Episode 112: Northern Messenger

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

At the dawn of the 14th century, Edward I was forced to deal with a popular uprising in Scotland. At the same time, a poet in northern England composed the oldest surviving poem in the Northern dialect of Middle English called the Cursor Mundi. In this episode, we turn our attention to northern England and Scotland, and we examine the unique features of this northernmost dialect of Middle English.


17 thoughts on “Episode 112: Northern Messenger

  1. Enjoyed the recent episode (112) discussing the difference between Northern and Southern dialects.
    Re. Paul from Yorkshire’s voice sample: I’m guessing Paul must be from West Yorkshire. I’m from East Yorkshire, and we also used to say ‘Larking’ instead of playing. Paul pronounces it more like ‘Laikin’ though, whereas we used to say it ‘Laakin’ with a long ‘a’ sound.
    You don’t have to travel far at all to hear quite marked differences.

    • I come from Kent and I can still remember being told to stop larking about. It tends to have negative connotations down south.

    • “Lake” and “lark” may be different pronunciations of the same word, but there is some uncertainty about that. Here is what the OED says about “lark”:

      “Possibly it may represent the northern ‘lake’ as heard by sporting men from Yorkshire jockeys or grooms; the sound /lɛək//læək/, which is written lairk in Robinson’s Whitby Glossary and in dialect books, would to a southern hearer more naturally suggest ‘lark’ than ‘lake’ as its equivalent in educated pronunciation. On the other hand, it is quite as likely that the word may have originated in some allusion to ‘lark’ (n.); compare the similar use of ‘skylark’ verb, which is found a few years earlier (1809).”

      • Hi Kevin — Such an interesting episode, as usual! To add to the discussion about “larking'” as a verb, the word for “play” in Norwegian is “leker” — which sounds a lot like a Viking remnant! In addition, I once heard that the Lego toys come from the word “to play.” Here is what Wikipedia says:
        The Lego Group began in the workshop of Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891–1958), a carpenter from Billund, Denmark, who began making wooden toys in 1932. In 1934, his company came to be called “Lego”, derived from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means “play well”.

      • Paul, your reading/sample was such a treat to hear! It sounded like a foreign language! I would have thought it was from the fourteenth century. I hope to visit West Yorkshire sometime and hear more like it.

  2. Hi Kevin. When you read the first few lines of Cursor Mundi in the original Northern Middle English, you pronounced the letter E in England and Caesar the way we pronounce today. Was that the right pronunciation for the time? Didn’t pronunciation of letter E change from “spanish” E to “spanish” I later, during the great vowel shift period?

    • You are probably correct. When I read a short sentence or passage, I try to be precise about the pronunciation of each syllable. However, when I read an extended passage, I usually read through it a couple of times and keep the version I like best. So sometimes, a few syllables may be a little off.

  3. Another great episode. On the subject of J, I & Y. Here in Scotland some people pronounce the Letter J as though it were an I. That is not as Jay but rather as jiy (rhyming with high).I suppose that this betrays the letter’s origin. facinating stuff.

    Also, you will find the letter Y in the middle of some words in place of an I. An example is a wynd which is a narrow road and is pronounced like the word wind as in winding up a clock.

    • Yes, the letter J is a crazy letter because it represents so many different phonemes within the various European languages. Compare the French ‘zh’ sound of “Jacques” and the Spanish ‘h’ sound of “Jose.” The flexibility of the letter is partly due to the fact that it is a relatively late addition to the alphabet and it evolved out of the letter I.

      The use of I vs Y in Modern English spellings is still somewhat unsettled. For example, American English has “tire” where British English has “tyre.” “Gipsy” and “gypsy” also come to mind. There are many others as well.

  4. As a Yorkshireman, I proper enjoyed this episode! As I have the others, of course. By chance, I grew up in Knaresborough and lived opposite one Arnold Kellett, who authored many books on the Yorkshire Dialect. One thing of particular note was that there is a rough ‘edge’ to the two major styles of Yorkshire, which straddle the River Wharfe.

    As Jim says above, it doesn’t take a long journey to go from one accent/dialect to another in the north. Within North Yorkshire, each *Dale* actually has its own accent. So it’s possible to tell someone from Wensleydale (River Ure) from Swaledale (accent called Swardle in that area). They still count sheep using the old counting system (Yan/Tan/Tethra) which a quick google states to me to be an archaic form of old Brythonic Celtic. And that’s particularly interesting because a lot of the accent in that area (as I understand it) takes its form from old Norse – so there are two completely different influences in one pretty unique and small area.

  5. Hello Kevin,
    I’m up to this point of the podcast and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Thank you for your inspiring efforts.

    Today with my young children we visited the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library in London.
    It was fantastic to see many of the books you have mentioned in your episodes from that period, including the Lindisfarne gospel, Beowulf, and dozens of illuminated gospels plus the Kent early law code document.

    Any of your listeners nearby in Mercia, Wessex or anywhere really should definitely make a trip, note there’s only a couple of weeks left!

    • I sent a link to that exhibit via twitter a few weeks ago, and I know at least a couple of listeners went to the exhibit once they found out about it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it, but I’m glad you went and enjoyed it.

  6. Hi Kevin. Great podcast btw. Really loving it! But I wanted to say that my boyfriend from South Yorkshire says that they still call children Childers. An interesting point I thought because you say that pluralisation as we say it today, with an S on on the end of words instead of the suffix en in the south of England ???????

    • Thanks for the note. Typically when I make general statements about the development of English, I am referring to modern ‘standard’ English. Of course, English is highly variable when we look at specific regional accents. I think almost every old feature of English is preserved in at least one local dialect somewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.