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THE BRITISH WORKMAN:
Our Vernacular


CHAPTER XII

OUR VERNACULAR

During the many interviews which I have had with William Blades he invariably conversed with me in the language of the East Yorkshire Woldsman as it was spoken about the middle of the last century. At one of our first meetings he alluded to this, and said, half apologetically, that he hoped I should not object to his manner of speech, in which he could best express himself. I begged him on no account to attempt to alter or tone down his talk by a single word, because I had been accustomed to it from my earliest childhood, adding that the words from his lips fell like music upon my ears, and that I preferred the old East Yorkshire folk-talk to any other tongue with which I was acquainted. This, of course, put him at his ease at once.

Seeing how closely language is bound up with the life of any people, and what hallowed associations often cluster round it, I feel that I may not unfittingly terminate these pages by giving some slight account of our old vernacular, which, as it was spoken two or three generations ago, was perhaps the richest and most forceful of all our English dialects. And I am led to do this the more, because of the deterioration of our standard English in these later years. No one possessed of any literary taste can fail to have noticed how many corruptions, clippings of words, slang expressions and Americanisms have been introduced into our language during the present generation. It would be no bad thing if some of our old Yorkshire words and expressions could be incorporated into our everyday English to replace others which should never have been introduced into our language. As instances of this I will presently give a few examples of our Yorkshire words and expressions.

There is so much misunderstanding and ignorance on the part of many people as to the nature of dialect, and what that word really stands for, that I should like, before we proceed further, to elucidate that point. And in order to do this, I think I cannot do better than draw upon certain remarks which I made on this topic some years ago when addressing the members of the Yorkshire Dialect Society at York on the subject of the Folk-speech of the East Riding Woldsman.

The word 'dialect' appears to have widely different meanings for different people. It is not easy to give a concise definition of the word. It means much more than a mere variation of ordinary English. A great amount of modern slang, abbreviations, and Americanisms which are frequently adopted in this country are variations from the standard tongue, but we should scarcely include these under the term ' dialect'. Still less is dialect a mere mispronunciation of ordinary English, though there are those who seem to think that dialect in any part of England can be manufactured by deforming at will a certain number of words in every sentence, and inserting a few grammatical errors.

Dialect, then, may be said to be the traditional unwritten speech of the people of any district. It is folk-talk as distinguished from the language of the Court or Government; it is a mother tongue, rather than a scholastic or written tongue; it is local, as distinct from national, speech.

The absurd notions which many people have with regard to the nature of dialect should at once be dismissed from their minds. In the essential meaning of the word it is as much a language as that of any country, and no inconsiderable part of it is older than the standard English which is spoken to-day.

Many of the old-fashioned schoolmasters in days long past used to speak almost as broad Yorkshire as their pupils, and the idea of correcting one of them for using a good homely expression in the vernacular would seldom, if ever, enter their heads. But as time went on and the education of the people began to spread more rapidly, the parents of children attending the schools of these antiquated pedagogues came to perceive that the speech of the scholars in no wise varied from what it was when they themselves went to school; which state of things did not quite satisfy them, as was the case in a certain school in a place near Whitby which I well remember. In this instance things had got to such a pass that some of the parents put their heads together and decided to approach the master on the subject. This was somewhat like bearding the lion in his den; and so it needed delicate handling. However, the master was in no wise offended, and on the morning following his interview with the parents he addressed his boys somewhat thus: 'Noo, lads! sum o' yer faathers a'e been tellin' o' ma 'at ya deeant speak fahin eneeaf; you mum larn ti speak fahin, an' if ya deeant, ah'll smash ivvry yan o' yer scaups.' Needless to say, this harangue had no more effect upon the mother-tongue of the poor lads than it had upon the tide on the shore below.

