Geordie Dictionary | Dialect Origins | 'Mackems' and Jamies (Sunderland)

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Geordie Origins

Dialect Origins

One of the most distinctive and best known features of the North East is its famous dialect which is a lively, friendly, endearing but sometimes impenetrable feature of the region's heritage. During this century the North East `language' has been somewhat watered down perhaps through the influence of mass-media, but it is still distinguished by its often musical tones and peculiar words that often originate from the ancient languages of Germanic and Scandinavian Europe.

The dialects of the region take numeorous forms such as the Geordie of Tyneside, the Northumbrian dialect, the Wearside dialect of Sunderland and Pitmatic in parts of Durham as well as the south Durham and Teesside accents. To understand the origins of the region's`language' we need to go back to the end of the fourth century A.D to a period which signified the end of the Roman occupation in Britain.

The Roman departure left the native Welsh speaking Britons of Hadrian's Wall country vulnerable to the raids of the Picts so the Ancient British people had no choice but to look abroad for mercenaries to fight and protect the Tyne valley in return for land. The mercenary soldiers employed for the task were called Angles and Saxons, a fierce sea-roving pagan race originating from Angulus (now in southern Denmark) and Saxony (in northern Germany).

A ninth century document entitled the Historia Brittonum records that the Ancient British king called Vortigern despatched forty keels (boats) of Anglo-Saxons under Ochta and Ebissa to fight the Picts in return for land `in the North by the Wall'. If this is true then some of the very earliest Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain were in the Wall Country. The granted land may well have been somewhere in the area we now call Tyneside.

At first the Anglo-Saxons were effective in the task for which they were employed but the Ancient Britons soon came to regret the employment of these foreign mercenaries who saw an opportunity for a long-term colonisation and invasion of Britain. The native people would ultimately lose out.

The Angles and Saxons began to increasingly raid and settle the southern and eastern coast of Britain and in the north their initial settlement somewhere along the Tyne gradually developed into the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Bernicia. This kingdom and its people slowly expanded northward towards Bamburgh and Edinburgh where they considerably influenced the language and customs of Scotland. Later Bernicia expanded south towards the River Humber until it ultimately developed into a great kingdom called Northumbria.

The influence of the Angles from southern Denmark (rather than the German Saxons who settled in southern England) was very strong along the valley of the River Tyne. It is perhaps not surprising that Tyneside was later to produce one of the greatest figures of Anglo Saxon England the Venerable Bede. It is worth mentioning that some of Bede's Latin poems seem to translate more succesfully into Geordie than into modern day English !

Oldest Living English?

The Angles and Saxons brought with them to Britain a language which was the forerunner of modern English and indeed it was the Angles of Denmark that gave England its name - meaning the Angle land. Over the centuries the old Anglo Saxon language changed beyond recognition with the gradual introduction of Latin, Norman-French and other foreign influences.

Today the only part of England where the original Anglo-Saxon language has survived to any great extent is of course the North East. Here the old language survives in a number of varieties, the most notable of which are Northumbrian and Geordie. It is from the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian language of the Angles that the unique local dialects of Northumberland and Durham primarily owe their origins.

Geordie Words Angle origins

Distinctively Geordie and Northumbrian words are more than 80 % Angle in origin, compared to standard English, where the figure is less than 30 %. Modern English words by comaprison are predominantly of Latin origin because modern English derives from the dialects of southern England which were continuosly influenced by the Latin and Norman French favoured by the educated classes of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Geordie words should not therefore be seen as sloppy pronounciation or a poor use of language, as they are in fact of great antiquity. Indeed many old words and phrases commonly used in the old works of Chaucer and Shakespeare which are no longer used in other parts of Britain have survived as common usage in the North East.

Of course some Geordie words are of more recent origin or are corruptions or words borrowed from other regions, but often the similarities between Anglo-Saxon and Geordie can be quite surprising. For example Geordies in the same way as the Anglo-Saxons use the word `WIFE' as term for a woman whether she is married or not, while the Anglo-Saxon word ALD (OLD) is similar to the Geordie (AAD). Thus in Anglo-Saxon ALD WIFE literally meant `Old Woman' .

Sometimes a Geordie may appear to be using words incorrectly , but this may not always be the case. For example a Geordie may say Aaal Larn yer (meaning I'll teach you) as in the Anglo Saxon Laeran which meant teach. Other Geordie words of Anglo Saxon origin include Axe (ask) from the Anglo-Saxon Acsian, Burn meaning stream, Hoppings meaning fayre and Gan which is the Geordie and Anglo saxon word meaning to go.

The unique way in which Geordies and Northumbrians pronounce certain words is also often Anglo-Saxon in origin. Thus Geordie words like Dede, Coo, Cloot, Hoos, Wrang, Strang and Lang are in fact the original Anglo-Saxon pronounciations for Dead, Cow, Clout, House, Wrong, Strong and Long.

