Yorkshire Day: celebrating Yorkshire words and Yorkshireness

The first of August is Yorkshire Day, established in 1975 and designed to encourage Yorkshire people to celebrate Yorkshire’s unique heritage, history and culture. Under the auspices of the Yorkshire Society, the Day’s ceremonial highlight is the gathering of the county’s civic leaders – here seated on Whitby harbour front, splendidly attired in ceremonial robes – for a formal lunch followed by a procession through the town hosting the event, which this year will be Rotherham.

God’s own country

People outside the UK – and many inside – might not realise what makes Yorkshire so special. First and foremost, it’s the largest English county, historically speaking. In 1831, for instance, it covered an area more than double that of the next largest county, Lincolnshire. I say ‘historically speaking’ because nowadays it’s divided into four administrative counties – North, West and South Yorkshire and the East Riding – but I suspect for most people ‘Yorkshire’ means the whole area those counties now cover. Their combined population constitutes about one twelfth of the whole UK population.

I mentioned ‘East Riding’. What on earth is a riding? Has it to do with horses?

Yorkshire, as it happens, houses nine (15 per cent!) of the UK’s fifty-nine racecourses within its borders and one picturesque explanation makes a riding the area a rider – not a jockey – could cover in a day. Given the 957 square miles, say, of the current East Riding, such a rider would have to be the Norse god Odin on his mountain-sized steed Sleipnir. In fact, though, there is a Norse connection.

Yorkshire was under Viking rule from the mid-ninth century and riding comes from the Old Norse word thrithjungr, ‘third’– or þriðjungr, if written with the thorn (þ) and edh (ð) of Old English. It came into Old English as thriding (þriðing) and would often be written with the geographical indication prefixed, for instance, westhriding. Over time the word’s th disappeared by being assimilated (meaning 6) to the letter –t or –th of west, east and north, the original three ridings. The next unit under the ridings were wapentakes, consisting of three ‘hundreds’, from the Norse vāpnatak, from vápn, ‘weapon’ plus tak, ‘take’. One theory posits that a wapentake would be formed when the men of the area met in a sort of democratic assembly, presumably with a lot of brandishing of weapons to show their assent going on.  

Gates that aren’t

The Viking period has left its mark not only in the genes of Yorkshire people but in Yorkshire language.

The city of York (where I live), and hence the county, derives its name from the Viking Jorvik (pronounced ‘Yorvik’). The influence of the Viking invaders lives on in the many towns and villages ending in –by, from the Norse for ‘farmstead, village, settlement’, as in Selby, Whitby and dozens of others.

Street names in York often end in –gate, as in Stonegate, Gillygate, Micklegate. That –gate has nowt to do with the word meaning ‘entrance, portal’; instead it comes from the Norse gata, ‘street’, which is echoed in Modern Danish’s word for street, gade. (What everyone else would call ‘gates’ are in York called ‘bars’.)

George Washington and a mickle misquotation

Before the monarch can enter the city of York, he or she has to be received, as the current King has been, by the Lord Mayor outside the magnificent fortification of Micklegate Bar and given permission to enter. That mickle, meaning ‘great, big, much’, is from Old Norse mikkel, which ousted the Old English spelling micel. It’s used in the proverb ‘Many a mickle makes a muckle’, which is in origin a misquotation that if taken literally is a nonsense; muckle is a variant of and means the same as mickle. It was none other than George Washington who is first cited in writing as misremembering the original ‘Many a little makes a mickle’, but the version ‘many a mickle makes a muckle’ is now part of the language and everyone interprets it to mean ‘Many small amounts add up to a large one.’

Becks – neither a beer, nor a footballer

Should you go walking in the famous Yorkshire Dales, you’ll undoubtedly come across a beck, a small stream or brook, especially a fast-flowing one with a rocky bed, such as Gayle Beck in Hawes. Beck comes from the Old Norse bekkr and is related to the modern German Bach, ‘stream’. It has nothing to do, incidentally, with to be at someone’s beck and call.

Yorkshire being such a big county, it would be inaccurate to talk of a single Yorkshire accent: what’s spoken in Barnsley is quite different from the speech of Whitby. But three features seem widespread enough, though not necessarily confined to Yorkshire. First, conjugating the past tense of to be as were for every grammatical person – ‘I were’, ‘he/she/it were’. Second, the use of thou and thee to replace singular you – a convention to which the Quakers also adhere. Third, zapping the vowel of the definite article the and prefixing it to a noun as represented by t’/th’, as in ‘to go down t’pit.’ This phenomenon goes by the name of Definite Article Reduction, or DAR.

As regards pronunciation, the sound of bath is often short and the first vowel of butter – as of my surname, Butterfield, a good Yorkshire one, incidentally – is often the same as in put, a /ʊ/, rather than the Southern /ʌ/, as in Southern cup – though the ‘Northern’ pronunciation is decreasing in spread.

Incidentally, that Yorkshireman the great poet W.H. Auden, born in York, spoke an otherwise patrician RP with the now old-fashioned /æ/, for instance, in Africa; but here, reading ‘As I walked out one evening’, in Stanza Nine he pronounces dances in the line ‘Time breaks the threaded dances’ in the ‘Northern’ way.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, dropping the h from the beginning of words is not uncommon in Yorkshire, as is inserting an unnecessary one, hilariously parodied by ‘Keith Lemon’ in ‘Through the Keyhole’ or ‘Through t’Keyhole’ as he’d pronounce it.

Chip butties and Ey up

Several words which sites about Yorkshire language claim to be local are typical but in fact also used elsewhere. That applies to all the following. Many will be known to people from other parts of the UK and beyond.

A butty or buttie is a sandwich, often made from a sliced roll and in the form of a chip butty (don’t knock it!) or a bacon butty. In the food lexicon, snap (meaning 26) is a word you might hear for ‘food’. Nowt for ‘nothing’ and owt for ‘anything’ will be familiar to many, as will wazzock, a favourite of mine and a word with a wonderful mouthfeel as the oenophiles would call it.

Ginnels and snickets are both kinds of alleyways, though there’s sometimes local disagreement about the difference. Collins defines the first as being between buildings and the second as between walls or fences. If you mither someone, you could get on their nerves by your fussing like a mother hen over them. Kecks are variously underpants or trousers, a double-edged meaning which could cause embarrassment. And as a sign of friendliness, people in shops will often call you ‘love’, regardless of your sex. I’ve even known men say it to other men. In contrast, someone in a mardy mood is not likely to be terribly friendly. That person could also be described as being in a benny.

Finally, Ey up is a way of greeting someone before asking how they are. One of our local buses has lately started featuring it on its destination indicator.

There are far too many illustrious, famous or infamous Yorkshire people to mention here, from Captain Cook to Guy Fawkes to bluff cricketing legend Fred Trueman to the lesbian icon Anne Lister. The county has produced more than its fair share of poets, including the Brontës, the earliest known English poet Cædmon, Andrew Marvell, Ted Hughes, Auden, as already mentioned, and the current Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, whom you can listen to here, reading a poem in his mild Yorkshire accent about his home turf in West Yorkshire.

By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.

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