The Yorkshire dialect
The instantly recognisable Yorkshire dialect has been influenced by the languages of successive invading peoples. Spoken across a large area of northern England, the Yorkshire dialect varies greatly from area to area and so cannot truly be identified as a single dialect. Nonetheless, most native English speakers would be able to identify those who hail from Yorkshire, despite the regional variations in their accents.
The linguistic history of Yorkshire
The country of Yorkshire is the largest in England but is now divided into four administrative subdivisions – East Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. The county encompasses several large cities including Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield, but also both the magnificent landscapes of the Dales and a wonderful coastline.
The origins of the Yorkshire dialect can be traced back to the fifth century when the Angles, Saxons and other Germanic tribes arrived in England. It was the Angles that settled in the region that we now know as Yorkshire while the Saxons settled further south. This situation contributed to a north/ south divide in English accents that remains to this day. The Anglo-Saxons brought with them several dialects which displaced the Celtic languages and eventually fused to become Old English
As time passed, modern-day North Yorkshire and the East Riding of Yorkshire found themselves in the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. West and South Yorkshire belonged to the kingdom of Mercia. This division was the origin of the differences between dialects that are now found across the county.
Vikings in Yorkshire
Vikings from Norway and Denmark began to raid Britain in the 8th century. Parts of northeast England fell under Scandinavian control. The Viking invaders spoke a Norse dialect that was related to those of the Angles and Saxons. Their invasion of the north further cemented the linguistic north/south divide in England and led to the Yorkshire dialect of today boasting unique features.
Many words and phrases that are unique to the modern Yorkshire dialect have very similar counterparts in Scandinavian languages. For instance, the word dale (valley) is close to the modern Norwegian word Dal. The influence of the Viking peoples has endured in Yorkshire despite the later invasion of the Normans. Social and political changes eventually led to the Yorkshire dialect moving closer to the standard English that had evolved. But the dialect has retained many words and conventions that distinguish it from all others.
Unique aspects of the Yorkshire dialect
The Yorkshire accent has much in common with other northern English accents. For example, “bath” is pronounced with the short /a/ sound rather than the longer /ɑː/ of received pronunciation. However, there are several features of the Yorkshire dialect that you won’t hear elsewhere:
Definite article reduction – shortening of “the” to just a t. This is often written as t’. (I travelled on the bus sounds like I travelled ont bus).
The use of “owt” and “nowt” – these words mean anything and nothing.
The use of “nor” in comparisons – the word “nor” can be used instead of “than” in phrases that make comparisons. Thus, “she’s better nor her” rather than the usual “she’s better than her”.
No plural forms of units of measurement – nouns that are units of weight, distance and height etc have no plural form. For example, “ten miles” would be expressed as “ten mile”.
“Us” sometimes replaces “my” or “our” – “we should decorate our house” is expressed as “we should decorate us house”. When used in this way, the word “us” is pronounced with a final [z] rather than an [s].
“Were” instead of “was” – it is common to hear “I was” expressed as “I were”.
The use of “ickle” – in South Yorkshire and particularly in the Rotherham area, “hospital” is pronounced “hospickle” and “little” is pronounced “lickle”.
“While” instead of “until” – as in “we need to hurry, or we won’t get back while midnight”
The use of “ey up” – this expression is commonly used in place of “hello” or “how are you?”.
The use of “ee bah gum” – this expression means “oh my god”.
“snicket” – this is a Yorkshire term for an alleyway.
“Sup” – means “to drink”
“Mardy” – meaning “moody”
Double negatives allowed – this is a curiosity of the Yorkshire dialect that can be confusing. For example, “I don’t want nothing” instead of “I don’t want anything”.
“Right” instead of “very” – “he’s right handsome” instead of “he’s very handsome”.
What does the Yorkshire dialect sound like?
Many sports stars and celebrities hail from Yorkshire and several television series have been set in the county, notably the ever-popular sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.
The comedian Leigh Francis, AKA Keith Lemon, is from Leeds. In the following clip, he is trying to persuade Italian chef Gino D’Acampo that he is also a Yorkshireman and from Sheffield!
How is the Yorkshire dialect perceived?
Following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the French language began to influence English in every possible way. But that influence was weaker in the northeast of England. Eventually, what we know as Standard English evolved. Received pronunciation (RP) became the accent of the nobility and the educated. Regional accents were viewed by the upper classes as inferior to RP and perhaps none more so than the Yorkshire accent. But these days, opinions have started to change. In a 2021 survey conducted by OneBuy.com, over 2,000 people were asked to listen to a variety of speakers and to choose who they would consider to be the most trustworthy. Speakers with a Yorkshire accent were rated as the most trustworthy of all. Ee by gum!