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YORKSHIRE FOLK TALK: The Bible and Shakespeare


Written in 1892 by the
Rev. M.C.F. Morris B.C.L., M.A.



IT is generally admitted, and no doubt with truth, that the English Bible has done more to preserve our language from decay than anything else. If we want to see what pure and forcible English is, we shall find it in the pages of the Authorised Version there is a musical flow and rhythm about it, and as regards certain passages, if we take them as specimens of our language only, they cannot be surpassed for beauty. I will not take upon myself to select examples, but as instances of this let me give Mr. Ruskin's list. Indeed, perhaps I may be allowed to quote in passing what he himself says about his own Bible in his Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts in my Past Life. He remarks :- ' I have just opened my oldest (in use) Bible; a small, closely, and very neatly printed volume it is, printed in Edinburgh by Sir D. Hunter, Blame, and J. Bruce in 1816. Yellow now with age, and flexible, but not unclean, with much use, except that the lowest corners of the pages at i Kings viii. and Deuteronomy xxxii. are worn somewhat thin and dark, the learning of these two chapters having cost me much pains. My mother's list of the chapters with which, thus learned, she established my soul in life has just fallen out of it. I will take what indulgence the incurious reader can give me for printing the list thus accidently occurrent, Exodus xv. xx, 2 Samuel i from seventeenth verse to the end, i Kings viii, psa1ms xxiii, xxxii, xc, xci, ciii, cxii, cxix, cxxxix, Proverbs ii, iii, viiixii, Isaiah lviii, S. Matthew v, vi, vii, Acts xxvi, i Corinthians xiii-xv, S. James iv, Revelation v, vi.'

Far be it from me to question the desirability of a Revised Version; it is a fail accompli. That there are faulty translations and blemishes in the Authorised Version none will deny. These we should be at pains to amend at all costs. One great object of the late Revision was of course to give the exact meaning of every word of the original in language thoroughly understood at the present time. In accomplishing this, certain words supposed to be obsolete had to give way to their more modern equivalents; in some cases the choice of the right word had to be exercised with the greatest care and judgment; different words to express the same thing would naturally present themselves to the minds of the translators; those of Scandinavian origin, for example, vied for the ascendency with others that were Romanesque.

But between these two component sources of our language there is no doubt from which the choice should be made as supplying words most easily intelligible to our ordinary country folk, at least as regards those who inhabit this north-eastern side of the country, where the talk of the people is mainly made up of words of Norse origin.

If the English Bible has done so much to conserve what is best in the English tongue, we should indeed be careful how we lay hands upon it, even to make a single alteration. No doubt every alteration made by the last Revisers was carefully weighed. There is, however, just one point which perhaps has been a little overlooked: I mean the fact that many words and phrases supposed to be obsolete are still in common use by a large number of our people. Because such words do not ordinarily appear in modern literature, it does not follow that they are not spoken, and consequently well understood.

The American Committee would have gone further in the direction referred to than the English Revisers. This may be gathered from the list of readings preferred by them and recorded at their desire in the form of an appendix at the end of the volume. This appendix is deserving of every respect, however much we may differ from the conclusions arrived at. I will not attempt to do more than make one or two remarks as far as some of their recommendations bear upon our dialect.

In St. Matt. viii. 4, St. Matt. xxvii. 65, and St. Mark i. 44, for instance, they recommend to change 'go thy way to simply 'go.' Now, in our dialect, 'come thy ways and 'go thy ways' are the forms always in use in the imperative mood; it would surely be better therefore to retain the old form. At St. Luke ix. 12, they suggest to substitute 'provisions' for 'victuals'; it is here worthy of remark that in the dialect neither of these expressions would be used, but the word 'meat,' which is so frequently found in the Authorised Version in the same sense. There seems no reason why it should not be adopted in this passage.

Again, in xxiii. 23 of the same Gospel, neither 'instant' nor 'urgent' would be understood by many of our people: it might be a little difficult to know what to give as an alternative; 'hasty' would he a familiar word, and would perhaps convey the sense most nearly.

