Speaking up for dialect, the language that says so much about who we are

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Does modern Yorkshire still boast a distinctive dialect? Rod McPhee got some answers from Professor Clive Upton of the Yorkshire Dialect Society.

ASK most people in Yorkshire if the region’s dialects are diminishing and they’ll probably answer in the affirmative.

But ask any of the experts in this field of study and they’ll tell you quite the opposite. In fact they not only believe that our dialects are firmly in place but continually evolving.

This disconnect stems from the fact that the evolution is interpreted by subsequent generations as the breakdown of the traditional ways of speaking. In fact, it’s just moving on a stage.

Professor Clive Upton of the Yorkshire Dialect Society believes we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.

“The truth is that people who tend to say: ‘Oh, language is going to the dogs’ well, they see the high point of the language as being when they learnt it,” he says.

“The reality is that we’ve all learnt a bastardised form of the language. Maybe the high point of language you could point towards as being in Chaucer’s day or Shakespeare’s day – and from there you could view it as being downhill ever since. But this is an absolute nonsense.

“That’s why the YDS study dialects – not to hold the line or hold a quaint record of ‘what’s old fashioned’ we are working backwards from where we are now to understand the history of the language. It’s fascinating to understand what it is that drives language to constantly change.”

But change our dialect has. The change isn’t always easy for most of us to notice or interpret since dialect is a curious mixture of accent, vocabulary and grammar. In other words dialect is what we say and how we say it, but also what we write and how we write it.

That will be the subject of a talk taking place on Saturday where the YDS will look at how our homegrown dialects have appeared in print. Sadly dialects aren’t captured in writing as 
much as they are manifest in everyday life. The reason? Too much dialect in writing turns most readers off – Irvine Welsh can just about get away with it in Edinburgh-based books like Trainspotting, but for most of us a hint of dialect is just about all we can muster in a novel.

But in real life it’s much easier to indulge ourselves in our dialect, turning it on and off, intensifying or diminishing it as it suits us. Either way, what’s important is that we are continuing to utilise it.

More importantly we use it to increase our sense of regional identity.

“That really matters,” says Prof Upton. “You know, we have people in the society who’ll still write down their address as East Yorkshire, not Humberside, so those old allegiances matter, particularly as we have more and more changing and fluid borders in our society.

“An interesting example is Teesside and Middlesborough, a good deal of which used to be in North Yorkshire. Up there the older generation tend to affiliate themselves with Yorkshire still, and have the same accent. Whereas the younger generation have become more closely affiliated with the north-east and now sound much more like Geordies than they used to.

“But although these borders do change they’re still in place, even on a very local level. You can tell if someone who claims to be from Bradford really is from the city if they pronounce it ‘Brat-fud’, 
for example. And that’s 
still a phenomenon firmly in place today.

“And then when you move down toward the Barnsley area you get the wider use of ‘thee’ and ‘tha’ as well.”

There are other notable evolutions. In Hull, to use another pertinent example, the distinctive East Yorkshire tone that makes 
the words “telephone, blow 
and snow” sound like “Telefern, blur and sner” is spreading 
further inland, according to new studies.

Prof Upton cites a theory which is that this is a hybrid vowel created by mixing the traditional Yorkshire way of pronouncing the letter “O” with the way it is delivered via received pronunciation. In other words, people in Hull are, consciously or otherwise, trying to sound a bit posher – and the rest of us are gradually following suit.

Which may link into the fact that our Yorkshire dialects are no longer defined solely by historic boundaries but those of class, background and aspiration – often factors which are particularly influential in modern Yorkshire.

“A lot of the people changing dialects are immigrants very often,” says Prof Upton “and that has always been the case. I started off my dialect work in south-west Wales where a load of Germanic- speaking Flemish people arrived in the 12th century and they 
had a profound effect on the dialect there. And so it is everywhere.”

The professor is excited by the shifting changes in our dialects, which have been more acute over the years. From inner-city multicultural suburbs to rural communities, from former 
mining towns to spa towns, the variety in God’s Own Country is remarkable.

And though cars and public transport have quickly destroyed the insularity which saw dialects develop village by village, what’s curious is that many of the quirks of our dialects are legacies of centuries-old language.

In Leeds you might use the word “while” instead of “until”, but the word while is, in fact, an Old English word which meant until, so its use in that context is entirely justified and not a warped mode of slang.

Then there are old Viking words such as “lake” instead of “play”, or talking about “the dregs in a teapot” which uses another Norse word, “dregs” which means “sediment”. In the north and east of the region they often used the word “bond” or “band” when they were describing rope – another word brought from across the North Sea to what was then Anglo-Saxon England.

Another preserving influence has been the large number of high-profile Yorkshiremen and women in the media. But Prof Upton urges caution here.

“If you look at someone like Alan Bennett who’s closely associated with Leeds or Sean Bean who’s a famous Sheffield lad, they’re not an entirely true reflection of the Yorkshire dialect,” he says “And that’s probably because they’ve had some of the edges knocked off their accents by moving in different circles or moving up in the world.

“Someone who perhaps more accurately represents the wellbeing of the dialect is the poet Ian McMillan who has a very distinctive accent and really does reflect where he comes from, but his voice isn’t in any way affected or accentuated – it is his natural voice.”

But the most important sign that the Yorkshire dialect is alive, well and evolving is that we have not only retained a distinct Yorkshire voice but a distinct northern voice. Although the media was once dominated by received pronunciation, it never merged into the everyday speech of people outside of the Home Counties.

And this wasn’t accidental, according to Prof Upton we have made a conscious effort to retain a northern identity through our dialect. What form that dialect takes may have changed and we may use it at different times in different ways. But crucially we haven’t suddenly homogenised with the south of England.

“There was a lot of talk at one point about ‘Estuary English’ taking over the country which I think was just wishful thinking on the part of journalists in the capital,” says the professor.

“I think it’s safe to say, that someone from Yorkshire would never wish to be mistaken for someone from London.”

Leeds University researcher David Wright will give a talk entitled “There’s more than just one dialect in Yorkshire” on Saturday at the School of English, Leeds University, Woodhouse Lane, 2pm to 4pm, £2 OTD. yorkshiredialectsociety.org.uk

A local global organisation

The Yorkshire Dialect Society was established in 1897, making it the world’s oldest surviving dialect society. It grew out of a committee formed nearly three years earlier by Professor Joseph Wright, which was set up to collect additional Yorkshire material for the English Dialect Dictionary.

Members don’t have to be from Yorkshire, in fact they have members from around the world and anyone is welcome to join at www.yorkshiredialectsociety.org.uk