YORKSHIRE FOLK TALK: Introductory
'HE gav oot sikan a stevn,' said an old man to me one day in the course of a conversation in which he was describing certain events and reminiscences of his early days. This he did in words of great force and interest. He was a Yorkshireman of the old school, and spoke the dialect in all its richness, raciness, and purity: he poured it forth as if he revelled in its very broadness, though there was in fact not a sentence but what was perfectly free and natural : it was his mother tongue, and so best told his thoughts. To many his talk would sound almost like a foreign tongue, but his English was better than a great deal that passes for such at the present day: it is true his words and modes of expression were archaic, but it was that that gave them their charm they were always clear, pointed, and incisive; it was a treat as well as a lesson to listen to him. My old friend was approaching fourscore years and ten, and when speaking of his age he would often say, 'Aye, ah think ah's ommost gitten ti t' far end,' or 'Ah doot ah's gannin' fast.' Nevertheless, for his years he was wonderfully hale and hearty; he had a rich profusion of silvery hair and an undimmed eye, and though troubled with rheumatism he was still able to get about. He had never travelled more than a few miles from the place where he was born, or, as he quaintly expressed it, 'Ah deean't gan bauboskin aboot leyke sum on 'em; ah sticks ti t' heeaf.' His own 'coonthry' or 'heeaf' that is, the immediate neighbourhood of his home - was to him his world, and of that he knew every inch. He was honest as the day, and as true as steel. The likes of him are not now often to be met. They are relics of a bygone time.
It was the last word of the first above-quoted sentence that chiefly arrested my attention on this occasion. Yorkshireman though I was, I did not remember to have heard it spoken before, though formerly 'stevn' was well understood as a literary, and till lately as a dialectic word also. The same word occurs, for instance, in The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem attributed to Nicholas de Guildford, about the year 1250, where we read at line 229,
Mid full dreme and lud stefne.'
Although this poem is written in one of the (so-called) dialects of the South of England, we may find in it many of our East Yorkshire words. Two occur in one of the lines just quoted, viz. dreme and that just alluded to; the former is found in our word dream-holes, as applied to the slits or holes in church towers for letting out the sound of the bells, dreme or dream meaning song, or musical sound; while the latter is, as I have observed, though rare, still current coin, and means a loud shout, and may be connected with the modern Danish word stævne, to summon or cite.
It is indeed only seldom that one hears such out-of-the-way words as these spoken in the ordinary flow of human talk; the channels in which they have for centuries run their course are wellnigh dried up. No language or dialect can ever be permanent; but with regard to our own folk-talk, it has never received such a shock as in the last quarter of a century. The language of the country people of fifty years ago is very different from what it is at the present time much of it remains, it is true, and will remain for years to come, but much is being lost, and that speedily. As an old dame with whom I was once speaking on this point said with manifest tokens of regret, in which I fully shared, in alluding to the speech of the young folks of the present day, they 'prim it doon noo.' When I make use of the term dialect or folk-talk throughout these pages, I mean the mother-tongue of the elder portion of the community which is spoken freely among one another, but which is widely different from that which they speak before strangers or those of a different social status from themselves. No doubt all their speech has a character. of its own, but that which they speak on all occasions, except when they are perfectly at their ease, is always more or less toned down. It would be thought too familiar and very unbecoming to address a stranger in their broadest speech.
It is not perhaps always understood how much is involved in the word 'dialect,' at least if we may judge by our own in East Yorkshire. It does not mean merely that a certain number, or even a large number, of peculiar out-of-the-way words are used which one does not hear elsewhere; nor yet besides, that ordinary English words are pronounced with a strong accent, but it means, in addition to the fact of every vowel having other treatment from what it has in ordinary English, that the whole structure of sentences and modes of expression are different from what we hear elsewhere. It is scarcely too much to say that there are very few sentences of ordinary English beyond the briefest that in the mouth of Yorkshire folk of the old school would not be recast in a different mould. An example or two will illustrate my meaning. 'It is impossible' is not a long sentence, neither is it an out-of-the-way one, but short and simple though it appears, the Yorkshireman would not so express himself; there is the Latin word impossible, and he does not like it, and so he says instead 'there isn't such a thing.' Or let us take such a common expression as 'he spread a report that'; here again is the Latin derivative report which would be avoided thus' he set it about that.' Yet once more, the Yorkshire way of expressing 'remind me of it' would be 'think me on about it,' or again 'since I can remember,' 'since I can tell.'
