The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar names

Language and Family History

by Don Steel

This article was published in the Dec '92 and Dec 2001 editions of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society. It is an edited version of the first part of a talk given at the Sole Society first Annual Conference at Olney, Buckinghamshire, on 27th September 1992, with some additions. A few minor amendments have been made.

The purpose of this talk is to try and give some indication of the kind of things our society hopes to achieve. Essentially we are a family history society specialising in a particular group of surnames. We are not just a kind of social club for bearers of those surnames and their descendants, though of course we do hope the social side will develop and flourish through conferences like this and through visits from, and correspondence with, overseas members. Nor are we simply a bunch of genealogists concerned with making family trees, essential though these are, in order to find out how different families of the surnames link together. As a family history society we are concerned also with trying to record events in the lives of families and individuals and with putting the families we are studying into their total historical context. In turn, knowledge of the historical factors will help us to build up the genealogy by suggesting possible links. In this talk, I shall be looking at two examples of this constant interaction: the History of Language, and Historical Geography.

[Only the first of these subjects is covered in this article. Ed.]


Linguistic Change

When infants are taught to read and write they find English spelling quite a problem: to, two and too or cough, rough, bough, through, and although. They must think it some bizarre game that adults play to confuse children. Rarely are they given a reason for these apparent absurdities. Even most adults, though spelling these words quite effortlessly after years of rote learning, could not hazard an explanation.

The explanation, of course, is that roughly speaking our spelling reflects the pronunciation of around 1500 when printing was getting going, necessitating some standardisation of spelling conventions. Ou was a diphthong made up of "o" as in "hot and "u" as in put and "gh" was pronounced as it still is in the surname McLaughlin. So when you had a cough it really was a cough and not that pale imitation coff' which we have today.

Or let us take the numbers one, two, three and four. There has been little change with three, but one rhymed with stone. It still does in only, alone (=all one) and atone (=at one).

Two was pronounced as it is spelt (it still is in twin and twice), and the diphthong in four was “o" as in, hot and "u" as in put with the r rolled on the end as the Scots and West Country folk still do. In fact in Somerset the pronunciation has probably changed little since Shakespeare’s time. In 16th Century documents it is sometimes spelt fower showing an intrusive "w" sound was common.

I am speaking, of course, about conventions for reproducing individual sounds, i.e. phonetics, not the modern conventional spellings for whole words however people might pronounce them, which came in only with the dictionaries from the mid-18th Century onwards. Before that a word might be pronounced differently in different parts of the country and local spelling would reflect that:

Item payed to xpofer [Christopher] for wasshyng from midsomer tell chrystmas ij s.

(Chelmsford Churchwardens' Accounts, 1559)"

We cannot be absolutely sure of 16th century pronunciations, of course, because there were no tape recorders around, but we can deduce pronunciation not only from spelling but also from rhymes. In the following lines from a sonnet: we can see the original pronunciation of gone which is still reflected in the spelling.

Tired with all these, from these would I be gone

Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

For no apparent reason, the modern pronunciation of gone has has gone a different way from one. In some poems or hymns still popular we have, perhaps, "one" rhyming with "alone" and we now think, "What a rotten rhyme!"

Let us see how pronouncing words exactly as they are spelt works out with a whole passage by taking some well-known lines from Shakespeare:

To be or not to be; That is the question

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune ....

If we pronounce it as it is spelt, we get somewhere near how it must have sounded at the Globe Theatre in 1600 though even that was a century after spelling conventions to represent sounds had been more or less established and some changes had already taken place.

To was pronounced like so still is. (So of to, two and too only the last was pronounced in the modern way). Be was already bee before a vowel; earlier the terminal “e” was pronounced in the German way as it still is with “the" (we say the book only lengthening it to thee before a vowel - thee only book). Question was three syllables not two; ti had not yet become sh. Whether was very different: it still had its “h” and its “r” pronounced, giving w - heth - air with the final r rolled. The "o" in nobler was short as in hot and the “er" was air. Suffer was pronounced in the northern way with the “u” as in put and “er" was air with the “r” pronounced. Mind would have rhymed with sinned. This line Whether 'tis nobler in the mind would have sounded like modern Scots, or it would be better to put it that modern Scots still preserves a more archaic pronunciation than Southern English does. The "ow" in arrows would have been pronounced closer to cow than the modern pronunciation, though it may well still have been "o" as in hot and "w" as in was. Outrageous had two "ou"s pronounced as "o" and "u" spoken quickly, the "a" was probably short and the "e" gave the "g" a pronunciation like the "j" in "jam" or possibly even like the French "j" in "Je".

Until the coming of universal literacy, radio and television accents and dialects became increasingly different, some preserving one archaism, some another. Roughly speaking, the further from the capital, the more archaic the dialect and accent. (Dialect is vocabulary differences, accent the way standard English words are pronounced). The Scots accent is probably closer to 16th Century southern English than modern southern English is. The same would go for many American accents, as for two centuries most American settlers were remote and cut off.

