An Investigation into Staffordshire dialect
What is Staffordshire dialect? Is it dying out? In order to understand these questions, we must first establish the meaning of the word ‘dialect’. It refers to the local variations in the way we speak, pronounce and spell words. Different areas have different vocabularies and, in some cases, use different grammatical terms.
Most of us learnt, from childhood days, to speak in a regional dialect specific to the area we were brought up in. We may also learn dialect from other regions when we move to live in other towns and counties or commute greater distances to our place of work. Unfortunately, dialect is often associated with the uneducated in society. What many people do not realise, however, is that what we now sometimes call standard, BBC or the ‘Queen’s English’, that is, a formal style of speech and writing, was once just one of many dialects itself. It evolved from the East Midlands dialect of the 12th and 13th centuries as power, and therefore powerful people tended to focus on the areas of Oxford and Cambridge and migrate toward the capital, London.
The dialects of England have evolved over 1,500 years. They include Old (450 to 1140); Middle (1150 to 1500) and Modern English forms (1500 to the present day). An example of an ancient dialect word is nesh, from Old English Hnaesce meaning ‘tender’. Traditional dialect, evolving from Anglo-Saxon times, is often associated with industry, farming and mining terms, and so it is argued that, especially in urban districts, traditional words are replaced by modern dialect forms as older forms of work decline and change. It is worth remembering, though, that some changes in working practices are really very recent. For example, hand-cutting, turning of hay, the thatching of hay ricks and quite primitive methods of coal-getting are, I believe, still within living memory to some older Audley people. It has generally been thought that speakers of traditional dialect are limited to the older generation, though my research questions this.
Though some dialect words are very local, Staffordshire dialect shares many words and features with other areas.
There are two major dialectal divisions across the country associated with traditional dialect - those of North and South. These divisions follow the old Anglo-Saxon boundary between the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia. These dialect boundaries are additionally divided into regions now known as the modern dialect regions of England. They incorporate the 4 original Northern, West and East Midlands and Southern areas as well as the vast array of new towns and villages which sprang up following population increases during the Industrial Revolution. The boundaries denote where modern dialect word variations in spelling and pronunciation tend to remain static in a particular area of the country. Yet they are also subject to gradual changes caused by modern day movements in commuting and residential settlement. The modern dialect area, of which Staffordshire is a part, includes most of Cheshire, northern Shropshire, parts of southern Derbyshire, north-western Warwickshire and north-eastern Worcestershire. Some words which remain in the modern day dialect area used to have a much wider use. A good example is the way in which some Staffordshire dialect speakers use starved to mean cold and clemmed for hungry. You will most certainly find this use in Cheshire, North Shropshire, Derbyshire and parts of Worcestershire. But up to the end of the 16th Century the use of ‘starved’ to mean cold was even more widespread than this. There is an interesting historical reason for this. In fact, the areas just described roughly coincide with the area of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
Staffordshire dialect, along with other dialects, differs from slang. Slang words are usually short-lived, change from decade to decade and are quickly replaced by newer forms. For example, people’s age and peer group setting are detectable by the slang terms they use. The words ‘fab’ and ‘groovy’ are outdated compared to today’s ‘dope’ and ‘mega’ but these will also quickly become unfashionable. Dialect is not subject to these rapid changes.
Regional dialect often contains verb forms not found in the Standard English dialect. We can see this in the very distinctive negative verbs found in Staffordshire dialect. Standard English shan’t, won’t and can’t become shanna, wunna and conna. It is also interesting that Old English forms of thee and thou occur in the Staffordshire dialect:
thee cost from you could - Old English ‘couldest’
ast from Old English ‘hast thou’
thou knowst or thee knowst from Old English ‘thou knowest’.
It is easy for us today, with our ease of communication and universal education, to dismiss dialects as the quaint speech and writing of a small minority. We must not forget, however, that until very recently dialects were the main means of communication for the vast majority of Britain’s population.
