October 13, 2008

Northumberland: Changes in agricultural dialect. Part 2

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 20, Summer/Autumn 1980. ISSN 0308-4809

Although there has been a number of national dialect surveys undertaken in Europe before the turn of the century, it was not until the 1950s that any systematic attempt was made to record the regional variations in English. Harold Orton's "Survey of English Dialects" (SED) was initiated both in response to the fact that linguists felt dialects were worth investigating in their own right, and also for a concern that in England, "pure dialect form is disappearing even in country districts, owing to the spread of education and to modern facilities for intercommunication.

With his SED, Orton effectively performed what he saw as a "salvage operation", recording pure genuine forms of dialect that were likely to disappear without trace. Some 25 years later, I have visited nine Northumbrian villages surveyed by Orton (Lowick, Embleton. Thropton, Ellington, Earsdon, Heddon-on-the-wall, Allendale, Haltwhistle, Wark) (see part 1) to examine the extent of changes in dialect in the face of increasing urbanisation, modern farming methods, and changes in education and communications in general.

Of the nine young farmers I interviewed, the responses of TO of Earsdon were to provide some of the most interesting material I collected. Son of a Yorkshire-born mother, TO was born on the farm near Earsdon, like his father before him. TO is 28 years of age, he has lived on the farm all his life apart from spells at school and college. He was educated locally as a child and took elocution lessons. Later he received his agricultural education at Haydon Bridge Technical School in the south west of Northumberland, at the Northumberland College of Agriculture and the Berkshire college of Agriculture.

A number of TO's responses reflected the loss of dialect words due to the rise of modern farming techniques. Question of "When the grass has been mown for hay, what do you do next"? The common replies in the SED were to ted it, or strew it (scatter). Although one of my informants, CH of Haltwhistle did use strew, this was rare. TO's replies to "crimp, wuffle or scatter" it refer to the use of machines unknown to SED informants, as well as the hay bob. MA of Wark also referred to this machine and would certainly have baffled the interviewers in the 1950s survey. Similarly TO could not tell me a call for hens to come to him (in SED) because he only encounters hens in battery cages!

On the other hand, TO does use a good deal of dialect terms. He was the only one of my young informants to have "onstead" in his normal usage for "farm steading". This was a frequent response in the SED and was also used by my oldest informant, JM of Heddon-on-the-Wall who acted as control for this research among younger informants.

TO's father's farm is now located in an urbanised area rather than an isolated village, as it was in the 1950s. TO's use of older dialect forms is perhaps surprising in view of this. One might also have expected that he would have lost contact with his local dialect since he took elocution lessons and was educated away from home. It is difficult to assess the extent to which TO's use of dialect was natural in the interview situation as on occasions he seemed to be consciously polite.

It is worth offering a cautionary note to would-be collectors of dialect as the presence of a tape-recorder can often inhibit more spontaneous kinds of speech. In a question of "what do you call the little balls that rabbits leave behind", TO answered "carlings". Then he said that this is what his mother told him to say when he was younger – otherwise the word (more common by far) was "dottles".

A similar instance occurred with GM of Heddon-on-the-wall in response to the question of "what root crops do you grow"? GM said potatoes in the interview but I know that he usually calls them "taiteez", which he did when prompted, admitting that his wife, a non-dialect speaker prefers him not to use dialect forms such as this.

A number of other informants also said they want to speak more "politely" when they knew they were being tape-recorded – hence potatoes for taties in many cases. CH told me that he wanted to modify his dialect (despite the fact that I have a Northumbrian accent myself) because he finds that people outside of his native Haltwhistle often misunderstood him. MA of Wark expressed similar sentiments and as a student at University, told me he feels a pressure to confirm to his standard-speaking colleagues at the expense of his dialect.

Sometimes in the interview he was confused about what he said at home and what he said at University. For example in a question he could not remember how he usually pronounced "swath" for a row of mown hay. The University pronunciation "swath" was an natural to him as the dialect "swaeth". Similarly TO would say "trof" for trough and then changed it to the dialect "trow"; and several informants varied between the standard "yuh" for ewe and the dialect "yow".

Generally dialect forms seemed to be used when informants were engrossed in conversations and more standard forms when they became conscious of their speech being recorded, or when they were least conscious of the purpose of the interview.

However, despite the limitations of the structured interview situations, many examples of the pure genuine forms of the dialect were obtained.

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