Why there is no such thing as one ‘Yorkshire dialect’ in a region that’s home to almost six million people - Jayne Dowle

I wish Rod Dimbleby the very best of luck with his mission to keep the ‘Yorkshire dialect’ alive. From September, this 80-year-old retired German teacher and chairman of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, is holding six weekly two-hour sessions, in Keighley, West Yorkshire, teaching attendees to ‘talk Tyke’.

Mr Dimbleby is concerned that within a generation, dialect words that connect us to our industrial and agricultural roots, going back even further to Viking settlers who brought us, for example, words for moving house, ‘flitting’, waterfalls, ‘foss’, and where I’m from, ‘laikin’’, for playing out or skiving work, will have disappeared.

As all true Tykes will know, one thing that unites us is that we can’t agree about anything. I hope he’s got a whistle to call order and some headache tablets.

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Dialect words from West Yorkshire, where textile mills dominated industry, will differ hugely from those in rural North Yorkshire – plethora of words and sayings with roots in agriculture – and don’t even get me started on South Yorkshire, where coal mining and close communities gave us many words and phrases still in use today, for instance; ‘black breet’ (as mucky as if you’d just come out of the pit), ‘ackee’ (also relating to mucky), put wood in t’oil (shut the door, as young trappers once did underground), and ‘snap’ (originally describing whatever miners took to work with them, now used widely to refer to any kind of meal).

'Yorkshire is a region that’s home to almost six million people, covering more than 4,500 square miles'. PIC: Gerard Binks'Yorkshire is a region that’s home to almost six million people, covering more than 4,500 square miles'. PIC: Gerard Binks
'Yorkshire is a region that’s home to almost six million people, covering more than 4,500 square miles'. PIC: Gerard Binks

If he came down to Barnsley – and that’s an open invitation Mr Dimbleby – I’m sure that me and my fellow Yorkshire Post columnist Ian McMillan could reassure him that here at least, dialect words are alive and well and, as all language should, evolving with younger generations.

I’ve long argued that in an increasingly homogenised world, reclaiming native language is a way of creating a specific identity. Just ask the Welsh.

In some parts of our huge region, this transition is proudly thriving, and I’d say that these areas are especially those where traditional ways of life have been dealt a blow.

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My two kids, aged 17 and 21, might not know that in some parts of North Yorkshire a heifer is still called a ‘quy-stirk’, and both can speak ‘proper’ when interacting with friends and family in London, Surrey and Kent, but they also have a rich vocabulary of dialect in daily use. They recognise that actually, being bi-lingual is an honour, not a badge of shame.

I hear Jack chatting with his 79-year-old grandad, the broadest Barnsley speaker you will ever hear, and it touches me when he opts for the familiar ‘thee’ and ‘tha’ that signals a close communication bond, historically between men.

When Lizzie starts thee-in’ and tha-in’ – typically when she’s berating her older brother for annoying her - it touches me even more. She’s taking on the patriarchy in her own way, just as factory lasses did, when we still had factories.

As I’ve found out over the years, through studying English language and literature at university, compiling half a dozen or so community history projects here in Barnsley and finding myself bamboozled by friends in East Yorkshire talking about ‘tenfoots’ instead of ‘ginnels’ or ‘snickets’ when they’re referring to thoroughfares, there is no such thing as one ‘Yorkshire dialect’.

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When people talk about ‘the Yorkshire accent’ or ‘the Yorkshire dialect’ they often overlook the fact that in a region that’s home to almost six million people, covering more than 4,500 square miles.

Rather there are dozens and dozens of dialects, peppered with rich phrases and words that might not be understood even three miles away from where the speaker lives.

Sadly, it’s the hyperlocal ones that go first. As streets and roads and villages change, so sayings that would once be immediately recognisable fall into disuse. One of my favourites, often used by my grandma brandishing a dishcloth when I was little, was, ‘come ‘ere for a Berry Row wesh’.

Berry Row, I later discovered, was a particularly rough part of our village where some inhabitants were apparently so poor, they only had one multi-purpose cloth in the house.

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Berry Row was demolished 40 years ago, so that one will eventually fade into distant memory. So, yes, I would concede that some words and phrases are falling into disuse, but then again, so are standard equivalents. When was the last time you referred to a ‘gramophone’ or ‘wireless’ without irony?

In a pub in Oxford I once met an elderly gentleman scholar. We fell into conversation and he was able to pinpoint, with amazing accuracy not just the town, but the part of Barnsley where I grew up.