North-east English dialects

By Adam Mearns, Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English, Newcastle University

The first citation in the OED entry for pitmatic—the language of the miners and pit villages of the north-east of England—is taken from The Times of 21 August 1885, in which a bewildered writer reports on a visit to a colliery foreman’s office ‘thronged with men talking an unintelligible language known, I was informed, as Pitmatic’. The confusion felt by this reporter when confronted with a north-east dialect is evidently a reaction that survives into the twenty-first century. In fictional comedy, for example, it finds expression in the Paul Whitehouse character, ‘Clive the Geordie’, who is kept as a pet by southerners who fail to understand a word he says. In real life, it is found in reports of a company recruiting Geordie ‘translators’, to act as interpreters for baffled visitors, both foreign and domestic. The persistence of this idea that the dialect, or rather dialects, of the north-east are among the most distinctive, and therefore potentially impenetrable, in the UK has a sound foundation. It reflects the particular developments that have shaped the region over many centuries, with the migration of different groups of people and the dominance of specific industries, for example, naturally leaving their mark on various aspects of local dialects, including vocabulary.

Who are you calling a Geordie?

Before considering how the history of the region has shaped its words, it is worth noting the use of the plural ‘dialects’ above. As with most informal notions of identity, the application and scope of a particular term depends on one’s point of view. For those outside the region, Geordie may seem an appropriate label for anyone from the north-east, and for the dialect they speak. Using it in this broad sense, however, is unlikely to endear you to some of the residents of other parts of Tyne & Wear, or of Northumberland, co. Durham or Teesside.

Although identifying the form ‘Geordie’ as a diminutive of George is uncontroversial, establishing the reason that this came to denote certain people in the north-east is not, and various explanations have been proposed. One is that it was conferred on the people of Newcastle upon Tyne because they supported George I and George II in the Jacobite Risings of 1715 and 1745—suggesting that, from its beginning, it was a term to distinguish the city’s residents from others in the region, who backed the Stuarts. Other explanations focus on mining, which naturally experienced rapid expansion and development during the industrialization of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These accounts tend to see the word either as a general term for a north-east colliery worker (OED, Geordie 2a)—arising out of the fact that George was a common, and therefore stereotypical, pitman’s name—or as an extension of the nickname for George Stephenson’s safety-lamp (OED, sense 2c) to the miners themselves.

The increasing importance of the mining industry was accompanied by a growing interest in the pitmatic vernacular, mentioned above, and other aspects of local language and culture This interest led to the publication of dictionaries, such as John Trotter Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words in Use (1825) and Oliver Heslop’s Northumberland Words (1892), as well as collections of local songs, such as John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812) and Thomas Allan’s Tyneside Songs (1862). As the historian of northern English, Katie Wales, suggests, local pride in the image of mining ‘Geordies’, captured in these popular songs, established them as ‘industrial icons of the region’ (2006, 135). The importance of the industry and the positive associations of this word in turn help to explain why a term that applied generally to miners throughout the north-east became associated in particular with Tyneside, as the focal point of that industry in the region, and then to the people of Tyneside as a whole.

Given these developments in the nineteenth century, it is notable that the OED’s current (unrevised) first reference specifically to the Tyneside dialect—a ‘faint Geordie twang’—dates from 1959. Whatever the reason for this apparent late development, it indicates the continuing relevance of language as an essential aspect of local identity. Another sign of this, and of the fact that ‘Geordie’ would not be accepted as a label by everyone across the north-east, is the emergence of terms that denote inhabitants of other areas—reflecting their own particular sense of regional identity, and sometimes features of their specific dialect. The OED entry for Mackem, a ‘native or inhabitant of Sunderland or Wearside’, notes that the form alludes to a pronunciation of make which is typical in Sunderland, but not Newcastle, just as ‘toon’ (town) would mark a Tyneside, but not a Wearside, accent. With the additional definition of ‘a supporter of Sunderland Association Football Club’ and a first citation from a Newcastle United Supporters Club fanzine (1980-1), Mackem also reveals how these terms may come to prominence as comic pejorative labels used by sporting rivals, only to be adopted more widely and accepted by the group they describe. The same may happen with Smoggie (a Middlesbrough supporter, or a person from Teesside more generally), which stems from the local chemical industry, just as Mackem is taken to refer to shipbuilding, and Geordie may have its roots in mining.

Local history in local words

Even with these specific notions of identity, some of the region’s words clearly belong to a wider northern vocabulary that can be traced back to Old English, and often also to Old Norse, which may have reinforced related English words, helping save them from the loss that occurred in areas where the Vikings did not settle. This may explain the northern survival of words such as larn (to teach) and  bairn (child), though others, such as beck (brook, stream), are more straightforward Norse loans. There are also a number of terms that the north-east shares not only with the rest of northern England, but also with Scots (e.g. clarty, dirty) and sometimes Irish (e.g. pike, pointed hill). In a number of cases, however, they have meanings particularly associated with the region: the OED entry for canny, for instance, notes that its extensive use as a term of appreciation or satisfaction (sense 9), familiar in the north-east, is not found in Scotland.

The impact of mining and related maritime industries can be seen both in fresh meanings attached to old words, such as dike (fissure in a coal seam, OED sense 9.a, 1789), and in the introduction of new terms, such as rolley (mining truck, 1817) and off-putter (someone who loads coal onto ships, 1788). The influx of Scottish and Irish people that accompanied this industrial growth also had an impact. Forms first recorded in the late-eighteenth or early nineteenth century that are common to Scotland, Ireland, and north-east England include the pains, as a reference specifically to rheumatism (pain, 3.f, 1795), and polis (police/policeman, 1833).

While many words from this period, often like the things they denoted, have since become obsolete, other traditional dialect terms have certainly endured. Together with these, the addition of more recent terms—such as the previously mentioned Mackem (entry dated March 2006) or the in vogue charver (brash or loutish young person; dated June 2007)—means that a visiting metropolitan reporter might still be met with a largely unintelligible local throng, though probably not in a colliery foreman’s office.

Dr Mearns is research associate at the Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English, University of Newcastle.

Further reading on north-east English dialects

  • Scott Dobson, Larn Yersel Geordie (new edn., 1986)
  • Frank Graham ed., The New Geordie Dictionary (1987)
  • Bill Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2nd edition, 2005)
  • Bill Griffiths, Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coalfield (2007)
  • R.O. Heslop, Northumberland words: a glossary of words used in the county of Northumberland and on the Tyneside (1892)
  • Katie Wales, Northern English: A Social and Cultural History (2006)
  • Joan Beal, ‘The grammar of Tyneside and Northumbrian English’,  in J. Milroy and L. Milroy eds., Real English: the Grammar of English dialects in the British Isles (1993), 187-213.
  • Michael Pearce, ‘A perceptual dialect map of North East England’, Journal of English Linguistics, 37 (2009), 162-92.
  • British Library: Sounds Familiar? Case Study: Geordie (accent & dialect features).