Hopefully you haven’t subjected yourself to Still Open All Hours, the mystifyingly popular sequel to the classic Ronnie Barker comedy series of the 1970s-80s. If you have endured a whole episode then you’ll know that the Yorkshire dialect is a key element of the show’s humour. I watch David Jason’s Doncaster-based japes with a stony face. Perhaps the charm of the series is lost on me because I’m bored out of my chuffing mind by seeing Yorkshire’s working-class communities parodied for comic effect.
We’re used to these trite “wi’ nowt teken owt” portrayals of regional dialect. Still Open All Hours, like Last of the Summer Wine, stands in a long tradition of hackneyed portrayals of bolshy but benign Yorkshire-sounding characters offering gentle, down-to-earth “by ‘eck, lad’ humour” with their hilarious flat vowels.
This week, I’ll present an episode of Radio 4’s Tongue and Talk series, focusing on Yorkshire dialect. During the interviews for the programme, I heard many people lament the death of the sounds and words that comprise it. I was told time and again that it is disappearing: “true” Yorkshire English is scarce, fragile and imperilled. For many it seems to symbolise a time when communities were close-knit and common identity was bolstered by a shared use of language.
I was told that these days barely anyone uses authentic Yorkshire dialect, save for a few enthusiasts and older people. And yet I hear it, and use it, all the time. Yorkshire English isn’t an archaic form of speech, lost along with the region’s heavy industry and economic prosperity. It’s vibrant and evolving – but it’s also disparaged and denigrated by those who find it uncouth, a signifier of backwardness or poor education.
I was born in Mexborough, Doncaster – just a stone’s throw from where Still Open All Hours is set, in fact – and I went to a comprehensive school in Rotherham. I’m now an academic at the University of Sheffield, although I regularly receive horrified emails from those who’ve heard me speak wondering why on earth I was given a job in a university when I sound, and I quote, “like you’ve never even attended school”. These attitudes used to upset me, but nowadays I couldn’t give a toss; my accent and use of dialect words gives me a strong sense of connection to the people and places I love. My Nannan and Auntie Annie spoke like me and they were bloody brill; if it was good enough for them then it’s good enough for me – and it should certainly be good enough for anyone else.
I might not care much about the opinions of those who insult me and the way I speak, but I do care about how these prejudices affect others, especially children. Like the people I interviewed, I often had my dialect “corrected” at school by teachers. “Gee o’er nah” we’d say to the lads who’d twang our bra straps in class. Rather than telling those lads off, our teacher would be more concerned about our use of dialect. “Gee o’er nah,” sir would say, in a parody of our speech, “is not proper English.” You might like to think that the days of belittling regional dialect are long gone, but those of us who use it know that’s far from the truth.
My 12-year-old niece, Ella, attends a local high school much like mine and she’s regularly told off for using dialect. Recently, after she was overhead telling her sister “Yer reyt annoying, you”, she was warned by a teacher that she wouldn’t get a good job if she didn’t “speak correctly”. Of course, to “speak correctly” here means to use standard English.
Is the teacher wrong? Unfortunately there’s evidence to suggest not. Alex Baratta, a linguist at the University of Manchester, researches accentism and has found that some employers in sectors such as law and the media do discriminate against speakers of regional dialects. Viewing these as “slang” compared to standard English is plain wrong. All dialects and accents are linguistically valid. Standard English, which is basically the dialect of middle- and upper-class southerners, is only considered to be the “correct” form because it carries the highest social prestige. Should we tolerate what amounts to linguistic profiling in recruitment? Nay, gerraway wi’ thi. There’s no way to justify this biased behaviour.
My interviewees are all very proud of their Yorkshire roots and quite rightly so. Each of them felt that it was essential that children carry on the linguistic legacy and be taught to recognise and celebrate their heritage. Which is not to say that dialect is merely an emblem of history and fixed identity. It’s also something that’s diverse and dynamic.
I did speak to a few older blokes in flat caps who wouldn’t look out of place on the set of Last of the Summer Wine, but I also met Sharena Lee Satti, a poet of Indian and Pakistani heritage who reads her work in Bradford dialect. And there’s Toria Garbutt, a punk poet from Knottingley, who uses dialect in her work not only to celebrate her regional identity but also to rail against classism and sexism. In her poem Dares Not to Dream, Garbutt tells us that “shit sticks in corners of forgotten towns” where “old women, weathered as wellies, sit by thi sens, sup pints at eleven. No coffee mornings for these old lasses, no OAP yoga classes – they’ve come ‘ere to forget, they’ve come to put their minds at rest … And they’re strong as Yorkshire tea.”
Garbutt knows in her bones what I’ve learned by talking to people across Yorkshire: our dialect is alive, kicking and bloody gorgeous.
• Katie Edwards is a lecturer in the School of English at Sheffield University