As a Yorkshire-based language translation service provider, we’ve been helping our many clients throughout Europe and the world to communicate with global audiences since 1998, whatever their industry.
We’re proud to have a head office at the heart of Yorkshire, and thought it might be interesting to delve briefly into the fascinating linguistic past of ‘God’s own country’. What’s the role of Yorkshire’s ‘language’ yesterday, today and in the future?
A brief linguistic history of Yorkshire
The history of languages in Yorkshire predominantly focuses on the story of its unique, distinctive dialect — sometimes known as Broad Yorkshire, or Tyke.
The Yorkshire landscape (and thus the geographical area covered when we discuss the Yorkshire dialect) is varied and diverse — ranging from large industrial cities such as Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, to wild open spaces like the coast, Dales and Moors.
A large chunk of vocabulary in the Yorkshire dialect is understood to be derived from Old English, the language of old Germanic tribes, as well as Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.
This is where the story begins.
The Angles, Saxons and Old English — fifth century
The rough start of the history of a Yorkshire dialect can be traced back to 400AD, with the arrival of Angles, Saxons and a number of other Germanic tribes on mainland Britain. The Angles settled in Yorkshire, with the Saxons to the south; this created somewhat of a language divide.
With them, they brought Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon), the earliest recorded form of the English language.
In rough geographic terms, modern-day North Yorkshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire were part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria — which can be translated to ‘land north of the Humber’, with West and South Yorkshire belonging to the kingdom of Mercia.
This created its own interesting mini-dialect divide between places north and south of the River Wharfe. Old English Yorkshire dialect words include ‘nobbut’ (nothing but), as well as the short ‘i’ in words like ‘blind’ (such that it rhymes with ‘tinned’).
As well as Old English, linguistic historians have also noted uncanny similarities between some aspects of the Yorkshire dialect and languages of Scandinavia. Many words unique to the Yorkshire dialect have very similar counterparts in Norse languages. The reason for this is the two common forebears that Yorkshire and Scandinavia have — Vikings.
The Vikings and Old Norse — seventh century onwards
To cut a long story unceremoniously short, in the seventh century, the Vikings raided the British Isles, eventually resulting in England being split in two. This created drastic variations in languages spoken between the south and the Viking-ruled north.
The north included the powerful kingdom of York, of course — which we now roughly know as modern-day Yorkshire (also known as Scandinavian York, or Jórvik).
With them, the Vikings brought a huge amount of vocabulary which still finds a place in the modern day Yorkshire dialect. Any Yorkshireman or woman will be familiar with the word ‘lug’ (Old Norse for ‘ear’). The same goes for words like beck (stream), dale (valley), ings (meadow) and fell (hill). Like York, Grimsby and Whitby are both place names which bear traces of Scandinavian language.
The linguistic result? An amalgamation of the already-established Old English and the new Old Norse, both languages of a similar linguistic root.
Our modern understanding of the Yorkshire dialect
In Britain, the Norman conquests of 1066 were characterised by an increasing influence of French, followed by the development of a Standard English language, which acquired prestige through use in the courts, as well as at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
Like many regional dialects in England, Yorkshire became stigmatised by many. Down the generations, the dialect came to be sometimes seen as a debased or invalid form of English, with its use often discouraged.
As a result of globalisation and a huge range of socio-political developments, the highly- distinctive Yorkshire dialect grew much closer to Standard English. Many of us now think of the ‘Yorkshire dialect’ as describing the accents common to Yorkshire, as well as unique vocabulary used in, and connected to, the region.
There are still Yorkshire dialect words and phrases proudly in common everyday use. A very common greeting or expression that Yorkshire people use, or have heard, is ‘ey up’ — meaning ‘hello’, or ‘how are you?’. Like many of the remaining phrases of Yorkshire origin, this is thought to derive from the Old Norse — specifically, the phrase ‘se up’, which means ‘watch out’.