It is remarkable, though easily accountable, how very few words other than those of Anglian or Norse extraction are made use of by our elderly people when conversing freely together. It is to be feared that in days gone by my brother clergy have not sufficiently borne this in mind in their preaching. No doubt this difficulty grows less as education spreads itself; but some half century ago the Sunday discourses in our churches must have been to many practically as an unknown tongue. In those days it is probable that not a few were like an old lady in the parish of a friend of mine in the East Riding who had invited a stranger to preach for him on one occasion. Meeting his aged parishioner in the village a few days afterwards, he enquired in the course of conversation ; -'And how did you like the sermon last Sunday, Betty?' 'Aw,' she replied, 'it wer a varry good 'un.' 'Do you think you could tell me what it was about, Betty?' asked the Vicar. 'Naw,' she says, 'ah's seear ah can't, bud ah felt it wer varry good !' As with her, so with others: they had often to be satisfied with a sentence here and there which they could follow, and imagined the rest from the preacher's voice, intonation, and manner, which, if impressive, went a long way with them.
In days when schooling was but little thought of, some of the less educated preachers in various religious communities showed no little common sense in that they made no attempt whatever at fine language in their oratory, but addressed their hearers in a tongue 'understanded of the people,' that tongue being downright good incisive broad Yorkshire; they did not beat about the bush, but went straight to the point and hit hard. I remember hearing many years ago of some preacher in the East Riding who was discoursing upon the duty of Christian forbearance, and by way of summing up some previous remarks said, with much emphasis, 'If they call ya (i.e. if they call you names) tak neea heed on't; bud if they bunch ya or cobble ya wi steeans, gan ti t' justice, an' a'e deean wi't at yance.' How much more forcible is this than the same idea would be when clothed in the ordinary language of the pulpit of a generation ago, which might be somewhat as follows :- 'If you are brought into contact with those who make use of opprobrious epithets towards you, remain absolutely passive with regard to them; but if they inflict upon you grievous bodily injury, it may then be expedient, with a view to preventing a recurrence of similar conduct, to seek redress through the ordinary channels of legal procedure.' On another occasion, also in the East Riding, I remember as a boy hearing of a certain preacher who worked himself to a high pitch of excitement, and who, after extending his vocal organs 'fortissimo' for a considerable length of time, found at last his throat failing him, and by degrees became so hoarse that his words were wellnigh inaudible: he went on, however, as long as possible, but ultimately had to give in, which he did with the singularly brief apology, 'Ah's roopy,' whereupon he retired and let someone else finish. His explanation, though brief, was intelligible, and so sufficient. And this reminds me of a story of a clergyman who, in the middle of the service, found his voice giving way, and was compelled to announce to the congregation that he was 'physically incapable of proceeding,' an expression which was amusingly misunderstood by one of his hearers, who met the Vicar a few days afterwards, and in alluding to the incident, condoled with him in the following terms, 'Well, ya see, sorr, we all on us a'e ti tak physic noos an' thens !' Our roopy friend knew better than to make use of such circuitous verbiage as this clergyman did, and there could at least be no mistake with his hearers as to what he meant when he announced his incapacity to continue his discourse.
The good old-fashioned Yorkshire dialect of former days possessed so many features of its own, and such interesting features too, that the question naturally suggests itself, what account can it give of itself? in other words, what is its history? A general survey of its vocabulary, structure, and pronunciation points mainly in one direction. The home of our folk-talk lies on the other side of the North Sea. It is to the land of the Norseman that we must look for nearly all the component elements of our dialect, those elements of course I mean which may strictly be called dialectical. Speaking roughly, I should say that at least three-fourths of our Yorkshire words may be traced either directly or indirectly to Scandinavian origin. It is impossible to say when the Scandinavian adventurers first began their incursions upon this north-eastern part of the country. Ethelred began his reign in 866, but long before that time there must have been inroads made upon the country by ruthless Vikings with more or less of success, though their foothold in this part of England was not a firm and wide-spread one till after the year just named. It was not until the death of Ethelred that the Danes had strongly established themselves in Northumbria and elsewhere. The multitude of lands called after them in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire proves the thoroughness of their conquest and the permanence of their occupation.