I undertook some research as part of an A-level English Language course at Stoke-on-Trent College and it rapidly became a major task which I hope to develop further through my degree studies. To begin my research, I completed a pilot study by approaching 6 people in the 70 plus age group in the Uttoxeter and Stoke on Trent areas. Both men and women were encouraged to converse in local dialect and several phrases were noted which contained both traditional and modern dialect terms. I also referred to two reference books on Staffordshire dialect, selected several traditional words and asked respondents to provide additional phrases giving their own interpretation and meaning. The material enabled an ‘in depth’ language investigation into both traditional and modern dialect usage in North (Stoke-on-Trent) and East (Uttoxeter) Staffordshire, covering a wider age range. I wanted to discover whether meanings had changed over the decades or whether certain words had died out altogether.
My next task was to research the provenance (that is, trace the origins) of the words and their earliest recorded dates in the Oxford English Dictionary. I also referred to 12 dialect reference books showing both local and countrywide usage. Publication dates ranged from 1829 to 1996, enabling me to trace changes in meaning over time. I collated the results into alphabetical order and completed databases to show changes across the publication dates.
Then 2 questionnaires were designed: one contained a selection of North Staffordshire words from the pilot study, the other concerned those associated with East Staffordshire. Both questionnaires were issued to 100 respondents in North and East Staffordshire within the age range 16 to 85. The respondents were chosen from a variety of backgrounds and occupations. They included students, shop floor workers, those in professional occupations and those who had retired from employment. They were all asked:
Do you know this word?
Do you know what this word means?
Do you use this word?
Do older relatives/friends use this word?
Respondents were requested to state Yes or No to these questions. In addition, they were asked to provide their own meanings for the words.
Only a few questionnaires were returned incomplete. Respondents’ replies demonstrated a good knowledge of a variety of words from both targeted areas. Results were collated and arranged according to age so that similarities and changes could be easily viewed across the chosen age groups.
There were 5 major findings in my research:
1 Residential and occupational changes did in some instances affect respondents’ knowledge, as shown by two examples: a probation officer within the age range 51-55 from Uttoxeter, who had previously resided in the Lancashire and Leicester areas, supplied the interpretation for chuck as “a term of endearment”; a parish priest within the age range 56-60 from Uttoxeter, had previously lived in the West Midlands area during the course of his career. He provided the interpretations “something baked” and “starting instructions” for the words butty and two-three respectively.
2 There was substantial knowledge concerning both traditional and modern dialect. See petty and off-side as examples below.
3 However, despite traditional dialect being uderstood and used by a varied age range, there was some evidence of its limitation to the 40 and 50 plus age groups. See cale and raker for examples below.
4 Although most of the words provenanced were of dialect origin, respondents suggested that some of these were, in fact, slang, as is seen in the tables later.
5 There was evidence of prejudice within the 36-40 and 46-50 age groups and some respondents denied knowledge of several of the words. In many instances replies gave clear evidence to the contrary. In the following examples, the 4 lecturers all said that they did not know the words but their explanations clearly show that they did. So these replies provide a definite link between occupation (or class position) and their attitude to dialect:
Lecturer 36/40: mashin - “tea’s mashin/making tea”
Lecturer 36/40: keggy-handed - “cack handed”
Lecturer 36/40: wench - “er’s a good looking wench”
mashin - “eet’s mashin wench”
yed - “mind me yed”
Lecturer 46/50: tow-rag - “toe rag”
To give a flavour of the research, I have provided 23 Staffordshire dialect words from the language investigation, together with their provenanced details and respondents’ own interpretations. Some words, like wench, bring out respondents’ prejudices or possible reasons for their dislike of certain words. I have also included some words suggested by respondents or confirmed by provenance to be of slang use rather than dialect.
