Northumbrian dialect

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Northumbrian dialect
Native toEngland
RegionNorthumberland and Durham (Northumbria)
Native speakers
At max ~307k (2001)[1]
Early forms
Old English (Northumbrian)
  • Northern Middle English
    • Early Modern Northern English
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Northumberland and County Durham location map.svg
Location of the historic counties of Northumberland and Durham in England
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The Northumbrian dialect refers to any of several English language varieties spoken in the traditional English region of Northumbria, which includes most of the North East England government region. The traditional Northumbrian dialect is a moribund older form of the dialect spoken in the area[2] which is closely related to Scots and Cumbrian and shares with them a common origin in Northumbrian Old English.[3] However, some consider the Northumbrian dialect a language, citing its lack of mutual intelligibility with Standard English as well as its similarity with Scots.[4]

The traditional dialect has spawned multiple urban varieties:

The term 'Northumbrian' can refer to the region of Northumbria but can also refer specifically to the county of Northumberland.[6] This article focuses on the former definition and thus includes varieties from throughout the wider region, including Durham as well as Northumberland.

Dialect divisions[edit]

19th century[edit]

Alexander John Ellis placed most of Northumberland and northern and central County Durham within his 'North Northern' dialect group, which he deemed to be a transitional variety between other Northern dialects (those north of the Humber-Lune line) and Scots. Exceptions included a small portion of northern Northumberland around the Cheviot hills, which was deemed to be Scots-speaking; and the southern part of County Durham, which was considered part of the 'West Northern' dialect group and more closely resembled the Cumbrian dialect, in particular that of the Eden valley.[7] Like Cumbrian, the dialect of south Durham was subject to greater Norse influence than the rest of Durham and Northumberland.[8] This is evident by the fact that streams in south Durham and Cumbria are typically named ‘becks’ (from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’) while 'burns' (from the Old English ‘burna’) are found in north Durham and Northumberland.

21st century[edit]

A tripartite division is recognised among modern urban dialects:[9]

  • 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



A 19th century dialect map of Northumberland and northern Durham. The limit of the Northumbrian burr is shown by the outline.
  • Northumbrian burr: In Northumberland and northern County Durham /ɹ/ is traditionally pronounced [ʁ(ʷ)] or perhaps even [ʀ] with burr modification penetrating further south into central Durham.[10][11] Nowadays this sound is largely confined to older residents in rural Northumberland.
  • /hw/ is traditionally realised as [ʍ] in rural Northumberland and upper Weardale. On Tyneside and much of Durham it is typically /w/ as in Standard English.[12]
  • In contrast to most other 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 exhibit variable H-dropping akin to parts of Cumbria.[12]
  • As with most Northern English dialects, final /ŋ/ sound is reduced to [n] e.g. waakin for walking.
  • 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 northern/central parts of County Durham. This is a result of the Northumbrian burr modifying adjacent vowels.
  • The letter "i" in words like find, blind or pint is pronounced as [ɪ], as opposed to [aɪ], and so "find" would rhyme with wind (noun) or stint.
  • Occurring throughout much of northern and western 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. gaan or gawn [gaːn] "going".
  • Preservation of (written as 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".
  • Vowel corresponding to Scots Vowel 7 spelled eu or ui in words like beuk, heuk and skuil. 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 or i+a, producing forms such as byeth, styen and hyem for "both", "stone" and "home".[14] However, older forms such as baith, stane and hame, which are shared with Scots, survive in some Northumbrian dialects.[15]
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.[16]

This Dialect has several distinguishing features from the Geordie dialect and features of this dialect include the "Northumbrian burr", a distinct pronunciation of the letter R and elongation of vowels although this feature is not just specific to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

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, founded in 1983 to research, preserve and promote the Northumbrian language variety, considers it as divergent enough to be not a dialect of Modern Standard English but, rather, a separate English (Anglic) language of its own, since it is largely not comprehensible by standard English speakers.[2] Northumbrian has perhaps an even closer relationship with Modern Scots,[17] and both are sometimes considered as distinct languages derived from Old English but close relatives,[2] or as essentially the same language, albeit with minor differences. The similarities are not commonly or formally recognised 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)[6]
  • T–V distinction: Use of the singular second-person pronouns thoo or tha and thee in Durham and southern Northumberland. In northern Northumberland only ye is used.
  • Aa's (I is) and thoo's (thou is) are the first and second person present forms of the verb "to be" in Durham and southern Northumberland. In northern Northumberland Aa'm (I am) is favoured as in Scots and Standard English.[20]
  • In Northumberland and northern/central Durham the definite article is unreduced as in Standard English and Scots. This is considered a peculiarity among Northern English dialects.
    • In southern Durham the definite article is traditionally reduced to [t] or [d] with an isogloss running just north of Bishop Auckland separating the two varieties.[21][22]
  • The English verb "to be able" is in Northumbrian in the older form 'te can', for example aa used te cud sing meaning I used to be able to sing.[23][24]


Some Northumbrian words include:[25][26]

  • aa / aw - I
  • aboot - about
  • aalreet 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
  • belta - "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 - cow house
  • cannot 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"
  • cuddy - a small horse or a pony
  • te dee - do
  • deeks - "look" as in "Gie’s a deeks" - "Gimme a look"
  • divvent, dinnit or dinna - "don't"
  • divvie - an insult, referring to a stupid person
  • doon - down
  • ee - oh, an exclamation of shock
  • fitha, faatha 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"
  • haad / haud - "hold" example: keep a haad means "keep a hold" or "look after", and haad 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 knaa / knaw - 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 c d "The Northumbrian Language Society".
  3. ^ Riley. Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource Book for North East English Dialect. CreateSpace. p. 9.
  4. ^ "Home". Northumbrian Language Society. Retrieved 15 September 2021.
  5. ^ "North East dialect origins and the meaning of 'Geordie'". Archived from the original on 24 February 2008. Retrieved 15 March 2013.
  6. ^ a b Riley, Brendan (2016). Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource book for North East English dialect. p. 81.
  7. ^ 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]
  8. ^ Beal, Joan C. (2012). Urban North-eastern English: Tyneside to Teesside (Dialects of English). Edinburgh University Press.
  9. ^ Beal, Joan, C.; Burbano-Elizondo, Lourdes; Llamas, Carmen (2012). Urban North-eastern English: Tyneside to Teesside (Dialects of English). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Palgrave, Francis Milnes Temple; English Dialect Society (1997). Hetton-Le-Hole Pitmatic Talk 100 Years Ago A Dialect Dictionary of 1896. Johnstone-Carr. p. xi.
  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. ^ Griffiths, Bill (2002). North East Dialect: Survey and Word List. Centre for Northern Studies. p. 48. ISBN 0951147285.
  15. ^ Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p. 79
  16. ^ "Visit Berwick | Holidays in Berwick-upon-Tweed UK | Official Tourist Information Website". Retrieved 11 December 2020.
  17. ^ "Newcastle English (Geordie)". 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". 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. ^
  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. ^ "Northumbrian Language Dictionary".
  26. ^ Northumbrian Language Society. "Northumbrian Language Society".

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]