The great Anglian settlement which preceded that from more northerly shores has also left its traces upon the present day folk-speech of East Yorkshire, though it is by comparison only faintly defined. It is sometimes hard, if not impossible, to determine whether words still, in use in Yorkshire are vestiges of the Angle or the Norseman. And then again, who can say exactly what the Anglian tongue was? Whether it was composed mainly of Western Teutonic dialects or others of Scandinavian growth, or again a mingling of these two, philologists must decide: most probably the latter is nearest the mark. That the Anglian tongue contained at least some Norse elements there can be no doubt. And so even long before the great Danish stream set in there must have been in the folkspeech of Northumbria and East Anglia at least traces of the language of the pitiless pirates who afterwards made the country from the Tees to the Wash the main centre of their conquests and devastations.
During the lengthy period over which the Viking invasions extended themselves, it was East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire especially that formed as it were the fulcrum through which their overwhelming force was exerted: it was here that the pressure, so to speak, was strongest; and to this day there is no part of England where their impress upon the folk-talk is more strongly marked than in these two counties.
Two Norse streams have in short poured in upon this part of England: the first, a more or less diluted one through the Anglian invaders; the second, an undiluted and stronger one through the savage Viking marauders. Whatever we may say of other parts of England, the strongly prevailing element in our East Yorkshire folk-talk has for wellnigh a thousand years been Norse. What it was before that is less certain.
It would be an interesting if a laborious study to compare the dialects of Jutland, Slesvig, Holstein, and Holland, to say nothing of parts of Sweden. A wide philological field here lies open from which a rich harvest might be gathered. Let us hope that at no distant day students will be forthcoming to take such a work in hand. Much new light might thus be shed on our own Yorkshire dialect.
It is asserted by writers on early English that in the thirteenth century the speech of the country was divided into three main dialects, viz., the Northern, the Midland, and the Southern; the former of these being spoken throughout the greater part of Northumbria, as well as in the Lowlands of Scotland, the North and East Ridings would consequently be included within the range of its influence.
Anyone acquainted with the Yorkshire dialect who has read my namesake Dr. R. Morris' Specimens of Early English, which contains numerous extracts from standard English authors from the year 1250 to 1400, cannot but be struck with the large number of words and phrases identical with those in constant use at this day among our Yorkshire country folk, but which have become rare or obsolete as literary English. When it is stated, as it has been stated, that certain of these examples are written in the Northumbrian dialect, we must clearly understand what that statement means. To suppose that these authors who are quoted wrote in the Northumbrian dialect, as we understand the word dialect, is quite misleading: they are merely specimens of English of that date, with a certain admixture of local peculiarities; so that they give us little or no idea of what the actual speech of the country folk was. In reading through these and such-like examples, we hardly find three consecutive words of what may be called dialect pure and simple. It is unfortunate that we have so few examples recorded of what the actual folk-talk of that or a much later period was. I do not remember to have seen any at all earlier than the sixteenth century, if so early. But that there was a distinct folk-talk then, as now, none will doubt, and it is scarcely less doubtful that the speech of the tillers and the masters of the soil was much more widely separated than it is at the present day.
It is worth noticing in what a comparatively straight course the folk-speech of East Yorkshire - we might rather say of East Anglia - has seemingly run during the last thousand years. Influences which told so strongly on the state language itself seem to have made comparatively little impression upon the mother-tongue of the Northumbrian people.