The change from 'evil' to 'ill' in St. John viii. 20 is a good one, ill being a word very generally used, while evil is never heard. 'Dark sayings' seems preferable to 'proverbs' in St. John xvi. 25, but probably 'hidden sayings' would be more intelligible than' either. As regards Rom. viii. 13, 'kill' or 'put to death' would bring home the meaning of the passage with greater clearness than 'mortify,' which in the dialect is only used in a very restricted sense. Neither ' heresies ' nor 'factions' would have any meaning for our older people; the passage - I Cor. xi. 19 - would have to be expressed differently. Such words as 'edification 'and 'exhortation' (i Cor. xiv. 3) might as well be written in Greek, but 'comfort' would be understood fully. The Americans do well to suggest 'lay hold on' for 'apprehend' in Phil. iii. 12. Figure' would be no better than 'par able' in Heb. ix. 9; some such expression as 'way of speaking' might be preferable to either. Why 'existing' should be substituted for 'being' (Phil. ii. 6) I know not: it would, moreover, not be contained in the vocabulary of our folk-speech.

It may be seen, even from these few examples, in what direction change or no change was needed in a-re-translation of the Bible which would be 'understanded of the people' in East Yorkshire as far as might be. As has been elsewhere observed, it is remarkable how few words, comparatively, of Latin derivation are used in the dialect, and therefore all such words, whether written or spoken, are better avoided if we would be readily and clearly understood.

Nevertheless, as a whole, the language of the Bible is better understood than that of the Prayer Book, which presents great difficulty to many of the older country folk, containing as it does such a large number of words of Latin origin. But even with regard to the Bible, much of it was unintelligible to the country folk of a generation ago. As an instance of this I will mention what came within my experience some years since. I was desirous of
testing upon this point an old man whom I knew very well:

he was quite up to the average in intelligence, but he had had very little schooling. For the purpose in view I took in a haphazard way a few words from the Bible, and after repeating each slowly and distinctly twice over at least, and giving him plenty of time to think, I asked him to tell me in his own words what he thought each word meant. The words chosen, being all of Latin derivation, were these:- fragment, expound, impediment, admonish, doctrine, dominion, disperse, confidence, consolation, contrite, esteem, descend; perpetual. For only one of these, perpetual could he give me a correct equivalent; but the moment I explained them as follows, the meaning was perfectly understood :fragment (a small piece of anything), expound (to tell the meaning of), impediment (a stoppage), admonish (warn), doctrine (teaching), dominion (rule), disperse (scatter), confidence (trust), consolation (comfort), contrite (sorrowful), esteem (worth), descend (go down). This may serve to show how many passages in the Bible - and in sermons, for a matter of that - must have been unintelligible formerly to a certain portion at least of an ordinary country congregation. I may remark, in passing, that although generally not used in every-day speech, there are some words of Latin derivation which occur very frequently in the dialect, and are preferred to their Anglian equivalents. Of such, to expect is a fair example of what I mean. This word is used in the sense of 'to understand' or 'to have heard;' e.g., if I were to say 'I hear so and so is ill,' the reply would probably be 'I expect so;' - that is to say, 'I have heard so,' or 'I understand so.'

But though there is such a considerable number of words in the Authorised Version unintelligible to many of our older people, yet there are others which would be better understood by them than by many a Londoner even. I do not mean to imply that the Londoner would fail in all probability to understand the words, but he would use others in preference, whereas the Yorkshireman would employ them rather than others of like meaning and more ordinary usage. As examples of what is meant let me quote the following :Afore, ailed, back side, bid, brake, bray, clout, drave, fain, folk, frame, gat, gather gatherings, gotten, haft, handled, hungered; light (verb), mindful, naught, overmuch, quick (Yorksh. wick), rank, shaked; spake, sware, wrought, yesternight, yet. The equivalents of these, commonly in use, are apparent; but I will add them: they are, Before, mattered, back, invite, broke, beat, cloth, drove, gladly, people, give promise of, got, collect, collections, got (participle), handle, treated, became hungry, alight or settle, careful, nothing, too much, alive, thick or luxuriant, shook, spoke, swore, worked or laboured, last night, still.