American accents tend to be descended from 17th Century West Country ones because so many 17th century settlers sailed from Bristol. In 1981, I was a visiting lecturer at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, and visited Cedar City where there is a replica of the Globe Theatre. I saw a performance of Henry IV Part 1 and the actors adopted English "received pronunciation" accents imagining that thereby they were getting closer to Shakespeare. They would have done better to keep their own accents. Australian and New Zealand accents tend to be descended from the 19th century accents of south-east England.

One of the most interesting kinds of change concerns the diphthongs. In Middle English these were pronounced as two vowels in quick succession. The "ea" in "meat" was "e" as in "bed" and "a" as in apple" - "me-at". Near where I live in Somerset, locals still pronounce the village of Brean in the same way. Having now taken a look at the "ou" in cough and four and the ea" in meat, have a go at pronouncing Soul Search in a medieval way, not forgetting to lightly roll the "r".


It is obvious that surnames followed much the same process, though unlike ordinary words few surnames developed "accepted" forms until the last century or so. As noted above, before universal literacy came in the years after 1870, the spelling tended to phonetically follow local pronunciations. The parish clerk, often only semi-literate himself, wrote it down as it sounded to him.

We therefore have a kind of double acrostic with spellings and pronunciations varying according to both Time - most surnames were pronounced quite differently in the 16th century from the way they are pronounced today - and Place - the same surname was pronounced differently in different parts of the country.

Let us try pronouncing some of the spellings of "our" surnames as they are spelt to get somewhere near the 16th century pronunciations, in South- East England at any rate. The only way to really get the hang of it, is to have a go at the archaic pronunciations yourself, beginning with SOUL which you have already attempted.

SOUL "o" as in "hot" "u" as in put. Neither were very different from modern SOLE - or indeed the modern pronunciation of the religious word “soul". It seems almost certain that George SOULE, the Pilgrim Father on the Mayflower, pronounced his name like the modern "soul" or “sole" rather than as in the word out or in the French sou.

SOLE Not in the modern way, but "o" as in so, soap or holy. This spelling was less common than SOULE in the 16th Century, and it has probably become more common as its sound has come to approximate to the sound previously represented only by SOUL.

SOWL(E) "o" as in hot and "w" as in win gradually becoming "ow" as in cow. In Bedfordshire, half way between the London and Midland accents, SOWLE and SOLE were probably pronounced very little differently in the 16th century which is why we sometimes find the same person with these variant spellings.

SOAL "o" as in hot and "a" as in apple.

SAUL "a" as in apple and "u" as in put - It is easy to see why the spelling Sall(e) tended to precede Saul. Sall rymed with ball, call, fall, tall etc The modern pronunciation whether for the Biblical characters or the surname probably does not go back more than two centuries, if that. When the pronunciation went from Sowl to sall the clerk , with a good knowledge of the Bible, would tend to spell in this way the name of someone who said his name was Sall

SAWLE "a" as in apple and "w" as in win.

SAYWELL "a" as in apple and "y" as "i" in ink. (Very close to modern say).

SOWELL So either as in hot or modern so, followed by well

SEWELL “e" perhaps as in bed. But maybe it was se as with a modern French reflexive verb plus well which gives a pronunciation close to the modern one.

SOOL(E) “oo" as in zoo not as in foot.

SOLL(E) No change.

SELL No change.

SOLLEY "e" as in bed and "y" as in .. yes. Almost like modern French soleil.

Of course there were regional dialectical variations. Also accents were, more regionally based than class-based. Until Chaucer's time, the upper classes spoke French, and Latin was the international language of learning, so few English speakers were interested in keeping up linguistic appearances, and the language changed rapidly.

Two centuries later when everyone spoke English, in the Elizabethan House of Commons, MPs from Devon would speak with a strong West Country accent and those from Lancashire with a Northern one. So there was less career incentive to modify local vowels than there is with, say a Brummie or cockney accent today. However, within a region, once the upper classes had changed over from French there would be noticeable class differences, with the gentry resisting some changes, like the cockney dropping of the t in "water", but leading others, maybe fashionable vowel changes introduced from the Court. In the 18th century the upper classes led the dropping of the h in honour and honest as well as aint, things we now associate with the working classes. Surnames would be as much affected by these changes or resistance to changes as any other words.

Archaic Pronunciations

Another interesting area is the retention of archaic spellings or pronunciations. For example my grandmother was called HULME. She and her family lived in London and pronounced it exactly as it is spelt. But the district in Manchester is now pronounced Hume and all northern families pronounce it that way. 1 think the reason for the unusual pronunciation in my family is that at the start of Civil Registration, hers was almost the only family of the surname in London.

