Geordie Origins

Roots and Origins of the Geordie Dialect

One of the most distinctive and best known features of the North East is its famous dialect which is a lively, friendly and endearing if sometimes impenetrable feature of the region’s heritage.

The Tyne Bridge. Photo David Simpson
The Tyne Bridge. Photo David Simpson

During the 20th and 21st century the North East ‘language’ has been somewhat watered down, perhaps through the influence of mass-media, but is still distinguished by its musical tones and peculiar words and pronunciations that often originate in the old languages of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.

The dialects of the region take numerous forms like the Geordie of Tyneside; the Northumbrian dialect of Northumberland; the Wearside or ‘Mackem’ dialect of Sunderland and the Pitmatic dialect spoken in parts of Durham as well as the south Durham and Teesside accents. To understand the origins of the region’s ‘language’ we need to go back to the end of the fourth century AD to a period which signified the end of the Roman occupation in Britain.

The Roman departure left the native Welsh speaking Britons of Hadrian’s Wall country vulnerable to the raids of the Picts so the ancient British people may have had no choice but to look abroad for mercenaries to fight and protect the Tyne valley in return for land. The mercenary soldiers employed to the task were called Angles and Saxons, a sea-roving pagan race originating in Angeln (or Angulus) in southern Jutland and in Saxony, which are both regions of Germany today.

Milecastle 39 Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

A ninth century document entitled the Historia Brittonum records that an ancient British king called Vortigern despatched forty keels (boats) of Anglo-Saxons under Ochta and Ebissa to fight the Picts in return for land ‘in the north by the Wall’. If this is true then some of the very earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain were in the Wall Country. The granted land may well have been somewhere in the area we now call Tyneside.

At first the Anglo-Saxons were effective in the task for which they were employed but the ancient Britons soon came to regret the employment of these foreign mercenaries who saw an opportunity for a long-term colonisation and invasion of Britain. The native people would ultimately lose out.

The Angles and Saxons began to increasingly colonise the southern and eastern coast of Britain and in the north their initial settlement, perhaps somewhere along the Tyne, gradually developed into the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. In fact the name ‘Bernicia’ has Celtic roots so the Anglo-Saxon colonisation may reflect a takeover or transfer of power within an existing Celtic kingdom.

The influence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia extended to Bamburgh and Edinburgh where the Anglo-Saxons considerably influenced the language and customs of Scotland. Later, Bernician power extended south towards the Humber merging there with the rival Kingdom of Deira, to form the great kingdom called ‘Northumbria’.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh, capital of Bernicia and Northumbria. Photo © 2018 David Simpson

The influence of the Angles from southern Jutland (rather than the Saxons who settled in southern England) was perhaps very strong along the valley of the Tyne. In fact the Tyne and Wear area would produce one of the greatest figures of Anglo-Saxon England, the Venerable Bede. It is worth noting that Bede’s old poems seem to translate more successfully into Geordie than into modern English!

OLDEST LIVING ENGLISH?

The Angles and Saxons brought with them to Britain a language that was the forerunner of modern English and indeed it was the Angles of southern Jutland that gave England its name – the ‘Angle land’. Over the centuries the old Anglo-Saxon language changed beyond recognition with the introduction of Norse, Latin, Norman-French and other foreign influences.

Today, the only part of England where the original Anglo-Saxon language has arguably survived to any great extent is perhaps the North East. Here the old language survives in a number of varieties, the most notable of which are Northumbrian and Geordie. It is from the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian language of the Angles that the unique local dialects of Northumberland and Durham primarily owe their origins.

GEORDIE WORDS ANGLE ORIGINS

Distinctively Geordie and Northumbrian words are more than 80% Angle in origin, compared to standard English, where the figure is less than 30%. Modern English words by comparison are significantly of French or Latin origin because modern English derives from the dialects of southern England which were continuously influenced by the Latin and Norman French favoured by the educated classes of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

However, there was also considerable Scandinavian influence on English because in the 9th century the Vikings settled extensively in the East Midlands, East Anglia and of course, Yorkshire.

Geordie words should not be seen as sloppy pronunciations or a poor use of language, as they are in fact of great antiquity. Indeed many old words and phrases commonly used in the old works of Chaucer and Shakespeare that are no longer used in other parts of Britain have survived as common usage in the North East.

Of course some Geordie words are of more recent origin or are corruptions or words borrowed from other regions and languages, but often the similarities between Anglo-Saxon and Geordie are significant. For example Geordies, in the same way as the Anglo-Saxons, use the word ‘wife’ as a term for a woman whether she is married or not, while the Anglo-Saxon word ‘ald’ (old) is similar to the Geordie word ‘aad’. Thus in Anglo-Saxon ‘ald wife’ literally meant ‘old woman’ as it still does in Geordie.

Sometimes a Geordie may appear to be using words incorrectly but this may not always be the case. For example a Geordie may say ‘Aaal larn yer’ (meaning ‘I’ll teach you’) as the Anglo-Saxon word ‘laeran’ could mean ‘to teach’. Other Geordie words of Anglo-Saxon origin include ‘axe’ (ask) from the Anglo-Saxon ‘acsian’; ‘burn’ meaning ‘stream’; ‘hoppings’ meaning ‘fayre’ and ‘gan’ which is the Geordie and Anglo-Saxon word meaning ‘to go’.

