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YORKSHIRE FOLK TALK: Forcefullness of the dialect


Written in 1892 by the

Rev. M.C.F. Morris B.C.L., M.A.



THE old-fashioned Yorkshireman can best express himself in his own dialect; he at all events can make it cut deeper than any attempts at Queen's English. There are scores of words and phrases in daily use among our country folk which appear to me, and I believe to most lovers of the old Yorkshire folk-talk, to carry with them a strong expressiveness, a raciness, perhaps I should rather say, which their equivalents in ordinary English certainly do not seem to possess in like degree. Any person who will take the trouble to investigate and study our Northern dialect as it deserves to be studied, will find in it much to repay him; and unless I am mistaken, he will be surprised what a rich storehouse of words full of power and interest, of terse and quaint expressions, and of forcible phraseology, lies concealed in the unwritten traditional mother-tongue of our sturdy Yorkshire folk. It is a subject to which too little attention has been given in days gone by. The English Dialect Society was not established a day too soon. It has done a great deal, and will no doubt do more. One of the latest outcomes of the work of the English Dialect Society is the making up of a Dialect Dictionary, which of itself is no small result of its labours, and cannot but prove a valuable addition to dialectical literature. It is, however, very desirable that those who are engaged in any such work should, as far as may be, gain or verify their information at first hand, I mean from the lips of the country folk themselves. This, through the rapid spread of education, is daily becoming more and more difficult; but still, even at this time of day, a great deal may be learnt from them which is worth noting, in the lingering archaicisms of the country speech.

I should like to illustrate my meaning by a few examples; though among so many that occur, it is hard to make a choice.

Perhaps I cannot give a better example by way of beginning than one alluded to in the last chapter; I mean the very frequent use that is made of the expression to think on in the sense of 'to keep in mind,' 'to remember,' 'not to forget.' I may observe that the stress in uttering it is laid on the last word. This phrase has always seemed to me to be full of force. We say in common parlance 'hold on,' as when a man lays hold on the end of a rope and is bidden not to let it go: he has to keep it in his hand. So here: when a child is told something by its parent, the command is frequently added that it is to mind and think on; it has, that is to say, to keep what it has been told in the grasp of the memory and not let it go. And while on the subject of the memory I will mention another word which I do not think is common to the rest of England, but rather peculiar to the North; I mean off in the sense of 'by heart.' When a teacher, for instance, has given a child something to commit to memory, he will ask after a time if the youngster has it off by which he means, is he able to repeat it by heart? There is also another sense in which the word off is used. When a man, for example, wishes to say that he is on the point of going somewhere, that he is just going to depart, the common phrase is ah 's for off.

Another word which expresses a great deal in small compass is fend: you see perhaps a poor helpless creature in a household who never can do anything for herself; and who is a hindrance rather than a help in the work of the house; of such an one we say that she can't fend for herself. And so, too, we use the same expression of one who is clumsy or awkward in moving about and gets in the way of others ; of such it would be said that she has no fend about her. The word is also used very aptly of a person making his own way in the world; or again, of an animal which no longer requires the care of its mother. It is hard to see why so good a word as this does not find a place in the literary language, and it is not to be forgotten that we have our country folk to thank for preserving it to us.

As a further illustration we might take the verb few, which is universally used throughout the district, and in a great variety of ways. It is in its idea closely associated with any kind of unusual exertion or work to which the agent or workman has applied himself with more than ordinary vigour. If, for instance, a child is restless and fidgetty in bed, the mother complains that it is fewing itself. If a man is anxious about his crops in a wankle time, he will bestow such extra labour upon them as to few himself; or if a farmer's horses are ploughing in strong land that is clum, they will few themselves till they get into what is called a muck lather.

Again, as to other forceful expressions: when a place is conveniently situated and easy of access, it is said to be gain hand; and similarly, a place that is awkwardly situated or un-get-at-able is said to be an ungain spot; and further, a gain road is a short road.

