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   Inside Out - North East: Monday January 17, 2005


Voices - Geordie dialect is changing with the times

Geordie is one of the oldest and best loved of Britain's dialects. But modern times mean that some Geordie words are dying out and North Easterners are changing how they speak.

Inside Out gets tongue-twisted when it finds out what it's like to "taalk Geordie" with the help of North East dialect experts.

Geordie is one of the most distinctive accents and dialects in the country.

But something strange is happening to this regional tongue - it's changing as some words die out and old traditions fade.

It's a natural process for language to change so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the Geordie dialect is moving with the times.

Inside Out takes a look at the changing Geordie dialect as part of the BBC's Voices campaign.

Changing times

The main reason for the loss of old words is that Geordies aren't geographically isolated any more.

Today's North Easterners are more likely to spend their weekends on cheap breaks to Barcelona and Budapest than at the beach at Redcar or Whitley Bay on their doorstep.

Geordies are also more likely spend time living and working away from the region than ever before, and this is diluting the accent and dialect further.

Inside Out presenter Chris Jackson is a good example of a born and bred Geordie who spent his formative years living in Germany.

He returned to Newcastle as a teenager without a North East accent, but with an American twang from the German-American school he attended in Frankfurt!

Geordie celebrities are known to soften their accents

There's also been a greater influx of outsiders into the region.

In the past the North East was a much more insular place to live and work.

Old tight-knit communities such as small mining towns and villages based on coal and lead mines have largely died out.

As a result the dialect words associated with those industries have also been fading away.

With the increasing pace of change and the era of global communications, North Easterners have also had to make themselves better understood to the outside world.

Geordie rock star Sting sounds positively "transatlantic" today compared with his accent when he first started out in Newcastle band Last Exit in the 1970s.

As dialect expert Joan Beal says, "People are leaving, others are arriving and we're mixing more and more. There's a levelling - the more extreme features are being levelled out".

Out with the old?

In the past employment and class were important influences on dialect and its preservation.

Dialect tends to be best preserved in close-knit communities and rural areas. There's also evidence that it is reinforced in communities especially for male manual workers in industrial areas.

Jimmy Nail
Jimmy Nail has helped popularise the Geordie accent on TV

Traditionally schooling and education have been powerful anti-dialect forces with students being taught standard English pronunciation.

Pupils are often discouraged from talking in Geordie dialect.

Today's teenagers are also more likely to copy TV slang or adopt American urban street talk rather than use their own Geordie dialect.

Until the 1960s and 1970s Geordie was virtually banned from TV screens.

But now there's also an interesting counter trend - a growing celebration of all things Geordie. Television programmes such as Auf Wiedersehen Pet, and presenters Ant and Dec have popularised the region's dialect.

Lost in translation?

Although there is no definitive Geordie dialect, there are many words and expressions which are widely recognised across the North East.

Geordie dialect

Recognise any of these words?

  • Bigg - barley as sold down the Bigg Market
  • Canny - something or someone that is full of kindliness and good
  • Clarts - mud or can be used as in 'clartin on' meaning messing around
  • Fernietickles - freckles
  • Galloways - pit pony
  • Glass alley - high quality marble for playing games
  • Galluses - men's braces
  • Hyem - home
  • Pitmatic - words unique to North East coal miners
  • Plodge - wade in water
  • Snotter clot - handkerchief
  • Yakker - a pitman

"Bairn" (child), "hinny" (woman), "marra" (mate) and "hacky" (dirty) are popular North East words.

But some expressions such as "kibble" (a large iron bucket in a mine), "pit yakker" (an abusive term for a pitman) and "yade" (a horse) are more localised.

The dialect and accents of people from Northumberland and County Durham are quite distinctive from Geordies on Tyneside.

Some of these changes are the result of occupational differences in small mining or farming communities.

For example in some coal mining areas old miners used to talk in their own unique "pitmatic".

Listen to pitmatic sounds from Ashington in Northumberland.

A dying dialect?

Many pitmatic words and expressions are now dying out as their usage becomes anachronistic.

Words like "bleezers" (a metal hearth covering a fire place) and even "honkers" (haunches) are almost forgotten.

Another word which is dying out is "clammin'', as in "clamming for a drink", which means hungry or thirsty.

Of course new words are coming along all the time although they're out-numbered by the old ones that we're losing.

Pure Geordie?

So is it possible to locate an area in which Geordie survives in its purest form?

The original Geordies were probably miners born within "hocklin'" or spitting distance of the Tyne.

Whey aye man - it's a cuddy, better known as a donkey!

