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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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Make use of Cumbrian dialect - or lose it

Scrow. Dookers. Jiggered. These words are so rich and expressive their standard English counterparts (mess, swimming trunks, tired) sound bland in comparison.

Ted Relph photo
Ted Relph

Cumbrian words can be traced back to their Roman, Celt and Norse roots and tell us about who we are and where we’ve come from.

They were once widely spoken in streets and on fells across the county but as the population changes can they survive?

Alan Butler set up Miner’s Lamp Theatre Company in 2001 with wife Eleanor to promote the Cumbrian dialect. He feels passionately that it should be kept alive.

“It gives people an identity. In Whitehaven it was Cumbrian, not English, that was the lingua franca of the town. It was the language of the miners and slightly different from rural Cumbrian,” says Alan.

“But the beauty of Cumbrian is it varies from village to village, hamlet to hamlet and even person to person.”

Alan always refers to the dialect as the Cumbrian language – “dialect has an inferior connotation, suggesting it’s a poorer version of English,” he says – and is fascinated by what it tells us about our heritage.

“It shows we are all squares on a patchwork quilt. European languages run into each other, many have Norse roots and in Cumbria it’s the same.

“Much of the language was brought by visiting incomers, Norse people who came from Ireland and settled here. It’s amazing it has survived through thick and thin.

“You can trace the links to Norwegian, a lot of it is very similar: Vil du lukke doren? is Will thoo lock t’dooer? (will you lock the door?) for example.”

Born and bred in Whitehaven, Alan, 65, remembers being aware of two different languages when he started infant school: broad dialect in the playground and standard English in the classroom.

For people of his generation across the county it was the same, but these days although Cumbrians might use a few words, such as marra (friend) or twining (moaning), the dialect is becoming more and more diluted and in some areas disappearing fast.

“With the internet and mobile phones everything is becoming condensed into this standard form of English,” says Alan.

“And the larger population means the isolation of different communities has been broken down.”

The pattern is reflected across England.

A study by Paul Kerswill, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Lancaster University forecasts that the Cockney accent, which has been around for more than 500 years, will disappear from London’s streets within 30 years and be replaced by Multicultural London English – a mixture of Cockney, Bangladeshi and West Indian accents.

Of course, London’s melting pot society isn’t yet represented in Cumbria and the fact the county has retained much of its rural, traditional identity could stand it in good stead.

The dialect has also been represented in recently published literature: Jacob Polley’s 2009 novel Talk of The Town is set in and around his home city of Carlisle and uses the local dialect, while Keith Richardson’s award-winning book celebrating dyed-in-the-wool Lakeland
characters has a Cumbrian title: Ivver Sen (Ever Since).

Over time, though, could the Cumbrian dialect vanish completely?

“It depends where you eat and drink, but in most clubs and pubs in and around Whitehaven and Maryport you hear it, and it’s as fruity and as lively as it has ever been,” says Alan.

“I don’t think it’s dying out. It’s still spoken in different areas and it surprises me from time to time when I hear it in little pockets. But it’s got to be nurtured.

“We felt the best way of preserving the Cumbrian language, of celebrating it and promoting it, was through a theatre company; using the language on stage and in situations people recognised.”

The Lakeland Dialect Society was founded in 1939 to help keep the county’s language thriving and in 2010 boasts more than 200 members, from Cockermouth to as far afield as California.

“Ah with the railways and the introduction of elementary schools they said dialect was dying out, but it’s a lang time deein!” laughs president and editor Ted Relph at his home in Crosby Ravensworth.

Ted, 85, joined the society (so-named because Cumberland and Westmorland Dialect Society was considered too much of a mouthful) in the 1960s.

“There’s so much history attached. Lakeland and Cumbria are enshrined in the dialect,” he says. “It’s about maintaining the natural speech of the local population.”

Ted’s interest in language started at an early age. His father, the village joiner, spoke in a broad Westmorland dialect but his mother came from Essex.

