Heritage - 42: Yorkshire Dialect, a Tapestry of Dialect From God's Own Country (1), Historical Profile
Fra' tiny acorns...an' prickly thorns doth grow the Tyke
Yorkshire dialects stem from the incoming Aengle, the Angles, and some Celtic strains.
This confederation of Germanic tribes arrived on these shores from around the mid-late 5th Century. A sophisticated Celtic culture had existed here from long before even the Romans came.
A long period of Celtic settlement preceded the arrival of the Romans in the region in the mid-1st Century AD. There had also been a civilisation before the Celts. Mankind moved into the region from the south-east as the ice sheets receded around 10,000 BC. Several groups of migrants settled in the region from the Neolithic onwards, but we have no clues as to their verbal communication. Our starting point has to be between the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age..In plain terms this has to be around 500 BC.
Some names of settlements would have been adopted from existing sources. Something like that happened when the Aengle spread inland from the Hymbra, the Humber, and adopted some Celtic references. There was a spate of Celtic influx until about 80 BC, by when the older cultures and way of life were 'submerged'. At the start of Roman occupation the Celts had carved out their own niches.
In the East Yorkshire area were the Parisii, their neighbours to the west being the warlike Brigantes of the Pennine region. The Brigantes are thought to have originated in the mountainous areas around Lake Constance, on the borders of what is now Germany, Austria and Switzerland. One of the main towns of the area is the city of Bregenz. By the same token Paris takes its name from the territory of the Parisii before many of them 'upped sticks' and migrated further west, then north.
As much as we know there are no Celtic words from this time in Yorkshire dialect, although place names have come down to us. It was long considered that the dialect form of counting (sheep) had survived from the Celtic era. However, research points to the Dales' counting methods were brought in a lot later, post-Mediaeval. Most of the Celtic place names are seen in the West Riding.
The west, as in America, was harder to overcome than the relatively flat East Riding area. Like the North Riding, the West Riding is hilly and in places mountainous. For several hundred years the west could be negotiated only on moorland tracks, snow-bound in winter. The Dales - the valley bottoms - in the west were marshy, the hillsides covered by scrub and thick impassable woodland like the Alps where the Brigantes came from.
Taking the east was plain sailing. The Aengle description of the defeated Celts was 'waelc' (said as 'Welsh'). Few Celtic place names survive in the east, the Aengle having subdued the Celts there by the early 6th Century. Their takeover in the west began in the following century, and by this time the now Christianised incomers had eased their settlement strategy to inhabit areas neighbouring those of the Celts around them. Thus the West Riding has more Celtic place name roots than the other two. The hills in the west, the Pennines, take their name from the Brythonic 'pen', a head or summit. You see it fairly often as in 'Pen-y-Gent', Yorkshire's second highest peak overlooking Horton-in-Ribblesdale. Penistone near Bradford and Pendle Hill in the west overlooking Lancashire.
Various river names in the West Riding such as the Calder are Celtic in origin, as is the Ouse that passes from the North Riding into York and between East and West Ridings to the Humber. The Celtic kingdom of Elmete is celebrated in names such as Barwick-in-Elmet and Sherburn-in-Elmet. The Craven District in the far west is linked with the Brythonic (Gallic) 'craf', being garlic, a plant widely found in the district. Eccleshill near Bradford and Eccleshall near Sheffield originate in the Celtic 'ecluys' or church (eglise). Exley Head at Keighley stems from the same word.
'Creic' is a rock, and 'ceifu' a ridge of rock, giving us Creak Moor at Silsden and Chevin at Otley near Wakefield. The city of Leeds derives its name from a word meaning a widening of a river. These names, and more, of Romano-British derivation, as Doncaster and Tadcaster are from a time when language was written down. They are maintained in dialect, sometimes spoken very differently from the standard form. Barnoldswick becomes 'Barlick', although Celtic words have had no bearing on the formation and vocabulary of Yorkshire dialect. Look at the next era in history for clues to the broad choice of dialects that are grouped into the main three - East, North and West Ridings.
