Northumberland dialect: Ian describes the farmhouse he grew up in



This recording is an example of a Northumberland dialect.

Northumberland dialect

There are a number of features of Ian’s speech that are typical of traditional Northumberland dialect: listen first of all to the vowel sound he uses in the words house, about, out, cows, shout, now, round, down and outside. This actually reflects a much older pronunciation that was common both to Middle English and Middle High German, and is an illustration of the Germanic origins of modern English. This vowel sound was until fairly recently common in broad dialect speech in much of the northern half of Great Britain, but today it is mainly restricted to the far North East of England and parts of Scotland. He also uses a vowel sound in words spelt with <al>, such as all, called, calfs, talking, walls, fall and sleepwalking that is characteristic of dialect speakers in this part of the country. Finally, listen to the way he links the words with and to followed by a word with an initial vowel by using a <v> sound in the statements you cannot keep it tidy now wiv all the lime coming off the walls and a staircase at each end of the house tiv a, a separate upstairs room.

Dialect vocabulary

Ian’s speech is also peppered with local words, such as gan (‘go’), stell (‘circular enclosure for sheep on high moorland’), mebbies (‘perhaps’), lang (‘long’), byre (‘cow shed’), lassie (‘young girl’), laddie (‘boy’) and grandda (term of endearment for ‘grandfather’) as well as regional dialect vocabulary that we hear over a much wider area in the north, such as ayegrand and aught.

Negative constructions

An extremely subtle grammatical difference between dialects across the UK is the way in which negative constructions are formulated. Listen to the way Ian uses a fully articulated not in the following statements: why, the tractor’ll not gan through a lot of snow; the upstairs rooms are not connected; there’s not a back door; you cannot keep it tidy now and two upstairs rooms that are not connected.

In more mainstream dialects of English the negative particle, rather than the verb, is more likely to be abbreviated, so we hear won’t, can’t, aren’t and isn’t. The construction Ian prefers is, however, very common in spoken English in northern England and in Scotland. Notice also the north-eastern dialect constructions divn’t know when it was put into here and there was a wall between and nae door which correspond to Standard English I don’t know and no door.

About this speaker

Ian Tait (b.1958/04/24; male; hill-farmer)



Ian: So, like I say, this is the old house that we're ganning to have a look at. There, there was the house there and there was the stable next door to that, where they used to keep a horse and it would normally be a carthorse I would think. Cause they used to have a horse for the hay and for pulling the sledge in the wintertime to hay their sheep. And they would get another, they would hire another horse in in hay-time so they'd have a second horse and they would hire a hay-man and all in the summertime to help them with the hay. Cause

Virtue: Aha. Now, you, you mentioned a sledge.

Ian: Aye. The, it would pull a sledge. Because the sheep was all on the hills. They were left on the hills in the wintertime and if it came snow the, the sheep would gan to the stells, which is, like, circles of stone

Virtue: Yes.

Ian: where they would take shelter. And my grandfather would load up the sledge with hay. And the, the horse would pull the sledge through the snow. The horses was a grand affair for the snow; far better than the tractor. And they would pull the sledge for, oh mebbies about a mile and a half over the back of the hills to where the sheep were. And he would hay the sheep from the fled, from the, from the sledge and he would get a lift, you see. So that would be grand fun. So that was where the horse was kept.

Virtue: Right.

Ian: And then next

Virtue: Why, why do you say that the horse is far better than the tractor?

Ian: Why, the tractor'll not gan through a lot of snow. Two or three feet of snow, but a horse can gan through a fair bit snow. It can, it can gan up to the belly and still keep ganning, you see. And

Virtue: So how, when, when did people stop using the horses?

Ian: Well now, I'm forty and I think I was about four when we got the tractor. So that'll be about thirty-six years ago. And I can remember the carthorse. The last one we had, they called him Jock. And when he was finished here he was still a nice horse. And we had a relation worked in Kielder Forest1 felling trees. And Jock went to the Forest and, uh, this uncle of mine, he used to put a chain on the tree trunks and Jock used to pull the trees out the Forest for him. So that was how he ended his days.

Virtue: Aah.

Ian: But that was the stable. And then next door to the stable was the byre where the house cows lived. And, uh, there used to be about six. I can remember about six cows tied up by the neck in there and, course, they all had calfs every year and the calfs would have a birthday. And when they were a year old and a bit more they would gan away down to the mart, probably at Rothbury2 in the olden days, I would think. So that's all the one line of buildings. We've got the old house and we've got the stable where the horse was and we've got the byre where the cows was.

Virtue: So then you had milk cows after you'd had the calves then?