It may be noted that the dialectical use of the word backside is applied to the back parts of things and places only, and especially to the back premises or yard of a house. Bray is in common use in the sense of beating generally, and especially flogging. The good old word fain, though dying out, is still employed by elderly people. Quick is an every-day word with us under the form wick. Yet is invariably used instead of still and in this sense it is very frequently found in the Bible. The phrase 'Does it rain yet' would mean, not 'has it begun to rain?' but 'is it still raining?' The perfects spake and sware drop the final e in folk-speech, and shaked is pronounced shakk'd.

These and many other words and expressions in the Bible, supposed to be obsolete or nearly so, are still in daily use in what are called our dialects: but in many of such cases the line which separates dialect and literary language is by no means easy to be traced. The two streams seem at times to meet. Are we to say, for instance, that our common Yorkshire word hodden is a vulgarism because held has taken its place, although hodden or holden occurs certainly ten times in the Authorised Version? Chamber is used in i Kings xvii. 23 in just the same sense as in the dialect, apparently, signifying as it does an upstairs sleeping apartment as distinguished from the 'house.'

There are some interesting remarks made by Professor Max Muller on this point in his Lectures on the Science of Language. He says, quoting Booker's Scripture and Prayer-book Glossary: 'The number of words or senses of words which have become obsolete since 1611 amount to 388, or nearly one-fifteenth part of the whole number of words used in the Bible. With all deference to so high an authority, I venture to think that this proportion is somewhat greater than is warranted by fact - if; that is, we admit that words in constant use by our country folk are not to be reckoned as obsolete.

A comparison of the language of Wycliffe's New Testament, which dates from about the year 1380, with that of our Authorised Version and with our Yorkshire dialect, would be a study worth pursuing with some care. Wycliffe was born at Hipswell near Richmond, and therefore his language might be expected to have a Northern tinge, and such clearly is the case. The following passages, taken from Purvey's Revision of Wycliffe's New Testament, contain words and forms in constant use at this day in the North Riding dialect which have dropped out of the literary language. The words in question are printed in italics :(1) 'The keperis weren afeerd' St. Matt. xxviii. 4. (2) 'Clensid with besyms and maad faire,' St. Matt. x. 44. (3) 'And he took seuene looues . . . and brak,' St. Matt. xv. 36. (4) 'Moun comprehende with alle seyntis which is the breede,' &c., Eph. iii. 18. (5) 'He concitide to fille his wombe of the coddis that the hoggis eeten,' St. Luke xv. 16. (6) 'Whether God has not maad the wisdom of this world fonned,' I Cor. i. 20. (7) 'Joseph lappide it in a clene sendel,' St. Matt. xxvii. 59. (8) 'And thei token up . . . seuene lepis,' St. Mark viii. 8. (9) 'Ye spake myche,' St. Matt. vi. 7. (10) 'For who that trowith that he be ought when he is nought,' Gal. vi. 3. (11) 'Mayster Moises seide if ony man is deed,' &c., St. Matt. xxii. 27. (12) 'For what partinge of righteousnes, 2 Cor. vi. 14. (13) 'It schal not rewe Him' Heb. Vii. 21. (14) 'That he schulde ridile as whete,' St. Luke xxii. 31. (15) 'For it was founded on a sad stone,' St. Luke vi. 48. (16) 'The erthe openyde his mouth and soop up the flood,' Rev. xiii. 16. (17) 'Y stie to my fadir,' St. John xx. 17. (18) 'But Barnabas took . . . and telde to him,' Acts ix. 27. (19) 'And to brast the myddil,' Acts i. 18. (20) 'Twey men metten Him,' St. Matt. viii. 28.

In order to make the connection between these fourteenth-century words and the modern Yorkshire forms of them perfectly plain, I will give them in order as below

14th Century.Modern Yorkshire.Standard English.
Besyms.Bizzum or Bezzum.Broom.
Coddis.Cods.Pods or Husks.
Lappide.Lapt.Wrapped or Folded.
Moun.Mun (?)Be able.
Nought.Nowt.Nothing & Naught.
Ought.Owt.Anything & Aught.
Rewe.Rewe.Repent & Rue.
Soop.Sup.Drink or Swallow.
Stie.Stee (a ladder).Go up.

It may be noted that leeps in the dialect is now only used for the peculiarly shaped fishermen's baskets for catching eels, &c.

