Durham dialect: John talks about traditional farm practice



This recording is an example of a Durham dialect. 

There are a number of features of John’s speech that are typical of traditional rural dialect speakers of his generation. He uses many expressions we might now consider old-fashioned, such as afore for ‘before’ and about here for ‘around here’ as well as the archaic past participle of the verb ‘to get’ in the statement the last few years they (have) getten very little.

Echoes of the past

In addition, John uses several pronunciations that echo earlier forms of English. Listen carefully, for instance, to the way he pronounces the words lightright and head. The vowel sound he uses in the words light and right is a relic of the fact that in Middle English the <gh> sound was pronounced in words ending orthographically in <-ight>, such as lightnightright and so on. His pronunciation of the vowel in the word head was until relatively recently very common in northern Britain as a whole and is an echo of the Middle English vowel used in words such as breaddeaddeaf and so on.

Although John’s speech might sound unfamiliar to younger listeners, there are many aspects that remain features of the local dialect. Words such as nobbut and yan, meaning ‘only’ and ‘one’ respectively, may now only be heard among older speakers, if at all, but words such as aye for ‘yes’, fell for ‘moorland’ and naught for ‘nothing’ remain very much part of the local vocabulary. On the other hand, words such as maerfraenaebodysae and nae, meaning ‘more’, ‘from’, ‘nobody’, ‘so’ and ‘no’, although not as common in this part of England as previously, are still widely heard in other parts of the North East and in Scotland.

The Northumberland accent

Likewise, John’s accent might initially sound old-fashioned, particularly his pronunciation of individual words such as acregreatgroundenough and ewe, but closer analysis reveals his accent has a great deal in common with contemporary speakers in the area. Listen to his pronunciation of the vowel sounds in words in the following three sets; they are all sounds you can still hear in this part of the country today:

  1. you know, own, oh, mown, old-fashioned, don't, toe and goes
  2. farms, farmed, harvest, started and starts
  3. hay, dale, place, days, blade, away, tail, nowadays, cale, pain, save and way

About this speaker

John Peart (b.1872; male, retired hill farmer)



John: I was born in Burnhope,[1] you know. Uh. Oh that's a lang time syne. Who had them? Why, a lot on it was commissioner's property. Some had bits of their own; bits of farms of their own. Oh aye, I farmed all my life.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: Aye. Yes, I farmed all my life. Well, there's always something to dae on a farm, you know. You're always, uh, on fencing or something, to keep her in repair. And then harvest wouldn't be lang, you know. Nobbut a few weeks till ha, hay time. I been, generally started hay about twenty-first of June. This last few year. Especially sin tractors come. I've used a scythe maer nor any other man in this country, this dale. Hill End,[2] you know, at the farm where, where I come frae to here, it was a heughed[3] old place, a lot of bank side. And I've mown with the scythe hours and days. Mown them bank sides to get the crop, you know, off. Hay crop off. Well, there's naebody knows maer about scythe nor me. I've used some scythes in my time. Aye. Why wiv a nice sole I could nearly knock a acre off. An acre of land, a nice sole. Win a nice, light, what I call American scythe, yankie scythe they called them, not a, not an old-fashioned one, uh, with a great lang sneathe and a great lang blade like at Irishmen used to come with. They had great lang sneathes, you know, and great lang scythe blades. But they used to mow leveller land. Level ground, afore the machines come. Before the mowing machines come. Oh there were a lot of Irishmen used to come over here and mow with the scythe. Sae much an acre. Aye. Eh, there's lambing at spring and, and then clipping in June and July and, and then dipping in August and, and dipping at, uh, at backend. And then selling time, you know, sorting out to get drafts away selling time and then you never know till it's tupping time in November. You're always at it. Aye. And then winter. Lot of fodder. Especially the inside sheep. We don't fodder much, uh, at fell, they don't get much. Well, the last few years they getten very little. Naught.

Stanley: How do you set about clipping a sheep?

John: Oh, you catch them and toe them up. On his henches. And just starts away, up at neck and goes around like that. Shears.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: Aye. Oh, it's simple enough, like, when you know how. Aye. Open them, them out first. Then when you get them opened out, at the belly, in the neck, you're away. You can slash it off right away around like that. Right to the tail. Oh aye, takes about, oh, five or seven minutes to clip a sheep. Some's tried theirsels, you know, and they can clip yan in three minutes. Yan at's well risen. There's a lot, uh, of these, uh, uh clipping machines nowadays. But there's, there's naen up here.

Stanley: No.

John: No. We've always clipped with shears.

Stanley: And have you had a good lambing time this time?

John: A fair good one. Aye. I've lost nae ewes. But there's a few lost a few ewes about here. I've lost a few lambs, but you couldn't help that. There's always some sick, you know. And some to help and some smothered in the cale. You see, cannae get air. Aye.

Stanley: That's just when they're being born, is that?

John: Yeah, just when they're being born. Hmm. Some gives, uh, uh, pains away, you see, to try to get the lamb away and then they give up. And they stop paining. And then if you donae catch them, why, they'll never get lambed. If you don't, if you're not there to help them.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: I've saved a few that way this time. Aye. Lamb, well, they get swelled head, you know, sticking out and I've saved, oh, about three that way this time. Specially off shearings.

Stanley: Hmm.

John: Hmm. Ewes are different. They're, they're, they lamb quite easy.


[1] Burnhope is an area of moorland to the south and west of Wearhead.

[2] Hill End is a settlement to the south of Wearhead.

[3] The exact word used here is unclear, but a suggestion has been supplied.

Durham dialect: John talks about traditional farm practice
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