If a workman is at a standstill in his work from any cause, as, for example, a bricklayer for want of mortar, he is said to be fast for mortar; and if the same workman does not take kindly to his occupation, he would say that he did not matter it much. Or again, when a person is much occupied with work, he is throng; and if others are busily engaged with him, we say that there is throng deed; while the same expression would be used if there were unusual stir or business going on of any kind. In ordinary English we say that a person is greatly disappointed when he finds out that he is mistaken about some matter; in Yorkshire, when this is the case, he is said to be sadly begone. To take away persons characters, to abuse them behind their backs, and the like, is to illify them. A dull, stupid, senseless sort of person is called daft or a dafty; and from the same word we have daft-heead, meaning 'a blockhead,' together with daft-like, daftness, and daftish, which speak for themselves. The dialectical equivalent for 'to inform a man about anything,' i. e. to explain matters to him, is to insense him; the word implies more than merely telling, it rather signifies to give complete information upon any matter so that it can be fully comprehended: a man would say that he did not understand how to do a certain piece of work because he was not properly insensed into it: when we are fully insensed upon a subject we know how to act. This old word occurs in Shakespeare, although it is sometimes wrongly spelt, viz. incensed-at least so it would seem. The following passage from Richard III, Act iii. Sc. 1, appears to be a case in point.

'Think you, my lord, this little prating York
Was not insensed by his subtle mother
To taunt and scorn you thus opprobriously?'

Read by the light of our dialectical usage, may not this be the right interpretation and spelling of the word? It is curious that a word which expresses so much should now only survive in an unwritten tongue. Or again, take the word hefted, which almost tells its own tale. In Danish and other languages a hefte means a handle, as of a knife or sword. In our dialect we speak about a man being weel hefted wi' brass: this surely is a more forcible expression than simply saying that a man has a good fortune, or that he is well off. Riches imply power and influence, and he who is possessed of them can wield them as a man wields a weapon or implement either for defence or attack, or for accomplishing some great work or end. This word, too, is to be found in Shakespeare, in the expression 'tender-hefted nature' (Lear, ii. 4).

When a person attempts anything for the first time, or is only beginning to get accustomed to some new work or duty, we ask how he frames; that is to say, how does he adapt himself to it? what kind of promise does he give of succeeding in his endeavour? The expression is wide in its application, and extends to animals as well as people. A horse might frame to make a good hunter, or a dog to be clever with the gun. A boy who is working in a careless or slovenly manner is sharply pulled up and told to frame, by which he understands that he is to do better, or at least make a better attempt. I have even heard it said of a clergyman coming to work in a new parish that he fraames middlin', which in a Yorkshireman's lips is high praise. So useful is this word found to be, that a substantive corresponding to it has been coined, and although framation is not quite so commonly heard as the verb from which it is derived, still its meaning is well understood; we should say, for instance, of a lad undertaking some work and not succeeding in it, that he had no framation about him.

When a man is in low spirits he is said to feel dowly this, too, is a word which does duty in a variety of ways, and is most expressive : it is applied to things, conditions, and places, as well as to people.
Often the employment of an appropriate word will add singular force to a remark which would else be comparatively tame. Thus, graithing is a vocable not uncommon in our folk-speech; it is used in the sense of clothing, fittings, furnishings, and the like. This same word was once applied in a telling manner by one who had taken out a summons against a labourer for some offence. The offended party was returning from the magistrate who had issued the required mandate. On the road he meets his antagonist, who eyed him with some malevolence and curiosity. The plaintiff returned the look, and called out triumphantly to the other, 'Aye! ah 've been gittin sum graithin for tha!' Under the circumstances, I do not know of any word that would better express the state of things than that used on this occasion.

Our Yorkshire folk are fond of sport, and many a forcible expression might be picked up in connection therewith by those who are thrown in the way of it. For instance, on the morning of the day of the harriers coming to the place of meeting, one man would say to another in bated breath, 'We 'ev her set'; there would be no mention of the word hare. It would be perfectly understood that the speaker had been out with others, ranging, and knew where the hare was on her 'form.'

As a rule, my fellow 'countrymen' are supposed to be pretty good judges of character, and they can sometimes express the good or bad side of a man in a few but telling words. I remember being told of an old stable-man who, in speaking of a fellow-workman who had died rather suddenly, said that John H. was one of the best men that ever ate 'butter and bread'; he had no back-door ways about him. And I have heard of another whose pithy reply to a question as to character took the following form, 'Whya, there 's nut mich on him, bud ivvry bit on him 's stthraight !' The subject was, I need hardly add, not a big man.

