Geordie Origins

North East Dialect : Roots and Origins

One of the most distinctive and best-known features of North East England is its famous dialect, most notably ‘Geordie’ 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 © David Simpson

During the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the North East ‘language’ has been somewhat watered down, perhaps through the influence of mass-media. Yet, the region’s dialects are still distinguished by musical tones; peculiar pronunciations and distinct words 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 (with its distinct ‘burr’); the Wearside or ‘Mackem‘ of Sunderland; the ‘Pitmatic’ spoken in parts of northern and central Durham or the distinct accents of south Durham and Teesside where ‘work’ is pronounced ‘wairk’ and ‘time’ rhymes with ‘calm’.

There are many other distinct variations of dialect and accent across the region, ranging from the culturally confusing Northumbrian-Scottish hybrid dialect of Berwick upon Tweed that also shows influences of Romany gypsy; to the peculiar lilt or should we say ‘leelt’ of Teesdale in the far south-west of the region.

Variations of dialect can be found from place to place across the region. Historically, even in relatively recent times, these now subtle differences were perhaps more marked than they are today. The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, for example, has or had a distinct dialect where observers might have detected a hint of Irish or some other mysterious Celtic influence in its tone.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne looking across the island to Lindisfarne Castle
Holy Island of Lindisfarne © David Simpson

Subtle changes in words and speech can still be detected from dale to dale across Northumberland and Durham or even between one pit village and another. Even across major urban areas such as Tyneside we can detect differences that predate the fusion of previously separate communities.

You may, for example, hear a distinct ‘accent spoken by the ‘Sand Dancers’ of South Shields or perhaps, with a good ear, you may distinguish particular Gateshead accents. Dialects and accents can vary within towns and cities too such as in Sunderland, where areas such as Hendon have a particularly strong ‘Mackem‘ voice that might be distinguished from other parts of Wearside.

In addition, as is the case in any region or country, accents and dialects can vary between social classes and between younger and older generations.

Popular interest in dialect within the region and even chosen forms of speech might also be influenced by modern day ‘tribalism’ and particularly tribalism reflected in football rivalry. For this reason identifying differences between the dialects of Tyneside (Newcastle) and Wearside (Sunderland) can generate a great deal of popular interest.

Sunderland railway bridge
The Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland © David Simpson

The Tyne-Wear difference is one of only many dialect variations that can be found across the region and is particularly exemplified by the pronunciation of the ‘oo’ sound in words and phrases. This is perhaps the principal distinguishing shibboleth that separates Tyneside from Wearside. Sometimes pronunciations that were historically used across both areas have now come to be identified with one or the other such as the use of ‘whe’ for ‘who’ that is now associated with Wearside.

Howay‘ (Newcastle) and ‘Haway‘ (Sunderland) are also words that have become associated with tribal identify in football terms even though they were words once common to both areas and initially had two slightly different meanings. In the ‘Smoggie’ dialect of Teesside you might also hear the variation ‘Howee’ or ‘Owayy’.

Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough
Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough © David Simpson 2021

Dialect words can be a way of identifying roots and saying “you are different from us”. This may be potentially confusing for people who support a club whose supporters’ speech patterns do not match their own and they may have to become more vocal in identifying with their club and demonstrating dislike for their rivals.

It’s a matter of personal perception but lines drawn on maps called ‘isoglosses’ that show the geographical extent of dialect words can literally change from word to word. To choose one particular word or pronunciation to separate one dialect from another is a highly subjective way of defining a dialect. Choose a different word and it may produce a completely different geographical result.

It’s also important to know that accents and dialects are not the same thing. Dialects are more concerned with words, phrases and grammar whereas accents are more concerned with the tone, pitch and pronunciation. There is some cross-over of course because the pronunciation of a word in a different accent can sometimes create a distinct dialect word in its own right. The Geordie dialect word ‘wor‘ for example seems to have developed from the pronunciation of the word ‘our’ in the local accent. In general, however, accents are the ‘music’ of local speech, whereas dialects are the local ‘lyrics’.

