Northumbrian dialect

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Northumbrian dialect
Native toEngland
RegionNorthumberland and County Durham
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 historic English region of Northumbria, which includes most of present-day North East England. This may include such varieties as:

This article focuses only on the final variety, most commonly known in academic literature as Northumbrian English or Northumbrian dialect.

Dialect division in the 19th century[edit]

Alexander John Ellis placed the majority of both Northumberland and 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 north Northumberland around the Cheviot hills, which was deemed to be Scots-speaking, as well as upper Weardale, Teesdale, and part of south Durham below the southern boundary of the Durham Coalfield, which were all considered part of the 'West Northern' dialect group, and thus spoke varieties more closely related to Cumbrian and Richmondshire dialects.[5] Like Cumbrian, the dialect of south Durham was subject to greater Norse influence than the rest of Durham and Northumberland. [6] This is evident by the fact that streams in south Durham are typically known as ‘becks’ (from the Old Norse ‘bekkr’), while the rest of Durham and the entirety of Northumberland use the term ‘burn’ (from the Old English ‘burna’).



A 19th century dialect map indicating the range of the Northumbrian burr within Northumberland and Durham. The limit of the burr is shown by the outline.
  • In Northumberland and north County Durham /ɹ/ is traditionally pronounced [ʁ(ʷ)] or perhaps even [ʀ], a feature known as the Northumbrian burr. Once a widespread feature, the burr was commonplace in 19th century Tyneside speech and was found as far south as Durham City in the 18th century.[7] Nowadays this sound is largely confined to older residents in rural Northumberland.
  • /hw/ is traditionally realized as [ʍ], particularly in rural Northumberland and Weardale.
  • In contrast to most other varieties of Northern English, the traditional dialects of Northumberland and County Durham are largely H-retaining. However, H-dropping is now reported on Wearside (see the article about Mackem).[8]
  • 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, producing waa for wall needfu for needful. [9]
Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ
Stop p b t d t͡ʃ d͡ʒ k ɡ
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). 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 north and west Northumberland, the vowel /oʊ/ 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, the same process can happen to the /ɒ/ sound, so "cod" would be pronounced the same as "curd".
  • The vowel sound [ɔː] as in call corresponds to [aː] (represented by aa or more traditionally aw). And so call, walk and talk are caal, waak and taak in Northumbrian.
    • This creates some minimal pairs based upon phonemic vowel length, such as te tak /tak/ ("to take" in some dialects, such as those of Wearside) vs. te taak /taːk/
  • The diphthong [aʊ̯] in words such as down and town corresponds to the long vowel [uː] (written as "oo"), therefore down and town are "doon" and "toon" in Northumbrian. However, it is shortened to [ʊ] when followed by [nd], so "pound" and "found" are "pund" and "fund".
  • Long vowel [uː] in words such as book and cook typically corresponds to other sounds, such as [jʉː] or [ʉ.ə], as in the word skeul (school).
  • 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".[10] However, older forms such as baith, stane and hame, which are shared with Scots, survive in some Northumbrian dialects.[11]
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.[12]

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,[13] 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.[14] The status of Scots and Northumbrian as either languages or dialects therefore remains open to debate.[15]


  • 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 laifs (loaves), wifes (wives) and shelfs (shelves)[16]
  • T–V distinction: Use of the singular second-person pronouns thoo or tha and thee in Durham and south Northumberland. These forms are not found in north Northumberland where 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 south Northumberland. In north Northumberland Aa'm (I am) is favoured as in Scots and Standard English.[17]
  • In Northumberland and the majority of Durham the definite article is unreduced as in Standard English and Scots. In Weardale, Teesdale, and parts of south Durham the definite article is reduced to t' as in Yorkshire and Cumbrian.[18]
  • The English verb "to be able" is in Northumbrian in the older form 'te can', for example "aa used te cud sing" 'i used to be able to sing'.[19]


Some Northumbrian words include:[20][21]

  • aa / aw - I
  • aboot - about
  • aalreet or aareet - a variation on "alright" or "hello" (often used in the phrase "aalreet mate"). The "l" sound is also often dropped, meaning it is pronounced as "aa'reet"
  • 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 - "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"[25]
  • hairn (or hen) - similar to "hinny", see below
  • hinny a term of endearment - "Honey"[24]
  • hoose - house
  • ho'wair, ho'way or ha'way - "come on"
  • te hoy - to throw [24]
  • hyem - "home"
  • us- me, for example Pass us the gully meaning "Pass me the knife"
  • ket - sweets
  • 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/maa 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" as in What ye deein te wu? means "What are you doing to us?"
  • 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. ^ Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ a b c d "The Northumbrian Language Society".
  3. ^ "North East dialect origins and the meaning of 'Geordie'". Archived from the original on 2008-02-24. Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  4. ^ Riley. Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource Book for North East English Dialect. CreateSpace. p. 9.
  5. ^ 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[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ Beal, Joan C. (2012). Urban North-eastern English: Tyneside to Teesside (Dialects of English). Edinburgh University Press.
  7. ^ Hodson, Jane (2017). Dialect and Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century. Routledge. ISBN 978-1409463788.
  8. ^ Beal, Joan C. (2010). An Introduction to Regional Englishes: Dialect Variation in England. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0748621170.
  9. ^ 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.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  10. ^ Griffiths, Bill (2002). North East Dialect: Survey and Word List. Centre for Northern Studies. p. 48. ISBN 0951147285.
  11. ^ Bill Griffiths: A Dictionary of North East Dialect, 2004, Northumbria University Press, ISBN 1-904794-16-5, p. 79
  12. ^ "Visit Berwick | Holidays in Berwick-upon-Tweed UK | Official Tourist Information Website". Retrieved 2020-12-11.
  13. ^ "Newcastle English (Geordie)". 2000-05-06. Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  14. ^ Riley. Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource Book for North East English Dialect. CreateSpace. p. 10.
  15. ^ "Can Scots be English? - BadLinguistics". Retrieved 2013-03-15.
  16. ^ Ridley, Brendan (2016). Geordie and Northumbria Dialect: Resource book for North East English dialect. p. 81.
  17. ^ Pietsch, Lukas (2008). Agreement, Gender, Relative Clauses. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 136.
  18. ^ Transactions of the Philological Society. 1870–72: 86. 1872. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  19. ^
  20. ^ "Northumbrian Language Dictionary".
  21. ^ 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]