THE Gazette & Herald went in search of the origins of Yorkshire dialect. With the help of the Yorkshire Dialect Society's Dr Barrie Rhodes, reporter JAMES KILNER found remarkable similarities between local dialect and languages in modern Scandinavia.

Doctor Barrie Rhodes leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He was listening to a Yorkshire dialect poetry reading.

Hearing the sounds of the words, their cadences and rhythms, Barrie thought to himself: "I could be back in Oslo" - he had been there only the previous weekend.

This may sound like a rather bizarre conclusion to draw.

Yet Barrie was experiencing one of the startling phenomena of Yorkshire dialect - its similarity to the languages of modern Scandinavia.

Perhaps an example would be in order. Imagine chatting over the garden fence to your neighbour about your lazy son.

If your family roots are in Yorkshire, you might use a well-known dialect word to chastise your offspring. "He's 'ligging' in bed", you might say.

In fact, precisely the same word is being used today in Norway, meaning literally 'lying down'.

Scores of Yorkshire dialect words have remarkably similar counterparts in modern Scandinavian languages. For example, dialect words such as flit (meaning to move house), haver (oats), stee (ladder), graave (dig), reek (smoke), laithe (barn), band (string), teem (pour), skrike (scream), crake (crow), kist (chest), boose (animal stall) and spretch (hatch).

And it's all because modern-day Yorkshire folk and Scandinavians have common forebears - our old friends the Vikings.

The vast majority of the words used in Yorkshire dialect today are derived from Old Norse (the language of the Vikings) and Old English (Anglo-Saxon). However, there are also traces of Celtic, Old French, Middle and High German, Dutch and even Romany.

The story of Yorkshire dialect began in earnest in the fifth century AD with the arrival on these shores of the Angles, Saxons and other Germanic migrants from what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia.

It was the Angles who settled in our part of the world, with the Saxons and Jutes to the south helping, to some extent, to create the split in accent and dialect between the north and south of England.

Very roughly, the area that is now north and east Yorkshire was part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria (meaning literally 'the land north of the Humber'), while modern-day west and south Yorkshire were for long periods more associated with the kingdom of Mercia.

This accounts for the notable differences in dialect words and pronunciation between Yorkshire folk living in areas roughly to the south of the River Wharfe (which borders such places as Skipton, Ilkley, Otley, Leeds and Tadcaster) and those to the north.

Of course, the differences in Yorkshire dialect are not only between the old Ridings, which were created by the Vikings. Variations can occur over a range of just five miles or less, Barrie points out.

Harking back to Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, are dialect words like nobbut (nothing but) and byre (cow stall), and pronunciations such as the short 'i' in 'blind', which would make the word rhyme with 'wind'.

The Vikings began arriving in England in the eighth century and their hugely successful raids resulted in the Saxon King Alfred of Wessex agreeing to split England in two.

The line stretched roughly from Chester to London, with Anglo-Saxons ruling the area south of the line and Vikings the north.

The latter region is referred to by historians as The Danelaw, and it became the main area for settlement by the disbanded Viking armies, within which the Viking kingdom of York (more or less equating geographically with what we now know as Yorkshire) was especially powerful.

This, of course, further enhanced the divisions in speech and pronunciation between the north and south of England.

The Old English that was spoken in what is now Yorkshire was overlaid with the Vikings' Old Norse and there was a gradual amalgamation of the languages, which were both from the same Germanic root language anyway.

The Vikings brought with them the precursors of a tremendous number of the Yorkshire dialect words spoken today, many of which were listed above. Others include familiar dialect words like beck (stream), dale (valley), fell (hill/mountain), laik (play), lug (ear), ings (water meadows) and gate (street).

Barrie is keen to dispel the myth that regional dialects are somehow inferior to standard English. Standard English itself is just another dialect, he points out, which was used in the south-east and the south Midlands.

This dialect was adopted as the 'standard' simply because it acquired prestige through its use at court (where it superseded French) and at the two original English universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Says Barrie: "Standard English has no more legitimacy to be called 'proper' English than any other form of English."

Unfortunately, adds Barrie, successive generations of schoolchildren, since the introduction of state education in the 19th century, have been encouraged to think that regional speech variations are 'debased forms' or 'incorrect' uses of English.

For example, the use of a double negative in a sentence is frowned upon, yet there is no reason why this should be, Barrie maintains. It is simply a feature of dialect grammar and can be easily understood.

In fact, he points out, a spectacular quadruple negative can be found in the work of one of English literature's greatest figures, Geoffrey Chaucer. And the double negative has complete legitimacy in some other European languages.

Just as Welsh children are taught their native language at school, so children in Yorkshire schools could at least learn something of the historic speech of their local area, believes Barrie.

However, he is entirely realistic about the situation. Modern globalisation means that the local is being steadily eradicated.

Though the Yorkshire accent is not under serious threat as yet, use (and, to a lesser extent, knowledge) of the county's dialect words is in danger of disappearing almost entirely over the next few decades, says Barrie, citing evidence from his own research.

The only dialect words that have any real hope of long-term survival, he adds, are those that have become part of a sort of 'regional standard' (or have in some cases been assimilated into Standard English), such as ginnel, gawp and gormless.

However, this is where the Yorkshire Dialect Society comes in. Its mission is to preserve the dialect of our region and, to that end, it is involved in the collection and publication of dialect prose and poetry, and in making sound recordings of Yorkshire dialect speakers.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Yorkshire Dialect Society, or even joining it, you can contact Dr Barrie Rhodes (publicity officer) on (01430) 432759 or e-mail Alternatively, you can get in touch with Walter Leach (honorary treasurer and membership officer) on (01262) 670859 or e-mail

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Updated: 15:01 Thursday, February 26, 2004