St James' Park, Newcastle at night
St James’ Park, Newcastle at night. Football grounds are a great place to listen to and compare local dialects © David Simpson

In the North East perhaps the most dramatic variations in accent and dialect – and this is a personal perception – seem to occur in the region between the River Tyne and the River Tees, mostly encompassing the historic County of Durham. Within this area rapid changes in accent and dialect over short geographical distances are noticeable from both east to west and north to south. By comparison the changes in speech from Tyneside into northern Northumberland seem to be more subtle, gradual and harder to detect though there are some major exceptions, notably the towns of Berwick and Ashington.

The rapid changes in dialect and accent within the Tyne to Tees region may reflect all kinds of historic influences and it can be fun to speculate what they might be. From a very ancient perspective you might say that the Tyne to Tees region found itself cut off from the rest of the region by the building of Hadrian’s Wall and that may have been an early factor.

Hadrian's Wall near Cawfields
Hadrian’s Wall near Cawfields © David Simpson

A geographical and geological perspective might be to note that the Tyne, Wear and Tees form major river valleys that from west to east all independently flow directly into the North Sea. These three main river valleys were distinct from the relatively minor valleys in Northumberland to the north. More notably they were distinct from the rivers and dales of Yorkshire to the south which, with the exception of the little River Esk near Whitby, mostly feed the River Humber where they enter the sea. The geographically independent Tyne, Wear and Tees are likely to have hosted people who identified quite closely with these valleys from early times.

In later periods the Tyne to Tees region may have formed a frontier zone between the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira that was perhaps reflected in local speech. Later still the Viking era had a major linguistic impact in our region through Viking settlement in County Durham particularly in southern Durham associated with neighbouring Viking settlements in northern Yorkshire. The Tees was the northern Viking frontier in Northern England. In truth Viking influence would completely transform the language of all England as well as impacting on local and regional dialects.

Place-names show Viking settlement was mostly south of the River Tees, especially as indicated in village names ending in ‘by’. A scattering of English-style place-names can be found north of the Tees (shown by yellow dots) that often incorporate Viking personal names (like Swain at Swainston). These also occur south of the River Tees but only ‘by’ names are shown south of the river on this map due to the high density of Viking place-names there. Places within the Viking wapentake of Sadberge are marked in purple © David Simpson

Another more recent factor in the distinct development of accents and dialects in the Tyne to Tees region when compared to Northumberland could have been the more significant industrial developments related to mining and the growth of Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside, especially in the nineteenth century. This brought in new people from all over Britain and Ireland including Scotland, Wales and numerous English regions.

However, the new settlers of the nineteenth century would mostly have adopted the indigenous local speech. Mining communities in south Durham still have a distinct accent from those of northern Durham even though they may both share elements of ‘Pitmatic’ dialect in their speech. Likewise, the Pitmatic speech of the former mining town of Ashington in Northumberland is quintessentially a Northumberland accent in its nature.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a museum © David Simpson

Dialects have both ancient and modern influences and in recent times social media and the internet might encourage dialect words to leap across bigger geographical distances in shorter time scales particularly when adopted by younger people.

A widely used North East word ‘charver‘ for a ne’er do well kind of person was rapidly eclipsed in our region by a more southerly variation ‘chav’ in recent times, even though the North East word seems to have a closer relationship to the Romany word from which it derives. Another possible phrase to look out for is ‘Chippy Tea’ – a North West England term for a fish and chip supper that may come to be adopted in the North East.

As time goes by traditional local dialects might find they are replaced by more general, weaker regional ones where accents become the main feature of regional identification. Today, it’s all too easy to be a bit lazy and generalise about dialects and their relationships to each other. It might be better to celebrate the spectrum of differences. It’s all a matter of perception. To a Tynesider’s ear the speech of County Durham may increasingly sound like a ‘Yorkshire’ accent as they travel south, yet County Durham has a distinct range of dialects and accents all of its own.

For that matter there’s no such thing as a ‘Yorkshire’ dialect and indeed traditional West Riding Yorkshire dialects such as those of say Leeds and Sheffield (Sheffield is now ‘South Yorkshire’) are identified by linguists as Mercian (midlands) in nature, whereas the dialect of North Yorkshire is Northumbrian in the ancient sense of the term, albeit being a part of Northumbria that came under the considerable influence of the Danes.