Threat from the North Sea
Old English (AD 500-1150)
The Germanic invaders were most likely already divided by their own dialects of a common understanding. By around AD 600 there were four marked dialect areas within what is now England. There were the Jutish dialects of the south-east corner, three Anglian and the Saxon dialects of the south and south-west.
Of the Angles the East Angles were the smallest group, the Northumbrians - Deira and Bernicia - were larger and by the reign of Offa in the 8th Century the Mercians were the largest. Their territory extended south and west to confront the Saxons and the Welsh. To their north was the real rival in territorial ambition.
The area that now encompasses Yorkshire was the kingdom of Deira, sometimes allied or bound to Bernicia - north of the Tees - as part of Northumbria, sometimes warring. In AD 600 the folk of Deira would have spoken in the Northumbrian dialect throughout. Later a North Midland Mercian dialect spread into western and southern Deira. Bernicia was initially hemmed in on its western side by the kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons, related to the Welsh, whose boundary was the northern Pennine chain south to the Ribble and west to the Irish Sea. Deira sat between the Irish Sea - bordering on the Mersey and the kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons - and the North Sea. On its North Sea side the Tees sometimes divided Deira from Bernicia from its Pennine source. Mercia's boundary with Deira was the River Don, that flowed into the Trent and in turn the Humber. The Humber formed a more formidable barrier, as did the Mersey in the west. River valleys often proved to be disputed territory.
Much of what later became the West Riding was still under Celtic rule at this time, in the Dales and Pennines. Anglian settlement in the west of Deira had its own dialects, similar to those of the East and North Ridings. By AD 616 King Eadwin of a then united Northumbria overran Elmete and ousted their king, Certic, for his part in the killing of his brother when an earlier Northumbrian king usurped the succession. A year earlier the Northumbrians beat a force of Britons at Chester. After Elmete was overrun by Eadwin its king Cadwallon struck an alliance with the Mercian king Penda and the Mercians overran the West Riding area, holding it for two decades from AD 632 once Eadwin was slain by Penda at the Battle of Hatfield near Doncaster. Penda's own death came at the Battle of Winwaed (near Leeds) at the hands of Oswy in AD 655. Due to Cadwallon's alliance with Penda, Mercians were free to settle in the wouth-west of Deira rather than in the more hostile - to them - Northumbrian Anglian territory further north and east.
Place names in the West Riding reflect this Mercian influx, giving a clue to the onset of a development where West Riding dialect is radically different to its neighbours north and east. Taking the way the word 'sheep' is spoken as an example of the differences between Mercian and Northumbrian dialect, the Northumbrian is 'scip' (pronounced 'skeep'), and the Mercian 'scep' (said 'skep' with a long vowel). Where Northumbrian Angles settled in the north of the West Riding area place names derived from 'scip' are Shipley, Shibden and later Skipton. Where Mercian Angles settled we find Shepley near Huddersfield and Sheepscar near Leeds. Shepton Mallet in Somerset has the same Mercian spelling.
Another Mercian word that crops up particularly in the south of the Riding is the suffix '-worth', or enclosure. This ending in place names is common south of the River Wharfe, that links them to the Mercian (Lutterworth and Tamworth) are Haworth, Oakworth, Hamworth, Cullingworth and Ryshworth. Elsewhere in the West Riding are Illingworth, Wadsworth, Wentworth and Hemsworth.
Other place name links to Mercia are '-royd', or clearing, found in Holroyd and Ackroyd or 'pightel', also an enclosure found now in Pickles and Pighills. A further link is '-bury', a fortified town (found further south in Banbury and Wednesbury), manifested in the West Riding at Dewsbury, Almondbury and Stanbury. Across the 'divide' the Northumbrian version is 'borough' (originally 'burh') as in Knaresborough, Boroughbridge and the later Scarborough, founded by the Icelander Thorgils 'Skarthi' or Harelip in the 10th Century.
