October 13, 2008

Northumberland: Changes in agricultural dialect. Part 1.

By Alison Johnson
From a paper prepared when a final honours student at the School of English, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Printed in Northumbriana, No 19, Spring 1980. ISSN 0308-4809

Interest in Northumbrian dialect stretches back through many centuries - the characteristic burr for instance was made famous by Hotspur in the thirteen hundreds, and Daniel Defoe wrote of the Northumbrians' "hollow jarring in the throat" in the 17th century.

One of the most important considerations of the dialect to emerge in recent years was Harold Orton's study in the 1950s, when Northumberland was included in his national "Survey of English Dialects" (SED). Since it's over 20 years since Orton began to publish his results, I became interested in the subsequent development of the dialect of Northumbrian agricultural community.

I decided to conduct a survey in the same nine villages of Northumberland that Orton and his fieldworkers used. However, where Orton was trying to find the oldest extant dialect in the area, I was interested in how much the dialect had been "handed down" form father to son, and now much had been preserved against the background of increasing standardisation of English speech, and technological changes in farming.

Orton had hoped that by using comparatively isolated rural communities he would get as authentic a variety of dialect as possible. SED informants were very rarely below the age of 60 and often over 80, for after all, it is they who are likely to have preserved the traditional dialect best. In both Orton's and my own surveys the majority of speakers interviewed were born and bred in their respective villages; often their families had farmed there for generations. The informants in my research differed from Orton's in that they were young and had usually attended and agricultural college or school away from home, where they would have come into contact with different speech varieties.

I chose one informant from each of the nine villages (Lowick, Embleton, Thropton, Ellington, Earsdon, Heddon-on-the-wall, Allendale, Haltwhistle, Wark). The nine informants were in their twenties (ranging from 20-28, average 24). A 10th informant acted as a control of the research – being 74 years old he was a typical SED informant. I hoped he would give comparable results to those provided by the SED, demonstrating the retention of a lot of old dialect. The other informants were old enough to have gained experience and familiarity with contemporary types of farming, and young enough to have knowledge of, and to be influenced by the more recent development of farming. How much of the old dialect would they be familiar with? Would they use new dialect items as a result of change in farm technology?

The choice of informants, all of whom were members of the Northumberland Federation of Young Farmer's Clubs was based on age and locality, not on social factors although all the informants happened to be either self-employed or working on their father's farms; none were farm labourers. They had varying educational background but education was not found to be a particularly important influence on dialect retention. All the informants were male, for two reasons. Firstly, this in keeping with Orton's survey, and secondly they were more likely to be familiar with technical terms than were females.

Information was collected by tape-recorded interviews, usually made in the informant's own homes. The interviews were based on Orton's questionnaire. This had nine books of questions in all, but I used only a selection from the first three, which are most relevant to farming today. For example, the informants were asked – "What do you call the animals that give us milk?", or where do you store your hay if you have it inside?" Some sections were omitted because they referred to farming methods which are now obsolete, and which young farmers had not used. For example, questions referring to cart horses, threshing machines, old fashioned ploughs, etc were ignored.

I expected that the results of the interviews as recorded would show a trend towards standardisation of speech and I was largely interested in how things like, (a) new technical words would demonstrate the influence of technological change in farming methods, and (b) dialect items which had either been retained or introduced since the 1950s.

The former category (a) was found for example in response to the question, "what do cows feed on in the cow house? The answer "silage" was never recorded in the SED since silage was unknown then and all the informants naturally use the word "hay". Silage however was commonplace by the time of my study and the world was therefore commonly used though still outweighed by the more usual "hay".

Examples of dialect survival (b) were noted in response to situations like "what do you call the liquid that runs down the drain of the byre'? Informant CH of Haltwhistle was unique in replying "yeddle". This world was used by the SED's Haltwhistle informant and still seems to be in common usage there today.

A fine example of the dialect development since the 1950s was that given in respsone to the question which asked the informant to identify couch grass from a picture. MD of Lowick said that the common term in his locality was "rak". This is most interesting when compared with the SED recorded response in Lowick. Then the common term was wicken, and wrack was mentioned only as a modern term. MD of Lowick two decades later was not at all familiar with wicken which serves to illustrate the increasing dominance and usage of the dialect word wrack in the Lowick area during that period.

These specimens results are merely a small sample of the kind of findings that resulted from my study as an introduction to the research. I look forward to presenting further discussion of my results, more details of the information themselves and other points of interest in future issues.

Footnote by Clive Dalton
The late Harold Orton was a Professor in the English Department at the University of Leeds where his students used to go out during the summer vacation into rural areas to interview and record folk such as farm workers, game keepers and other rural workers. The English Department was near the Agriculture Department where I taught, and it was a great experience meeting Harold. He told me he had done some of his own student study in Bellingham and had recorded Jack Telfer the tobacconist and watchmaker.

We talked of the North Tyne accent and he assembled some students to hear me give an example of the lingo! Choosing a subject was easy as I just imitated some of the grand old folk I worked for. I gave them a treatise on how to judge Blackfaced tups!

Prof Orton played me recordings of rural folk from the East Riding and West Riding of Yorkshire and it may as well have been a foreign language. He then played me a discussion between two rural lads from around Wooler arguing about the merits of their Border "tarriers" (terriers), and to sort it out they were going to let them have a "whorry". It took me some time te get me lugs tuned in illustrating the changes in speech over very small areas of the county. The material collected by Prof Orton is now famous world wide as a source of English dialects.

Here's a link to a great New York Times article on Professor Orton's study - it's always entertaining to hear what another culture thinks of the English.

No comments:

Post a Comment