Yorkshire Dialect Words of Old Norse Origin


by Barrie Markham Rhodes, The Yorkshire Dialect Society

The influence of Viking language on the regional speech varieties of northern  and eastern England is well documented. It is not surprising, therefore, that numerous 'Viking' lexical items are to be found in the traditional dialects of places such as Yorkshire and this page presents many of these. In doing so, a number of qualifying comments need to be made :

Firstly, the Old Norse and Old English spoken languages were closely related, sharing the same Germanic origin. Furthermore, Old Norse and Old English became 'pidginised' (amalgamated and simplified) in 'Scandinavian' England. This means that we cannot always be certain that a particular lexical item came into regional speech via Old Norse or via Old English. The word beck is a case in point: did it arrive from the Old Norse bekkr or the Old English cognate bęce, both of which undoubtedly had the same Germanic origin, with the cognate bach being found in German, and beek in Dutch, for instance. As a general rule of thumb, if the variation appears to be confined mainly to use in 'Scandinavian' England, it may be safe to argue that it is the Old Norse form that has been preserved.

The second qualification is that not all words of Scandinavian origin came into English regional speech during the generally-accepted Viking Age. Some were later 'borrowings', so it may not always be safe to state that a particular word was 'Viking'.

Thirdly, the boundaries between 'dialect' and 'standard language' are not all that clear. This is an issue which even the experts have problems with. In a sense, all language is 'dialect' and Standard English is simply a particular regional dialect that acquired prestige because of its use in the region where the royal court, the earliest universities and the centre of power and administration lay. Old Norse influenced all varieties of English (though its effects on the regional dialects of 'Scandinavian' England were obviously deeper and more extensive. This means that some supposedly 'dialect' words can be found to have close cognates or associations with words in the standard language or other regional dialects. In some instances, words that once belonged to another regional dialect have also been taken into Standard English usage.

This leads on to the fourth point. Though this presentation specifies 'Yorkshire dialects', this is not to say that some (indeed, many) of the lexical items in the list will not also be found in the traditional dialects of adjacent or nearby counties. In particular, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, the north Midlands and the Lake District, which share a Scandinavian heritage with Yorkshire, will have many identical - or closely similar - words in their dialects. Speech is a human attribute and is, therefore, portable. Dialectologists' attempts to map words and construct word boundaries (isoglosses) are always beset with problems of where to start and end, where to differentiate between 'dialect' and 'language' and so forth. Word usage changes only gradually over space, over zones of transition, not at defined boundary lines on the map. Yorkshire has simply been chosen as a representative case study (mainly because it is where I live and because its West Riding dialect is the one I grew up with), recognising that it does not have exclusive claim on all the words presented here. Indeed, for convenience, Yorkshire itself is generally regarded as itself having three major dialect areas, roughly equating with the former Ridings. In the list given here are words from all three Ridings. Though some are shared, there are many which are particularly identified with one or other of the Ridings.

Fifthly and finally, some of the entries in the word list are speculative and have been included because there appears to be some evidence of a Scandinavian or Icelandic linguistic association. These are indicated by a ? in the Old Norse column, with accompanying comment on potential linguistic evidence and possible shared etymologies. I would welcome users' observations on such entries and any additional evidence they might be able to provide.

With these qualifications stated, it is hoped that visitors to The Viking Network Web site will find much in this particular presentation to interest them and stimulate their own thinking about language in general, about dialect words in particular, and about the remarkable impact the Vikings had on our communicative behaviour.

Acknowledgement: The word list definitions draw heavily on the work of Dr. Arnold Kellett of The Yorkshire Dialect Society, in particular his The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore (1994).

- 14. august 2004 -