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The Northumbrian Language Society

Registered Charity No: 515179
Affiliated to the Association of Northumberland Local History Societies
President: Katrina Porteous FNLS


The Northumbrian Language Society has existed since 1983 to promote, preserve, research, publish and enjoy those rich dialects from Northumberland to NW Durham (including Tyneside), descendants of the speech of the Angles, which have survived particularly in the Northumbrian 'burr' area. Meetings are held in different locations and recent publications include books and CDs by Katrina Porteous and Fred Reed. 


"To research, preserve and promote the Northumbrian language."


Everyone knows at least some of the words of "The Blaydon Races", that anthem of North-East England, while the sounds of the area's speech are now familiar to many outside the area through such T.V. programmes as "Auf Wiedersehen, Pet" & "When the Boat Comes In" and even radio's "The Archers". But there' s more to the Northumbrian language than "gannin alang the Scotswood Road" and "hawway the lads" -- this rich, lively and expressive language is inherited directly from the Anglian speech of the Venerable Bede, Saint Cuthbert and, later, Harry Hotspur, with its own ancient and continuing literature. As a means of communication within the Northumbrian community it has survived for one and a half thousand years.

Yet modern influences - greater mobility, compulsory education, national broadcasting networks and contact with other English-speaking countries - are ironing out local differences in speech, and a wealth of vocabulary and characteristic accents are in danger of dying out. National schools' inspectors have acknowledged that a locality's own language is just as valid as any other form of English and should not be deemed "inferior". However, the decline in the use of Northumbrian words & pronunciations has been marked over the last century -- so, the Northumbrian Language Society was formed in 1983.

The Northumbrian Language 


Modern English is a mongrel language, made up of many linguistic strands. Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian and Norman-French are the principal roots, onto which have been grafted words and phrases from every part of the world during the last five hundred years. It is this linguistic flexibility which has helped to turn English into an international language that is universally known and used. 

Northumbrian is one of the Anglo-Saxon languages. It is the direct descendant of the Anglian speech that was widely spoken throughout most of central and northern Britain in the centuries following the decline of Roman rule in the early fifth century AD. A proper understanding of the development of the Northumbrian language cannot be achieved without some knowledge of the historical background, but before embarking on that saga, a linguistic diversion is necessary. 

Is Northumbrian a language, a dialect or an accent?

Those reasonably well versed in modern British culture may have heard of footballer Alan Shearer, or of actor Robson Green, or TV presenter Jayne Middlemiss, all of whom speak with a clear regional accent. The words they speak are mainly standard English, but they are spoken with a distinct Northumbrian accent. 

Most British people are probably familiar with, and understand, the traditional Geordie war-cry of “Haway/Howway the lads!” and would accept that it is unique to Tyneside. The same is true for “Newcassel Broon Ale”. These phrases are clearly different from standard English, but they are generally understandable, and they can therefore be classified as part of the north east of England’s regional dialect. 

But what about “Fornenst thi cree an abeun thi hemmel, wu’ll hev wor bait, an batten worsels, time wu watch wor bollen bellies graa tiv i muckle, yarkin size”? Individual words are recognisable as English, but what does the rest of it mean? If you can’t translate the rest into English, then you’ve come across a different language; and that language is Northumbrian. (See Appendix 2 for the rest of this piece, plus a glossary!) 

Northumbrian is a language because it satisfies the comprehensibility test, which states that related dialects become separate languages when they are no longer mutually comprehensible, like Spanish and Portuguese. Speakers of Northumbrian are not very bothered about whether their speech is regarded as a language or a dialect, because it can be both. The important point to grasp however, is that whilst Northumbrian is an English dialect, it is not a dialect of standard English, because Northumbrian came into existence centuries before standard English was created. (See Appendix 1)

And now, back to the main story...... 

The Historical Background 

Before the Romans conquered southern Britain in 43AD, the British Isles were peopled by the Celts, a vigorous and artistically gifted race, organised along tribal lines. This social structure was not destroyed by the Romans in those parts of Britain they conquered, but it was modified by them, and many of the Celts adopted Roman ways of life. As the Roman empire in western Europe disintegrated in the fifth century AD, the system they had created didn’t collapse: it simply withered away over the years. In some parts, the Britons carried on for many years living in the towns, and in the style, created by the Romans; in other parts, the Roman structure was simply abandoned and left to decay. 

