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Origin and history
As with most local dialects in English, Potteries dialect derives originally from Anglo Saxon Old English. The 14th-century Anglo Saxon poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which appears in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript uses dialect words native to the Potteries, leading some scholars to believe that it was written by a monk from Dieulacres Abbey. However, the most commonly suggested candidate for authorship is John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire (now part of Cranage outside Holmes Chapel). The same manuscript also contains three religious alliterative poems, Cleanness, Patience and Pearl, which are attributed to the same unknown author. Although the identity of the author is still disputed J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon writing in 1925 concluded that "his home was in the West Midlands of England; so much his language shows, and his metre, and his scenery."
The first documented instance of Potteries dialect is by the prominent Stafforshire lawyer John Ward (1781–1870) and local historian Simeon Shaw in their book The Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent published in 1843, where Ward recorded phonetically a conversation which he overheard in Burslem marketplace in 1810. In the passage, entitled A Burslem Dialogue, Ward provided an explanation of some of the words unique to the district: ‘mewds’ (moulds), ‘kale’ (being called upon in order, first, second….), ‘heo’ (she), ‘shippon’ (a cow-house).
From the 1750s onwards the Industrial Revolution created a high concentration of workforce in the ceramic and coal mining industries, working in close proximity in Stoke-on-Trent. This allowed the dialect to develop as a way of speech specific to those industries.
Some observers of Potteries dialect in the 21st century fear it is dying out as a living speech, as fewer young people use it in everyday conversation. Steve Birks cites increased ease of travel, the decline of the pottery industry leading to people moving out of the area to find work, the prevalence of and exposure to Received Pronunciation through television and radio, and the uniformity of the British education system as contributing factors in the decline of the dialect. Alan Povey has predicted that his will be the last generation that speaks Potteries dialect, and that after his generation is gone the dialect will die out for good. However Birks points out that there have been attempts to eradicate the dialect since the 19th century which were unsuccessful. John Ward writing in 1843 noted that the Potteries dialect was "now almost banished by the schoolmasters assiduous care". Birks also writes that dialect is still used widely amongst local residents, and is toned down when speaking to visitors to the city to be intelligible to them, which shows the dialect is still present in everyday conversation. He also states that there is "a growing interest in preserving, reading about and speaking dialects."
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Two noticeable features of the dialect are the vowel sound ow (as in low) which is used where standard English would use ol as in cowd = cold, 'towd" = told, etc. and the use of thee and they in place of you (both singular and plural), also heard in parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Another peculiarity is the use of the addition of ne at the end of words to indicate the negative as in thee cosne goo dine theyr sirree, theyl get thesen ow bautered u. Although clearly similar to Latin in the way this is used, this might just be coincidental. There are differences in the way people from Staffordshire Moorlands villages speak to people from the Potteries. Indeed it used to be possible, within living memory, to be able identify which village people came from simply by their accent or words used. i.e. 'thesen' is a moorlands word and 'thesell' is Potteries. A sparrow would be described in the Moorlands as a "spuggy", a watering can a "lecking can" or a horse a "tit" – though not so in the Potteries.
The late John Levitt from Keele University was very interested in recording this dialect and often stated that the Potteries or North Staffs dialect was the most difficult dialect to speak as well as it being the closest to Anglo Saxon. If one, as a native dialect speaker, attempts to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in this dialect it suddenly changes from incomprehensible to a lilting poem as it was constructed to be. This has led scholars to speculate that it was written by a monk from Dieulacres Abbey. Levitt was also intrigued by the ability of Potteries people to be able to confuse the letters O and H as in otel or horanges.
Like all English dialects, the Potteries dialect derives from Anglo-Saxon Old English. Example words and phrases:
- "Nesh" meaning soft, tender, or to easily get cold is derived from the early English, "nesc, nescenes."
- "Slat" meaning to throw, is from the old English "slath,” moved.
- "Fang" meaning catch or seize, as in "Fang 'owt of this" – "catch hold of this", is from Old English "fang, fangen". It is a cognate with the modern Swedish word "fånga", as well as the Norwegian word "fange", which means "to catch".