Is dialect dying out? It became clear from the investigation that both modern and traditional dialect continue to survive despite some changes in meaning over several decades. Evidence also suggests that traditional dialect, dating in some instances from Beowulf’s time, continue in use alongside modern forms. Changes in rural and industrial activities have not always caused dialect words to die out. In many cases the meanings vary from, or interlink with, modern terminology. For examples, see fettle, petty, snappin, slaggin and butty below. Dialect words are perhaps not so much in danger of rapidly disappearing as is often thought to be the case. Taken as a whole, the English language has been the subject of many changes throughout its history but that does not necessarily mean that the language as we know it is beginning to die out. These changes have occurred from earliest times - since the Celts first settled in the British Isles. Successive invasions by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes and Normans have increasingly ripened the English language with synonyms (words of similar meaning). We only have to open a dictionary to see the vast array of words available. For example, the Anglo-Saxons had only one word ‘king’. The Normans gave us the synonyms ‘sovereign’, ‘majesty’ and ‘crown’.
Unfortunately, too little research and too few local publications limit our knowledge of this fascinating and rewarding subject. Additional research into traditional and modern dialect in other areas of Staffordshire can provide a wealth of additional information. However, the history of dialect is an equally enthralling area of investigation in its own right.
I have only succeeded in scratching the surface. Staffordshire is just one of many regions awaiting thorough investigation. Readers are invited to undertake their own research. You will find local people only too willing to assist you with your research. Their comments will surprise and entertain you and, of course, it is fun to do. A word of warning: do not take the text books too literally! For example, maps show boundary lines which cannot be taken at face value. By the time of publication, the boundary lines may already have changed as words ‘skip over the borders’, either because people travel greater distances to work in neighbouring dialect regions, or they take up residence in other areas. The boundary lines are, therefore, only meant as a guide only to dialect use in the counties of England.
Good luck with your research. I look forward to reading about dialect in the Audley area in a future edition of the Audley Historian!
Brockett, John Trotter: A Glossary of North Country Words in Use With
Their Etymology and Affinity to Other Languages (1829)
Levitt, JH: Staffordshire Dialect Glossaries (Univ. Keele, 1968)
Oxford English Dictionary
Trudgill, P: The Dialects of England (Blackwell, 1993)
Wilson, David: Staffordshire Dialect Words (1974)
Wright, Thomas: Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (1856)
As a general guide, ‘OED’ is an abbreviation of the Oxford English Dictionary. (I have also provided the earliest recorded date.) Other abbreviations concern the area in which the words are known to be used, eg Dur = Durham; Yks = Yorkshire and Stf = Staffordshire. ‘Other sources’ are taken from 12 dialect reference books. Bracketed numbers in the ‘Respondents’ Comments’ column show their age ranges, and the word given as an example is typical of the way that age group interpreted it. Emboldened words provide the most popular interpretations across the age ranges. As space restrictions prevent a fully detailed listing of respondents’ comments, details are provided in abridged format.
DIALECT WORD PROVENANCE RESPONDENTS’ COMMENTS
BUTTY OED: Dialect-corruption of “booty”; chip butty (16/20)
Confederate, companion ‘mate’ 1802. bread & butter (31/35)
Going halves, Ches, Staff. butty for work (31/35)
Middleman in mines/workmen, engaged coal miner’s mate (31/35)
to work mine - raise coal/ore per ton. sandwich or friend (46/50)
1845. N.Dialect. Slice of bread/butter, throughout age group:
1855. variants of sandwich/jam
sandwich, bread, food; mate, assistant;
Fellow-workman, partner, mate, chum,
term of address, wYks 1894.
Also Lan Chs nwDer Not Lei Nhp War Lin
Shr Hrf Hmp IW Wi Som and Cor.
Mining term: butty collier. Stf 1867.
Work together, keep company Chs Lei
Stf War. Cohabit as man and wife Shr.
Butty-cake, bread and butter Lan Chs.
Jam butty, Liverpool. Found elsewhere.