The Romans never set foot in Ireland , and their influence had never been as widespread in Wales and Scotland as it had been in England. When word of the Roman departure spread to these areas therefore, these tribes began to infiltrate into the previous Roman province of Britannia, looking for whatever plunder they could find. It was these raids that prompted the romanised Celts to look for allies, just as their recently-departed Roman masters had done. They chose other raiders from Europe to act as their mercenary defenders. According to tradition, it was these Angles, Saxons and Jutes, led by Hengist and Horsa, who eventually turned against their employers, and began to settle in large numbers throughout southern and eastern Britain. 

These invaders were of Germanic stock, and the language they spoke was very different from that of the Celts. They came from northern Germany and southern Denmark. The Jutes settled in Kent, the Saxons in southern England, and the Angles eventually spread throughout the north, east and and centre of England and southern Scotland. The Angles were the most numerous of these invaders. The words England and English reflect this dominance. 

In 547, the Anglian chieftain Ida is traditionally credited with the establishment of the kingdom of Beornica at Bamburgh in Northumberland. Within fifty years, Beornica had united with another Anglian kingdom, Deira, based at York, to form the joint kingdom of Northumbria (Northanhymbre - the people who lived north of the Humber). Over the next two hundred years, Northumbria grew in size until it occupied all of Britain north of a line from the Humber to the Mersey, and south of a line from the Forth to the Clyde. (See Appendix 3) The Viking raids of the eighth and ninth centuries destroyed Northumbria’s political power, but surprisingly, this led to its period of greatest influence in art, education, religion and literature. 

The foundation of the new kingdoms of England and Scotland in the ninth and tenth centuries led to the rapid decline of Northumbria. Deira was overrun and settled by the Vikings, and the Scots took Lothian and Cumbria, until all that was left was the area between the Tweed and the Tees, covering the modern counties of Northumberland and Durham. 

If the truth be told, we Northumbrians are a right stroppy lot! It took the Normans until 1095 to bring us to heel after their successful invasion of England in 1066. That’s one of the reasons why Northumberland and Durham don’t feature in the famous Domesday Book which was compiled in 1086. And then, after the battle of Otterburn in 1388, the Percys fell out with the English kings in London over the payment of ransom fees, and there was a rebellion in the north led by one of our local heroes Harry Hotspur. The Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 in the time of Henry VIII began in the north of England. It was supposed to be a protest about the king’s religious reforms, but it soon developed into another rebellion which was savagely suppressed. Finally, during the reign of his daughter Elizabeth I, another rebellion by the northern earls had to be put down violently in the 1580s. 

For the rest of the period from about 1100 until the Act of Union of 1707 which united England and Scotland, the area was virtually ignored by both London and Edinburgh unless one or other of the monarchs saw that an advantage could be gained from fomenting trouble between the communities on either side of the border. 

It is important to realise that the border between England and Scotland is political and not cultural. The people on both sides of it are of the same basic racial stock - Anglian, and they speak the same basic language - Northumbrian. The ancient clan system survived for centuries, and different branches of the same family were to be found throughout the borders. This meant that many of the feuds and disputes split families and clans, and the governments in London and Edinburgh exploited these cynically for generations. This was the period of the border reivers which has been preserved in the celebrated border ballads. The often romantic picture of these times depicted in the ballads was in sharp contrast with the reality, which was violent, uncertain and profoundly depressing. 

The union of England and Scotland brought this period to an end, but it took a long time for the suspicion and devastation of centuries to lessen to the point where the area could be regarded as peaceful and settled. From the eighteenth century onwards, however, Northumberland and Durham became, in a real sense, part of modern England, and they were subjected to the full blast of the industrial revolution, with all its attendant problems and opportunities. It is still the case however, that the north east of England is the least well-known part of the country, and there is considerable ignorance about our unique history, culture and heritage. 

The Development of the Northumbrian Language 

The Anglians who settled in this part of the country came from the area around the Danish/German border, and spoke an Old Germanic dialect. It is generally accepted now that they generally settled amongst the native, Celtic-speaking British peoples rather than displacing them completely, so that there would have been some mixing of people, languages and dialects. The Anglians were the dominant group however, and this is reflected in the language which is still predominantly Anglian, though with some Celtic influences. 

The growth of the unified kingdom of Northumbria spread the dominant Anglian language throughout what is now northern England and southern Scotland. This is the period of the great Northumbrians such as Oswald, Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede, whose influence took the language all over Britain and further afield into Europe. These years have been referred to as “Northumbria’s Golden Age”, and it is significant that, as Northumbria’s political power declined, its cultural influence grew steadily. It should always be remembered that our greatest contribution to the development of British society has been in the fields of religion, education, art and literature, and more recently, industry and commerce. 

