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Northumbrian dialect

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Northumbrian dialect
Native toEngland
RegionNorthumberland and Durham (Northumbria)
Native speakers
At max ~307k (2001)[1]
Early forms
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Location of the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham in England
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Northumbrian dialect or Northumbrian English is any one of several traditional English dialects spoken in the historic counties of Northumberland and County Durham. The term Northumbrian can refer to the region of Northumbria but can also refer specifically to the county of Northumberland.[2] This article focuses on the former definition and thus includes varieties from throughout the wider region.

The traditional Northumbrian dialect is a moribund older form of the dialect spoken in the area.[3] It is closely related to Scots and Cumbrian and shares with them a common origin in Old Northumbrian.[4]

The traditional dialect has spawned multiple modern varieties, and Northumbrian dialect can also be used to broadly include all of them:

Dialect divisions[edit]

19th century[edit]

Alexander John Ellis, a 19th century linguist and philologist, divided Northumberland and Durham into three main dialect groups based on their linguistic features. Ellis considered the bulk of Northumberland and northern County Durham as belonging to the 'North Northern' dialect group. This group was deemed to be a transitional variety between other Northern dialects (those north of the Humber-Lune Line) and Scots, but overall still considered a form of Northern English. However, a small portion of northwestern Northumberland around the Cheviot hills was deemed to be Scots-speaking and therefore categorised as a variety of the Scots language. The southern part of County Durham was considered part of the 'West Northern' dialect group, which was deemed to be more closely related to Richmondshire and Cumbrian dialects, especially that of the Vale of Eden.[6] Like Cumbrian, the dialect of south Durham was subject to greater Scandinavian influence than the rest of Durham and Northumberland.[7] Scandinavian influence is evident in the naming of streams in south Durham, which are typically named ‘becks’ (from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’). In contrast, 'burns' (from the Old English ‘burna’) are found in north Durham and Northumberland.

21st century[edit]

Urban North East English dialects are a group of English dialects spoken in urban areas of the North East of England, including major cities such as Newcastle upon Tyne, Sunderland, and Middlesbrough. These dialects have emerged as a result of the region's rapid urbanization during the 19th and 20th centuries, which brought about significant social and demographic changes. In comparison to traditional dialects, urban North East English dialects have undergone a greater degree of dialect levelling. A tripartite division is recognised among modern urban dialects in the North East of England, which distinguishes between the northern, central, and southern urban dialects: [8]

  • Northern Urban North-Eastern English: Tyneside and urban Northumberland
  • Central Urban North-Eastern English: Sunderland and much of Durham unitary authority
  • Southern Urban North-Eastern English: Teesside, Hartlepool and Darlington

Central and northern urban dialects retain a decidedly Northumbrian base, but have been shaped by a standard English superstrate, resulting in hybrid dialects that incorporate elements of both traditional dialects and more standardised forms of English.[9] On the other hand, the southern urban dialects have been subject to more significant dialect restructuring, resulting in a dialect which, while still North Eastern in character, lacks more marked Northumbrian forms such as 'gan' (to go) and 'divvent' or 'dinnet' (don't) that survive in Tyneside, Wearside and Durham.[10]



A 19th century dialect map of Northumberland and north Durham. The limit of the Northumbrian burr is shown by the outline.
  • Northumbrian burr: the uvular pronunciation of /r/ as [ʁ(ʷ)] was prevalent in traditional dialects throughout most of Northumberland (exceptions being the extreme west of the county and Tynemouth) and northern parts County Durham within the Tyne valley.[11] The Northumbrian burr was generally absent from Wearside/Durham and South Shields dialects; however, it could be found sporadically in areas of the Wear valley as far south as Kelloe.[6] Nowadays, the feature is mostly restricted to elderly rural residents of Northumberland.
  • /hw/ is traditionally realised as [ʍ] in Northumberland and upper Weardale; on Tyneside and throughout the rest of Durham, it is typically /w/ as in Standard English.[12]
  • In contrast to most varieties of Northern English, traditional dialects north of the Tees are largely H-retaining. Northumberland and north Durham dialects are fully H-retaining while south Durham dialects occupy a transitional zone and exhibit variable H-retention.[12]
  • As with most Northern English dialects, final /ŋ/ sound is reduced to [n] e.g. gannin for “ganging” (“going”).
  • In common with most dialects of England, Northumbrian has lost /x/. Scots /x/ typically corresponds to /f/ in Northumbrian cognates, compare Scots loch [lɔx] and cleuch/cleugh [kluːx] with Northumbrian lough [lɒf] and cleugh [kljʊf].
  • Unlike most Northern English dialects /l/ is clear in all cases and never velarised.
  • The most conservative forms of the dialect undergo L-vocalization as in Scots, thus wall is waa and needful is needfu.[13]
Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p b t d t͡ʃ d͡ʒ k ɡ ʔ
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ ʁ h
Approximant (ɹ) j ʍ w
Lateral l