An interesting and slightly humorous Yorkshire phrase which many will have heard is ‘ee bah gum’ — meaning ‘oh by god’, an expression often of surprise — with ‘bah’ representing the Yorkshire dialect spelling of ‘by’, and ‘ee’ the Yorkshire for ‘oh’.
Some other Yorkshire dialect-inspired words, or Yorkshire ‘versions’ of words that you may be familiar with include…
- Bog — a toilet
- Faffing — to mess around
- Flagging — getting tired
- Ginnel — a narrow alleyway
- Kegs — trousers
- Lug (or lug ‘ole) — ear (or earhole).
- Mardy — moody, angry or impatient
- Mebee — maybe, perhaps
- Mithering — to make a fuss or moan
- Nowt — nothing
- Reight (or ‘reet’) — very
- Owt — anything
- Sile – to rain heavily
- Snicket — another word for alleyway
- Sup — to drink
The etymology of many of these dialect words isn't always crystal clear. It may be a bone of contention — particularly amongst Lancastrians or other northerners — to see some of these words as strictly ‘Yorkshire’. Perhaps describing them as ‘northern’ and acknowledging their common linguistic root from Old Norse is an agreeable compromise.
One interesting aspect to the Yorkshire dialect is its allowance of double negatives — one example being ‘wi dooant want nowt to do wi’nooab’dy’ (we don’t want nothing to do with nobody).
Over the centuries, many isophones and quirks associated with the Yorkshire dialect have shifted dramatically or waned away. The old Yorkshire pronunciation of certain words (such as hole as ‘h-oi-le’, or coal as ‘c-oi-l’) can still be found amongst some older speakers in north-eastern England, or small pockets of the north east.
The future of the Yorkshire dialect
As the world embraces ever-closer globalisation, local and regional linguistic divides are becoming less distinct. A leading historian of the Yorkshire dialect says that while the dialect’s use still persists, it could disappear over the next few decades.
Dr Barrie Rhodes notes that the only elements of the Yorkshire dialect that are guaranteed of long-term survival are those that have assimilated themselves into the regional or standard English — like the phrases and examples of vocabulary above; including words like gormless and ginnel.
This is where organisations such as the Yorkshire Dialect Society, founded in 1897, have attempted to make an impact. Their aim is to preserve and promote the use of the Yorkshire dialect. It is one of the longest-established county dialect societies, involved in collecting poetry, prose and recordings of old Yorkshire dialect speakers.
A proactive attempt to maintain use of the Yorkshire dialect — like with schoolchildren in Wales for the Welsh language — has been considered by many as a means of preserving and celebrating the Yorkshire dialect.
If this brief history of languages in Yorkshire teaches us anything, it’s that languages evolve and change rapidly, prompted by factors like political upheaval and change in societal attitudes.
The Yorkshire dialect in literature
Thankfully, some fascinating examples of the Yorkshire dialect have been immortalised in words.
Many people’s first acquaintance with the Yorkshire dialect is through famous works of literature. The Yorkshire dialect features strongly in Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s classic 1847 masterpiece, a tale of two aristocratic families living on the West Yorkshire moors.
The character Joseph, a servant to one of the families, has a particularly strong Yorkshire accent, and Brontë transliterates what he says — providing a useful insight into what a strong Yorkshire dialect of the nineteenth century would have sounded like.
“we’s hae a crowner's ‘quest enow, at ahr folks’. One on ‘em 's a’most getten his finger cut off wi’hauding t' other fro’ stickin’ hisseln loike a cawlf. That’s maister, yeah knaw.”
Which can be roughly made out to mean…
“we shall have a coroner's inquest soon, at our place. One of them almost got his finger cut off with stopping the other from sticking himself like a calf. That's the master, you know.”
With Joseph’s speech reading and sounding almost like a foreign language, Wuthering Heights serves as a symbol of how quickly dialects and languages can change.
In the modern day, when it comes to communication between people, organisations and businesses who don’t speak the same language, we can help.
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