Throughout this period, despite the wars and political intrigue, there was a great mixing of peoples and cultures. As well as the Anglians and the Celts, many Scots from Ireland settled in the region, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway, and members of the Northumbrian ruling dynasties regularly lived in Scotland and Ireland for part of their lives, either in exile, or as part of their education or a political alliance. The record shows that many of the ruling elite spoke more than one language, and this familiar contact with other languages contributed positively to the development of Northumbrian. 

The Northumbrian language has been spoken continuously throughout the area for more than 1,400 years, but like all languages, it has undergone significant changes in that time. The first happened during the Viking invasions which began in 793 with the raid on Lindisfarne. Within a century, Northumbria as a unified kingdom had ceased to exist. The Danes settled mainly in the south of the kingdom, in what is now Yorkshire, and their dominance led to the absorption of many Scandinavian words into the language, which effectively took it in a different direction until it lost its uniqueness and became the Yorkshire dialect of today. 

Shortly after this shock, the political collapse of the kingdom, and the emergence of a Scottish kingdom in the north led to the gradual loss of the Lothians. Over the years, this has resulted in the language there also taking a separate route into Lowland Scots, which, like the Northumbrian of Yorkshire, is part of the Northumbrian family of languages, but with its own distinct dialect and vocabulary. Applying the comprehensibility test mentioned earlier to Lowland Scots however, makes it possible to state that Scots is now as distinct a language as Northumbrian. 

In the northeast of England, the Vikings never settled north of the Tees, nor did the Scots venture very far south of the Tweed, so that Northumbrian was left alone to continue its own development. The border skirmishes of the middle ages, and the neglect of the region by both Edinburgh and London, meant that the people were more or less left to their own devices, and in this situation the language survived many of the centralising tendencies that were taking the English spoken in the rest of the country towards the standard format we know today. 

The days of the border reivers, so destructive of the economic and social fabric of the region, actually enabled the language to survive in a much purer form than would otherwise have been the case. This was the second decisive period in the language’s development. 

The third and final decisive period began in the middle of the nineteenth century, and continues today. This was the period of the great erosion of the language as a result of the spread of education and the rise of the modern state. These two developments have created the British nation, with a common language, standard English. As society progressed in terms of transport and communications, people were able to travel more easily. The more remote parts of our region were gradually brought into the mainstream through the railways, the development of modern roads and other methods of transport, through the growth of towns and industry, mass employment in factories, and the spread of universal primary education.

All of these developments brought native Northumbrian speakers into regular contact with other forms of English, particularly standard English; and the advent of compulsory schooling for the masses accelerated this into an almost unstoppable force for conformity of speech. The final blow was the invention of the BBC, which promoted received pronunciation as the only acceptable way of speaking English, and people who wanted to get on were encouraged to suppress their regional dialects and accents which were often regarded as “common” or “slang”. This ignorant attitude persists today. Finally, the development of radio and television, and other forms of mass communication and entertainment, is rapidly leading to the establishment of a universal culture based on American English, which is leading to the further erosion of regional accents and dialects. 


It is not all doom and gloom however. Enthusiasts like the Northumbrian Language Society exist to preserve our unique regional dialect, and to encourage all Northumbrians to become bilingual, using the language amongst family and friends, and using standard English in more public situations. It is also the case that as society becomes more like a “global village”, more people are turning to the distinct cultural and historical features of their local communities in order to establish an identity that gives them a sense of belonging and value that is often absent in their public lives. 

The Northumbrian language is uniquely placed to contribute to this trend. It has an unbroken history stretching back more than fourteen hundred years. Although its use has declined in recent years, it nevertheless has a long and vigorous literary tradition, both oral and written, which preserves its essential features. It forms the basis of our regional culture and heritage, and when linked to our own unique musical instrument, the Northumbrian smallpipes, provides a powerful and effective means of transmitting the culture to successive generations. 

When these facts are added to the many other forms of regional life which mark us out as different, it is no surprise to learn that the calls for regional government in England are strongest in the north east. The history of our region has marked us out as unique, and we are determined, through our language, to retain this uniqueness far into the future. 


Appendix 1

Differences between Northumbrian and Standard English 

1. Grammar:- 

* the standard English verb “to be able” persists in Northumbrian in its older form “te can” (from Old English cunnan, “to know”), so that we can say:- Ye’ll he te c’n speak French if ye gan te France  (You’ll have to be able to speak French if you go to France)

Aa’ll not c’n cum the morre (I’ll not be able to come tomorrow )

Aa used te cud sing (I used to be able to sing )

Except in the present and past tenses (can and could) standard English has to use to be able to form the other tenses and the infinitive. 