  • Nurse–north merger: [ɔː] in words such as bord (bird) forst (first) throughout Northumberland and north Durham. This is a result of the Northumbrian burr modifying adjacent vowels.
  • [ɪ] in words such as ‘’blinnd’’ (blind) and “finnd” (find).
  • Occurring throughout much of north & west Northumberland, the GOAT vowel in words like "phone" and "tone" moves closer to [ɜː], so "phone" would be pronounced the same as the word "fern". Amongst those with stronger accents, a similar vowel can be found in the LOT vowel, so "cod" would be pronounced with a short œ sound.
  • Phonemic long /aː/ (written aa or more traditionally aw). This creates some minimal pairs based upon phonemic vowel length, for example gan [gan] "go" vs. gawn [gaːn] "going".
  • Preservation of Old English /uː/ (the sound of Southern English oo), therefore down and town are "doon" and "toon" in Northumbrian. It also retains the old English pronunciation of [ʊ] when followed by [nd], so "pound" and "found" are "pund" and "fund".
  • eu or ui in words like eneugh, muin and buit, partially corresponds to Scots Vowel 7. The pronunciation of this vowel varies depending on the dialect.
  • The FACE vowel is typically [ɪə] or [ɪa].
  • Lack of foot–strut split, as in other Northern English varieties.
  • Diphthongisation of Northern Middle English [aː] to i+e in south Northumberland and north Durham, producing byeth, styen and (h)yem for "both", "stone" and "home";[9] and to byath, styan and (h)yam in south Durham. Older forms such as baith, stane and hame, which are shared with Scots, survive in some Northumbrian dialects.[14]
  • [iː] in words such as heed and deed meaning “head” & “dead” (compare Scots “heid” & “deid” and Yorkshire “heead” & “deead”)
Monophthongs of Northumbrian (Tyneside)
Front Central Back
Unrounded Rounded
Short Long Short Long
Close ɪ ʊ
Close-mid øː ə
Open-mid ɛ ɛː ɔː
Open a ɒ ɒː


Diphthongs of Northumbrian (Tyneside)
Front Central Back
Start point Front ai æu
Back oe


Berwick-upon-Tweed is unique within Northumberland. The local speech has characteristics of the North Northumbrian dialect and due to its geographical location, has characteristics of the East Central Scots dialect as well.[15]

A sociological study of the Anglo-Scottish border region conducted in the year 2000 found that locals of Alnwick, 30 miles (48 km) south of Berwick, associated the Berwick accent with Scottish influence. Conversely, those from Eyemouth, Scotland, 9 miles (14 km) north of Berwick, firmly classed Berwick speech as English, identifying it as Northumbrian.

Classification in relation to English and Scots[edit]

The Northumbrian Language Society (NLS), founded in 1983 to research, preserve and promote the Northumbrian language variety, considers it divergent enough to be not a dialect of Modern Standard English but, rather, a related but separate Anglic language of its own, since it is largely not comprehensible by standard English speakers.[3][16] Northumbrian has perhaps an even closer relationship with Modern Scots,[17] and both the NLS regard as distinct languages derived from Old English but close relatives;[3] however, mainstream scholarly sources regard them as essentially the same language, albeit with minor differences. The similarities are not commonly or formally recognised possibly due to sensitivities on both sides of the border.[18] The status of Scots and Northumbrian as either languages or dialects therefore remains open to debate.[19]


  • Northumbrian includes some weak plurals such as ee/een (eye/eyes), coo/kye (cow/cows) and shough/shoon (shoe/shoes) that survived from Old English into Northumbrian but have become strong plurals in Standard Modern English – ox/oxen and child/children being exceptions. Regular Northumbrian plurals which correspond to irregular in Standard English include loafs (loaves), wifes (wives) and shelfs (shelves)[2]
  • T–V distinction: Use of the singular second-person pronouns thoo or tha and thee in Durham and south Northumberland. In north Northumberland only ye is encountered.
  • aw’s (I is) and thoo's (thou is) are the first and second person present forms of the verb "to be" in Durham and south Northumberland. In north Northumberland aw'm (I am) is used as in Scots and Standard English.[20]
  • In Northumberland and north Durham the definite article is unreduced as in Standard English and Scots. This is considered a peculiarity among Northern English dialects.
  • In south Durham the definite article is traditionally reduced to [t] or [d], usually written as t'. An isogloss running just north of Bishop Auckland separates the two varieties.[21][22]
  • The English verb "to be able" is in Northumbrian in the older form 'te can', for example aw used te cud sing meaning I used to be able to sing.[23][24]


