The dialect of Spottee’s Cave

For many modern readers, nineteenth-century “dialect” verse such as this – at least when it appears on the page or screen – makes the heart sink. It’s not surprising really. We live in an age of universal literacy: all children who go to school are taught to read and write in Standard English, irrespective of the dialect of English (or other languages) they might speak at home. This means that most of us – to a certain extent – are “bi-dialectal”: we tend to operate in Standard English when we write or when we speak in public settings; but we use more non-standard, dialectal forms in our everyday lives. While some non-standard forms are encountered in our reading (usually in the form of reported speech in fiction), these are embedded in a standard matrix. With a text like “Spottee” we don’t have that helpful framing; we have to pick our way through dense forests of unfamiliarly spelled words which we would normally recognize immediately in their usual guise (e.g. auld, knaw, dee, tee, mony, weshed, teuk, and so on); we encounter words we might not recognize at all (e.g. midred, coble, tanter-wallups, boggle); the syntax seems “off” (e.g. And a back o’ the carcasses com poor shee).

But there are at least two reasons why it might be worth putting a little bit of effort into getting to grips with these texts.

First, as a popular cultural form in the North East of England, “dialect literature” – often written to be performed as songs and ballads – can give us a rare glimpse into the lives, beliefs, hopes and fears of the ordinary folk of the time. While the publishers of the collections in which this material was circulated were largely middle and upper class (“Spottee” appears in a Durham collection called The Bishoprick Garland, edited by the antiquarian Sir Cuthbert Sharp in 1834) these verses were enjoyed by people of all social backgrounds. And even today, readers can relish the spirited characters, arresting incidents, strong sense of place and striking vernacular turns of phrase with which such work is imbued.

Second, the texts are full of interest for anyone interested in the dialects of our region. Perhaps surprisingly, given the enormous social changes which have occurred in the two centuries since “Spottee” was composed, there are features here which are also evident in the contemporary speech of North East England. I will focus on some of the spelling choices to illustrate this point.

Many of these “strange” spellings can tell us something about how nineteenth-century North East English sounded. For example, consider how the words belonging, along, and long have been spelled. During the early Old English period around 1500 years ago, all speakers of English would have said “lang” rather than “long” – indeed, all adjectives which in modern English end orthographically in <-ong>, such as long, strong, and wrong would have been pronounced with ‘a’ rather than ‘o’. The ‘o’ pronunciation was a later development in southern and midland varieties of English, but in the north of England and Scotland the change was partial. From the spelling in the song we can assume that it was a common pronunciation (probably the preferred one for the majority of speakers) two hundred years ago in North East England, and to this day many people here use it from time to time. You will also have noticed that night and light are spelled <neet> and <leet>. This also represents a survival from an earlier period. The <-gh> in the standard spelling indicates that in words such as right, night and light there was once a “throaty” sound resembling the final consonant in a Scottish pronunciation of loch, or a German pronunciation of Bach. During the Middle Ages, this sound was lost, and the preceding vowel was lengthened in compensation. This means that spellings such as <neet> and <leet> reflect a pattern that was once general in English but which is now only preserved in certain dialects of northern England and in Scotland. If you are from the North East, it is likely that you will have heard these pronunciations, even if you don’t use them yourself, particularly in fixed phrases such as “the neet” (“tonight”) and “all reet” (“all right” as a greeting).

Other spellings give us further glimpses into how the North East English of this period would have sounded. Take the verb forms do and does, spelled <dee> and <dis>. Once again, the vowels are of interest here. Historically, the verb do has had a wide variety of forms in the dialects of English, but forms with ‘e’ and ‘I’ were particularly associated with the north of England and Scotland, as they are today. North easterners are likely to be familiar with people who might be “deeing” rather than “doing” something, for example.

And of course, there’s the spelling <mak>. Where would Mackems be without this distinctive pronunciation of make?

While the continuities (and there are many more of them) are fairly obvious once the initial resistance to the unfamiliar spellings has been overcome, there are nevertheless features here which remain unfathomable without recourse to specialist glossaries. For example, according to Joseph Wright’s magisterial English Dialect Dictionary, midred is a term for the diaphragm or midriff, and if you have no idea what tanter-wallups are don’t worry – the Dictionary says “Meaning unknown”!