Ian: We had milk cows. They used to milk the cows, you see. And in the summertime the cows would gan out through the hills through the day. And, uh, when my mother was a little lassie that was her job to gan away and fetch the cows in for milking at night-time. And she used to look all over the hills till she found the cows. She said she was fair sick of looking for these cows.

Virtue: Did she have a special call for them?

Ian: I don't know if she did or not, she

Virtue: Cause different farmers seem to have a different call, don't they?

Ian: Well, when I was little they used to shout, “Hough hough!" like that for the cows and the cows would come trotting alang. And the oldest ones, they would give a bit roar and they would come alang, cause they knew they used to get fed when they come in to get milked, you know. But some of the, the younger ones they took a bit getting used to it. So, come on, we'll have a look in the old house here! Now, this is a funny house and I've never seen a-one like it in my lifetime, because it has two staircases to two upstairs rooms. And the upstairs rooms are not connected.

Virtue: Ah now, wait a minute, we've come in. Just describe this house, Ian, cause you come in

Ian: We've come in

Virtue: We've come in the door

Ian: we've come in the door

Virtue: and come into a

Ian: Aye, well, there's, there's only one door. There's not a back door, there's a front door. And we come alang a passage and on the left-hand side was what they called the parlour. It's, uh, full of junk now, because the whole place is just a store room and a workshop. But, uh, there used to be a good, this would be the good room where anybody of any importance that came as a guest would be put. Mebbies a, a, a favourite auntie or something like that or, or mebbies a, a, a special friend. There would be a good bed in here and a fireplace. And, uh, I can remember it was all nicely done out with good wallpaper and there was good mats on the floor and, uh, a nice bedspread on the bed. And that's on the left-hand side. Now on the right-hand side, this was the living room. And there was a bed in here and all. This was where my granny and my grandfather used to sleep. And, uh, this was where all the eating got done and, uh, this was the main kind of family room. And that fireplace there was designed, I believe, for burning peat. And you were talking about Beamish Museum before.[3] Apparently Beamish Museum wanted to buy the fireplace, cause there's, there's not many like it in Northumberland. And it's got a, a great big thing here, which you sw. You would hang the pans on and the pots or whatever. And, uh, you would swing that alang above the, the flame.

Virtue: With lots, lots of hooks for the pans, yeah?

Ian: Lots of hooks to, to hang the pans on.

Virtue: Aha.

Ian: And that would gan alang above the fire. And, uh, the peat would be burning away on the fire. And it would mebbies boil a bit of water or make a bit of jam or whatever the ladies was doing at the time, you know.

Virtue: And would a peat fire keep burning for a long time?

Ian: No, the, the, the peat, it was easy to ignite, but it burnt away quick. So you had to have a good supply of peats to keep ganning all night.

Virtue: Hmm. And this looks like a set-boiler at the side, is it?

Ian: It would be. Aye, there would be a boiler there. And then the oven was at the other side where they would bake bread, you see.

Virtue: These are big rooms, Ian, aren't they?

Ian: Aye, they're big rooms.

Virtue: They must be what? About five yards across, six yards, six yards across?

Ian: I would say so. Aye, I would say so.

Virtue: Yeah, six, at least six square.

Ian: Aye.

Virtue: Both those big rooms.

Ian: Aye, they're, they're big rooms. But, you see. In them days, you know, when they had mebbies clippings or when they had a big operation in on the farm, everybody used to help their neighbours. And I don't know, there might have been a dozen, sort of, neighbours – men – would come for the clipping. And the women would have to cater for them. And they would be baking scones and mebbies cooking meat for a week or a fortnight beforehand. And then when it come to dipp, uh, dinnertime at the, at the clipping time they would all come in for their meal, you see. So they would need a big room to accommodate them all.

Virtue: Do you remember this happening yourself as a boy?

Ian: Aye. Ahuh.

Virtue: Do you remember these gatherings?

Ian: Not, not so much in this house, because they moved out of this house in 1962. So I was only four years old. But I can, oh it's not that lang ago since we used to have a lot of people used to come for the. I mean, when I left school I used to gan to various farms round about to help with the clippings and we'd gan to help with the dipping, mebbies a bit of hay work, aught that was on. If your neighbours was busy and we weren't that busy we would just gan and help them. And of course they would do the same for us, you see.

Virtue: And what – you'd sit at a big table and

Ian: All

Virtue: everybody eat together, did they?