Ancient roots

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 © 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.

Map of the Kingdom of Northumbria before the Viking era
Map of the Kingdom of Northumbria before the Viking era. The borders of the kingdom would fluctaute over time. © David Simpson and tangledworm.com. Map available as an A2 print from Tangled Worm: https://tangledworm.com/product/kingdom-of-northumbria-poster-print-a2/

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. The name ‘Bernicia’ has Celtic roots so the Anglo-Saxon colonisation may reflect a takeover or transfer of power within an existing Celtic kingdom.

In fact, the original Celtic kingdom of ‘Bryneich’ seems to have been focused further north in what is now northern Northumberland in the Lindisfarne and Bamburgh areas stretching northward into what is now the Borders region of Scotland. Its name is thought to refer to mountain passes which could refer to both the Cheviots and the northern Pennines but Bernicia’s southern border is not certain.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh Castle © David Simpson

The influence of the later Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia that developed from Bryneich also encompassed Bamburgh and stretched north to Edinburgh where the Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian language and customs adopted in the Lothians considerably influenced the later Kingdom of Scotland. Usually, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bernicia is perceived as stretching from the River Forth to the River Tees but it more than likely to have fluctuated over time. There may have been smaller regions within the kingdom that held onto their own now forgotten identities, perhaps associated with specific river valleys.

Some historians think the River Tyne may have formed the southern fringe of Bernicia. It is possible but this would have excluded some of the most important centres of Northumbria’s later Anglo-Saxon culture such as Hexham, Jarrow, Hartlepool and Wearmouth. All of these places are south of the Tyne. In truth is we do not know the boundaries. Other theories suggest the border was further south of even the River Tees, perhaps stretching to the River Swale or even beyond deeper into Yorkshire.

Whatever its boundaries, Bernician power eventually extended south towards the Humber merging there with the rival Kingdom of Deira to form the great kingdom called ‘Northumbria’. Deira, like Bernicia initially developed from an earlier Celtic kingdom called ‘Deywr’ and was focused in earliest times in what is now East Yorkshire in the north Humber lands around Driffield and Beverley near present day Hull.

Deira may have been named from the nearby River Derwent. The tribal area of the Deirans in East Yorkshire seems to have corresponded closely to an earlier tribe of the Roman and Iron Age eras known to the Romans as the Parisi.

Though later associated with Yorkshire, Deira does not seem to have initially encompassed the City of York. As mentioned, Bernicia may have even stretched south into what is now Yorkshire but we don’t know. It is easy to forget that the ancient roots of Northumbria belong as much to Deira in eastern Yorkshire as they belong to Bamburgh and Lindisfarne in the far north of modern Northumberland. Considering Deira’s location just ‘North of the Humber’ it is arguably the original heartland of Northumbria.

Bamburgh Castle
Bamburgh, capital of Bernicia and Northumbria © David Simpson

Oldest living English?

The speech of Northumbria was that of the Angles from southern Jutland (rather than the Saxons who settled in southern England) and 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 of Jarrow and Wearmouth. It is worth noting that Bede’s old poems seem to translate more successfully into Geordie than into modern 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.

Where the Angles came from © David Simpson

However, there was also considerable Scandinavian influence on English because in the ninth 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.

Geordie Dictionary-A-B
See our Geordie Dictionary © David Simpson

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 ‘a 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

Who 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?

See our more detailed blog : Tyneside Pride : Who 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.

Geordie Mug by Tangled Worm © David Simpson

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 nineteenth 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’.

Nathaniel Buck's view of Newcastle 1745
Detail from Nathaniel Buck’s view of Newcastle in 1745

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’.

Swing Bridge and Tyne Bridge, Newcastle and Gateshead
Swing Bridge and Tyne Bridge, Newcastle and Gateshead © David Simpson

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

For more about the origins of

the term ‘Geordie’ see our blog :

Tyneside Pride : Who is a Geordie?

‘Mackems’ and Jamies | Geordie Dictionary

Geordie Fraser’s Geordie Phrases (below) explores the roots and origins of the Geordie dialect.

 

 

North East England History and Culture