Thursday, 5 July 2012

Larn Yersel' Geordie

A few weeks ago I promised that I would write more about the accents and dialects of the Debatable LandFor the title of this post I've borrowed the name of a well known comic publication from the 1970s which played on the popular 'Teach Yourself' series and purported to be a serious instruction guide to the Geordie language. The name Geordie only applies to residents of Tyneside, the southern limit of the range of my blog, but that gives me an excuse to show you some nice photos of Newcastle Civic Centre. The sculpture on the left represents the Spirit of the River Tyne. When the building was formally opened by King Olaf of Norway in 1972 this sculpture had water flowing continuously over it, but all that's left now is the rust marks. Not a bad symbol of cuts in local government funding.
What 'Larn Yersel' Geordie' did only humorously is now being done all too seriously. Local dialects are being described as languages and treated as if they were quite unrelated to the dialect down the road. The term 'Geordie language' can now be used with a straight face. There is a Northumbrian Language Society  run mostly by people too middle-class to speak that way spontaneously, or indeed to wish to be associated with Geordies, who hold 'gatherings' to celebrate 'the tongue' and publish small dictionaries. Once you get north of the border the 'Scots language' is described as Lallans, which is not in any sense, you understand, a dialect of English, but a distinctive Scottish language, just as much a real language as the Gaelic of the Highlands. Meanwhile here in Berwick the natives insist that they speak 'a unique dialect' and there is a booklet with that title in the tourist gift shops.

 Am I the only person who thinks all this is nonsense? To those of us who grew up in Northumberland and spent our formative years travelling regularly around the area between Newcastle and Edinburgh, it was obvious that the dialect of Tyneside changed by gradual and almost imperceptible degrees into the dialect of Southern Scotland. The strong throaty sound of the Northumbrian R changed into the Scottish R, sounded further forward in the mouth and more trilled. But these days only elderly men in Northumberland still retain that sound in their speech and an abrupt change in the pronounciation of the letter R now marks the border. (See post of 31st May for more details.) In terms of vocabulary though many words not found in Standard English are still used throughout this whole region on both sides of the border. To take a few common examples: 'bairn' for 'child', 'sneck' for 'doorlatch',  'gowk' for 'cuckoo' or, figuratively, somebody who's being daft. But the pressure is on to assert a distinctive 'culture' and to leverage that to get funding from the bewildering array of arts and heritage bodies, quangos who have been left to fill the gap created by the undermining of local government funding over the last thirty years, of which the rusty Spirit of the Tyne is such a useful symbol.

One irony here is that the University of Newcastle used to have a well regarded Department of Scandinavian Studies, but closed it down, due to the same public sector funding crisis, which would no doubt be a sad disappointment to King Olaf. The dialects of Northern England and Southern Scotland are closely related to the Scandinavian languages, and if only this department had still been in existence the university could have cashed in on the current popularity of the Swedish and Danish drama serials shown on the BBC4 television channel, which are wildly fashionable among the chattering classes. The first time I realised that a word very similar to 'bairn' is the Standard Swedish for 'child', I nearly cried with happiness. When Geordies say it, the metropolitan elite sneer. When Wallander says it, they swoon. There is no better illustration of what linguistics experts keep telling us: the difference between a dialect and a language is purely political. 

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