Have you ever had people tell you that you need to ‘talk proper’? Made fun of your accent? Treat you as though you were somehow uneducated? Tried to imitate you? If so, you are not alone. History has not been kind to regional dialect in Britain, its use having been belittled and disparaged for more than four hundred years in preference to a standardised form of unaccented speech, often referred to as ‘London English’. Although I doubt those from London’s east end would necessarily agree with that term.
I was reminded of this late last year when the issue of ‘not speaking properly’ was raised at a well-publicized hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives by Dr. Fiona Hill, who gave testimony in what was a faint but unmistakable Northeast accent. And by ‘Northeast’ I don’t mean Massachusetts or Connecticut. I mean Bishop Auckland, County Durham, where Dr. Hill was born and raised, the daughter of a coal miner and midwife. When asked by a congressman how she came to live in America, Dr. Hill replied, “I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement. I knew this wouldn’t happen in America.”
She was undoubtedly a bright pupil who went on to earn a degree at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, before gaining a master’s degree and a doctorate from Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. But St. Andrew’s was not her first choice. In a 2017 interview, she recalled her experience after applying to Oxford University:
“I applied to Oxford in the ’80s and was invited to an interview,” she said. “It was like a scene from Billy Elliot; people were making fun of me for my accent…. It was the most embarrassing, awful experience I had ever had in my life!”
Unfortunately, many of us who hail from the Northeast of England can relate to her experience. Those early days when we first stepped foot outside our home borders and were met with ridicule when we deigned to open our mouths. Or perhaps as I should say, ‘wor gobs’!
“No! You shouldn’t say, ‘Me an’ me marra’!” our teacher would lecture us. “That’s not proper English. It should be, ‘My friend and I’. Speaking slang makes you sound working class!”
Now, I’ve never quite understood what’s so bad about sounding working class but that’s my English teacher for you. Mind you, my mam wasn’t much different. Look, I know it’s important to communicate with other people, at least those who may not be as enlightened as we Northumbrians who cling to our native tongue. Well, some of us anyway. But it’s who we are! And speaking as we do is an integral part of our culture; in fact, I believe it’s as important to our heritage as Hadrian’s Wall, singin’ hinnies or, ‘The Blaydon Races’.
“Wey man, what’s the marra wi’ the way Aa taak?”Overheard in Newcastle
Our dialect is a living reminder of the language of our Angle, Saxon and Norse ancestors and, as such, it should be preserved, despite what Samuel Johnson had to say about the matter. He’s the one who, in his efforts to modernize the English language, cast all kinds of aspersions on dialect speech in Great Britain. But he wasn’t the first. As far back as 1598, another speech reformer by the name of George Puttenham, advised budding poets to use the “speech of London”, with the warning,
“…neither shall he follow the speech of craftsman or carter or other of the inferior sort…for such persons do abuse good speeches by strange accents.” And not long after Samuel Johnson published his landmark dictionary, along came yet another crusader, Thomas Sheridan, a former theatre manager turned writer and elocutionist. In a 1762 lecture, Sheridan proclaimed, “(Pronunciation) is a sort of proof that a person has kept good company. All other dialects are sure marks, either of a provincial, rustic, pedantic or mechanical education; and therefore, have some degree of disgrace annexed to them.”
With all the speech reformers about, it’s surprising our dialect managed to survive at all. But survive it did, spoken by the thousands of ordinary people in their everyday lives, blissfully ignorant of the urgings of those who clamoured for a standardized version of English speech.
When George Stephenson designed and built his miner’s safety lamp, he proudly presented his invention to members of parliament in London, seeking a 2,000-guinea prize offered by the government for a lamp that could be safely operated in gaseous conditions underground. Yet, despite successful demonstrations of his lamp in known firedamp conditions at the Killingworth pit where he worked as an engineer, his presentation was dismissed, with one MP allegedly remarking, ‘No one who speaks like that could be smart enough to invent such a lamp’. George was from Wylam, a small village west of Newcastle.
Even one of my favourite writers, Thomas Hardy, joined those dissenting voices in criticizing the use of dialect speech. “Dialect words are those terrible marks of the beast to the truly genteel”, he once wrote. Which was rather surprising coming from someone who ably embodied local speech in his stories.
So, there you have it! The ancient speech of Britain’s common folk was doomed to be consigned to the backwaters of ignorance and insignificance. It just wasn’t the proper way for educated gentlemen and ladies to speak!
Of course, there were the renegades. In England, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth both employed dialect vocabulary in their work. And in Scotland, Burns embraced the words of the ‘common people’ as did the numerous Tyneside songwriters of the 19th century. Wales and Scotland, each with its own unique language and dialect, managed to resist the movement for change, using their national identity to not only preserve their ancient forms of speech but also to instil a sense of pride in their way of speaking.
Our native speech is dying. Beaten down by centuries of ridicule, it’s been further weakened by the disappearance of the traditional industries that served as incubators for dialect speech, and today, influenced by those ubiquitous forms of communication that pervade everyone’s life. Our society has changed and it makes me sad when I hear someone proclaim how embarrassed or ashamed they are to speak with a Northeast accent, let alone a dialect full of strange grammar and vocabulary!
“Ye gaan up yon lonnen to the waal an’ then tyek it aal the way ti the top.”Directions from a Tynedale farmer on a recent hike
When you’re judged by the way you speak, I know how hard it can be. A Northeast accent or dialect will immediately lead some folks to peg the speaker as ‘working class’, a judgement which carries the unspoken insinuation of ignorance. And that’s not just my opinion. People I meet from across the region relate their own experiences, ranging from mockery to outright discrimination.
Some may argue that times have changed, citing examples such as the BBC, once the principle promoter of ‘London English’ but which now embraces regional speech in its broadcasts. However, an element of prejudice still exists to the point where many Northeasterners feel uncomfortable speaking in their native accent or dialect.
In his book, North East Dialect: Survey and Word List, the late Bill Griffiths, a noted expert on the Northumbrian language, succinctly captured the meaning of dialect speech:
“(The dialect) is seen as indelibly linked to ‘working-class status’, and with it a traditional reactionary lifestyle: and the instinct today is to let all this die a peaceful death, unmourned and unregretted. But this unkind and unnecessary verdict is surely based on a historical fallacy, for industrial workers were simply preserving, encouraging and modifying a type of local speech rooted firmly in a thousand years of Northeast language development: their dialect is both historic and the living language of the whole region, and it is dangerous to regard it as the preserve of any one group, class, generation or political persuasion.”
Do you do perms here?Overheard at a hairdressers in Ashington, Northumberland
Aye. Hoo aboot this, ‘Mary had a little lamb…’
The English language is like a slow-moving river; it is continually in a state of almost imperceptible change, adopting new words and dropping old ones as it adapts to the whims and wants of contemporary society. I fear these inevitable changes, together with the inherent pressure to ‘talk proper’, will ultimately lead to the demise of the Northumbrian dialects as we know them. So perhaps it’s high time we stopped feeling guilty for speaking with our traditional accents and dialects and instead install a feeling of pride in our heritage by simply thumbing our noses at the ignorance of those unable to hear, understand or appreciate the history inherent in our indigenous language.
Taakin’ propa? Why hinny, we are taakin’ propa!
© 2020 Andy Bogle