Month: June 2019

England’s Oldest Recorded Word

Picture above: Keelmen Heaving In Coals By Moonlight by J.M.W. Turner, 1835





Most Northumbrians will be familiar with the word keel.  In all likelihood they will have grown up hearing the words of the iconic Tyneside song, ‘The Keel Row!’ while those who travel through the east side of Newcastle can see the fine old Keelman’s Hospital that sits on City Road.  Although the common meaning of the word defines the fundamental spine of a ship, on Tyneside it referred to a boat called a keel, a wide, squat vessel that was sailed and rowed to transport coal from the shallow riverbank to ships moored on the river in deeper water.  Keels, together with their hard-working, hard-drinking crews, largely disappeared in the late 19th century as the river was modernized to allow collier ships load alongside newly-built coaling staithes, maneuvered with the help of steam-powered tugs.

Its origins however can be traced back to the Angle language of the 6th century where it first appears in the book, ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ written by the monk Gildas around 540 AD – about a century after the first arrival of the Angles in Kent.  In it Gildas writes, “Then a litter of cubs issuing forth from the lair of the lioness of Barbaria in three cyuls as it is expressed in their tongue, in ours (sic) long ships.”  Remarkably, the ancient Angle accent has also been retained, and can be heard in the way Tynesiders pronounce the word.  As Oliver Heslop (1844-1916), the Newcastle-born lexicologist and author of ‘Northumberland Words’ noted, “In the Tyneside pronunciation of keel… a fractured vowel sound is heard.  This can hardly be better rendered than by the phonetic form – kyul – given by Gilda.”

“These boats (keels) are strong, clumsy and oval and carry twenty tons apiece; they are navigated by a square sail but generally by two very large oars, one on the side plied by a man and a boy and another at the stern by a single man serving both as oar and rudder.”

Richard Oliver Heslop

Keel boats are inexorably associated with the River Tyne, and for the word to have survived in the Tyneside vernacular for over 1300 years is a testament to the legacy of the Northumbrian dialect. Although now defunct as a type of vessel, the word keel commands special recognition as the earliest recorded word in the English language. 

Given the word’s history and longevity, it is perhaps fitting that one of Tyneside’s oldest songs was written about a keel.  ‘Weel May the Keel Row!’ is often referred to as ‘Tyneside’s National Anthem’.  First published in Ritson’s ‘Northumberland Garland’ in 1793, it is believed to date back to before 1760.  The song was also well-known beyond the banks of the Tyne, its strong beat making it a popular sea-shanty, as well as a marching tune of which Rudyard Kipling wrote, “The man who has never heard the Keel Row rising high and shrill above the rattle of the regiment going past the saluting-base, has something yet to hear and understand.”

The popular version of the song – as it would have sung on the streets of Newcastle – was published in Allan’s ‘Tyneside Songs’: 

As aw was gawn thro’ San’get, thro’ San’get, thro’ San’get, 
As aw was gawn thro’ San’get aw he’rd th’ lasses sing –
Weel may th’ keel row, th’ keel row, th’ keel row
Weel may th’ keel row that maw lad’s in!

He wears a blue bonnet, a bunch o’ ribbons on it,
He wears a blue bonnet, a dimple in his chin;
An’ weel may th’ keel row, th’ keel row, th’ keel row
An’ weel may th’ keel row that maw lad’s in!

The Dialect Project at The Word

by Richard Barber, Former Arts and Heritage Officer, The Word

From about 2014 to 2016 I had the good fortune to be involved in the development of a new building in South Tyneside which was planned to replace the old Central Library and which became The Word, the National Centre for the Written Word.  Built on the Market Square in South Shields, it opened in October 2016 and by April 2019 we had had over one million visitors.  The Word has quickly become one of the most recognisable cultural venues in the North East.  As Arts and Heritage Officer, one of my roles has been to develop creative responses to the written word which aim to get more people visiting and involved arts and heritage at The Word.

In another stroke of good luck, in late 2015 or early 2016, I was talking to Tom Kelly who had just co-written ‘Geordie the Musical’.  We talked about language, in particular our language, the North East dialect.  In his early working life Tom had a job in ‘the Yards’ and after I left school I worked in ‘the Pit’.  We laughed a lot as we swapped stories about the characters involved, in how the work was often awful but agreed that the sense of solidarity was something that shaped us and that many of the terms and sayings we had heard everyday were now being lost.  As industries withered or were lost forever and folks grew older some of those dialect words were drifting away from common usage. The rise of social media platforms and 24-hour Global TV has an effect of course but, as we found out, they can also be a force for saving and recording the heritage our language and interest in dialect heritage is strong.

Richard Barber (right) with Tom Kelly at the opening of the 2019 Dialect Word Exhibit

So here, in an affable conversation between two likeminded souls, the idea of the ‘Lost Dialect’ exhibition to be staged at The Word when it formally opened in October 2016 was formed.  It was originally planned to form a short, three-month long exhibition.  At that point we didn’t think it would hold the interest of many people but thought it was worth a try. However, it has proven so popular that it has now had four refreshes and continues to attract audiences interested in their heritage and who want to offer their own stories and their own terms for things and places. It turns out there is a lot of pride in the dialect of the North East! Not only that, though local pride means so much, media attention has been very good with regular features in local press, local TV coverage and Tom even featured on Radio Four’s Front Row.