CALE OED: headdress worn by women 1588; job shift (46/50)
cabbage, broth, soup; cabbage (46/50)
slacken, loosen, let down, lower sails, job (51/55)
yards 1652. job of work (71/75)
menial work, chores N.Staffs variants job/cabbage only
get ahead of, beat Potteries across age groups mentioned
turn in rotation Nhb Yks Lan Chs Der
Shr. 1866. Condition, cause, plight
Lan 1865 sChs. Dialect. Go out of turn,
Lanc. Name given to bed of great oolite
by quarrymen Nhp 1871
CHINCOUGH OED: dialect, various spellings, laid up (21/25)
northern dialect. Early form of cold (26/30)
host cough corresponding to catch cold (36/40)
Middle Lower German kinkhoste. illness (flu) (36/40)
Saxon kink- (stem); word seems farmer’s (41/45)
to be connected with chin/chine; don’t sit on cold steps
epidemic distemper, esp of or you’ll get (46/50)
children - violent convulsive cough; sitting in inapp places (46/50)
now commonly called whooping cough choking cough (46/50)
1519. a cold/pain in bum/chill (51/55)
Other sources: chesty cough (51/55)
vague ailment supposedly caught cold/flu (56/60)
from sitting on cold seat, not sitting on something cold 61/65)
wearing enough clothes (Potteries); cold/cough (61+)
cough, cold, chill (Potteries);
Baby’s teething symptoms (Potteries); variants across age groups
whooping cough; “chink”-fit of stated as above (only in age
coughing - gasp for breath; groups mentioned)
Old English “cincian” - has
become “chin”. General dial use in
Sc Irel and Eng.
CHUCK OED: A lump, large awkward shaped piece friend (16/20)
of wood; also of bread, meat - a chunk. throw a ball (31/35)
Chiefly dialect. Earliest recorded date throw (46/50)
1674. Slang or dialect. Chiefly throw (71/75)
US informal use: food, ‘grub’ troughout age group:
variants of throw and
Other sources: friend/partner
to throw or give up anything; to vomit;
food; a game among girls “chucklestones”
FOOD: Nhb Dur Yks Ean Stf Nhp Glo.
CLEMMED OED: mod dial “clam” Lanc Ches Shrop hungry (21/25)
Huddersf Derbys Leics. Var spellings starved of food (21/25)
throughout northern dialect areas. stuck for words (26/30)
To pinch, cramp, compress, squeeze starved/hungry (21/25)
Old English: beclemmon - restrain, cold/hungry (21/25)
confine, shut in. Norse origin. someone looks starved (31/35)
Starved, hunger (or thirst), by cold/hungry/starving (36/40)
famine 1540. hungry/thirsty (46/50)
in need of food (51/55)
Other sources: hungry (66/70)
St Clement’s day - ‘Bakers’ clem’ hungry/starved (76/80)
1870. Mean, low, untrustworthy; hungry (81/85)
to starve; Shropshire; to be throughout age group:
hungry, to starve. variants on starved/hungry/cold
FETTLE OED: Old Norse ‘fetill’ - bandage; strap; shape (16/20)
Entry c888. 1750: state, condition; good spirits/health (21/25)
1877: ‘fettel’ - cord used as pannier- clean up/polish around (31/35)
fettel-strap that horse looks in fine
Other sources: fettle (31/35)
repair, groom a horse; North: condition to fettle-industrial (31/35)
or trim; trim or clean rough edges of paint bits of pottery (31/35)
metal casting, pottery before firing; sort out/put right (36/40)
from Old English: ‘fetel’ - Germanic good order (46/50)
In fine fettle - 19th Century Potteries term-polish/
Northern dialect clean up (46/50)
Attend/groom or curry animals; set process in Pottery ind (51/55)
about; prepare, dress, put in order query dialect (51/55)
Sc Irel Eng Lan Brks throughout age group: variants of fine/good, condition/form
GAFFER OED: One who gaffs fish 1837 bloke/boss (16/20)
French compere, Ger gevatter, someone in charge (21/25)
contractions of godfather, god- man (26/30)
mother. Term originally applied siervisor (36/40)