It is greatly to be regretted that in years gone by, many of the teachers of our elementary schools have erroneously corrected children for making use of words teresting, and in their way perfectly correct. No doubt the rules of modern English have to be complied with; but that is no reason why those venerable, traditional, and homely words and expressions with which many of us are so familiar should be made the objects of reproof and ridicule. Indeed, it has now been recognized in one of the 'codes' of our educational authorities for the guidance of teachers in their methods of instruction, that it must not be assumed that dialectical variation from standard English is necessarily bad, and that such variations must not be confused with careless pronunciation, grammatical errors, and so forth. This is certainly the right view to take in a subject of this kind, and should tend to preserve much that is worth preserving in our old traditional folk-speech.

The most that I can hope to do here in this connexion is to give some account of the vowel-sounds of our vernacular as it was spoken in the middle of the last century, together with a few characteristic features of the speech of the Woldsman as it was uttered by men of William Blades' standing a couple of generations ago.

The most marked feature in this, as in many other dialects, is the persistence of its vowel-sounds: words may come and go in the run of years, but the vowelsounds remain, and I make no doubt that these are identically the same as they were in the Middle Ages, and even much earlier. It is not too much to say that the vowel-sounds in standard English have changed much more since the Norman Conquest than have those which are found in our dialect.

The ordinary a-sound has no place in our true East Yorkshire folk-speech, as, for instance, in the word say. The best indication of the sounding of our Yorkshire a is similar to the first part of the word air. The English a is a composite vowel, which is easily disintegrated, being a blending of the Danish oe and i, and the first of these is as nearly as possible equivalent to our a. With us, such words as lay, may, nay, would be sounded laay, maay, naay. This particular sound is a strongly marked feature in our vowel-sounds, and a Yorkshireman could invariably be detected by it.

The ordinary English i-sound is scarcely ever heard in the dialect: I mean as we hear it in such words as five, side, time; these are sounded approximately as fahve, sahde, tahme. But not always does the i take this form : commonly the i is changed to something approaching to ey, as in beyte (bite), feyre (fire), reype (ripe). Frequently again the i becomes ee : thus, bright, light, might, so that the sentence 'Five times last night I lighted the fire, and at last it burnt bright', would with us be changed to 'Fahve tahms last neet ah leeted t' feyre, an' at last it bo'nt breet'. It should be borne in mind that it is only possible to approximate our vowelsounds by ordinary writing. So, too, with regard to the o-sound as we hear it in know, throw, note. The pronunciation in the dialect is always au; but, curiously enough, words which in the standard tongue have this same au-sound take quite a different sound in the vernacular: for instance, we should never say bought, brought, wrought; in these and many similar instances the dialectical vowel-sound is peculiar and highly characteristic, the pronunciation being something between the ordinary o and ou sounds. I know of no sounding in our folk-speech more difficult to describe or to acquire by one who has not been in a sense born to it than this. Let me give a short sentence as an example in which some of our o- and ow- sounds occur, and it will be at once seen how widely they differ from those to which we are generally accustomed: 'Now, Tom; who does the coat belong to that you brought me? Do you know anything about it?' How differently this sounds when uttered by a Woldsman, thus: 'Noo, Tom; wheea's awes t' caut 'at thoo browt ma? Dust thoo knaw owt aboot it?'

These transformations of the vowel-sounds in our dialect often give rise to mistakes of a somewhat amusing kind.

I remember when I was vicar of a parish near York, we were having an examination of one of our schools by H.M. Inspector. The children were having some dictation to do on the subject of 'The Bear'. In the course of a passage read out, some allusion was made to the animal's claws, which word one of the boys spelt clothes; a very pardonable mistake, as I thought, but one which afforded the inspector and myself some amusement, though I felt inclined to 'clap' (pat) the boy on the back for adhering so tenaciously to this vowel-sound of his mother tongue; and I am pretty sure that the inspector himself shared my feeling !

Less pardonable, however, was a mistake which a schoolmaster of the old Yorkshire type made at some public entertainment in a parish of which a friend of mine was rector. The schoolmaster was reading or reciting something in which occurred the words 'his gouty toe'; these he pronounced 'his gooty taw', which, though quite correct dialectically, was somewhat surprising, coming from the source it did, though probably but few of the audience would perceive anything the least incorrect about it.