In 1883 Prince Louis-Lucien Bonaparte was granted a civil list pension for his work on English dialects. His dialect studies draw upon both written texts and the results of field work, which consisted of the direct interrogation of native speakers. In 1862 he published a compilation of 24 dialectal translations of the Old Testament passage, The Song of Solomon, which he commissioned from local dialectologists from throughout England and southern Scotland. According to a register of his known works, six Biblical translations were commissioned in the Northumbrian dialects, four of which appear in The Song of Solomon.[25][26]

Northumberland Whe's yon it cums ower the moor like pillors o reek, saented wi marrh an wiv aa the poothurs o the maerchint?
Weardale Whe's this at cums out ud wilderness leyke pillers uv reek, sented wih myrrh an wih ōh powders ud merchant?
Newcastle Whe's this that cums oot o the wildorness like pillors o reek, sçainted wi myrrh an wiv aa pouthers o the maerchant?
Scots Wha's yon cumin oot o the wilderness like til lunts o reek, smellin o myrrh an wi aa the pouthers o the mairchan?
English Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and with all powders of the merchant?


Some Northumbrian words include:[27][28]

  • aw / aa - I
  • aboot - about
  • alreet or aareet / awreet - a variation on "alright" or "hello" (often used in the phrase "aalreet mate").
  • aye - yes
  • bairn/grandbairn - child/grandchild
  • bari - "good" or "lovely"
  • banter - chat/gossip
  • belter - "really good", used in the film Purely Belter
  • bess - "please ya bess" for "please yourself"
  • te boule - to roll, however te boule aboot means to "mess around"
  • bray - to overpower or defeat someone, usually in a physical sense
  • byer - cattle shed
  • cannet or canna - cannot
  • canny - "pleasant", or like in Scots "quite" (therefore something could be described as "canny canny")
  • chud - chewing gum
  • clart or clarts - "mud" as in "there's clarts on yor beuts", or to act foolishly as in "divvent clart aboot".
  • cuddy - a small horse or a pony
  • te dee - do
  • deeks - "look" as in "Gie’s a deeks" - "Gimme a look"
  • dinnet, divvent or dinna - "don't"
  • divvie - an insult, referring to a stupid person
  • doon - down
  • ee - oh, an exclamation of shock
  • feyther, fatther, or fadder - "father"
  • te gan - to go ("gannin" or "gaan" = going)
  • gadgie - man
  • git awesh - "go away"
  • geet, varry - very
  • gie's- "Give me", compare "Gimme"
  • had / haud - "hold" example: keep ahad means "keep ahold" or "look after", and haud yor gob means "keep quiet".]
  • hev or hae - have
  • hacky - "dirty"
  • haddaway - "get away"
  • hairn (or hen) - similar to "hinny", see below
  • hinny a term of endearment - "Honey"
  • hoose - house
  • ho'wair, ho'way or ha'way - "come on"
  • te hoy - to throw
  • hyem - "home"
  • us- me, for example Pass us the gully meaning "Pass me the knife"
  • ket - sweets
  • te knaw / te knaa - know
  • lekky - electricity, or electric
  • te lend - often used for borrow, (lend us a bi meaning "Can I borrow a pen?")
  • like - used as a filler in many sentences; usually every other word, e.g. like, is he on aboot me or like, summat, like?
  • mair for "more" (compare with German "mehr")
  • mam/ma a variation of Mother
  • man - often used as a generic term of address, as in "Giv uz it heor noo man" or "haway man"
  • marra - Friend. Used like "mate" - aareet marra meaning "hello friend")
  • me or ma - my (compare: myself > meself or mesel)
  • mollycoddle - overprotect, "wrap in cotton wool"
  • muckle - similar to "canny", in the sense of meaning "quite". It can also mean "big", for instance "Yon hoose hez a muckle windae" means "that house has a big window"
  • ner, na or nar - no
  • neb - nose (nebby = nosey)
  • neet - night
  • nettie - toilet
  • nivvor - never
  • noo - now,
  • nowt - nothing
  • owt - anything
  • pet - a term of address or endearment towards a woman or a child
  • plodge - to stomp about or wade through something ungracefully
  • radge or radgie - crazy
  • sel - "self" as in mesel = myself, yersel = yourself, hesel = himself, horsel = herself, waselves, thaselves
  • shuttin for "shooting" thus simply shortening the "oo" vowel sound
  • snek - nose
  • spelk - a splinter
  • stot - to bounce. A well-known local bread bun called a 'stottie cake' receives its name from the fact the dough is 'stotted' about when being made.
  • summat or summick - something
  • tab - cigarette
  • tiv or te - to. The former is usually used when the following word begins with a vowel. There's nowt tiv it - "there's nothing to it"
  • toon - town (or specifically Newcastle)
  • wa - "our". used in a more general sense unlike "wor" below as in "Divvint touch wa bags" means "Don't touch our bags"
  • willent, winnit - "won't"
  • wor - our, Used primarily to denote a family member, such as "wor bairn"
  • wu - "us" in Northumberland and Tyneside as in What ye deein te wu? means "What are you doing to us?". "us" is used in Durham and Wearside.
  • yark - verb meaning to hit or move abrasively. Believed to be a corruption of "jerk"
  • ye or 'ee for you as in What are 'ee deein meaning "What are you doing?"
  • yor, thee - your

