DEVELOPING DIALECT: What makes a Northumbrian? What gives a resident of Northumberland a feeling of ‘Northumberlandness? This was the topic explored by Glendale Local History Society at their most recent meeting.
Our guide and mentor was Kim Bibby-Wilson, chairman of the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering Committee and secretary of the Northumbrian Language Society.
Kim opened her talk by suggesting that, great Northumbrians though they are, we leave Armstrong with his inventions, put Collingwood in his cabin and concentrate at this meeting on the county’s intangible cultural heritage – a heritage richly expressed in Speech, Song, Dance, Custom and Craft.
First though she had to try to define what is mean by Northumberland or Northumbria. For this purpose the modern county boundaries give only part of the answer. As far as the Northumberland gathering is concerned Northumberland and Northumbrian refer to the area Tweed –Tyneside (both banks).
Historically the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria varied in size and influence according to conquest. At times it extended further North beyond the Tweed into the borders and further South of the Tyne into County Durham.
Northumbria’s Angle conquerors were a warlike and aggressive lot (well weren’t they all) with a short pithy style of speech to match. The landscape imposed very localised settlement on these conqueror/colonisers and this had similar effects on the language.
Local dialects – Tyneside, Coquetdale, Border – developed often with different words for the same meaning.
Later industrialisation gave its own language – Pitmatic – used in mines and pit villages. Pitmatic words spread with labour to other mining areas in the British Isles and were adopted, as one observation from the audience highlighted, in the Kent coalfields.
Another member noted that Northumbrian speech resembles Old German – those Angles again!
The spoken language leads to poetry and song. The important word here is spoken because as Kim pointed out the Northumberland language and dialect is difficult to write down. There was simply no need of it.
The tradition of the itinerant balladeer and storyteller was oral. Kim sang unaccompanied some traditional songs and with a dry wit and the aid of a song sheet – held upside down for the third rendering of the chorus – did she do that on purpose?! – got her audience singing along.
Mention Northumbrian folk music and it is not long before the Northumbrian small pipes come into the discussion. Kim pointed out that they are not the only instrument – fiddle and accordion also feature – but the pipes have a quiet gentle sound that is, as she put it, ‘distinctly ours’.
Can’t sing, can’t dance, tone deaf, don’t do poetry. What could your correspondent do to get just a bit of Northumberlandness into his soul? There’s lots more from lighting bonfires at the equinox, egg boolin and jarpin to proggy rug manufacture.
Actually, Kim assured us, it doesn’t matter that someone is not a born Northumbrian. An appreciation of the depth richness and gently understated pride in this wonderful heritage is enough.
The next meeting will be held at the Cheviot Centre, Wooler, at 7.30pm on Wednesday, March 14, when Michael Thomson will give a lively illustrated talk entitled Hadrian’s Wall: Tribes and Tyranny.