The unique way in which Geordies and Northumbrians pronounce certain words is also often Anglo-Saxon in origin. Geordie words like ‘dede’, ‘coo’, ‘cloot’, ‘hoos’, ‘wrang’, ‘strang’ and ‘lang’ are in fact the original Anglo-Saxon pronunciations for ‘dead’, ‘cow’, ‘clout’, ‘house’, ‘wrong’, ‘strong’ and ‘long’.

These old words have survived in the North East for a number of reasons primarily associated with the region’s historical remoteness and isolation from southern England as well as industrialisation, particularly in the mining regions which reinforced a common culture. The turbulent border history of this region was also a major factor in discouraging outside influence although some Viking words have crept into the local dialect, perhaps from the neighbouring Viking settled areas of Yorkshire, south Durham and Cumbria.

Angel of the North
The Angel of the North at Gateshead is a familiar landmark and a modern symbol of Tyneside

WHAT IS A GEORDIE?

The Anglo-Saxon ‘Northumbrian’ dialects of North Eastern England which we have just discussed take a number of forms that are often loosely termed ‘Geordie’ but technically a Geordie can only be a native of those parts of Northumberland and Durham known as Tyneside. Why is this so and what exactly is a Geordie?

Nobody knows for sure exactly how the residents of Tyneside or perhaps more accurately Newcastle upon Tyne became known as ‘Geordies’. One theory is that it was the name given to the workers of the railway pioneer George ‘Geordie’ Stephenson, another is that it was a term for a miner deriving from the use of Stephenson’s ‘Geordie’ Lamp.

Certainly Geordie was regularly used to describe a pitman during the nineteenth century and during much of the earlier part of the twentieth century it was applied to most natives of the North East.

An extensive series of monthly magazines published and edited in Newcastle upon Tyne from 1887 to 1891 entitled the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend explored the region’s history and heritage in depth and uses the term ‘Geordie’ more than thirty times.

In almost every instance ‘Geordie’ is used in a slightly patronising sense to describe pitmen and their apparently naïve ways. Several of the ‘Geordies’ described are not residents of Tyneside and include ‘Geordies’ from the mining districts north east of Durham City as well as from the Herrington area of Sunderland and from Castle Eden on the Durham coast. It is clear that at this time ‘Geordie’ was by no means a term confined to a native of Tyneside let alone Newcastle.

This would seem to support the theory that pitmen were the true ‘Geordies’, a claim also backed by the North East dialect writer Scott Dobson, the author of the popular, tongue-in-cheek Larn Yersel’ Geordie publication of the 1960s. Dobson, writing in 1973, stated that his grandmother, who was from Byker, still thought that miners were the true ‘Geordies’.

There was however one notable exception to the 19th century use of the term ‘Geordie’ for pitmen that is recorded by the Durham historian Fordyce writing in the 1850s. He noted that vessels from the Tyne were called ‘Geordies’ and those from the Wear were called ‘Jamies’ (see the page on Mackems).

So it seems there is some evidence to support the idea that the term ‘Geordie’ could specifically refer to Tyneside in the nineteenth century at least in connection with vessels at sea but why might Newcastle people or ‘Novocastrians’ claim to be the true Geordies? A possible answer may be found in an earlier era of history.

GEORDIES VERSUS JACOBITES

The most attractive historical explanation for why Newcastle people are called ‘Geordies’, takes us back to the eighteenth century and the time of the first Jacobite rising which took place in 1715. In the previous year George I, a German protestant, had been appointed as King of all England, Scotland and Wales despite the strong and legitimate counter claims of the Catholic, James Stuart, who was known as ‘The Old Pretender’.

The claims of Stuart were strongly supported by a large army of Scots and Northumbrians called the Jacobites who plotted a rising in Northumberland against the new king under the leadership of General Tom Forster of Bamburgh. Recruits joined Tom Forster, from all parts of Northumberland and every town in the county may have been visited by Forster’s army. All the Northumbrian towns declared support for the Jacobites with the one major and very important exception of Newcastle on the Tyne, which closed its gates to Forster’s men.

Newcastle’s trade and livelihood depended so vitally on royal approval that its merchants and gentry could not risk becoming involved in a plot against the new king. There were some Jacobite sympathisers in the town, especially among the working classes, but officially the Newcastle folk had to declare for King ‘Geordie’.

Newcastle’s standing as a supporter of King Geordie angered the Jacobites who may well have given the Newcastle people their famous nickname. So, the Newcastle folk were in effect Geordie’s men, giving their support to King George.

The Jacobites were still nevertheless determined to oust the German king with or without the support of the Newcastle Geordies:

And up wi’ Geordie, Kirrn milk Geordie,
He has drucken the maltman’s ale,
But he’ll be nicket ahint the wicket,
And tugget ahint his grey mare’s tail.

The rising of the ’15 was a total disaster and Newcastle perhaps felt it had made the right decision in being King Geordie’s supporters. A second rising took place in 1745 when Newcastle once again closed its gates to the Jacobites, who were now supporting the claims of ‘The Young Pretender’, Bonnie Prince Charlie . Newcastle faithfully declared its support for King ‘Geordie’ the Second.

We cover the origins and history of the term Geordie in more depth here.

Keep yor feet still Geordie Hinny,
Lets be happy through the neet
For Aa may not be sae happy thro’ the day,
So give us that bit comfort
Keep yor feet still Geordie lad
And divven’t drive me bonny dreams away

Geordie dialect origins | Origins of the term Geordie?

‘Mackems’ and Jamies | Geordie Dictionary

North East England History and Culture