But I cannot forbear giving just one more example of a still more amusing character while I am speaking of these vowel-sounds. This occurred on one occasion when I was calling many years ago upon a parishioner with whose family I was well acquainted. One of her sons had recently gone to live at a farm-house some miles away. I inquired how the lad was, and how he liked his new situation. The mother said he liked it 'very well', which signifies 'very much', except for one thing; and that was, that they were so desperately 'plaaged wi flies', as she expressed it. As it was then the depth of winter, I felt considerable surprise that there should be a plague of flies at such a season. She evidently saw a look of astonishment on my countenance, and before I could ask another question she explained. 'Aw!' she observed, 'sum folks calls 'em flees, bud ah calls 'em lops'. (Lop is our Yorkshire word for flea, and fly is sounded flee.)

It is remarkable how foreign the ow- or ou-sound as it occurs in such words as brown and ground is to our Wold language. This ugly vowel or diphthongal sound gives place to the more euphonious long or short u-sound in the dialect. And when I say 'gives place to' I mean, of course, that our traditional sounding of a large number of words of this class is the more ancient and correct pronunciation, if indeed, in such cases, there can be said to be a right and a wrong at all. Let me give a few examples to illustrate my meaning. The words I have chosen are the following: brow, brown, bound, crown, drown, down, found, ground, gown, hound, house, how, mouse, now, out, pound, proud, round, sound, town. In every one of these cases the ow-sound is replaced in the dialect by a long or short u; so that these words would be sounded by the Woldsman thus: bru, brun, bund, crun, drun, dun, fund, grund, gun, hund, hus, hu, mus, nu, ut, pund, prud, rund, sund, tun. With one or two possible exceptions, all these dialectical pronunciations are older than those of the standard tongue, and have come down to us unchanged in the traditional folkspeech of the Wolds of East Yorkshire from Anglian, Danish, or Norman times as the case may be.

Some words no doubt undergo change by attraction, or alliteration, and of these words which I have mentioned, crown and round are probably instances of this. Hus can never have been anything else with us; and the same may be said of ut, which in Icelandic and Anglian is the same, and in Danish ud. It is not until we come to the middle English period that the ou-sound appears to have asserted itself.

Much more might be said on particular words in this connexion; but before I proceed further, I should like to give just a short sentence to illustrate the Woldsman's use of some of them.

Let us then turn the following sentence into our folkspeech: 'About an hour ago my son Tom saw a little brown mouse running down the side of our house, and it jumped right into a pail of water that the girl had put on the ground, and got drowned in it.' In the dialect this would be: 'Abut an hur sen, ur Tom seed a lahtle brun mus runnin' dun ur hus-sahd, an' it loup'd reet intiv a paal o' watther 'at t' lass 'ad putten uppo t' grund, an' gat dhrunded iv it.' There is not a word in this sentence that would not come perfectly easily and naturally to the lips of a Woldsman, and if I might hazard an opinion, I should say that if old Robert of Brunnum (Nunburnholme) who was living in that village in the year 1200, or earlier, could come to life again and hear spoken the sentence which I have just written in the language of the Eastridinger, he would not only understand every word of it perfectly, but would himself, if he wished to relate the trivial episode of the mouse, make use of expressions very closely resembling, if not identical with, those which I have here given as an example.

Another feature in the speech of our Wold-folk which I must not fail to notice, because it is a strongly marked one, is the prevalence of the eea-sound. In some cases this may have come down to us from Anglo-Saxon days, but in the great majority of cases the sound must have come into use at a much later date, though when, even approximately, it is impossible to say. We have this sound clearly marked in such words as teeak (took), ceeak (cake), deea (do), seea (so), ceeal (cool), feeal (fool), smeeak (smoke), beeak (book), though in the case of the two last-named words we have three pronunciations, namely, smook, smeuk, and smeeak ; boook *, beuk, and beeak. The use of the three soundings of these two, and a few similar words, is very peculiar and represents with our people three degrees of broadness. In ordinary English we sound it book, but among Yorkshire folk boook * is very common, and not infrequently I have heard boke or something very near to that, which is perhaps the closest to the old English sounding of the word; then there is beuk, which is a broader pronunciation; and lastly beeak, which is the broadest of all. In many cases I cannot but think that words have been attracted to this eeasound by a kind of fashion for its usage.

