Dialects Which Put An Accent On Spelling (5 July 1974)
Although I say it myself, as shouldn’t, I have always been a pretty good speller of the English language. I know that practice makes perfect and that I have had a lot of it. Yet I do believe I was given a head start through my prior knowledge of the Yorkshire dialect, which was spoken all around me when I was a boy and which I myself spoke.
At school our teachers tried to instil us with so-called standard English and under threat of the stick we conformed. The result was that in class we spoke with effeminate tongue with a heavy local accent. But immediately we got out of class we rose above it into the full dialect itself. That is, except for a few toffee-nosed girls who thought themselves superior.
And how did that give me a head start with my spelling? I will explain. First, however, let me scotch the notion that the chief peculiarity of the dialect lies in the pronunciation of the “u” vowel and that that pronunciation is necessarily wrong. A southerner’s idea of the northerner’s “Up for t’cup is specifically “Oop for t’coop.” But he is flummoxed when then asked to write his idea of the real double “o” as in “hoop” and “coop.” Logically he would have to write “hooop” and “coop.” He cannot have it both ways.
How much more sensible and more English is the northern way, in which “look” is not “luck” and “books” is not “Bucks.”
I refer to this as the “northern” way rather than the “Yorkshire” way advisedly. It begins as far south as Northants, though it becomes more marked farther north. Professor W.G. Hoskins says it is one of the subtle vowel changes that mark the racial division between the Angles to the north and the Saxons to the south, the midlands being Anglo Saxon. At any rate, it is a characteristic of the Yorkshire dialect though by no means the most important.
The most important is its sounding of the letter “a” in words which in the south are also spelled with an “a” but are not sounded with one. It occurs mostly in words when the “a” follows an “e” or an “o.”
In north and south today the “a” is sounded in words like “near” (nee-ar), “real” (ree-al) and “dear” (dee-ar). But in Yorks exactly the same sound is also given to the vowels in “head” (hee-ad), “breath” (bree-ath), “great” (gree-at), “death,” “lead,” “mean,” and a host of other “ea” words of which the stuff of English was made and is still spelt.
Now you may begin to see what I mee-an by having a hee-ad start. All I had to do was to ignore the so-called standard pronunciation and use my native tongue for the many such words and all was clear. Do that and I at once knew the difference in spelling between “great” and “grate,” “bread” and “bred,” “pear” and either ”pare“ or “pair,” and so forth.
There are exceptions of course, and curiously enough one of them has a link with Bucks. I have read a Buckinghamshire dialect book – by a Mr. Harman, I think – in which the writer notes a tendency to invert “ea” to “ae” like “theaves” is commonly inverted to “thaeves” by farmers.
So, too, in Yorks, for a few words. Thus “meat” is “maet” and “peas” are “paes” but “beans” are “bee-ans,” not “baens.” Also “teach” and “reach” are “taech” and “raech.”
Regarding “a” after “o”, both standard English and the dialect have “bro-ad,” but the dialect also has “bo-at,” “co-al,” “ro-ad,” etc. Yet more help for the Yorkshire schoolboy speller! Impossible to spell “co-at” as “cote,” or “ro-ad” as “rode.”
Another common difficulty made easier to overcome by the use of dialect concerns “there” and “their.” When used as “there is,” “there was” etc., the sound of the word is as per standard and rhymes with “their.” But when used to indicate placement, such as “here and there,” it rhymes with the standard “here,” as also does “where.” It is impossible to spell it as “their.”
There is little trace of the guttural left in England, though I suspect that at one time it was wide-spread and was partly responsible for the many “gh’s” left in our written language – not forgetting Woughton, Loughton and Broughton.
In Scotland the guttural is still sounded and is written “ch” as in “loch,” though in Ireland this is “lough.” There is a parallel to the Scotsman’s “bricht, moonlicht, nicht” however, in the Yorkshireman’s “breet, mooinleet neet, all reet.
Yorkshire has many words of its own which make it a true dialect rather a mere accent. Thus lying down is “ligging,” an alley-way is a “ginnell,” a ravine a “clough,” a clothes horse a “wintredge” (winter hedge) and so on.
Another great characteristic of course, is the continued use of “thou” and its associated words, sometimes in their pure form, as in “thee” and “thine.” The words are not used as alternatives to “you” and “yours.” They are basic, the “you” series being limited to “ye” as in “Hear ye.” The work “ye” is never used for the indefinite article, “the.” There is no such thing in Yorks as “Ye olde shoppe.”
This follows the lines of the Authorised Version of the Bible, which hitherto has been regarded as the acme of the English language. Recently a new version has been introduced in which, merely for the sake of modernity, the “thou” series has been debased to the “you” series.
To a Yorkshireman this is little short of sacrilege, a total emasculation of the language and an act leading to some appalling gaffs. Thus, in some explanatory notes to the Sherwood Choral Society’s recent performance of Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” a passage which hitherto would have been transcribed as “Thou that takest away the sins of the world” was re-hashed to “You who takes…” Now really, I ask ye!
Another strange thing. I think that everybody hereabouts recognises me from my speech as a Yorkshireman, or at least as a northerner. Yet when I visit Yorkshire, old friends there say they are sorry I have completely lost my twang. Such is the difference between “heer” and “theer.
But obviously would-be spelling reformers had better think again. Rather than change our spelling to accord with what they regard as our speech they might with as much sense change their speech to accord with our spelling!