I believe they descend - though I have the odd shaky link - from a Thomas Hulme, son of Obadiah Hulme, fuller of Manchester apprenticed to a London draper in 1702. It would seem that in the north of England place name and surname followed the same shift in pronunciation, the medial "l" getting dropped. The London accent, however, didn't go through this sound change, and the place-name being unknown to Londoners, the archaic pronunciation survived until the current pronunciation was brought by northern families in Victorian times. The surname derived from the City of Bristol is not Bristol but the archaism, BRISTOW. This was the way the name of the city was pronounced when surnames got going in the 13th century. The place was earlier BRIGSTOW – the settlement by the bridge – so the surname retains a pronunciation that was only an intermediate stage.

I think this "archaism factor" could provide a possible explanation for the $64,000 question: the relationship between the SAUL, SOLE and SOLLEY surnames. I think SAUL has several separate roots - probably none of them from the Jewish name - from Saul on the Sevem, from Sall in Norfolk, and probably from a Norse personal name in Cumbria. SOLLEY is found in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire where there were both SAULs and SOULES, and in Kent where there were SOLES. It is not at all characteristic of Norfolk or Cumbria. 1 have done a bit of work on the Worcestershire SOLLEYs and found that they seem to have nearly all been minor gentry. Thus a Solley bought the manor of Hindlip in 1535, a Sowley the manor of Orleton in 1535, John Soley of Ribbesford (died 1694) was a gentlemen. So was John Soley of Bewdley. John Soley of Lickhill “... had a good estate in lands and tythes in this parish". They were certainly nearly all a cut above the SAULs and SOULES. This being the case, a possible explanation for the SAUL/ SOULE /SOLLEY split strikes me. Ekwall's Concise Dictionary of English Place Names shows SAUL on the Severn as SALLEGE in 1221. The terminal "e" looks like a Latin case ending.

Without looking at the Assize Roll text, I cannot be sure, but it was perhaps really SALLEG. SALLEG might well yield SOLLEY as the Anglo- Saxon "halig" has become "holy" or the Anglo-Saxon "byrig" in so many place names has become "bury". There are precedents too for the “a" to "o" vowel change in SALLEGE becoming SOLLEY. "Mary", for example, has given rise to the pet forms "Molly" and, through rhyming, "Polly". This is because the Sall part rhymed with ball, fall etc giving the pronunciation Sawleg.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire the identical spelling SALLEGE about 1030 has become SAWLEY today - it is a place near Ripon - and Ekwall gives the same root as I suggested for SOLLEY long before I spotted this SAWLEY entry - from salh (sallow) and leah (wood or clearing). Related to the willow and osier, sallow is a low-growing shrubby member of the genus salix. The earliest hereditary surnames began mostly with landowners taking their name from their property. A century or so later surnames became hereditary among more common folk and place name surnames then came to indicate merely where a person had previously come from.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Lords of the Manor were using the name of their holding as an identifier in dealings elsewhere. By the 14th century, freeholders used it both within the manor and in the surrounding area or even unfree tenants, as when working on the BBC series, I found was the case with the earliest known Honeycombe. Robert Furse of Dean Prior, Devon, who in 1593 wrote one of the earliest family histories refers to this practice:

“The custom and use was of olde tymes to call men after the names of ther mansyon howses but spessially those that were freholders for I have redde that wytheyn the parysche of dene pryer there was Steven of Smallcombe, Sempston of Sempston, Rowdene of Rowdene, Nuston of Nuston and so of dyvers others".

SALLEGE on the Severn was much more than a little holding like the 22 acres of Honeycombe, and it seems to me possible that the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire SOLLEYs, SOWLEYs, and SOLEYs were gentry families branching off the Lords of the Manor of SALLEGE in the 13th Century. A century later SALLEGE had lost its ending and had become SALL or SAUL, and a humble person leaving the village for Gloucester would be so-and-so of SAUL, not of SALLEGE, just as people from the north coming to London in the last century have been (pronunciation-wise) HUMES, whereas families in London before that seem to have been HULMES.

Whether the same might apply to the SOLEs and SOLLEYs in Kent I don't know, but it is not impossible and it is something 1 will be investigating when eventually I get round to co-ordinating the work which has been done on Kent and Sussex SOLEs and SOLLEYs. The Kent Solleys seem to all come originally from Ash where they were of reasonable social standing. The Soles tended to be poorer.

Lastly, a word on the SAWLEYs. We have not yet taken them on board in a systematic way. There are two other place names called SAWLEY, one in West Yorkshire (this time near Clitheroe) also from "sallow leah", and one in Derbyshire derived from "sallow hill" (It was SALLE in Domesday). Families called SAWLEY may well derive from one or other of these and maybe some of the SOLLEYs do too. Only when all the main Solley, Sowley and Sawley stems have been traced will we be able to arrive at an informed opinion.

The History of Language, then, can throw some light on genealogy and family history for all periods, but is particularly valuable for speculation about the origins of the surnames in the medieval period when so little else is available. We are indeed looking through a glass darkly, but even that is infinitely better than having no glass to look through at all.

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