* The original text used accented letters to demonstrate pronunciation. I have tried to avoid having to do this by adding extra letters in an attempt to indicate vowel sounds. Graham Metcalf, 2002*

The definite article is always abbreviated to t' in the dialect, whether the word following is a vowel or not. In the latter case the sound is difficult to detect, but it is always there. Frequently the t' is softened to d'. But in the south-east part of the East Riding, called Holderness, the article is omitted altogether; and on the border-land between Holderness and the Wolds the definite article is sometimes expressed, and sometimes omitted: in my conversations with William Blades I observed that he followed that habit, Nafferton being near the edge of the Wolds.

Again, it is interesting to note the cases in which many of our dialect words differ but slightly from those corresponding ones in the standard language. Take for instance the word leck (leak); this is our old, as it is our present-day, sounding of the word leak, which is a purely Scandinavian one, and is found in Icelandic in leka (to drip), and in modern Danish in lække with the same meaning. In this form the word has come down to us from father to son all through the centuries, and we have never in our folk-speech adopted the more modern form leak. Similarly we speak of a gosling as a gesling; here, too, the early form of the word has been preserved, firmly embedded in our vernacular; and many other similar instances might be cited.

Besides actual words there are an immense number of phrases and peculiarities of diction, to say nothing of forceful expressions and idioms, to be found in our folkspeech, of which I should like here to give a few specimens. Many of these may seem trivial, but they form the niceties of the language.

We never wait for anybody in our Wold country, we always wait of them ; and if we wish to summon them to our side, we never call them, for that would mean to give them abusive language; we always call of them. If we send a boy on some message of importance, we do not tell him to be careful to remember it, but that he must mind and 'think on'! This very usual expression always seems to me an excellent way of putting it. When we are at meals we do not ask a guest what he will take with any particular dish, but what he will take to it. In the same way we might ask a boy what he had to his dinner, instead of for his dinner.

Negatives can be duplicated and triplicated ad libitum in our vernacular; for instance, 'He nivver said nowt ti neean on us neeaways' would merely mean that he did not say anything to any of us. Or, as the owner of a garden, looking over a wall after the reception of a few stones, and seeing a boy running away said, 'Neeabody ez neea bisnis ti thraw nowt inti neeabody's gardin'.

A south countryman would sometimes think that we meant the opposite of what we intended; for instance, in our use of the word 'while' for 'until'; we might say 'I cannot begin while you sit down'. Or, as a schoolmaster in a school near Whitby was once heard to say when the boys were making too much noise in the room: 'Noo, lads! ah can deea nowt while you are quiet !' Again, apropos of this word, I remember seeing in a local East Riding paper an advertisement of a tailor which ran thus: 'A man wants an odd coat awhile he gets his spring suit.'

Another noteworthy peculiarity in our folk-talk is the omission of the possessive case in s; for instance, we should say 'Fred book', 'Jack coat'; and the same rule applies in consecutive words, for instance, 'William Smith brother lass' would mean the daughter, or servantgirl of the brother of William Smith. We should say 'it head' for its head; or 'the dog wagged it tail'. This is quite in accordance with the usage of the possessive case in Shakespeare's time. There is also a strong tendency to reverse the order of cases as between nominative and genitive: thus wall-end for end of the wall; house-side for side of the house; stack top for top of the stack.

