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24 September 2014
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cobbled west yorkshire street
Will West Yorkshire dialect soon be as distant as scenes like this?

Does tha kno't old way o' callin'?

"If thee dun't, this is fer thee," claims Bradford language and dialect enthusiast Peter Keane who has been out and about across the county to find the extent to which Tyke is still spoken now we are in the 21st century.

There was a time when language like that used in the first two sentences on this page was commonplace all over Yorkshire. The people of Yorkshire - or ‘Tykes’ as we were once proudly known - were thought of as having our own separate language.

To the outsider, it was nothing more than ‘Yorkshiremen making strange noises.’ Sadly, this dialect has all but disappeared. Today’s youth appears easily seduced by the current style and lingo of Rap and R&B. But if you listen carefully to some older people it is just possible to hear some wonderfully antiquated words being used. They would never dream of calling the space between two buildings an alley. For them it is most assuredly a ‘ginnel.’

A few West Yorkshire words...

Bairn (baby)
Featherlegged (tired)
Owt (anything)
Nivver (never)
Brass (money)
Sackless (lazy)
Brazzened (no sense of shame)
Muckment (rubbish)
Threap (beat someone down by argument)
Reesty (rancid)

But where do these words come from? Are they of any less value than our current vocabulary that we call "standard English." More importantly, does anybody care if these words vanish, never to be heard of again?

We know from our history books that Britain has been invaded many times and by a whole host of foreign powers. But it is perhaps the Danes who influenced local dialect the most. They invaded Yorkshire in 865 AD and began by creating administrative areas. Each individual area was known as a ‘þriðjungr,’ ('thrithing') or third. It is from this word that we get ‘Riding’ as in West Riding, the old term for our regional boundaries. These Ridings were then subdivided into districts known as ‘wapentakes.’

The Danes continued a process of assimilation and would eventually marry into local bloodlines. As much as 75% of Yorkshire dialect is thought to be of Norse or Danish origin. Good examples of this can be found in some of our local place names like Dyke, beck, Ings and Carr.

The Industrial Revolution...

By the time of the industrial revolution many workers were migrating from the Midlands to the West Riding of Yorkshire in search of work. This influx naturally added more pepper to the already well seasoned pot of local dialect. This may account for the fact that the West Riding had a far richer variety of dialect than its near neighbours of East and North Ridings.

"Regional dialect is not strictly governed by locality. You wouldn't find a completely different accent and use of words by taking one step over the border into Lancashire."
Peter Keane

However, regional dialect is not strictly governed by locality. You wouldn’t find a completely different accent and use of words by taking one step over the border into Lancashire. Those changes would have already been occurring long before you ever left the county. There would be many common phrases and pronunciations enjoyed by citizens on both sides of the county line. Because of this, dialects are rarely, if ever self contained. They are seen as continuums, or variations on a theme.

It happened in Bradford...

Long before any television set was ever switched on, the threat to local dialect was being addressed. On March 27th 1897 the Yorkshire Dialect Society was founded in the city of Bradford. It was formed from a committee that had already spent three years working on the Yorkshire section of the much celebrated English Dialect Dictionary, written by Joseph Wright.

The society enjoyed a healthy membership from people wishing to preserve and celebrate their native tongue. It continues to promote Yorkshire dialect to this day and is still holding regular, well-attended meetings.

On the wane...

There are a great number of suggestions as to why local dialects are dying out. Many of the old words were common to tradition agricultural practices. As more mechanised ways of producing food and materials took over, the old words were replaced or simply made redundant.

The exponential rise of global media has also played its part. Standard English was seen as the correct way to speak and became the norm on our television programmes. In due process, multi-national companies have used their persuasive marketing skills to secure our retail habits. And with it came very formal terms for their products that we, in turn, were happy to adopt.

One area where the old way of speaking is still fairly common is the Yorkshire Dales. It is a fairly isolated area that is largely governed by traditional farming. Within those small communities you are likely to come across words like 'laik,' meaning to play or have fun and 'bahn,' to go.

Local independent retailers are also likely to sell certain products that have retained their traditional name.

Tyke in the 21st century?

It is fair to say that our dialect is changing and many of the old words and ways of speaking have been eroded. It remains as a fascinating part of our local history. In all probability, as long as there are groups like the Yorkshire Dialect Society willing to organise meetings and support the old words, then perhaps they will in some small way survive.

A few phrases...

The well-oiled nut behind the steering wheel is the most unreliable part of the car.

The opinions expressed by the husband of this house do not always represent the views of the management.

A cure for vandalism - Alter the sentence from "bound over" to bend over.

One thorn of experience is worth a whole wilderness of warning.

The ideal husband is one who washes up when asked, and dries up, when told.

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