- "Sheed" meaning to spill liquids, most likely derived from the word "shed" in the sense of getting rid of something.
- "Duck" a common term of affection towards both men and women as in "Tow rate owd duck?". "Are you all right dear?" Duck being derived from the Saxon word "ducas" as a term of respect, which by another route is where the word "Duke" arises from in English. Duck in this context may also relate to the Roman military honorific "Dux", meaning troop or tribal leader, but it is unclear if ducas pre-dates Dux or if they are etymologically related.
- "Spanwanned" (agricultural) meaning the state of being stuck astride a wall whilst attempting to climb over it. Probably from the Saxon "spannan winnan", Span Woe.
- "Kidda" meaning mate, friend, or to refer to a child or family member. Compare to "kiddo" which is used in parts of North America for a similar purpose.
- "Bank" meaning hill; also "upbank" and "downbank" for uphill and downhill.
In popular culture
A popular cartoon called May un Mar Lady, created by Dave Follows, appears in The Sentinel newspaper and is written in the Potteries dialect. Previously The Sentinel has carried other stories in the dialect, most notably the Jabez stories written by Wilfred Bloor under the pseudonym of A Scott Alan Povey's Owd Grandad Piggott stories which have aired on BBC Radio Stoke for a number of years are recited in the Potteries dialect by the author.
The Potteries accent is much more difficult to imitate than the better known Cockney, Scouse, Brummie or Geordie; and few actors from outside the Potteries have managed to master it. Neither in the 1952 film "The Card" nor in the 1976 TV series "Clayhanger", did any actor give a reasonable rendition of the accent.
- "Sir Gawain & The Green Knight". Stoke & Staffordshire > Entertainment > Poetry. BBC. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- Peterson, Clifford J. "The Pearl-Poet and John Massey of Cotton, Cheshire". The Review of English Studies, New Series. (1974) 25.99 pp. 257–266.
- Langston, Brett. "Cheshire Towns: Cotton". UK and Ireland Genealogy. Genuki. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- Head, Dominic (2006). Dominic Head, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (Third ed.). UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 214. ISBN 978-0-521-83179-6. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. B. New York, London: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006. pp. 19–21 and 160–161. ISBN 0-393-92833-0
- "Web Resources for Pearl-poet Study: A Vetted Selection". Univ. of Calgary. Retrieved 1 April 2007.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Edited J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon, revised Norman Davis, 1925. introduction, xv. ASIN B000IPU84U
- Cooper, Betty. "John Ward (1781–1870)". North Staffordshire Coalfield. The Phoenix Trust, North Staffordshire Coalfield. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- Birks, Steve. "The history of the Potteries dialect". BBC Stoke & Staffordshire-Voices. BBC. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- Patterns of Labour – Work and Social Change in the Pottery Industry. Richard Whipp. Routlidge 1990
- Helliwell, Katie. "BBC Stoke's Katie Helliwell investigates – do kids understand Potteries dialect?". BBC Stoke; Listen to Stoke Accents. BBC. Retrieved 26 March 2012.
- The Wilfred Bloor Papers http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/li/specarc/archives/bloor.html
- "Dave Follows – tributes to the cartoonists' cartoonist". BBC Stoke & Staffordshire. British Broadcasting Corporation. October 2003. Retrieved 14 May 2007.
- Arfur Tow Crate in Staffy Cher ISBN 0-905074-00-9
- The 2nd book of Arfur Tow Crate in Staffy Cher ISBN 0-905074-01-7
- Sounds Familiar? – Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects from across the UK on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website
- The Survey of English Dialects (University of Leeds)
- The Survey of English Dialects (Yorkshire Dialect Society)
- Extracts from the survey (British Library)
- Potteries Dialect links
- May un Mar Lady Examples
- Brief History of Potteries Dialect on BBC website
- Dialect words as collected by Peter Roy Turner from Brown Edge Staffordshire
- Contemplation upon the origins and usage of the Potteries dialect