Photograph of Newcastle

Geordie: A regional dialect of English

Find out more about the origins of the Geordie dialect of Newcastle upon Tyne and discover how the history of the area shaped the dialect spoken today.

Most of us have a vague sense of the accents and dialects spoken in different parts of the UK, such as Cockney or Brummy. But have you ever wondered what exactly constitutes a dialect and accent or why they exist at all? Use the links below to hear a series of audio clips demonstrating the typical features associated with one variety of English: the Geordie dialect.

What is Geordie?

The word Geordie refers both to a native of Newcastle upon Tyne and to the speech of the inhabitants of that city. There are several theories about the exact origins of the term Geordie, but all agree it derives from the local pet name for George. It is sometimes mistakenly used to refer to the speech of the whole of the North East of England. Strictly speaking, however, Geordie should only refer to the speech of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne and the surrounding urban area of Tyneside. Locals insist there are significant differences between Geordie and several other local dialects, such as Pitmatic and Mackem. Pitmatic is the dialect of the former mining areas in County Durham and around Ashington to the north of Newcastle upon Tyne, while Mackem is used locally to refer to the dialect of the city of Sunderland and the surrounding urban area of Wearside. Although only 10 miles apart, the difference between Sunderland and Newcastle upon Tyne is, of course, extremely important locally, not least because of the rivalry between supporters of the two football clubs. For many people these different identities are expressed in the way they speak. To the south, speakers in rural County Durham and North Yorkshire are sometimes affectionately referred to as Farm Yakkers, while Smoggies – the inhabitants of Middlesbrough and the surrounding urban area of Teesside – have their own distinctive dialect, too.

A shared history

It is easy to see why people outside the North East often group these speakers together, as we can identify shared features in the English spoken in the area from the Tees to the border with Scotland. This is not surprising given that speech in this part of the country is descended from the dialect that emerged approximately 1,500 years ago in the mouths of Anglo-Saxon settlers from continental Europe. The North East was settled mainly by the Angles, as was most of central and northern Britain in the centuries following the decline of Roman rule in the early 5th century AD. The Angles came from the area around the border between Denmark and Germany and the language they spoke evolved into a number of Old English dialects often grouped together under the term Northumbrian. Other dialect groups that emerged elsewhere in the UK include Mercian, spoken in the Midlands, Wessex in the South and West of England, and Kentish in the far South East. As the name implies, the Northumbrian dialects occupied an area northwards of a rough line drawn from the River Humber in the East to the River Ribble in the West (corresponding approximately with today’s M62 motorway). This dialect area therefore also includes Scotland.

Echoes from times past

Intriguingly, we can still hear echoes of these ancient dialect boundaries in contemporary spoken English. Speakers from the Midlands and the North (Northumbria and Mercia) pronounce words such as glass to rhyme with gas and stood to rhyme with stud, while speakers in the South (Wessex) use a different vowel sound in each case. Furthermore, north of the M62 (only in the Northumbrian area, including Scotland) speakers still pronounce words such as low and hole with a vowel sound used by speakers elsewhere in the words law and haul, while words such as fade and way are pronounced with a vowel sound used by speakers further south on the words fared and wear. There are also a number of grammatical constructions and dialect words that remain distinctively ‘northern’, such as lass for ‘girl’ or naught for ‘nothing’.

Subsequent invasions left the North East increasingly linguistically isolated from developments elsewhere in Northumbria. The Vikings, for instance, settled mainly south of the River Tees and therefore had a lasting impact on the development of dialects in Yorkshire, but not further north. Later still, the counties of Durham and Northumberland do not feature in the Domesday Book in 1086 as both counties resisted Norman control for some time longer. Meanwhile the border skirmishes that broke out sporadically during the Middle Ages meant the River Tweed established itself as a significant northern barrier against Scottish influence. As a result, the North East has always maintained a strong sense of cultural identity and resisted the centralising tendencies of both Edinburgh and London. Many contemporary Geordie dialect words, such as gan (‘go’ – modern German gehen) and bairn (‘child’ - modern Danish barn) can still trace their roots right back to the Angles.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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