Yorkshire dialect, just as Standard English, has changed markedly since its initial use. For a start there was no Standard. Between AD 500-1100 there were the four main 'English' dialect areas which have developed apace. Standard English only took shape from the late 15th Century when economic and cultural necessity brought about a 'Standard'. Dialects spoken by Penda and Eadwin were more involved than their modern development in Yorkshire and the Midlands. They had inflections similar to modern German, and word endings changed according to meanings. As with modern Continental languages like French and German, nouns in Mercian and Northumbrian dialects had genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. they had five cases which demonstrated what the noun was doing or taking, and many other complex differences in structure.
There are no traces of these nuances in modern Yorkshire dialect. There are O.E plural endings like 'childer', 'een' and 'shoon', in Standard being 'children', 'eyes' and 'shoes'. The Deiran/Northumbrian word 'hus' (house) is still in use in East and North Yorkshire dialect, and in some areas mother and father still come across aurally as 'moder' and 'fader'. When in the West Riding someone talks of 'samming summat off t'grahnd' they use a word derived straight from O.E. 'samian' (said 'sammyan') to gather together or collect, which long since vanished from Standard English. These Yorkshire dialect words and terms stem from a speech form of the first Germanic incomers of the 5th and 6th Centuries.
In the 9th Century another incursion came which greatly enriched dialect vocabulary, although especially in the East and North Ridings that were open to the North Sea whence this new threat came. Deira was invaded at a time when relations between it and Bernicia were at a low ebb, especially as the Bernician king Aella had usurped the Deiran king Osberht's authority over all Northumbria. So Yorkshire became part of a Danish enclave - and would again a half century later when Knut arrived with his father Svein 'Forkbeard' - that only ended with the coronation of Eadward, the son of Aethelred 'Unraed' by Emma.
This first Danish invasion put paid to a flourishing literary tradition in Christian Northumbria. From then on the accent on learning 'went south', that is the Wessex of king Aelfred benefited from the division of Mercia into east and west of the old Roman road from London to Chester known by this time as Watling Street, East of this Danish rule became effective in the Danelaw. Yorkshire became the Danish Kingdom of York under Halfdan/Halvdan Ragnarsson from AD 876. Many centres of learning in the Danelaw were destroyed initially, but the territory that spanned the bounds of the old Deira was enriched with a new vocabulary. Jorvik, previously Anglian Eoferwic, became a political and trading centre with goods imported from as far away as Arabia and Byzantium.
The Danes preferred the lower-lying, rich arable lands of the East Riding and the central Vale of York that lay within the North Riding. This generally left higher ground in the Dales and high ground on the Moors between the sea and the Vale of York to the Angles. There were Danes who settled higher, inland from Whitby in Eskdale, and Norsemen who took much of the northern Dales land, and there were those of Norse descent who occupied the coastal margin in fishing communities. In the northern Dales Norse place names such as Askrigg, Bedale, Hawes and Keld mark their settlement. Many of these settlers had started out from Norway and reached the British mainland by way of the Northern Isles, Ireland and Man to find a better life.
There are numerous Norse words (Danish and Norwegian) in Yorkshire dialect, such as 'addle', to earn, 'agate' busy with, 'fell', hillside, 'barn/bairn', child, 'neave', fist, 'beck', stream, 'laik' (pron. 'lark'), play or mess about, 'dale', valley, 'kirk', church, 'thorp', hamlet, 'by' (as in Whitby), a town, 'thwait', clearing, 'ket', rubbish, 'lug', ear, 'haver', oats, 'lig', lie (down), 'teem', pour (out), 'wark', ache, 'tig', touch (v), 'holm', isle, or firm ground within a marsh. This is just the tip of the iceberg of Norse originated words still in use broadly by the few dialect speakers of the North and East Ridings. Danish input is there with the Norse, their languages understood broadly by the Angles. Place names in the North and East Ridings that reflect Danish/Norse occupation are typically 'Newbiggin', new building adjacent to an established settlement, and 'Newby', Danby and Denaby, Whitby (the Anglian name was 'Streoneshealh) and Ormesby, Micklethwaite (large clearing), Braithwaite, Swinithwaite, Hubberholme and Lawkholme.