* Northumbrian forms the present participle by adding in or just n to the root of the verb (cummin an gannin) never ing. 

2. Sounds:- 

* Northumbrian uses vowels which do not occur in Standard English:- 

ae(caep/cap), aa (waalk/walk), ai (bait/bait), oe (toe/toe), u (uncle/uncle) 

* similarly with diphthongs, we have ey (meyl/mile), iy (siy/see), uw (cuw/cow) 

* and among consonants, you can still hear the magnificent Northumbrian burr in words like rruff (rough) and rroond (round) 

3. Pronunciation:- 

* where Northumbrian and Standard English words are the same, we usually say them differently:- 

ee cum ti the Toon an bowt a new short  (he came to Newcastle and bought a new shirt )

whe telt ye te dee yon?  (who told you to do that? )

4. Vocabulary:- 

* Northumbrian has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of words which are different from the Standard English equivalent. Here are a handful of the better-known ones:- 

Gan = go Clarts = mud Hacky = dirty
Fema = fragile Clag(gy) = stick(y) Boody = china
Bonny = attractive Wairsh = weak Pollis = police officer
Gadgy = man Mell = hammer Tab = cigarette
Netty = toilet Dunsh = bump into Oxter = armpit 

* we have some words which just cannot be properly translated into Standard English. For instance, what word can express all the meanings of our favourite word canny, as in:- 

What fettle the day hinny? Wey, canny, noo

Hoo far ist? It’s a canny waalk. 

She’s a canny lass. 

Es’s a canny crack. 

And what single Standard English word or phrase can be better than upaheight? 

5. Tone:- 

* our system of tones is different. Have a go at these:- 

Asking a question - Can ye lend is a pund kiddah?  (Can you lend me a pound old chap?)

Giving a dismissive reply - Hadaway ye hippy worky-ticket!  (Be off with you, you lazy good-for-nothing! )

Now, you can take any one of these differences (and others which haven’t been mentioned) in isolation, and say “Well, that doesn’t really amount to much of a difference from Standard English.” But put them all together in everyday speech, and the cumulative effect is to make Northumbrian a different language, as different from English as Norwegian is from Swedish, or as Catalan is from Castilian, or as Urdu is from Hindi. Our language is a unique part of our unique Northumbrian culture and heritage, and it is very well worth preserving. 

Appendix 2 A Day Oot Wi Me Marras 

Wu’ll dandor an mooch ayont yon galloway, an tyek note o thi blee sky blent wi thi hills, see thi spuggies, an thi neuks bedighted wi eglantine. Fornenst thi cree an abeun thi hemmel, wu’ll hev wor bait, an batten worsels, time wu watch wor bollen bellies graa tiv i muckle, yarkin size. Then wu’ll tyek wor pipe an blin heor time thi reek gaans oot, an set wor dowps amaang thi pittleybeds an forgit aboot this bale world. An gyep it thi cuddies, an thi gobby, donnart craas wi thor feckless cries an thi lowpin yows an dunchin coneys i thi grass. 

Thi bollen born hes corved i jud i thi stenchin clarts an sleck, as it lowps, reels an blethors an cowps its creels. Thi hoppin bords are aal agabbor, playin hitchy-dabbor, an skiddadlin doon thi swally i thi soft low. But thi larks are geeson. 

Yon field is chockor wi yarkin bagies, wi tetties fornenst, seun ti be howked. Thi bumlors are stottin doon thi lonnen’s dyke, powkin thor snitches i thi pittleybeds. Thi musky yarbs smell kif. Thi aad chep on thi cracket, fishin, is tyekin i deek it thi bari morts, while chowin on ees yarries, an slorpin ees broon ale. Ee’s jist catched haalf i duzzin yarkin troot, off thi belt end, but ee’s ower stingey ti gis i one. So, when aa git hyem thi neet, for mi bait, aa’ll hev ti myek de wi me stotty cyek wiv i bit o drippin, an for me pud, a bit o spotty dick.
© 2000 Raymond Reed 