The Yorkshireman is often wont to make a statement indirectly with no little force, whereas it would ordinarily be expressed in a plain matter-of-fact sort of way. To give a single example. I am reminded by a correspondent of an old man who wished to explain that it was a long time since a certain event had taken place. It would have been enough if he had said so in so many words, but he chose rather to word it thus, 'Aye! there 's been a deal o' coorse weather sen then' : in this way an edge was given to his remark which made it much more telling. Just in the same way, bunch is the common word for 'kick,' but if the kicker wishes to give a little extra force to his words, he sometimes says, 'Noo ah 'll gie tha mi feeat if thoo deean't mahnd.'

Sthrovven, thrussen, and thruff are rather queer-looking words to occur in close proximity in a short sentence, but they may be 'rapped off,' as we say, quite naturally by a native of the North Riding; they were so in the example I am about to give, and, I may add, with considerable effect. An old dame, who had received some coals from a charity, finding that a smaller quantity had been allotted to her than her neighbour, who was in worse circumstances, became mightily indignant, and poured out the vials of her wrath in no measured terms, adding as a condensed summary of her state of mind, 'If ah 'd a'e thowt 'at it wad a'e cum ti this, ah 'd a'e sthrovven ti a'e thrussen thruff widoot 'em.' Even in Yorkshire, it is to be feared, pride, jealousy, and ingratitude are not absolutely unknown; and it must be confessed that there was just a pinch of all three in this old lady's cutting words.

Under the existing state of things, the payment of taxes is no doubt a necessity, but to be overtaxed is not only not a necessity, but is to some natures specially irritating. Nevertheless, rather than that their purse should suffer, or still more their principles, such sensitive people will from time to time be found to take any amount of trouble to try and get their grievances re dressed; and who can blame them? The sense of justice is strong in all of us. It was so, beyond doubt, in the case of a certain old woman from one of the dales of the North Riding, of whom I was told that she one day appeared before the Commissioners of Income and Assessed Taxes for the district in which she lived. It seems she had been surcharged for a riding-horse, to her great annoyance. And so she donned her Sunday best, and in due time appeared before the said Commissioners to appeal against the charge. Either there was a flaw in the formalities, or she did not state her case intelligibly, or something else was wrong; at all events she did not succeed in making good her claim, and she left the room somewhat crestfallen, and in a very agitated frame of mind. Meeting an acquaintance shortly afterwards, he asked her how it could possibly be that she had not gained her point. 'Whya,' she replied, angrily and excitedly, 'ah 'd ower good a hackle o' my back; bud ah 'll git a proper boss, an' ah 'll rahd awlus !'

In another chapter I have drawn attention to the leading features of our dialectical vowel-sounds, and among them the common change of o and oo into eea, as 'do,' deea; 'root,' reeat. This often puzzles Southerners when they hear the dialect spoken, for it frequently makes words so pronounced sound like others with a different meaning. For instance, a pauper in a Union Workhouse was showing a person the beds provided for the casuals, and pointing out the wooden bed, and pillow of the same material, remarked, with a twinkle of his eye betokening a certain amount of glee 'Aye! they weean't scrat their teeas thruff t' bedding.' If the visitor was from a distant county, I am afraid the force of the remark would be lost upon him; he would naturally wonder what possible connection weeping had with the matter. The real meaning of the word would probably not occur to him.

In the dialect a cloot is generally applied to a cloth of limited dimensions; it may, however, do duty under circumstances for quite a large table-cloth, in which case it seems to have a force which it did not have before. A clergyman's son, Robert L., tells me he remembers in his young days a servant lad being allowed in his father's house to come into the dining-room to learn to wait, and saying to him, after vainly endeavouring to fold up the table-cloth, 'Tak ho'd o' t' cloot, Bobby, will ya?' The same gentleman, too, remembered their housemaid, on the occasion of a dinner-party, opening the dining-room door slightly, and without even looking into the room, proclaiming through the chink, 'Pleeas, we 're fast for cann'ls.' This expressed a good deal. It implied more than the bare fact that they were without candles; it meant that no further progress could be made with the preparations for dinner without the said candles. The need was imperative.