Natural features have Norse names, such as a 'gill', a spring that empties from a cleft in the rock or up from marshland, as in Gaping Gill in Upper Swaledale, 'carr', land reclaimed from marsh or lake, 'slack', hollow (also 'syke'), 'lund', small wood or copse, 'rigg', ridge or hilltop.
Fauna is not exempt. Common are 'tewit', lapwing, 'dunnock', hedge sparrow, 'ruddock', robin, 'gaukr', cuckoo, 'laverock', skylark, 'gledr', hawk, and 'ikorno' is a squirrel (similar to German 'eich-horn'). You get place names from these sources, such as 'Gawk Stones', 'Gledhow' and Ickornshaw (a 'shaw' being a grove, a 'how' being a burial mound or cairn - which in itself is a Celtic word). . .
Middle English (AD 1150-1450)
In the half-century before William's coronation the Danes held leading roles in ruling England. Knut became king late in AD 1016, a strong hand on the reins allowing the kingdom to profit in a climate of political unity. Long after his passing in AD 1035 Norse leadership at court, in the North and East kept tight rein. The outcome manifested itself in a strong strain of Danish in dialect that lasted until the regulation of English, when elements were drawn into Standard English.
As can be expected, there were more Norse traces in the northern and eastern dialects than further south and west. Those in Yorkshire were a blend of Anglo-Norse. In Middle English they gradually lost the earlier inflections, with the outcome of being simpler than the Old English that was superseded by the vernacular. The Peterborough Chronicle (E) bore witness to this development in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.
A specimen exists of Yorkshire dialect written early in the 11th Century by a Danish settler,
"Ulf let araeran for hanum and for Gunware saula"
Translated it reads "Ulf let a church be built for himself and for the soul of Gunwaru". The inscription, that can be read at Aldborough near Boroughbridge, north of York, might be a more correct form of Yorkshire dialect than he actually spoke. Nevertheless it shows the error of using Norse 'hanum' for the English 'him'. The areas where Norsemen settled, and Danes especially, were those where English grammar was simplified in use. The simplification spread to other dialects, bringing with it the gradual loss of inflections that characterises English compared to some other European languages. It's likely the Yorkshireman's noted bluntness in expression comes down to us from those Norse forebears. In dialect now it is still common to hear word endings or whole words such as 'the' being dropped in the spoken version. You'll hear, for example, "Yon's Billy Greenwood lad", meaning: That boy is Billy Greenwood's son. The possessive 'it's' is often shortened to 'it', as for example, "Sitha at yon bairn laikin wi' it rattil". What can that mean, I hear your distraught tone, Look at that child playing with its rattle, is the answer. The clue is in the first words: 'Sitha' is the foreshortened archaic, 'See thou'. A classic in Yorkshire brevity was overheard at a school noticeboard where a little lad tried to peer round the girth of a friend who played for the school Rugby Football team,
"A' ta on?"
Easy enough if you think on it a short while. In plain English it was "Are you on?" Or to put it another way, "Have you been picked to play?" The beginning is archaic again, 'Art thou...' (Ever see a film from the Sixties titled 'Kes'? The story was adapted from the book 'A Kestrel For A Knave', where most of the dialogue was in Barnsley dialect, based on the lives of a mining community. Outside the North, including across the Pond, subtitles had to be added to understand what was being said. I managed, but then I'm closer in upbringing).
The Norman 'takeover' after AD 1066 didn't affect dialect speech that much. Changes already noticeable before the Normans' arrival might have been pushed along with the loss of a literary tradition that percolated downward through the classes. Norman French became the court language, and that of the higher echelons of society but English dialect was kept going not only by the lower orders but also by what was left of the English nobility. The Normans were still a marked minority - as had been the Angles and Danes before - and unable to affect the broad masses other than to add to the English language in a variety of ways already mentioned in HERITAGE - 41. By the 13th Century most in England and Scotland were bi-lingual to some degree and French words found their way into the grass roots. Many Mediaeval French words stuck in Yorkshire dialect. From when French became the Standard we had 'chamer' for bedroom, 'arran' was a spider, 'to tonse' was to brush your hair, 'grisomly' was grey bedecked with smuts, 'gallimawfry' (pron. 'galleemawfree') a confused mixture, 'galivant' was to act the fool or put oneself about, 'barley' was a child's cry meaning to want first choice or be an onlooker in a game, 'cape' became the top stone but one in a dry stone wall, 'to cop' was to seize, 'aumry sole' was the cupboard bottom, 'lowance' (short for 'allowance') was the mid-morning break, 'bonny' was beautiful. Later French words stuck in the dialect after vanishing from the Standard, such as 'sauve' for lipstick and 'fol-de-rols' a woman's fancy outfit.
