlie, and that became his nickname.
Then because he talked about the Haylocks – his mother’s family – someone assumed it was his name, put it on a poster, and it stuck.
And the name Haylock points, way back, to some very important ancestors.
“It means son of an Angle chieftain, and it’s a Suffolk name first recorded in Bury St Edmunds in 1186,” he says.
Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans have all made their mark on English.
Britain’s original Celtic people have left only traces, driven out of England – and dubbed ‘Walas’ (which became Welsh) meaning foreigners – by the Angles and Saxons.
One seismic event was ‘the great vowel shift’ in the Middle English period which caused radical changes in the way people spoke.
It was all because they stopped talking from the back of their throats and made the sound further up instead, says Charlie.
The shift happened mostly from the 1400s to the 1600s, but some of the old pronounciations have hung on.
They account for inconsistencies like why ‘er’ is sometimes still pronounced ‘ar’, as in clerk and Derby.
From the Tudor period new words arrived thick and fast from all over the world, but every region still had its own way of talking.
“In Shakespeare’s day there was no standard. His plays would have been spoken in dialect,” says Charlie.
So the first Juliet may have cried out ‘wherefore art thou Romeo’ with a distinct Brummie twang, while Richard III promised his kingdom for an ’orse.
Charlie is devoted to dialects. But there is one way of speaking he detests ... the strangulated accent once favoured by the upper classes and BBC presenters.
It grew from the idea of Public School Pronounciation promoted at the end of the 19th century.
No-one, he believes, should try to lose their dialect. “The way you speak is your history and heritage, and dialects have held on to more Anglo Saxon and Old Norse than standard English,” he says.
“If you take the story of place names, surnames and dialects, you end up with the history of spoken English.”
Charlie and Barrie will be signing books at WH Smith in Sudbury on Saturday, May 6, from 11am to 1pm.
Barrie will also demonstrate the art of cartooning.