“An inspector came to the school and he asked, ‘who’s that little Cockney boy in the front row?’ I thought, I’m not going to be a Cockney, so I made sure I talked like my dad in the proper Cumbrian dialect.

“We could be as broad as we liked in the playground but standard English was imposed upon us.”

In Ted’s cottage, where he has lived nearly all his life, boxes and cupboards are stuffed full of journals and books that celebrate Cumbrian words.

The importance of preserving and promoting the dialect is summed up on the first page of the society’s journal, which is published annually: “...it enables us to recall the forefathers of our race, their ways, their sayings and their doings.

“Second, because it is so closely associated in our minds with the beauty of the lake and tarn, of fellside and ling, with bracken and Herdwick sheep.

“Third, and most chiefly, because we have learnt greatly to hold in affectionate esteem the folk who speak the dialect, and it is to knit more closely this bond of brotherhood that our Dialect Society was founded and continues to prosper.”

Ted agrees that one of the trade-offs as society progresses is the loss of traditional words and it is not as broadly spoken by the younger generation, though he still hears them saying the odd word.

To try to engage young people’s interest, the society recently introduced a dialect competition for the Young Farmers’ Club.

Last year, there were 14 entries for the northern section and nine for the southern section.

Writer and dialect expert Ethel Fisher, from Seaton, agrees that the best way of preserving the language is to make it interesting and relevant to the next generation.

"There have been schools in recent years trying to make it a lesson and I've been really pleased to see that," says Ethel, who is known for her humourous rhymes written in the Cumbrian dialect.

"I used to tour schools until a couple of years ago and was surprised how interested the children were. It's history, which should be kept alive. It tells us where we come from, wherever we go. I don't think it's dying yet, but it will in time unless schools take it up and bring it back."

Ethel attended Flimby School until the age of 14. "Then I pitched right into work, on St Helen's Farm, with 10 lads. It was a big farm with a bit of everything: agriculture, sheep, cows...I soon learned what what what.

"I had a milk round, in a horse and cart back then, 60 houses in Seaton and I heard all types of dialect, especially at that time in the morning!"

It was these experiences, always peppered with plenty of distinct, colourful Cumbrian words, that inspired Ethel to start writing her rhymes and she performed readings across the county for many years.

She still attends the Silloth Cumbrian Dialect Competition at the town's Golf Hotel every October.

"There's always a full house with different speakers. Every village has their own dialect and different words. I'm always interested to go and hear them," she says.

"Even between Seaton and Broughton Moor the odd word or two will be different and there will be a different lilt to the voice.

"I hope it never dies out. I am fond of it and have tried my hardest to keep it alive."

To promote the Cumbrian dialect even further, Alan Butler has ambitions that stretch beyond his theatre company: “The exciting thing is, if we could demonstrate the old Norse connections and Cumbria’s important place in history, we could open a cultural centre,” he says.

“Linking it to the wider world tells you about the history, language and culture of Cumbria. It’s something to be proud of. We must try to keep it alive, it’s an essential part of our story.

“Even now at this late stage in the game there is an opportunity to use it to our advantage. It’s a great opportunity to invigorate Cumbria and help us be more outward looking.”

Weblink: Lakeland Dialect Society

Have your say

We have been looking at the the origins of Lakes speech in Northumbrian Saxon, Welsh and Norwegian. We talk about Welsh in Torver Church Hall on 16th. March. The book is available as a Kindle download.

Posted by Alan Woodend & Ed Conduit on 9 March 2013 at 14:07

It would be great to have more Cumbrian on the BBC in a dialect series. It's so wonderful to hear. The video clip is fantastic. If Ted and others could do many more and have conversations with other speakers it would make a lot of people happy. There is no limit on the number of Internet videos and they really help. They teach people and are really great. More the merry. Thanks Cumberland News for this.

Posted by Ian Goldsmith on 13 May 2012 at 05:10

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