Why is a plough not a “ploff” and, if that is 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. 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.
He and Yorkshire-born Barrie have collaborated on a string of titles like A Rum Owd Dew! and Caw’d a Hell!.
At the heart of them all is the Suffolk dialect. The county has always felt like home to Charlie – even though his Suffolk-born parents strayed south 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.
He does not just talk the talk. Charlie is an expert on how we speak, and why.
So this time, he is wearing his other hat – although actually it is always the same trademark panama – as a researcher and historian.
In an Manner of Speaking is the book he was never going to write, until his fans convinced him otherwise.
“I had packed up writing, but ,when I gave my talk on the history of English, 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 did not 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.
Cartoons by Barrie, whose regular work includes drawing Dennis the Menace for Beano, appear throughout.
There are also maps showing how the invaders who provided the building blocks of our language spread through the country.
The pair had to produce almost three times more pages than planned because publishers Amberley were so keen on the idea.
Barrie’s love of 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 is in one cartoon, but, because of the date, it’s not the Christopher Wren design.
“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 means friendship over a beer. We meet in pubs, have a nice meal and talk about the English language.”
Charlie’s fascination with the subject dates from his school days 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,” he recalls.
Being teased about his real surname, Alecock, prompted his first research. “I wanted to change it, but first I decided to find out what it meant. It’s from Old English and means beer tap.”
In the end, he kept it, which turned out to be appropriate when he was landlord of the Shoulder of Mutton in Assington.
After that, he became an assistant teacher, then children’s rights and development officer, at The Ryes special school.
Now everyone knows him as Charlie Haylock but that name was accidental.
When he started as an entertainer, he told tales about 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.
Haylock points, way back, to some very important ancestors. It means ‘son of an Angle chieftain”.
Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans have all made their mark on English.
Britain’s original Celtic people left only traces, driven out – and dubbed “Walas” meaning foreigners – by Anglo Saxons.
One seismic event was the Middle English “great vowel shift”, when people stopped talking from the back of their throats and made the sound further up instead.
But some of the old pronunciations hang on, which is why “er” is sometimes pronounced “ar”, as in clerk and Derby.
From Tudor times, new words arrived thick and fast from all over the world, but every region still had its own way of talking.
“Shakespeare’s plays would have been spoken in dialect,” says Charlie.
The first Juliet may have cried “wherefore art thou Romeo” with a Brummie twang, while Richard III offered his kingdom for an ’orse.
Charlie is devoted to dialects. But he detests the strangulated accent once favoured by the upper classes and BBC presenters.
It grew from public school pronunciation 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,” he says. “Dialects have held on to more Anglo Saxon and Old Norse than standard English.
Charlie and Barrie will be signing books at WH Smith, Sudbury, on Saturday, May 6, from 11am to 1pm. Barrie will also demonstrate cartooning.