The past participle in en is more common in the dialect than in standard English; for instance, cutten, gotten, letten, putten, setten, with many more. We are here reminded of the Yorkshire schoolboy who when he was reproved for writing 'putten' in his exercise naively replied: 'Whya ! ah've nobbut putten " putten" when ah owt ti a'e putten " put ".' We have this word in common use in the expression 'putten aboot' (harassed); as a woman once said to me when she had been rather knocked up with work and worry: 'Ah can't bide ti be tew'd, or clash'd, or putten aboot, or owt!' The repetition of the parts of the auxiliary verb is often made at the end of a sentence; thus: 'it's a useful thing is a coo'; 'they're bad things ti dhrave is pigs'; 'sha wer nobbut a plaan 'un was n't Jane'.

Some of our words are wonderfully expressive; take the word 'menseful' for instance, which signifies becoming, neat, decent, orderly. It is also used as a verb, as when we say of something 'it will mense it off', meaning it will put a finishing touch upon it. It is a wonder how this word has escaped forming part of the standard language. The phrase 'there's nowther sense nor mense iv it' is very common. The word 'trim' is often used in a somewhat similar sense, as for instance when a man has received something which has exactly suited him he would say, 'It fair trim'd ma'. Again, when a meal has been finished and the things on the table have to be put away, the servant lass is told to 'side' them. This word is, or was, also commonly used for burying a person; for instance, it might be said, 'We've gotten poor au'd Tommy Smith sahded'. Two other expressions were also in use by some people for a burial, namely 'putten oot a' t' waay' and 'happ'd up', to hap meaning to cover up; 'happings' is a word in everyday use for bed, or other coverings.

When a man wishes to express that he is greatly surprised he says that he is 'stagnated', and if to a lesser degree, he might say that he was 'fair capp'd'; but this word is also used in a somewhat different sense, as when we say 'it caps owt', that is to say it surpasses everything. To be 'stall'd' of anything means to be satiated with it, or wearied out, as a man whom I knew once said to a doctor as an excuse for having got up against his orders, 'Ah's stall'd o' liggin' (lying). Again, 'fend' is one of our everyday words that is full of meaning, signifying capability or readiness to act for oneself, or management; hence the adjective 'fendable' is also in common use; for example, 'Sha's a varry fendable lass'; that is, a very capable girl. The word 'fend' is very usually applied to people on a bed of sickness who are helpless. I well remember a poor bed-ridden woman who was so weak that she could scarcely move saying to me, 'Ah can't mak a bit o' fend'. Closely allied to this in meaning is the word 'frame', to give good promise in the performance of work of any kind, whether in man or beast; thus we should say of a girl who had just gone on service and gave good promise of doing well, 'Ah think t' lass fraames midlin'.' The derivative 'framation' is also in daily use; for example, 'There's neea framation aboot him'.

The word 'fine' has a meaning in our dialect which has no place in the standard tongue. A friend of mine who for many years resided in the North Riding once wrote: 'I never heard "fine" here for years applied to a person in any other than what I may call the moral sense: well-behaved, obedient, helpful, and wholly irrespective of physique and looks.' It was once said of a little, ill-favoured, deformed girl: 'Sha's t' finest lass iv all t' toon '.

Besides several variations in the use of the verb 'get' in our dialect, perhaps the most peculiar as well as the commonest is in the sense of 'is called'. For instance, we might say 'Sha wer kessen'd Mary, but sha awlus gets Polly'. Nicknames, or bynames as we call them, as well as mispronunciations of surnames, are prevalent in all our villages, and these sometimes turn up at odd times and places. A case of this kind I once heard of which happened in a court of law. A punctiliously articulating counsel in the course of his examination of a Yorkshire witness said: 'I believe his name is Christopher Peacock?' To which the Yorkshireman replied: 'Ah deeant knaw what he was kessen'd, bud he gets nowt bud Kit Pairke!' So too, in like love of abbreviations, it was said of some maiden ladies of the name of Mauleverer that they always 'gat nowt bud Livvra dowtthers'.

People unaccustomed to our vowel-sounds are often sorely puzzled by them, as was a certain sportsman I was once told of who had borrowed a timid pointer, and was thus warned by the keeper: 'You maun't shoot (shout) at her; you mun mak on (coax) her.'