Vocabulary and pronunciation altered radically in Middle English, bringing it nearer to Modern than Old English, although over half a millennium divides us from the late Middle English. The breakdown in the inflections of the language began to split wider. Whilst the Standard 'de-regulated', so did dialect. Northumbria, Mercia, Kent and Wessex, for instance, brought forth new speech 'zones'. We classify the Middle English dialects as Northern, West Midland, East Midland, Central Midland and Southern.
In Yorkshire most dialects belong to the Northern group aside from southern and south-western West Riding dialects (remember, from the section on Old English?)
Yorkshire comes of age - Middle English onward
Modern English and Yorkshire Dialect (1450-current)
Important to remember is the dialect change towards the end of Middle English, where London speech became the norm for the south-east and for the educated around the country. This became the forerunner of modern Standard English. With the break of links to France came the linguistic break.
By the end of the 14th Century French was no longer used in Parliament, the Law Courts or schools as accepted 'cultured' speech amongst the educated. English, albeit a 'hybrid' version, became the national standard. English was 'resurrected', although the English of pre-1066 might not have understood it too well as their language.
Established as the national centre of trade, London dialect at the time was a Southern dialect. However, as wool had become a major export commodity many merchants who traded from London were from the East Midlands or East Anglia. 'Fused' with the Southern dialect of London, the English that emerged became the new form of Standard English used by merchants and professionals alike.
During the 15th Century regional dialect became less of a written form, so a verbal culture gap grew between the uneducated and the learned classes. It survived long enough in song, verse and the narrative form, to be taken up again when dialect became 'fashionable' in later centuries. Printing also promoted 'New Standard English', further speeding its separation from dialect away from the capital. Regional dialects, as spoken in Yorkshire for example, became looked down on. Those who acquired learning would try to distance themselves from their past - including family - and became more reliant on their new learned circles. Authors no longer wrote in their native dialect but in the educated form that began to find a standardisation in spelling and grammar based on that South-Eastern or East Midlands 'norm'. So dialect became the speech of the illiterate by Tudor times with the general adoption of 'clever' words of Latin and Greek origin. They did keep their odd wealth of phrase that even Shakespeare was not against plundering for his plays.
Nor did dialect speech altogether die out with the educated classes. It's doubtful that for a long time the educated from all reaches of England cleared regional pronunciation from their speech. Not until the boarding school system was rooted in the 19th Century was the ruling class to lose all trace of their native patter, as all regional speech forms were frowned on in society.
Sir Thomas Elyot despaired at the speech of some of his aristocratic pupils, sons of peers, who acquired a 'corrupt and foul pronunciation from their whet-nurses and other foolish women'. Yet Sir Walter Raleigh with his educational achievements and politeness never lost his rich Devon accent. Only a few decades later the North Riding lawyer and well educated George Meriton wrote in Yorkshire dialect in an extensive narrative poem he composed to show off Yorkshire adages and proverbs in 1673.
Until very recently Yorkshire dialect was still frowned on, more socially than for literary or linguistic reasons. There was a continuous flow of Yorkshire dialect-writing flourished thanks to Henry Carey and historians such as Joseph Ritson. 19th Century scholars of the calibre of professors Joseph Wright and F W Moorman carried on a long tradition of dialect study and writing by well educated Yorkshire writers.