Today many linguistic experts think that real Geordie speakers are more likely to be found much further north in Northumberland.

"There's a difference between Geordie vowels and words, and Tynedale or mid Northumberland, and north Northumberland," says Kim Bibby-Wilson from the Northumbrian Language Society.

"So you get "dinna" for "don't" up on the Scots border and "dinnit" further south. You get "divvent" in most places."

Even so it's harder to differentiate between parts of the region than it used to be.

"If you talking about the young it's difficult to tell the difference between Sunderland and Newcastle, or mid or south Northumberland and Newcastle than it would have been 20 years ago.

"To that extent there's been a levelling out of the North East accent."

Dying out?

So has the North East's distinctive tongue got a long term future? We asked Dr Joan Beal, a dialect specialist from the University of Sheffield.

Joan Beal
Standard English's influence diminishes further from London

"I think it does have a future. There are voices of doom that say dialects will die out.

"But what we have to realise is that people have been saying this since at least the 19th Century."

Traditionally one of the reasons that the Geordie accent was preserved was the North East's isolation from London and surrounding areas.

But even modern day communications, the coming of television and radio, and educationalists' railings against dialect in the classroom have not totally diminished its power.

Geordie crack

So what's distinctive about the Geordie dialect and grammar?

Most Geordie consonant sounds are similar to standard English except for the famous "r" sound which is similar to French pronunciation.

It can be heard in words like "plaster" pronounced "plarster" which goes back to the old French

But it is the vowel sounds that give Geordie its unique sound with words like "toon" (town), "broon" (brown) and "poond' (pound).

Geordie intonation patterns are also different with a rising expression at the end of many sentences.

The Geordie grammar also has a way of its own with pronouns like "our" pronounced "wor" and words like "yous" for "you".

But whatever the 'crack' (good conversation) 'wor Geordie' today is becoming 'reet sophisticated, like'.

It seems that although Geordie dialect is still alive, it's changing as more of us become part of the global village.

The consolation is that there's new Geordie speakers coming along all the time - anyone remember Harry Enfield and 'Julio Geordio'?

Talk Geordie to us!

The BBC is carrying out a huge survey of how we speak under the name of Voices.

If you'd like to get involved click on the website or call our freephone number 0800 056 6787 for more information about how you can become part of history.

What do you think about the Geordie dialect? Are there any words that you've only ever heard in this part of the country?

Tell us some of your favourite words and phrases by responding on the form below. We'll publish a selection of your comments.

Take our Geordie quiz and test your word power

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
Midlands Dialect
Southern voices
Devon dialect
West accents
Comedy Accents


On the rest of the web
Geordie Translator
Geordie Bible Northumbrian Association
The North East
Language Varieties
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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Emma Carlin
My mothers side of te family all come from newcastle (Geordie land) though i hear the strong accent spoken often i had forgotten bout certain words such as "hinny" as it is a shame but i never hear them often.

Elaine Housby
I grew up in Alnwick in the 1960s and remember very well having a "bleezer" for the fire in my childhood. I think it is true that this word is hardly known now, because very few people have coal fires any more. But I think "honkers" is still well known. I found the quiz much harder than I expected - lots of the words on there I'd never heard. Maybe that reflects the difference between Tyneside and mid-Northumberland.

derek seely
Running a level 3 City and Guilds FENTO course and we use the local dialect as a discusion point as part of our English course. This has stimulated much discussion and the general view is that our dialect is alive, well and in no real danger from southern standard English that is less expressive and lacks the bite and body of Northumbrian.

Lesley Rinehart
This article was great to read as an expat. We were told about the site from a marra on wor own site that wor Steve has set up Virtual Geordieland this brings home closer and expats share the crack and plenty more.

Shiela Wallas
While watching your programme last night it brought a few memories flooding back. When I was younger we used to say that the people from Northumberland were from 'the wilds of wonny'. They spoke with an entirely different accent, used different words and had a definite 'ru' in the back of the throat. I remember going to a working mens club in Cramlington, Northumberland when I was about 19 and try as I may could not understand a word the doorman said to me and my sister. The famous Charlton brothers come from Ashington where the Northumbrian dialect was widespread, but if you notice Jackie is the only one of them to speak on TV with his accent. I still use words from my childhood, but they are lost on the southerners!

linda angeletta
I had forgotten about HINNY and BAIRN until I read this article - my grandparents and father came from gateshead - and my father never had an accent but my grand parents did - beautiful accents - thank you for prompting childhood memories of my grandparents from just those two words. I'm 48 years old now but for awhile i was a child again.

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