In his grammatical introduction to the work just referred to, the author points out a number of differences between the northern and southern, so-called, dialects. It is interesting to see that many of these northern peculiarities still survive in full force. Thus, for instance, there is the dropping of the final e in irregular verbs, as in spak for spakest. Sal and suld (pr. sud) for shall and should. Again, the final en in past participles is never dropped; thus we say ~utten, ho'dden, fowten, letten, &c., in our every-day speech for put; held; fought; let; &c.; this is quite a feature in our dialect. Era (from), til (to), though still very common in East Yorkshire, are unknown in the southern dialects; the substitution of k for ch in such words as bink (bench), kist (chest), skrike (shriek), birk (birch), is common. Dr. Morris says, p. xix, 'As early as the latter part of the twelfth century we find a tendency in northern writers to adopt the es as the genitive inflexion of feminine as well as of masculine nouns.' This may be so, but whatever northern writers in the twelfth century may have done in adopting the es in the genitive, Northern speakers at the close of the nineteenth century very commonly do not adopt it, but continue to say, e. g., the dog tad, the cat back, for the dog's tail, the cat's back. The personal pronouns are frequently used reflexively, as I rest me (I rest myself), sit you (sit yourself; used actively). The northern dialect employed gate (way) as a suffix; we still retain it in certain cases, e. g. neea-gates (no-how), onny-gates (any-how). No-but (only), so common to this day in the north, was not found in the southern dialect, and the same may be said of at (that). A glance at the copious notes at the end of the Specimens of Early English, shows how many of the old English and Anglo-Saxon words may still be heard in the folk-speech of East Yorkshire, some being identical with the medieval usage, and others slightly changed; as examples we may take funden (found), gret (cried), lathes (barns), bleike (pale), reke (smoke), settle (a seat), litel (little), to dark (to hide, or lie motionless).
Among the verbal inheritances from the past, we might at first sight expect to find in our Yorkshire folk-talk many vestiges of ecclesiastical terms, for in no part of England it would seem was the influence of the Church so great as in Northumbria; and yet, if we may judge by what we know of the dialect at the present day, it is remarkable how very few words traceable to ecclesiastical sources have been introduced into it, though some there clearly are: it can have assimilated but little at any time from that quarter; while upon the language of the country at large ecclesiastical influences made themselves felt to an extent both wide and deep. Words of Romance origin, even at the present day, are scarcely used at all by our older country people, and when they are used, their meaning is frequently mis-understood, and so they are often employed very inappropriately. It is unfortunate that they ever at tempt to use them when they can express themselves more simply and plainly by the phraseology of their traditional tongue, which is so essentially a northern one.
It was the same with regard to the Norman Conquest. Words which, after that far-reaching event had taken place, were forced by the prevailing Court influence upon the language of the State into legal proceedings and documents, and which were so universally adopted by the aristocracy of the country, scarcely touched the old and homely language of the inhabitants of Northumbria. These were a different race, and clung tenaciously to their Norse or Northern tongue. It was they who influenced the language of the rest of the country, rather than that they were influenced by it or others. In the standard English of the present day there is a very considerable admixture of words of Scandinavian origin, while the proportion of words other than Norse in the pure dialect of East Yorkshire is, comparatively speaking, but small. This anyone may examine for himself by studying any good philological dictionary of the English language.
As compared with Queen's English, it is not easy to say what constitutes a dialect. To hear some discourse, it would seem as if a mere disregard of the main rules of English grammar, with the introduction of a sprinkling of mispronunciations, was sufficient to enable any-one to imitate the dialect of a district such as that of which we are speaking in these pages. I need hardly point out that such an idea is absurd and erroneous. Dialect is far other than that. It 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 the Government; it is a mother-tongue, rather than a scholastic or written tongue ; it is local speech as distinct from national speech. I will quote two or three words here by way of illustration. Thus in our dialect we call a house a hoos, or, as it might be written, has. This, the Yorkshire pronunciation of the word, is the traditional pronunciation. It is the ancient sounding of the word, as it was uttered when it was first introduced into this country, as it is still the orthodox pronunciation of it in the region from whence it came to us. If some Member of Parliament, in addressing the House of Commons, were to speak about this Hoos, he would assuredly bring ridicule upon himself. And yet, on philological grounds, he would be quite within his rights in calling it Hoos. But, on the other hand, if one of our native country-folk were to say to a friend and neighbour who had just called, 'gan inti t' house,' he would be considered to he knacking, that is, talking in an affected, mincing manner; or, as we sometimes express it, scraping his tongue. The fact is that hoos is as good or better than house, and as there are a considerable number of Yorkshire Members of Parliament, possibly if they all agreed among themselves always to call it Hoos instead of House, something might he done towards restoring to the word its rightful vowel sound.