by country people to elderly man old boss (51/55)
commanding respect; old man/boss (61/65)
intimation of respect 1590 variations across age group
elderly rustic 1589 boss
Foreman or overman of a gang of
elderly man, grandfather; husband;
head of house; employer of labour;
Stf Der nwDer Not
KEGGY-HANDED OED: refers to ‘cag’ offend, insult. left-handed (16/20)
hold things differently (16/20)
Other sources: awkward with hands (21/25)
old Cornish “glikin” - Western Devon/ throughout age group,
Potteries. Left-handed person N.Staffs; left-handed
MIDDEN OED: now dialect. Variety of spellings. middle (16/20)
Of Scandinavian origin, Middle English: toilet (21/25)
myddyng. Old Norse: myki-dyngja, dung- mess/heap (26/30)
heap; middle/shit/toilet (36/40)
A dunghill, manure-heap, refuse-heap, mess/untidy (36/40)
1375. manure hole (41/45)
Other sources: dunghill (41/45)
Anglo-Saxon (midding); tip/mess (46/50)
Danish megdynge (muckheap); muck heap (46/50)
midden - stead, for laying dung; hovel (46/50)
term for a female - dirt/inactivity; cow-shed (46/50)
Sc Irel Nhb Dur Cum Wm Yks Lan Chs Der mire/toilet/rubbish heap/
Not Lin War Wor Nrf Suf S Lincs organic matter (51/55)
cesspool/privy outdoor lavatory (56/60)
receptacle for drainage of a cont house
1898 heap or large quantity; contemptuous variants across whole age
term for a woman; name given to rocks range dustbin/rubbish/
outside South Shields harbour ‘Black toilet/middle
OFF-SIDE OED: NZ colloq 1880 chiefly Austral throughout age group,
colloq - to act as off sider or variants of unwell/
assistant 1883. Football - on the ill/football term/foul play
wrong side 1867.
PETTY OED: Privy or latrine - little-house. stop being petty (16/20)
School for little boys. Late Middle toilet (26/30)
English: from French petit small in size/ small thing/amount (26/30)
stature, below ordinary or normal size - argument (31/35)
1393; abbr for petticoat 1915. slang for loo/smallest
room/small minded (31/35)
Other sources: Petty-house 19th Century; trivial (41/45)
“The Lavatory”; school for little boys; toilet (46/50)
Var dial uses in Sc and Eng. small/toilet (51/55)
Small, insignificant; latrine; short, not as dialect (51/55)
woollen under-vest worn by men. spiteful (71/75)
The rump (1891); pettish, out of throughout age group:
temper swLin variants of toilet/small
RAKER OED: One who rakes 1563; getting what you can (56/60)
Scavenger, street cleaner 1362; poker (71/75)
Gun placed to rake enemy’s earning (76/80)
vessel 1625; money-grabber (81/85)
1883 Gresley Glos “coal-mining, only those age groups
rakers, shots placed round sempers” mentioned provided answers
Raking implement tool 1727;
Raking coal 1858
Inclined beam/strut 1882
Jack-rake - man employed to clear
streets of rubbish;
putting coals on fire, 1616;
Lump of coal placed on fire to
burn slowly all night S.Staffs;
RIDDLE OED: various spelling forms; puzzle (16-20)
to pass corn, gravel etc through short rhyme or full of
riddle, separate with riddle, to something (26/30)
sift; 1225, can’t stand or sit
to pierce with holes; render still (31/35)
sieve-like by perforation (with sieve (36/40)
bullets etc) to shatter by riddled with it (36/40)
missiles riddle the soil/grate (46/50)
knock ash out of coal
Other sources: fire (46/50)
sieve, cinder-sifter; course sieve; poke a fire (46/50)
coarse sieve used in farm-houses. jimmy (toilet) (46/50)
Anglo-Saxon ‘hriddel’, welsh ‘rhidyll’. sifter for soil/coal (51/55)
Practice of using a ‘riddle and a pair variants across all age ranges
of shears’; in general dialect use in rhyme/puzzle/mystery/sieve/
Sc and Eng. Riddle-turning; to darn a raking fire/ashes
hole; rink to which neck-rope of animal
fastened in a stable.
