By Roland Bibby
Northumbriana, No 37. Spring 1989 ISSN 0306-4809
The famous burr of Northumberland, the choking, rendering “r” sound, or rather its origin is an interesting subject. Most of Northumberland and a slice of North Durham were within the burr’s boundary in an 1890 survey. The burr has long been the Northumbrian’s trademark.
Traditional explanations are that Harry Hotspur had an impediment in his speech – he spoke thickly, Shakespeare put it – and everyone here copied the hero; and that the Danes brought it; and that proud Northumbrians copied the French. None was satisfactory.
The young bloods might have imitated Hotspur but their elders and females would surely have not. There is no trace of the Danes having a burr and they did not settle amongst, and influence the speech of Northumberland (or Durham until they began sneaking in from Yorkshire).
The French “r” is documented. It began in Verseilles about 1700, a fad of fashionable fops which spread across the palace, Paris, France and adjoining countries. Why if it crossed the Channel should it ignore the Sassenachs and pounce on Northumbrians? Why should Northumberland welcome this “gift” from the Scot’s great allies the French; still in 1700 the great enemy of the is country? And so one wondered and waited.
Then three of four years ago, I mentioned this age-old problem to Reginald Dand, ex-Amble, ex Morpeth, now doon theor in Sassenachia and a keen student of place and personal names. “Haad up” he said, “Ever thought of all the Anglo Saxon “hr” and “hl” words? The hr ones are not easy to say without a bold imitation of the burr.
He was right of course. The initial “h” before the “l”, “r” or “w” was common in Anglo Saxon for example:
HLADEN to load
HLAEDEL a ladle
HLAEDER a ladder
HLENAN to learn
HLENE thin, lean
HLAF a loaf
HLYNN a cataract or waterfall
HRAWEFN a raven
HREDDAN to rid
HREOWAN to rue
HRIDDEL a sieve
HWAELA a whale
There are many more examples. The Normans we are told eliminated the initial “h”. This is suspect but it did go, except amongst highly refined people who carefully say “hwy”, “hwen” and “hwart” and would swoon to find they are preserving a feature of that vulgar Anglo-Saxon.
Needless to say, the elimination did not work in Northumberland, and that purist “h” can still be heard occasionally. However, it is not the “h” which could burr an “r” we seek, but the reason why, here and here alone, in a “hr”ing nation, the burr was born, blossomed and was perpetuated regardless of all who, white-faced, listened. That Dand theory needed something more.
There is a lesser-known curiosity of Northumbrian speech, the rasping gas-jet of an “h” in “H-h-hwaat” and “H-H-hwee”. It can elongate the following vowel eg “Aa h-h-oh-up”! “H-h-reen thi bell man”!
It can redouble the “h”s effect in the “hr” words, almost insisting on the burr. It can attach itself to “r” in words that never had an “h” in front and so, if a Northumbrian says the English saying – “Around the rugged rock etc”, you can hear six burrs and the six preliminary “h” jets, but three of the six words can form old French, and three from Scandinavian. It made explosions of the Northumbrian “huz” (us) and “hit” (it).
In other words, it is easy to get from the gas-jet “h” in “hr” words to the same in “r” words.
Heslop remarked on the Northumbrian “h” – “with a very strong breathing, as in which, when, while, what, wick, (hwick) and quite (white).” Ealier in 1959 Walter White wrote: “And how a Northumbrian exasperates the “h” bringing it up hoarsely from the very bottom of his chest! At times I could hardly recognise my own name exploded from a Northumbrian throat.”(H-h-waaltor H-h-wite).
Brocket says nothing of the hoarse “h”; indeed his burr is a “peculiar whirring sound”. Moody does not mention such a strong “h” but does say that the aspirate is “scrupulously respected by Northumbrians … never dropped save in certain monosyllabic words (he, him, etc) – a natural kind of elision… never wrongly introduced before a vowel…” (never, never, “Allo, ‘Arold –hit’s the Halec ‘ere”. This meticulous respect for the “h” could well be the lasting echo of the gas-jet “h”.
Moody does not relate the strong “h” to the burr, but he strongly denies the Hotspur-Danish-French origins of the latter, and asserts that the burr was not indigenous but was acquired much earlier than the birth of the French “r”. We can reasonably assume that it was acquired before Hotspur’s time; that it was generated by the strong “h”; that the latter was yet another oddity born in Northumberland’s long isolation; if only to spite the Norman barons!
Image credit: Military History Online website.