The Geordie dialect
You see a lot of stuff on the internet about the Geordie dialect, but unfortunately a fair bit of it is also nonsense! There’s plenty of technical descriptions and analyses of the dialect, but not a whole lot of useful information out there for non-linguists. So I’ve put a few thoughts together here which will hopefully be of some use, I'll try not to get too technical. I’m not a Geordie myself by the way, but I lived, studied and worked in Newcastle for 20 years, my wife’s from Tyneside, my bairns were born in the RVI, and I’ve been studying the dialect (and the dialects of north-east England more generally) for going on 20 years.

So what is the Geordie dialect?

The Geordie dialect is the local variety of English spoken in and around the Tyneside conurbation in north-east England. How far it extends beyond that is difficult to determine, but it has close similarities with the dialects of both Northumberland and Durham. A very similar dialect is spoken in Sunderland, but don’t tell the lovely people of Wearside that they speak Geordie!

What’s the Geordie dialect like?

If you haven’t heard Geordie before, you’ll not have heard anything like it. I’ll never forget my first week, as a student in Newcastle, struggling to understand the women behind the counters in the local newspaper and fish-and-chip shops! At its broadest, the dialect is quite different from Standard English, especially in terms of its pronunciation, but also in some of the constructions and words that are used. Many Geordies say divn’t knaa for ‘don’t know’, for example, and talk about their bairns (‘children’), or about gannin oot the-neet (‘going out tonight’), or stoppin at yem (‘staying at home’). Not everyone does though; like all dialects of English these days, you get the full range (between speakers, or even within the speech of individuals) from broadest dialect to Standard English with a bit of a Geordie accent.

Where does Geordie come from?