Yorkshire dialect has undergone countless changes since AD 1450. There was another great vowel shift in the 18th Century when vowels such as '-er', earlier expressed as '-ar' were spoken more as written. Deserve came out as 'desarve' before the vowel change. 'Vermin' is an East Riding word for 'pus' and pronounced as 'varmin' by dialect speakers. The Yorkshire vernacular has been influenced by the Standard language in the way most'-er' words are said in the old way, giving us 'Darby' and 'clark' for Derby and clerk.
In the mid-19th Century the River Aire near Leeds was probably the northern boundary of the North Midland dialects. A hundred years on it had 'moved' to the Wharfe and the Nidd. There are pointers that the West Riding speech patterns are moving north, meaning speech patterns are in the process of reversal with a southward population drift. The most influential reason for the northward shift of North Midland dialect over the past two centuries was the introduction of industry to the central Dales.
Untold numbers of industrial workers flocked to the region from around England. Midland land labourers especially sought work in the woollen mill towns after their livelihoods were curtailed by the introduction of steam threshing and other machinery by farm owners at the end of the 18th Century. There already were pockets of Midland place names from Mercian occupation in the 7th Century. Now Midland dialects spread as industrialisation spread northward as far as Bradford, Halifax and Leeds. More, this enclave of Midland dialect grew with industry, and intensified in the 19th Century. Areas such as around Keighley, 'buffer' regions between the North Midland and true Northern dialects appeared to have more northern elements than they have now. Emily Bronte noted Haworth dialect of her time fairly accurately in Wuthering Heights'. Her character Old Joseph speaks only Haworth dialect throughout the account, and it seems odd to hear him use the Northern dialect form, 'amang' instead of Standard English 'among'. Likewise he uses 'lang' for 'long'. He always says 'gangs' for 'goes' where Haworth speakers now say 'goes'.
A large influx of migrants into the West Riding throughout the 19th Century from other parts of England and Britons in general - with the mixed settlement of Mercians, Norsemen and Northumbrians - may explain the broad range of dialects spoken from town to town, even in larger urban areas such as Leeds. Geographical barriers considered, such as the high Pennine moors that ran between dales, there is still a rich variety in village speech even within dales less than ten miles apart. Dialects of Bradford, Keighley, Halifax and Huddersfield differ in both speech and vocabulary to some level. There is a greater variety of dialect over a few miles in the West Riding than across either the East or North Ridings.
City speech, finally. Dialects recently have developed differently to dialects in rural areas. The difference between dialect speakers born and bred in towns and those brought up in the countryside even in the same area is pronounced. With the rapid changes of all English dialects it should be no surprise that the greatest changes come from the towns. Far-reaching changes in social lives and the speed of modern life has improved conditions. With wider education and two world wars that called for standardised speech between the ranks, radio and television have all contributed to a general loss of dialect speech. In the cities new trades developed, old crafts almost vanished and new terminology have left little if any room for dialect to thrive.
Despite the hastened loss of older dialects, even in industrial Yorkshire, some town dialects are thought uglier than traditional rural dialects close by. But no doubt more educated speakers of English in previous centuries thought of as using new kinds of speech are now largely accepted.
Yorkshire dialects are part and parcel of the country's heritage. They have a long, interesting history. They have also a fine literary tradition that harks back to the 7th Century, when the Celtic herdsman-poet Caedmon first celebrated his 'maker' at Whitby Abbey. Present day publications of the Yorkshire Dialect Society reveal the real wealth of dialect writing in 21st Century Yorkshire. Talking to anyone who has not moved far beyond their place of birth will demonstrate that dialect is still strong in the county, despite the weight of influences that have worked against it. Education also promotes new interest in the dialect, whereas between two and three decades ago heavy-handed attempts were made by education establishments to deny dialect to students. It is now accepted that the study of dialect can contribute hugely to a deeper understanding of the history and social development of those who make up the population of Yorkshire.
To follow: HERITAGE - 43: YORKSHIRE DIALECT, How It Works In Practice
Industry sits side-by-side with rural life
This is Part 1 of 3, plus
Parts 2 and 3 give you a practical insight into Yorkshire dialect, plus there's a page HERITAGE 36 titled "IT'S YORKSHIRE DAY Lads'n'Lasses 1st August..." See the Profile Page