The verb stie is not used, but only the noun stee - that by which one steps up.

The usage of sad has become restricted, and is now applied mainly to bread or food that is heavy.

On the whole, then, we may observe that as far as our Yorkshire folk of the old school are concerned - and there are still a considerable number of them surviving - we need not be anxious to modernise in any degree the stately and melodious language of the Authorised Version on the contrary, the only change advantageous to our people would rather be a reverting to older and still purer English by rooting out words of southern growth which have never flourished in our northerly air.

Happily, no one has yet thought of making a revised version of Shakespeare. We are content to read him as he wrote. It is true the English Bible and Shakespeare are not altogether parallel cases, the one being a translation and the other in the original; still, the two, simply as specimens of English, date from nearly the same time, and so, from a linguistic point of view, they are not wholly unlike.

It is not for a moment to be supposed that our older, unlettered country folk would understand very much of the language of Shakespeare; nevertheless there are many words and expressions to be found in Shakespeare's plays which, although they may be said to have passed cut of use as standard English, are still to be heard in the folk-speech of Yorkshire. I must content myself with a very few examples on this point, and leave it to those who may feel an interest in the subject to make other like discoveries for themselves.

The word parlous is more generally used than it was some years ago: whether it would now be reckoned as standard English or not I am not authority enough to determine: certain it is that it forms one of the very commonest components of our dialectic vocabulary; parlous roads, parlous weather, a parlous tahm, &c., may be constantly heard, though we should hardly say 'a parlous knock,' as Shakespeare does in Romeo and Juliet.

Quick, meaning alive, is retained in our folk-speech under the form wick; the transition from one to the other is so slight that we may take the two words as one. We have an example of this, so frequent in the Bible, in the following quotation from Shakespeare:-

'Thou 'rt quick, but yet I'll bury thee.'

Timon of Athens, iv. 3.

We do not reckon obliged in the sense of forced as part of our vocabulary; instead we make use of the equivalent just mentioned or of tied; it is in this sense, too, that Shakespeare wrote the word in The Taming of the Shrew, where this passage occurs, 'And I am tied to be obedient.'

As in Psalm xxv. we have the old use of learn in the sense of teach so too in Shakespeare the same is to be found; thus, 'You must not learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasure,' As You Like It, i. 2. I need not remind a Yorkshireman that we generally employ this word under the form lam, the now prevailing teach of standard English being seldom heard.

Again, we not unfrequently use the indefinite article before the plural noun many; for instance, we say Ah seed a many on 'em, or There was a many. Here, too, we are supported by Shakespeare, as in the following passages :- ' A many fools,' Merchant of Venice, iii. 5 ; 'A care-crazed mother to a many sons, Richard III, iii. 7.

It may now sound vulgar to say for to come or for to do, though I confess I scarcely know why it should; at all events, it is an almost universal form still found in our dialect; and for this we have Shakespearian, to say nothing of Biblical, authority, as in Hamlet, iii. i, where the phrase 'for to prevent' occurs. In Yorkshire speech fond is commonly used in the sense of foolish, which is also repeatedly found in the great dramatist's writings.

The separation of the two parts of towards, or perhaps we should rather say the addition of wards to nouns as a suffix indicating direction, is of frequent occurrence in our folk-talk and this is the case after from as well as after to: thus we should say ti Newton-wards or fra Newton-wards. Illustrations of the former may be gathered from two of Shakespeare's plays, namely, 'Unto Paris-wards,' i Henry VI, iii. 3; and again, 'And tapers burned to bed-ward,' Coriolanus, i. 6.

The prepositional use of against, with regard to time or event, is another case in point. For example, it is good Yorkshire to say Thoo mun be riddy agaan ah cum; and in Romeo and Juliet we read 'against thou shall awake'; also similar usages are to be found in Hamlet.

Furthermore, we have the company of the immortal poet in our use of such words as afeard, awkward (contrary), barm, barn, beteem (pour out: though in this word the prefix is omitted), cess, chuff (coarse), daff (to befool; the present form being daft and only used as an adjective), deny (to refuse), eyne (eyes; present form een), sneaped (checked), urchin (hedgehog).