Although the Geordie dialect is similar to the dialects of Northumberland and Durham, and in turn shares much in common with Scots dialects north of the border, and with the English dialects of Cumberland, Westmorland and Yorkshire, it’s not quite the same as any of them. The distinctiveness of the Geordie dialect has led to all sorts of weird and wonderful myths about it, some of which I’m going to dispel here. Perhaps the most commonly encountered myths about Geordie are these:
  • 'Geordie is such a distinctive dialect because of the Vikings'. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? The Geordies say yem or hyem for ‘home’ and oot for ‘out’, and so do the Danes and Norwegians (hjem, ute/ud). The Geordies say bairn for ‘child’ and lop for ‘flea’, the Danes and Norwegians say barn and loppe. And if you’ve ever been down the Bigg Market on a Saturday night, you’ll see plenty of behaviour which brings to mind the berserk antics of the Vikings! It must be true, the Geordies are modern day Vikings and their unique dialect reflects the rough, uncouth tongue of those not-the-least-bit-boring raiders and settlers of eastern England. But unfortunately it’s not true, no matter how cool it sounds... Probably the biggest issue with the Viking ‘theory’ is that the Vikings didn’t settle in any significant numbers in the Tyneside area. The main Viking settlements in England stretched from the River Tees and Cumbria to East Anglia (the Danelaw). Tyneside sits at the centre of the historical rump of the kingdom of Northumbria that survived the Viking invasions. Place-names show this clearly. There are almost no names in Northumberland and (north) Durham containing Viking elements such as by, thwaite or thorp, which are all over the place in Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, for example. Not surprisingly, then, almost everything in the Geordie dialect derives from earlier forms of English. Take (h)yem for example, which looks just like Danish and Norwegian hjem. This derives from Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons) hām, pronounced roughly hahm (the same vowel was found in words such as bone, stone and whole). In the Middle English period (Chaucer, etc.), this became haam (baan, staan, haal, etc.) in northern England and hoom (boon, stoon, hool, etc.) in the Midlands and south of England. This aa vowel was already found in words of French origin in Middle English such as face (faas) and table (taable). Then we get to a really interesting set of changes in the pronunciation of English (and Scots) that linguists call the ‘Great Vowel Shift’. In this set of changes, the aa vowel became an ay-like vowel, so that we get hame, stane, face, tayble, etc. (quite like the vowel found in these words in Scotland today in fact, rather than the vowel in either Geordie or Southern English). Some northern dialects (e.g. those in Scotland) stayed like that, but Geordie (and Northumberland dialects) took things further, and changed this ay-like vowel to ye (as in the first two sounds in Standard English ‘yet’). That’s why we get Geordie hyem (although Geordies mostly don’t drop their aitches, they sometimes did before the y sound, giving yem), tyeble (often chebble, just as tune is often now choon), fyes and styen. But over the last century or so, with the dramatic changes we’ve seen in society and education, the Geordie dialect has been ‘levelling’ (that is, some of its broadest features are being replaced by words and pronunciations which are found across a much wider part of Britain, including in Standard English), so that ye in most of these words is now extinct, or barely used (you still hear (h)yem all the time, yel ‘ale’ and chebble the odd time, and fyes and styen pretty much never in my experience). Anyway, we get Geordie (h)yem without any input from Scandinavia by the regular rules of change in the dialect for words with that vowel. By the way, the Vikings, who didn’t really come to Tyneside anyway, pronounced ‘home’ something like hime (heim), and it’s not like Tyneside has been invaded by the Danes or Norwegians in the centuries since. But what about oot, bairn and lop? Well, oot is just a continuation of an original Old English (ūt) and Middle English pronunciation of ‘out’ which is (increasingly was) common to all dialects of English north of the Humber and of Scots. The vowel just didn’t change in these dialects, and the Vikings had nothing to do with it. bairn is an interesting one. The Old English word for ‘child’ was bearn, which would regularly give bairn in northern dialects. The Viking word was barn, which would also give bairn in northern dialects. It could be from either or both sources. The Vikings did contribute many words to northern English dialects when they settled in the Danelaw. Some of them worked their way into north-east England and lowland Scotland where they didn’t settle, as people love to borrow words from one dialect to another. lop is a nice example, a definite Viking word, borrowed from Norse into Danelaw English dialects, that has spread into the north-east. But there’s only a small number of such words in the Geordie dialect; most of the words and pronunciations in it derive from earlier forms of the English language, not from the Old Norse language of the Vikings. If you want to hear dialects which have loads of Viking influence (but which very much remain forms of English and Scots), go to East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire or Shetland, not Tyneside!
  • 'Geordie has some special relationship or affinity with German'. This one always strikes me as strange, as to be honest, Geordie and German aren’t all that alike (though the names are a bit, just a wee bit similar, hmm, maybe that’s what’s got people thinking of a link). In fact, English and German are fairly closely related languages, both descending from the Germanic tribes of north-west Europe who lived around about the same time as Jesus. These tribes spoke a range of closely related dialects that linguists call ‘West Germanic’. During the Dark Ages, some of these people (the ‘Angles’, ‘Saxons’ and ‘Jutes’) crossed the North Sea and brought their West Germanic language with them to Britain. This was the ancestor of English and Scots, which we call ‘Old English’. Other tribes remained, and their dialects later became Dutch and German. (By the way, the West Germanic tribes were closely related to the North Germanic tribes, the ancestors of the Vikings, who spoke Old Norse, and the East Germanic Goths, who carried their Germanic language far into eastern and southern Europe and who, by an interesting twist of fate, lent their name to the groups of black-clad young and not-so-young folk who used to hang around the Eldon Square green in Newcastle, I don’t know if they still do.) So just like every other dialect of English (and Scots), Geordie has things in common with German (Geordies say man and fish, Germans say Mann and Fisch). But there’s no special relationship between Geordie and German I’m afraid. It’s interesting to note that at one time Geordies pronounced their R in words like red, right and rocks just like a few old folk in Northumberland still do, as a throaty ‘Burr’. Not very different from how they pronounce it in German in fact. But they do the same in Dutch, French, Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and various other languages. It’s a common change in many languages in Europe, but whether the Northumbrian Burr has anything to do with the pronunciation of R in these other languages, no-one knows (see Wikipedia for some interesting thoughts on the matter). Alas this amazing sound is now extinct in the Geordie dialect, but in any case, its presence or absence hints at no special relationship between Geordie and German.
  • 'Geordie is an ancient, conservative, archaic form of English which is similar to the language of the Anglo-Saxons'. The usual evidence presented for this myth is the retention of the long vowel oo in words like down, mouth and out, just as it was pronounced in Old English over a thousand years ago. And indeed the vowel is still more or less the same, at least for those who use pronunciations such as doon, mooth and oot. But that’s just one feature of the dialect, a feature shared (at least until recently) by other northern English dialects and by Scots. One unchanged pronunciation does not a dialect archaic make. All dialects (and languages) are the result of change. Some change one way, others in other ways, dialects retain some features and warp others beyond recognition. Geordies don’t pronounce their Rs after vowels (e.g. in words like far and park), but Scottish and Irish speakers do, so they are innovators in this respect. They’ve also lost the ch sound found in German buch and Scottish loch, which was once very common in English (as all those silent gh spellings in words like daughter and night indicate), though this sound can still be heard in the speech of some Scots speakers. So Geordie is probably no more or less archaic than any other dialect of English, though it may (at times anyway) be less standard than some varieties, which is maybe what people are trying to get at.
  • 'Geordie is 'bad English''. Well, if Geordie is bad English, so are all dialects of English that aren’t the Standard. It’s certainly non-standard English, but why’s that a bad thing? Do we have to all sound and speak the same (by that rationale, German is bad English too…)? They don’t try to in Norway and they seem to get on (and along) just fine. I don’t speak Standard English much of the time, but I’m perfectly capable of writing it (and speaking a version of it) when I want. Always remember that what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a language is an accident of history. If the Queen was born and bred in Newcastle, maybe they’d be reading the news in broad Geordie and she’d keep whippets instead of corgies! In any case, non-standard dialects have always been around and hopefully always will be, and civilisation hasn’t ended yet (and if it does, it won’t be because someone said yous or like or Eee, I divn’t knaa).
So no, Geordie isn’t like the language of the Vikings, the Germans, or the Anglo-Saxons, and it isn’t bad English, because, let’s be honest, people who call dialects ‘bad’ don’t really know how human languages and societies work. Geordie, like most dialects of English, descends from what people on Tyneside were doing the generation before, and the generation before, and the generation before, all the way back to the Middle Ages and the Anglo-Saxon settlements of Britain, with each generation changing the dialect a little bit, as humans always do (i.e. we all speak 'bad English', even the Queen, at least from the perspective of our ancestors). Does that mean it’s boring, and just like any other dialect of English? Of course not! It’s very different from other dialects of English, it’s full of fascinating pronunciations, constructions, words and turns of phrase, and it is a great example of the important links between language, people and place. In this modern age of media, education, interconnectedness, and, let’s be honest, significant dialect levelling, we should be glad there still are dialects of English and other languages to speak, hear, study and enjoy. Gan canny!