Thursday, 17 September 2015


Language pitches its tent,
next day strikes camp, moves on.*

Last week I went to a talk on Cumbrian folk songs by Sue Allan (with singing), and then a couple of days later a lecture on 'The Disappearing Dictionary' by the linguist, Professor David Crystal (the dictionary at risk of vanishing is Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary 1898-1905).

Cumbrian songs and dialect poetry abound in lovely words like snecklifter, a word which is now used by the Jennings' Brewery at Cockermouth as the name for one of its beers.  When I went to Shetland I discovered that we share Norse words with the most northerly archipelago of the British Isles - for example gey (very) and thrang (busy).  The current Edinburgh Makar, Christine de Luca, who grew up in Walls, Shetland, writes in both Shetlandic and English.  Here's the opening of her poem 'Gaet-markers' (from North End of Eden):

At da stert, dey wir a makkin o wirds.

I've occasionally included dialect words in my own poems.  I wrote "Prinked" for the Cockermouth flood and it began:

The streets were clagged and clarty.

I've stolen the lowland Scots word keek (peep, take a quick look) from over the border.  One of my Christmas poems described

A robin, which - instead of keeking 
behind a haw curtain - came to his hand
for crumbs.
                     ('Robin' from The Art of Gardening)

But when David Crystal proffered a sample of Cumberland dialect words from Joseph Wright's dictionary the audience recognised only about 20 per cent of them.  He said the same is true all over the country.

But he pointed out that, although we have lost words, new words and usages are coming into English worldwide. He gave the example of the word robot in South Africa for traffic lights (think robot policemen). It was only a few days later that I remembered that the word robot originally came into English from the Czech writer, Karel Capek.  Language is always on the move.

I thought about the use of dialect words in poetry.  Norman Nicholson used Cumbrian words such as brogging (marking the route of a tidal crossing), syke (ditch), skear (a tidal shingle bank).  In 'Cornthwaite' he riffed on dialect words from the origin of his middle name.

Adam Thorpe's 'On a Photograph of a Wainwright's shop' (Voluntary) is full of words which have disappeared along with the occupation of wainwright: thill, jackwain, rave, liners.  The poem ends:

Here is where the old world got upgraded
and our nescience unfolded, that day
the doors closed on the dark and the sign said SOLD.

I asked David Crystal about the difference between a language and a dialect.  His answer was that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.    Well, Scotland has a parliament, so I will not be drawn into whether Scots (Lallans) is a dialect or a language.  Kathleen Jamie said that she originally wrote her beautiful poem 'Skeins o' Geese' (The Queen of Sheba) in standard English but it didn't sound right - it was too wooden.  So she rewrote it in Scots and the result, I think, is perfect.  It begins:

Skeins o' geese write a word
across the sky.  A word
struck lik a gong
afore I wis born.
The sky moves like cattle, lowin.

(It shows how language moves on -  Mac just tried to correct lowin to login!)

I think it would be fun to reinstate some of our lost Cumbrian dialect words.  I'm going to make a start with two of the lost words from Wright's dictionary:

Scroggins! (a useful mild expletive), as in Scroggins! I've burnt the toast.

Stuffment (junk - which my Nottinghamshire friend calls rammel).  My garage is full of stuffment.

Language can time-travel too.

     * © Mary Robinson 2015 (from 'D', one of a series of alphabet poems I have recently completed).

You can read Kathleen Jamie's 'Skeins o' Geese' at

Christine de Luca's 'Gaet-markers' is on the Scottish Poetry Library website: 
and go to poetry > poets > De Luca, Christine > poems

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