Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

28 May 2015

It'll not take you long for to learn a lile bit Cumbrian dialect grammar

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Barrow-in-Furness, Brampton, Kirkoswald, Sedbergh and Workington. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cumbria. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Barrow, Sedbergh and Workington also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

Most of us are immediately struck by an unfamiliar dialect word - like the stereotypical use of lile [= 'little'] by speakers in Workington here or hadder [= 'to rain lightly'] in Kirkoswald. We also instantly recognise differences in pronunciation and as these recordings show Cumbria has a particularly diverse range of accents - listen, for instance, to the recordings in Barrow-in-Furness and Workington. Grammatical differences between dialects, however, are often overlooked or - in many cases - dismissed as somehow 'wrong'. Consider, though, the following negative constructions:

0:41:25 they're not getting taught at home properly (Sedbergh)

0:07:20 we're not gonna talk right neither (Workington)

1:03:02 it's not really a life-changing thing (Barrow)

In the examples above the negative particle, not, remains intact while the verb in each case is reduced. This type of construction - known as 'auxiliary contraction' - tends to occur more frequently in northern dialects and in Scotland; elsewhere these statements would be more likely to surface as they aren't, we aren't and it isn't - i.e. the verb remains intact and not is contracted. In northern English you'll hear forms like you'll not [= 'you won't'], I've not [= 'I haven't'] and she'd not [= 'she hadn't'] and the process can also extend to negative questions such as did you not [= 'didn't you'] and have they not [= 'haven't they'] as in the example below:

0:06:25 can you not sort of speak a bit more proper (Workington)

Some speakers in Cumbria and much of northern England also use a distinctive form of the verb have:

0:26:00 we had a lot of connections with people in Liverpool because I've relatives there (Sedbergh)

1:00:50 I never got married and I've no children (Workington)

Many speakers elsewhere in the UK would insert got here, as in I've got relatives and I've got no children (or even more likely I haven't got any children). Not only do some northerners use have as a finite verb in such cases, they also frequently produce a contracted form (e.g. in the second example I've relatives there is more marked than I've got relatives there or I have relatives there). This tendency to reduce have also produces idiosyncratic forms in northern English when have to is used in the sense of 'must'. A speaker in Sedbergh comments: he'd to walk it in them days (Sedbergh, 1:03:47) which would more commonly be expressed as he had to walk it in the south of England.

Clearly neither the use of a contracted form of have as a full verb nor the preference for auxiliary contraction can in any way be interpreted as 'wrong' so let's start celebrating our dialect grammar as we do our regional vocabulary and accents.

On 29 June 2015 the British Library is hosting English Grammar Day in which leading language authorities will reflect on the state of, and attitudes towards, English grammar and vocabulary. Our new programme for 2015 includes talks by university linguists, Jenny Cheshire and Charlotte Brewer; journalist and author, Harry Ritchie; teachers, Dan Clayton and Amanda Redfearn and dialect curator, Jonnie Robinson and an opportunity to put your questions about English grammar to our panel of experts. A perfect opportunity for us to enjoy those wonderful North West infinitive variants - the 'for to infinitive':

0:46:24 they just let us use whichever hand come natural for to write with (Workington)

and the 'bare infinitive', as demonstrated repeatedly in the excellent sit-com, Car Share, such as in the poignant scene at the end of this week's final episode when John (played by Peter Kay) gave Kayleigh a novelty heart lamp she thought had sold out, proudly telling her 'I managed _ track one down in Preston'.


The data on '' are really interesting. Alison Henry, in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 10: 279-301, 1992, writes about Belfast English:

"This paper considers the structure of infinitives in Belfast English, one of a number of dialects of English in which it seems that the complementizer 'for' may appear directly before 'to', as shown in (1) and (2) below:

(1) I want for to meet them.
(2) It is difficult for to see that.

Other such varieties include Ottawa Valley English (Carroll 1983) and Ozark English (mentioned briefly in Chomsky & Lasnik (1977), Chomsky (1981), Koster & May (1982)). It has been acknowledged for some time that detailed analysis of the data from 'for to' dialects would be of considerable significance for the analysis of infinitives in general (see for example Chomsky (1981), Borer (1989)), but apart from Carroll (1983), which documents a dialect with a relatively restricted use of 'for to', such data has not previously been available."

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