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Germanic and Other Languages".
  2. ^ a b Riley, Brendan (2016). Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource book for North East English dialect. p. 81.
  3. ^ a b c d "The Northumbrian Language Society".
  4. ^ Riley. Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource Book for North East English Dialect. CreateSpace. p. 9.
  5. ^ "North East dialect origins and the meaning of 'Geordie'". Northeastengland.talktalk.net. Archived from the original on 24 February 2008. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  6. ^ a b page 39 of On Early English Pronunciation, Part V. The existing phonology of English dialects compared with that of West Saxon speech, A.J. Ellis, Truebner & Co, London, 1889 [1]
  7. ^ Beal, Joan C. (2012). Urban North-eastern English: Tyneside to Teesside (Dialects of English). Edinburgh University Press.
  8. ^ Beal, Joan, C.; Burbano-Elizondo, Lourdes; Llamas, Carmen (2012). Urban North-eastern English: Tyneside to Teesside (Dialects of English). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ a b Griffiths, Bill (2002). North East Dialect: Survey and Word List. Centre for Northern Studies. p. 48. ISBN 0951147285.
  10. ^ Kerswill, Paul (23 July 2018). "Dialect formation and dialect change in the Industrial Revolution: British vernacular English in the nineteenth century". In Wright, Laura (ed.). Southern English Varieties Then and Now. De Gruyter. pp. 8–38. ISBN 9783110577549.
  11. ^ Heslop, Oliver (1893–1894). Northumberland words. A glossary of words used in the County of Northumberland and on the Tyneside. Volume II. Oxford University Press.
  12. ^ a b Upton, C.; Parry, D.; Widdowson, J. D. A. (1994). Survey of English dialects: The dictionary and grammar. London: Routledge.
  13. ^ Heslop, Oliver (1893–1894). Northumberland words. A glossary of words used in the County of Northumberland and on the Tyneside. Volume II. Oxford University Press.
  14. ^ Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p. 79
  15. ^ "Visit Berwick | Holidays in Berwick-upon-Tweed UK | Official Tourist Information Website". visitberwick.com. Retrieved 11 December 2020.
  16. ^ "Home". Northumbrian Language Society. Retrieved 15 September 2021.
  17. ^ "Newcastle English (Geordie)". Hawaii.edu. 6 May 2000. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  18. ^ Riley. Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource Book for North East English Dialect. CreateSpace. p. 10.
  19. ^ "Can Scots be English? - BadLinguistics". Badlinguistics.posterous.com. 7 June 2010. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  20. ^ Pietsch, Lukas (2008). Agreement, Gender, Relative Clauses. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 136.
  21. ^ Orton, Harold (1933). The phonology of a south Durham dialect: Descriptive, Historical, and Comparative. London: Keagan Paul Trench Trubner. p. 18.
  22. ^ Transactions of the Philological Society. 1870–72: 86. 1872. {{cite journal}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  23. ^ http://www.NorthumbrianLanguageSociety.co.uk
  24. ^ Palgrave, Francis Milnes Temple; English Dialect Society (1997). Hetton-Le-Hole Pitmatic Talk 100 Years Ago A Dialect Dictionary of 1896. Johnstone-Carr. p. 9.
  25. ^ "Mapping English". Northumbrian Words Project. 11 March 2019. Retrieved 5 June 2023.
  26. ^ Song Of Solomon, In Twenty-Four English Dialects. 1862. ISBN 1166258874.
  27. ^ "Northumbrian Language Dictionary". geordiedictionary.tripod.com.
  28. ^ Northumbrian Language Society. "Northumbrian Language Society". www.NorthumbrianLanguageSociety.co.uk.

Further reading[edit]

  • Thomas Moody, The Mid-Northumbrian Dialect, 2007
  • Bill Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2005
  • Cecil Geeson, A Northumberland & Durham Word book, 1969
  • Richard Oliver Heslop, Northumberland Words. A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Northumberland & on the Tyneside. 1893

External links[edit]