Sauce is a very good thing; but it is possible to have too much of it on occasions, as for instance in the following case. A friend of mine who was an excellent 'Yorkshire' scholar had a Kentish mother who, on first settling in the North Riding, was one day greatly perplexed when the cook complained to her that the servant lad gave her, as she put it, 'nowt bud sauce !'

As I mentioned on a former page, our East Yorkshire folk-speech has a very close relation with some of the Scandinavian dialects, notably those of Jutland, and a Woldsman if he was careful to speak his pure mother- tongue might not have much difficulty in making himself understood by a Jutlander. I once made a test of this point by sending a short passage of the broad Wold vernacular to a Danish friend living in Jutland. It will explain a good deal if I here give my few sentences in standard English, Wold Dialect, and Jutlandic.

(1) Standard English :' Now I will go and take the cows to the brook and bring them up to the cow-house again, and put them in our little field, so that they may have something to eat; after that, you may find the scythe (see! there is one lying close to the barn-door); or else you may take the sickle, and cut the corn behind the long meadows: I have taken the hay out of the shed, so you can lay the scythe there before you go home.'

(2) The Woldsman's Dialect: 'Noo ah'll gan an' tak t' kye ti t' beck an' bring 'em up ti t' koo-hoos ageean, an' put' em iv oor garth, seea 'at they may a'e summat ti eeat; eftther that, thoo may fin' t' ley (sitha! there's yan ligs near-hand t'lathe-deear); or else thoo may tak t' sickle, an' shear t' coorn aback o' lang ings: ah a'e ta'en t' haay oot o' t' helm, seea thoo kan lig t' ley theer afoor thoo gans heeam.'

(3) West Jutland Dialect : ' No a'l go o ta ae kyer te ae baek o (bagaetter) bring em op te ae ko-hus igjen, o put 'em i wor gor, saadan te di ka fo nowed (or nat) o ed. Etter de, do mo finn ae lie (sie, 'en ligger naerve ae ladar (laidor) eller ejsen (or helles) mo do ta ae segl, o skaer ae kuen bag ae lang eng. A ha taen ae hye ud a ae hjaelm, sa do ka lig a lie daer for do gor hjem.

From this, the close similarity of the two dialects will be at once seen. When I sent my bit of 'Yorkshire' to my friend in Jutland he said in his reply: 'The only word among these which is not commonly used is hjaelm : in certain places it might be understood. Else, this would easily be understood all over Jutland.'

It has been supposed, as I said, that a Yorkshireman might not find it difficult to make himself understood in Jutland if he were to speak good broad 'Yorkshire'. From my own experience, however, I am compelled to add that he might or might not. At first he would probably find it hard to understand and be understood; but that it is not only possible but easy, with a little practice, to say much in good 'Yorkshire' that would be understood pretty nearly as well by the Jutlander as by those on this side the North Sea, I am quite prepared to admit.

Much more might have been here said to illustrate some of the many features of the Woldsman s vernacular, and to show that it is a tongue worthy of respect. There is in it a forcefulness and charm which can perhaps only be fully appreciated by those who are born to it, and whose familiar forms and cadences create a subtle spell which those who come under its influence are unable to resist. When its tones are made the vehicle of speech between our people it is a case of cor ad cor loquitur. In days gone by it was always the language of the home, the parent, the child, the friend, the lover, the sick, the dying. In the field, in the market-place, and on every roadside we could hear the racy and ofttimes humorous utterances of those who preferred our ancient Doric to the less telling speech of the statesman and the scholar. But alas! in these latter days many of our traditional and interesting words and expressions are passing, or have passed away, to our great loss. When one of our old Woldsmen departs this life we feel in many cases that we are not only losing a highly interesting and admirable character, but also a rich vocabulary which can never be replaced, a vocabulary which has been transmitted from father to son through the long centuries. The old vowel-sounds may not be heard in the court or the mansion, but they are none the less worthy of our veneration on that account; and though they may not be recorded in the literature of the great authors of our country, they have been for long ages enshrined in the hearts of our people.


Transcribed by Graham Metcalf © 2002

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