On the same principle we say noo instead of now; this, again, is merely a retention of the old form of the word, and we pronounce it to this day as they do in Scandinavia; nevertheless, noo would be considered vulgar in polite society, while now among the country people would be thought ridiculous. Or, again, ah is the equivalent for I in the dialect ; it is a more euphonious vowel-sound than the generally received i-sound, as every vocalist well knows; but yet ah is dialectical, and so is thought vulgar, coarse, and barbarous; still for all that, it possesses a certain interest, for to this day over a great part of West Jutland it is preserved as the pronunciation or an old form of the personal pronoun.
It would not be thought the thing, in the language of the court, to pronounce come as kom; and yet in the dialect we always so pronounce it, and, I may add, quite correctly; for thus the word has been handed down to us from the times of the Danish settlement in East Anglia, and so it is now pronounced in modern Danish.
The same remarks might be repeated with regard to the Yorkshire for home and again, which we commonly pronounce heeam and ageean; these two words being almost in exact agreement as to sound with their Danish equivalents klein and igjen. So that when we say, as we might say, Noo ah 's kom heeam ageean (now I have come home again), the sentence should not be regarded as a mere vulgar pronunciation of standard English, which it is not, but as a really correct Norse form of the words handed down from father to son through ten centuries, while the classical English equivalent is so far a deviation from its Norse original.
I think we may say that our dialect of East Yorkshire is something very much more worthy of study than some are apt to suppose. It is true that a great amount of its individuality has in the course of years been lost; still, it is not a little surprising that so much remains, especially when we consider how small an attempt has been made to consolidate it by men of a poetical or literary turn of mind. What Professor Earle says in his learned work - The Philology of the English Tongue - of dialects generally is to a great extent true of our own. He writes (p. 94):-
'Even so it is with the dialects all their goodness is gone into the King's English, and little remains but their venerable forms. Such power and beauty as they still possess they cannot get credit for, carent quia vate sacro, because they want a poet to present them at their full advantage. Where, in some remoter county, a poet has appeared to adorn his local dialect, we find ourselves surprised at the effect produced out of materials that we might else have deemed contemptible. A splendid example of this is furnished by the poems of Mr. Barnes in the Dorset dialect; unless a Southern fondness misleads us, he has affiliated to our language a second Doric, and won a more than alliterative right to be quoted along with Burns.'
With these remarks I cordially agree. Our own dialect possesses power, but for this it gets but little credit with the outside world; nor will it, till some Yorkshire Burns or Barnes is raised up to show it to the world in whatever of force or beauty belongs to it.
But although, from a literary point of view, our dialect, in common with others, is so little appreciated at least, not to the extent it might be - by any beyond a comparatively few who still take delight in it, and who are enthusiastic about it from old associations or on other grounds, yet it may be studied with interest and advantage by those of philological inclinations. In this respect a special charm seems to attach to it. And it is surprising how this pursuit grows upon the student of the dialect. At first he is only a casual observer, and his ear is slow to catch any unusual word or phrase; but his faculties are wondrously quickened in the use, and he becomes more earnest and more accurate as time goes on. It is one of the delights of the country to hear country talk as well as to see country sights. Nevertheless, how frequently it happens that those who live in the country know but little about country things, country habits of life, country work, and especially of country speech. I know that there are often difficulties in the way of a comparative stranger getting at a thorough knowledge of the folk-talk, to which difficulties I have elsewhere alluded; still there is abundant scope for the exercise of his faculties, if he is so minded, with the means generally at his disposal. But, like everything else, the study requires perseverance, care, and accuracy of observation.
I have frequently met with persons who have lived all their lives in Yorkshire, who know little or nothing of the phraseology that is daily being uttered around them by thousands of voices, - a phraseology which will well repay investigation. And again, there are others who, though they may have a wide knowledge of the peculiar words which are in every day use with our people, are yet ignorant of those idiomatic usages and modes of expression which differ more or less from those of ordinary English.
It has been my aim in writing these pages to awaken, if it may be, a keener interest in the study of our dialect, which I believe every true Yorkshireman has an affection for, and which, when spoken in its purity, sounds like melody in his ears.