Sometimes a strong bit of Yorkshire, when accompanied with a threat, is almost overpowering. It has even been known to bring a love affair to a sudden termination. A story is told of a sawny old bachelor in a village not far from Northallerton, who was in love with a lass in a neighbouring place. He came home one day to his aged mother, a black-eyed, spirited old soul, whom he maintained, and who saw her home imperilled. It was late one Sunday night after meeting the girl. He thus briefly described what took place. 'Muther was set ower t' fire; sha click'd up pooaker an' com at ma, an' sha says, "If ivver thoo gans efther that lass ageean, ah 'll fell tha." 'An',' he added, 'ah nivver do'st.'

Every Yorkshireman knows what warming a child means; perhaps not a few have good reason to remember the force of this expression by bitter experience. I do not know whether my brother 'countrymen' require more flogging than other people, but it is a remarkable fact that our dialect is peculiarly rich and forcible in what a Winchester School boy would call 'tunding' phrases. Ah 'll gie tha thi bats; he bensill'd him weel; she bray'd ma; if thoo bunches ah 'II gie tha a cloot ower t' heead; a daffener; a good eshin' (or hezzlein'); ah 'll dhriss (or sttrighten) tha; ti ding doon; he fetch'd him a kelk ower t' shoodthers; he leeac'd his jacket; ti nevill, skeip, bazzak, pick, yenk, &c. These, and many more like them, will be familiar to many of us.

A clergyman of my acquaintance was visiting an old man, who enlarged, among other things, on the devotion of his daughter to her only child, John Robert. He gave him to understand that she fairly idolised the child; and there and then seeing the boy in the street, he called to him in tender tones, 'John Robert, yer muther wants ya.' But John Robert was not to be caught without first ascertaining that the coast was clear. 'Will sha wahrm ma?' was the lad's cautious reply. The grandfather's annoyance may be better imagined than described.

Occasionally in the course of conversation on the most ordinary and trivial topics, we hear bits of York. shire which arrest our attention by reason of their raciness. Thus a Bilsdale man, in speaking of a storm he was once out in while grouse driving, forcibly described it as follows: he said, 'It fair teeam'd doon, it stower'd, an' it reek'd, an' it drazzl'd, whahl ah was wet ti t' skin an' hed'nt a dhry threed aboot ma.'

A resident in Whitby gave me some time ago an account of an amusing conversation about a new-coming parson into his neighbourhood. Like many other clergy, he found it necessary to make a few changes on coming to the parish. In the present case the changes do not appear to have been of a very violent character, but they were enough seemingly to excite a few of the older inhabitants: 'Well,' was asked of one of the parishioners, 'and how do you like your new clergyman?' 'Whya, he 's a quiet man, bud folks disn't knaw what ti mak on him; he 's rovven doon t' Ten Commandments an' the Loord's Prayer an sell'd 'em ti Tommy Tranmer for fahve shillin'; an' he wanted ti hey them uther boords doon an' all - what di ya call 'em - them 'at tells what folks hez gi'en ti t' chetch; bud Jamie Smith (that 's him 'at 's chetchwarner, ya knaw), he wadn't hey that; naw, Jamie went clean wahld at that'.

My Whitby friend also tells me of another characteristic bit of 'Yorkshire,' which a farmer from the neighbourhood once treated him to when he was apologising to the other for his ignorance about agricultural matters, but who after all was not quite so ignorant as the apology seemed to imply, 'Bud,' says the farmer, 'thoo knaws a vast aboot it; ah do'st ventther wi' thee for a hind.' This was taken as a high compliment, and it is probable that a look of satisfaction passed over the face of him who had just before professed himself unskilled in the work of the farm; whereupon, the other, thinking that he had perhaps gone rather too far in his remark, and that his words might conceivably be taken advantage of promptly added, with true Yorkshire caution, 'Ah sud mebbe a'e ti back tha oot a bit t' fo'st year!'

The love which every Yorkshireman has for an old favourite horse is strong indeed, and when an animal of this kind goes the way of all flesh the owner is often wellnigh moved to tears. 'I shall never forget,' writes a correspondent, 'the broken voice of my father's bailiff when he came to report the death of a favourite mare after a long watching; he simply said, "it 's owered," and turned away.' That announcement, brief though it was, told a great deal more, so it seems to me, than if expressed in any other way.

Transcribed by Colin and Pauline Hinson © 1997