These old words have survived in the North East for a number of reasons primarily associated with the region's historical remoteness and isolation from southern England. The turbulent border history of this region was also a major factor in discouraging outside influence although some Viking words have crept into the local dialect from the neighbouring Viking settled areas of Yorkshire, South Durham and Cumbria.

What is a Geordie?

The Anglo-Saxon `Northumbrian' dialects of North Eastern England which we have just discussed take a number of forms which are often loosely termed `Geordie' but technically a Geordie can only be a native of those parts of Northumberland and Durham known as Tyneside. Why is this so ? and what exactly is a Geordie ?.

No-one knows for sure exactly how the residents of Tyneside or perhaps more accurately Newcastle upon Tyne became known as 'Geordies'. One theory is that it was the name given to the workers of the railway pioneer `Geordie' Stephenson, another is that it was a term for a pitman deriving from the use of Stephenson's `Geordie' Lamp.

Certainly Geordie was regularly used to describe a pitman during the nineteenth century and during much of the earlier part of the twentieth century it was applied to most natives of the North East.

An extensive series of monthly magazines published and edited in Newcastle upon Tyne from 1887 to 1891 entitled the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend explored the region's history and heritage in depth and uses the term Geordie more than 30 times.

In almost every instance 'Geordie' is used in a a slightly patronising sense to describe pitmen and their apparently naive ways. Several of the 'Geordies' described are not resident in Tyneside and include 'Geordies' from the mining district north east of Durham city, the Herrington area of Sunderland and Castle Eden on the Durham coast. It was clear that at time Geordie was by a no means a term confined to a native of Tyneside let alone Newcastle.

This would seem to support the theory that pitmen were the true Geordies, a claim also backed by the Tyneside dialect writer Scott Dobson, the author of the popular Larn Yersel' Geordie publication. Dobson, writing in 1973, stated that his grandmother, who was from Byker still thought that miners were the true Geordies.

There was however one notable exception to the 19th century use of the term 'Geordie' for pitmen that is recorded by the Durham historian Fordyce writing in the 1850s. He noted that vessels from the Tyne were called 'Geordies' and those from the Wear were called 'Jamies' (see the page on Mackems).

So it seems there is some evidence to support the idea that the term 'Geordie' could specifically refer to Tynesiders, even in the nineteenth century, but why might Newcastle people - the `Novocastrians' claim to be the true Geordies? A possible answer may be found in an earlier era of history.

Geordies versus Jacobites

The most attractive historical explanation for why Newcastle people are called `Geordies', takes us back to the eighteenth century and the time of the first Jacobite rising which took place in 1715. In the previous year George I, a German protestant, had been appointed as King of England, Scotland and Wales despite the strong claims of the Catholic James Stuart, who was known as `The Old Pretender'.

The claims of Stuart were strongly supported by a large army of Scottish and Northumbrian people called the Jacobites who plotted a rising in Northumberland against the new king under the leadership of General Tom Forster of Bamburgh. Recruits joined Tom Forster, from all parts of Northumberland and every town in the county was visited by Forster's army. All the Northumbrian towns declared support for the Jacobites withthe one major and very important exception of Newcastle on the Tyne, which closed its gates to Forster's men.

Newcastle's trade and livelihood depended so vitally on royal approval that its merchants and gentry could not risk becoming involved in a plot against the new king. There were some Jacobite sympathisers in the town, especially among the working classes, but officially the Newcastle folk had to declare for King `Geordie'. Newcastle's standing as a supporter of King Geordie angered the Jacobites who may well have given the Newcastle people their famous nickname Newcastle people were Geordie's they were the supporters of King George.

The Jacobites were still nevertheless determined to oust the German king with or without the support of the Newcastle Geordies;

And up wi' Geordie, Kirrn milk Geordie,
He has drucken the maltman's ale,
But he'll be nicket ahint the wicket,
And tugget ahint his grey mare's tail.

The rising of the `15 was a total disaster and Newcastle perhaps felt it had made the right decision in being Geordie's supporters. A second rising took place in 1745 when Newcastle once again closed its gates to the Jacobites, who were now supporting the claims of Bonnie Prince Charlie (The Young Pretender). Newcastle faithfully declared its support for King `Geordie' the Second.

Keep yor feet still Geordie Hinny,
Lets be happy through the neet
For Aa may not be sae happy thro' the day,
So give us that bit comfort
Keep yor feet still geordie lad
And divvent drive me bonny dreams away

'Geordie' origins | Geordie Dictionary | 'Mackems' and Jamies

Border Reivers: Robsons, Armstrongs, Charltons... | Surnames | Place-Names


Aal Aboot Geordie by David Simpson

ISBN 978-1901888744

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