Aad - old 

Abeun - above, beyond 

Agabbor - making noises 

Ayont - beyond 

Bagies - turnips 

Bait - a meal 

Bale - evil 

Batten - feed well 

Bedighted - adorned, covered with 

Blee - blue 

Blent - blended 

Blethors - talk without sense 

Blin - to stop or stay 

Bollen - swollen 
Born - burn, stream 

Broon - brown 

Bumlors - bees 

Chep - man 

Chockor - full 

Chowin - chewing 

Clarts - mud 

Coneys - rabbits 

Cowps its creels - doing somersaults 

Craas - crows 

Cracket - small seat or stool 

Cree - hut or shed 

Cuddies - donkeys
Dandor - saunter 

Donnart - fool, foolish 

Dowps - bottom, posterior, bum 

Dunchin - bumping 

Eglantine - roses 

Feckless - annoying, stupid 

Fornenst - oppsite to 

Galloway - horse 

Geeson - scarce 

Gobby - boastful 

Gyep - gape, look at 
Hemmel - open-fronted animal house 

Hitchy-dabbor - hop-scotch 

Howked - picked 

Hyem - home 

Jud - bend 

Kif - good, sweet, attractive 

Lairks - larks 

Low - light 

Lowpin - leaping 

Marras - friends, mates 

Mooch - slouch 

Muckle - big 

Neet - night 

Neuks - nooks, crannies, corners

Off thi belt end - in succession
Pittleybeds - dandelions 

Powkin - poking 

Pud - pudding 

Skiddadlin - running haphazardly 

Sleck - foul-smelling clarts 
Snitches - noses 

Slorpin - drinking 

Spotty Dick - suet pudding with currants 

Spuggies - sparrows 

Stenshin - filthy-smelling 

Stingey - mean, stingy 

Stottin - bouncing 

Stotty cyek - bread made without yeast 

Swally - a depression in the ground 

Tetties - potatoes 

Thi bari morts - smart lasses 

Troot - trout 

Tyek i deek - take a look at 

Tyek wor pipe time thi reek gaans oot - rest a while 

Yarbs - herbs 

Yarkin - big (can also mean a good hiding) 

Yarries - eggs 

Yon - that (thing over there) 

Yows - ewes 

Appendix 3 

Northumberland, Northumbria and other Diversions 

There is a lot of confusion around the word Northumbria, so let us try and sort out the mess. 

Whatever anyone tries to tell you, there is only one true and historically accurate use of the word Northumbria, and that relates to the ancient Anglian kingdom based at Bamburgh and York, that stretched all the way from the Humber in the south up to the Firth of Forth in Scotland. Please remember that Northumbria was an independent and sovereign nation centuries before there were such places as England or Scotland, and it was the wars to defeat the Vikings that led to the creation of England. 

The first acknowledged king of Northumbria was Aethelfrith (593-616). He was a grandson of Ida, the first king of Beornica, and he became ruler of the joint kingdom of Beornica and Deira in 603, after the battle of Degsastan. The joint kingdom became known as Northumbria, because it brought together under one government all the peoples who lived north of the river Humber. 

The last accepted king of Northumbria was Osbert (849-867), who was killed by the Danes. After his death, the southern part of Northumbria, Deira, from the Tees to the Humber, was overrun by the Vikings. It became part of the Danelaw, and Deira eventually became Yorkshire, and cut all ties with the rest of Northumbria. 

The truncated kingdom survived until 973, when the Lothian region was given to Kenneth II, king of the Scots, by Edgar, king of England. (Can we ever forgive him? - and we want Edinburgh back if the Scots go independent!) This was the effective end of the kingdom of Northumbria, which had shrunk to the old heartland of southern Beornica, the modern counties of Northumberland and Durham. So, if you were born and raised in Northumberland or Durham, technically, you are a Beornican, but more importantly, you’re a Northumbrian! I’ll bet you’re glad about that, aren’t you? 

So what about Northumbria police? Or the Northumbria Tourist Board? Or Northumbrian Water? Well, they’ve all got it wrong, because they don’t know their history. But there’s not much we can do about that at the minute. But come the glorious revolution .......!!! 

Finally, the Northumbrian language. Well, this was spoken all over the old kingdom, but now it survives only in Northumberland and north Durham. It has four main dialects: Tyneside (Geordie); southern (known as Pitmatic, around Ashington and south-east Northumberland); northern (north of the Coquet , through Alnwick and up to Berwick); and western (from Allendale through Hexham up to Kielder). This is the area within which the Northumbrian burr ( the rolling rr) can be heard, and this is the main area covered by the activities of the Northumbrian Language Society; but we’ll talk to anyone who is interested in preserving the culture, history and heritage of the whole area between the Tees and the Tweed, because as everybody knows, the north-east of England is the canniest place on earth!!


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