Ian: You would all sit round a big table. And the women would be fetching the food. And if there was room then, or if they had time they would mebbies have their dinner alangside ye. Or if there wasn't room and, uh, if they were too busy, they would either have a bite to eat before the men came in or they would mebbies have theirs after the men got away out the room, you know. And if it was a clipping day, they would've, you know. Early in the morning the men would come alang and it might start to rain in the morning, so the clipping would be kind of stopped for mebbies half a day or a whole day. And the men would sit about sharpening their shears and playing quoits in the olden days, you know. And they would still be to feed. So they would still be coming in for their dinner and their tea and cups of coffee and what-have-you. And then the next day it would all start over again if they didn't get the sheep finished that day. So the poor women would be on baking and cooking and roasting and boiling 'taties and everything again, you see. And, uh, this, this was their life. Now if you come alang a bit further, Virtue.

Virtue: Yes.

Ian: In this corner here

Virtue: This is a, this is a stone-flagged floor, isn't it, Ian? You can't go out of here.

Ian: This is a stone floor, aye.

Virtue: And then it's been skimmed over at some stage?

Ian: That's right. And, you see, we've got the old beams above us.

Virtue: Yes.

Ian: But somewhere alang here there's a hole, in the ceiling. And I think that might be it. And I remember when I was a little laddie looking up through the hole. And I says to my grandda, I says, “Well, what was the hole for in the ceiling?" And apparently he broke his leg when he was a young man and he was in, in a bed, as I say, in the corner of the room here, you see. And they, they lowered this rope down through the ceiling. They bored a hole from upstairs. They lowered the rope down through the ceiling so they could pull him up. So he could sit up in bed, you see. And, uh, and the hole's still there. So if you want to gan a little bit farther through

Virtue: Right.

Ian: we've got, uh, the old, uh, the old sink here. Now, there wasn't always water in the house.

Virtue: Oh.

Ian: We used to have a well further up the river.

Virtue: Yes.

Ian: And I didn't know when it was put into here, but there was a single cold tap put into this bit, uh, kitchen here.

Virtue: And a big Belfast sink.

Ian: And a great, big, old-fashioned Belfast sink here. And, uh, the walls are crumbling now, but they used to be all plastered and it was, it was quite tidy in here. You cannot keep it tidy now wiv all the lime coming off the walls and everything.

Virtue: And it gets damp and it deteriorates.

Ian: And it gets damp and it deteriorates. The army's, why, our, our landlord's the army. And they've been quite good at keeping the shell dry, you know. They've uh, they've re-roofed it and they've pointed the outside. So it keeps the weather out, but it's, uh, it's still a bit crumbling inside, you know.

Virtue: Is this a, a, a special effort to keep these sort of buildings standing?

Ian: Aye. Aye. Nowadays, I mean, they, they built the, the new house in nineteen-sixty-one which looks it's, like it's been dropped out of the sky. It doesn't look natural at all, you know. And I think nowadays instead of building a new house at great expense, they would've put the expense into putting the old house right. And now they're very good at that. They're taking over all the old, deserted farmhouses on the range and they're putting them right and putting troops into them rather than, uh, just let them fall down, you know.

Virtue: Sorry?

Ian: So. No, so we got a staircase here that runs down into the kitchen, like an open-plan staircase.

Virtue: Oh right. Are we going up?

Ian: If, if we gan up here and it's quite safe.

Virtue: This looks quite a modern staircase.

Ian: Aye, the old one, it just about disintegrated. So they had to put a, I think the Health and Safety at Work Act[1] persuaded them to put a new staircase in. So this is one end of the upstairs and they called this the granary. Now it would be a kind of a store room and I suspect that the hired shepherd lads would sleep up here. And I suspect at one time there would be maids used to come and, uh, work at these places, mebbies from the pit country. And the maids, I think, would be kept up the other stair. And there was a wall between and nae door. So, with the farmer and his wife sleeping downstairs, if there was any kind of sleepwalking to be done, they would have to pass the farmer and his wife. So it would be a kind of a safety measure I would think.

Virtue: Now you say you've never seen another farm like this. I mean, how does it differ then, from the other ones up, up and down this little valley?

Ian: Well, I've just never seen a house with two upstairs rooms that are not connected. And there's, and there's a staircase up to each one. It seems a bit of a waste of a staircase to me. To have a staircase at each end of the house tiv a, a separate upstairs room, you know.

Virtue: I think you've given a good explanation for it, though.



[1] Kielder Forest is part of the Northumberland National Park on the border between England and Scotland.

[2] Rothbury is a market town to the north-west of Stannington.

[3] Beamish Museum (in County Durham, to the south) refers to a museum of industrial heritage opened in 1970.

[4] The Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) makes provision for securing the health, safety and welfare of persons at work and protects against risks to health or safety in connection with activities at work.

Northumberland dialect: Ian describes the farmhouse he grew up in
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