To sowle is used in much the same sense still as in the passage in Coriolanus, iv. 5, 'He 'll go, he says, and sowle the porter of Rome gates by the ears.

As a term of endearment, there is no commoner word in the dialect than hunny: it is always used without an accompanying noun, thus : 'aye, hunny,' 'cum thi waays hunny,' &c. I am not aware that it is used in Shakespeare except in agreement with another word, though in that connection we find it several times, as the following examples will show :- ' O honey nurse, what news?' Romeo and Juliet, ii. 5 'My good sweet honey Lord,' i Henry IV, i. 2; 'And now, my honey love,' Taming of the Shrew, iv. 3; 'My fair, sweet, honey monarch,' Love's Labour's Lost, v. 2.

One of the most marked grammatical features in the dialect is the want of the possessive case, which I have elsewhere alluded to: perhaps the best example of this peculiarity to be found in Shakespeare is when the Fool says, in Lear, i. 4, 'The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long, that it's had it head bit off by it young.'

Again, the Yorkshireman would understand better than some others the force of the passage, 'The heart I bear shall never sag with doubt nor shake with fear,' Macbeth, v. 3. To sag implies, in our dialectical speech, a sinking or depression, as when a rope hangs loosely: it is one of our very commonest words.

It is noticed in another chapter that beginning is a word seldom heard in our folk-speech, first-end or fore-end being generally substituted: agreeing with this usage is that in the passage which runs thus, 'Where I have liv'd at honest freedom; paid more pious debts -to heaven, than in all the fore-end of my time,' Cymbeline, iii. 3.

To crack of a thing, in Yorkshire, means to boast of it: and we find it used in the same sense by Shakespeare in the passage 'And Ethiopes of their sweet complexion crack,' Love's Labour's Lost iv. 3; and again, 'What cracker is this same that deafs our ears ? ' -King John, ii. 1.

It does not appear that to jump with is found in Shakespeare in exactly the same sense as that in which it is used in Yorkshire, viz, to fall in with a person, to meet one by chance, though in a sense not widely different from this it is found, viz, in Othello, i.3; also in The Merchant of Venice, ii. 9, 'I will not jump with common spirits,' the expression here meaning to agree with.

Some remarks on thill-horse or shill-horse bearing on the subject we are now considering will be found in the Glossary following.

It may not generally be known what a kex is: but that Shakespeare knew the word and the thing may be gathered from the quotation, 'Nothing teems but hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,' Henry V, v. 2. A kex is the fools-parsley, the stalk of which, when dead, becomes so dry as to be used as a simile to denote utter dryness.

Though geck is not used in the folk-speech, gicken, which has the same root, is not uncommon; a geck means a fool, and to gicken signifies to laugh like a fool. Thus we read: 'And made the most notorious geck and gull that e'er invention played on,' Twelfth Night, v. i. For further remarks on this word, see Glossary.

Many more examples similar to those above-mentioned might be quoted. But let these, with previous remarks, suffice to show that there are elements in our dialect worthy of something better than scorn or ridicule. I do not claim for it the dignity of a literary language; though more, much more, might be done towards perpetuating and elevating it than has yet been attempted : we sorely need, as I said, a Yorkshire Burns to uplift the good old speech of a hardy, independent, practical, and hearty race of men, possessed not only of human sympathies, which though not perhaps appearing on the surface, are none the less real and true, but imbued also with deep religious feeling.

Still, though not claiming for our speech the stateliness of a literary language, yet I do claim for it a history. The old traditional tongue of the East Yorkshire folk might be traced through many generations, resisting in its essence and main features the penetrating influences of the Norman Conquest, defying alike monarch, court, and statesmen, having little or nothing to say to Latin or French importations which have so strongly impressed their indelible mark on the Queen's English, holding its own, so to say, against all comers, and to this day retaining in clearly marked lines the unmistakeable lineaments of its Norse birth.

Well may every true Yorkshireman have an affection for the unwritten mother-tongue of his fore-elders and do what he can to preserve this connection with the past, which, though it has withstood so many opposing influences in bygone time, is in these latter days in danger of being blotted out of its very existence by the advancing tide of education.

Transcribed by Colin and Pauline Hinson © 1997