In those early days, as the building was being constructed, I made as many links as possible, exploring what other institutions had been involved with.  The work of the late Bill Griffiths, an academic at Northumbria University in the 1990’s, working with Bill Lancaster, is arguably preeminent on the landscape of recording the dialect of the North East and some specific communities within it. Before his death, Bill Griffiths produced a series of books published by Northumbria University Press culminating in A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2005). The books proved to be popular with both academics and the public, a rare occurrence in my experience. I managed to set up a series of meetings with Bill Lancaster who was very supportive of the ideas we were pursuing. I also established links with Newcastle University, with Karen Corrigan, who has been responsible for the excellent ‘Talk of the Toon’ website. This all expanded my understanding of the work and time dedicated to research, recording and sharing the understanding of the dialect of North East England and how vast and complex the dialect world is when trying to capture slight differences between geographical communities.  As a ‘Sanddancer’ (from South Shields for those who aren’t familiar with the term) I was struck by the comment that ‘somewhere along the Coast Road, travelling from South Shields towards Sunderland, people stop saying “daint” (for don’t) and start saying “dinnet”’; and similarly, somewhere along the Tyne towards Gateshead that same word turns into “divvent”, perhaps the most dominant term in the North East! So, there are differences and yet dialect is such a force for unity and pride, which was consistently and constantly expressed in our exhibition at The Word. 

…somewhere along the Coast Road, travelling from South Shields towards Sunderland, people stop saying ‘daint’ (for don’t) and start saying ‘dinnet’; and similarly, somewhere along the Tyne towards Gateshead, that same word turns into divvent

The most important part in all this has been Tom’s invaluable role and creativity in envisioning, writing and designing an easily accessible gateway into thinking about dialect words. The original exhibition had three interactive components fitted into a small 3m x 4m exhibition that has attracted tens of thousands of visitors since opening.  The space was dressed with old images of the pits and yards taken from the library image archive. On one touch screen you could choose from twenty North East folk songs recorded by Benny Graham and filmed by Unified Media and Gary Wilkinson – a kind of ‘human jukebox’. This proved so popular that we had the songs put onto CD, selling about 150 copies in The Word gift shop and providing one of the most moving scenes I have seen in my working life! A frail woman in a wheelchair, perhaps in her 80’s, was being pushed by her son and was soon sat in front of the Benny Graham juke box.  As the son chose a song and the music and voice of Benny came on screen, the woman became animated and then started to sing along. The man started to cry and, when asked by staff if everything was ok, explained that his mother had advanced dementia and that he hadn’t heard her speak coherently for a while never mind sing! The raw emotion of this has stayed with me ever since and still moves me when I think about it – the power of creativity!

The second touch screen had a simple word quiz, put together by Tom using Bill Griffiths’ dictionary as a reference.  In short, the viewer is presented with a word and three possible answers on screen. You choose an option and get a red cross for the wrong description or a green ‘tick’ is shown for choosing the correct response.  Ten questions are presented in all and a summary ‘out of 10’ screen at the end tells the viewer how well they have answered the quiz. The quiz takes its questions randomly so each time the viewer has a different experience. It proved entertaining and was great for getting people talking to one another, debating possible answers. And, lastly, an old fashioned but well-liked part of the exhibition was the opportunity to write your own word using pencil and paper – actually, writing it on a luggage label and tying it up on our specially installed ‘washing line’!  This proved so popular we gathered in over 2500 labels with favorite words and sayings on which have since been catalogued and published in a booklet. 

We realised that the exhibition was very male orientated, having come from the experience of and reflecting the language of the yards and the pit.  So in the next iteration, we looked at where the majority of women spent their time when the men were in the yards and the pits.  We looked to explore home and working life for women and looked at street games with an emphasis on the lives and routines of girls.  The Exhibition Pod was redressed with new imagery of women in the workplace and the word quiz expanded to include more words. With an actor, known locally for his appearances in pantomime at Customs House and one of our café staff who is a qualified cook, we made a dialect version of a cookery show. Filmed in an old room in South Shields Museum for effect, we took three recipes from Bill Griffiths’ book ‘Stotties and Spicecakes’, which once again proved very popular – very funny, entertaining and educational at the same time. We also made a film of children skipping to old rhymes and a new piece written specially by Tom for the filming. The video was filmed at a summer play scheme in a park and later at a school, whose pupils were later invited to The Word and met by the Mayor of South Tyneside for an official unveiling of the new version of the exhibition.

I don’t think we have reached the end just yet. The dialect work is still proving popular and just seems to keep on going. We are hoping to do another project in 2020, this time with artists developing work with community groups in our community library hubs.  Local people will do their own research and explore their interests in dialect, then, alongside the artist, create their own exhibition which will be staged at The Word over the summer period.

For my part, it’s been a privilege to work with Tom on what has been a very popular exhibition of which I’m very proud.

May 2019

Richard Barber was born in South Shields, Tyne and Wear.  Leaving school in 1979, he started work at the Westoe Colliery, serving his time as an apprentice fitter in; what his dad called, ‘a job for life’.  He eventually left the pit in 1986 to enter Sunderland Polytechnic where he studied youth and community work.  Richard went on to work with various youth and community projects in Hull and spent a further ten years with the Save the Children Fund.  After gaining an MA in Sociology and Social Policy from Durham University, he returned to his hometown in 2001 to work in the culture and leisure department for the South Tyneside Council.  Most recently, he has specialized in arts and heritage projects at The Word, emphasising community involvement and the use of culture in the regeneration of the area.

The WORD BANK OF LOST DIALECTS will be exhibited at The Word in South Shields until September 15, 2019. For further information visit The Word website by clicking here.