SHOTTIES OED: shotty - pellets of lead; round marbles (16/20)
lumps; 1860 Mining Surveyors Report. marbles (21/25)
Feeling hard/shotty between fingers. marbles-playing shotties (31/35)
1929 ‘shotty’ gold. marbles/allies (51/55)
known throughout age group
Other sources: as marbles
shot - marble placed in ring before
game begins; weaving term; net-fishing;
marbles (from Standard English shot -
a projectile (Potteries);
SLAGGIN OED: slagged, slagging 1824. Sc skiving (16/20)
Mines/mining 1877 collecting scrap (16/20)
slaggin someone off, talk
Other sources: about someone (16/20)
from “slag” - refuse of metals. wasting time/Slacking (21/25)
Anglo-Saxon “slagan” - struck off not working properly (26/30)
from the metal. Slang: worthless to be a tart (31/35)
person; coward; brutish person; talking badly of someone (31/35)
prostitute; promiscuous woman, criticising (41/45)
slattern; 1788; worthless; variants across whole age
Old Norse: slag - wet; refuse of range not working properly/
ores, stony coal; untidy, loiterer; talking about someone
SNAPPIN OED: ‘snap’ - hasty meal/mouthful-snack; packed lunch/Food (16/20)
Now dialect. snap-time/tin; 1642. sandwiches (16/20)
Food taken by collier during shift 1883; packed lunch for work (26/30)
Snap-time throughout age group,
variants on food for work/
Other sources: packed lunch/sandwiches/food
round cake; also Scottish word; small
piece/portion, scrap, fragment; now
dialect. 1610; small crisp piece of
gingerbread (North); a lad, servant;
do hastily; food taken to work by
miners; bite quickly at something.
From Middle Dutch “snappen” N.Staffs.
Food packed to be eaten at work;
mid-morning snack in pit.
Stf Glo Dor.
STINT OED: Old English ‘styntan’ - to blunt short Period of time (16/20)
Scandinavian influence. Cut short, allotted amount of work (21/25)
cease, stop. Cease action, leave off chores/shift (21/25)
doing something; dialect. 1200. turn at doing something (26/30)
variations across age group
shift/turn/period of time/job/
Other sources: duty/work/time/share
to stop, cease, desist. Anglo-Saxon
‘stintan’; limit amount of work done within
given time; limit amount of money
to be earned within given time;
stop in growth; to stunt.
SUMMAT OED: Dial variant of “somewhat” something (16/20)
Other sources: throughout age group:
something; traditional dialect mainly something
TOTHER OED: dialect ‘The tother’ Sc and north the other (16/20)
‘the other’ distinguish/tell apart go over tother side (16/20)
1225-1388; Tother day, happened/existed tother morning (26/30)
few days ago/very recent; 1662. the other one/another
Other sources: one (31/35)
Var dial uses: Sc Irel Eng Amer tother day (31/35)
Contradiction of “that other” 1894; not dialect (31/35)
tother-day - day before yesterday: tother dee (36/40)
eLanc sLanc Chs Stf. Put into disorder; other one (56/6)
rough handling; untidy, ragged. A throughout age group:
tangle. Slime, spawn of frogs, slimy, mainly the other
gelatinous; Throw into disorder.
TOW-RAG OED: tow - pottery mf, to smooth surface pain in the bum/thief (16/20)
of earthenware or china when in dry clay scoundrel/naughty (16/20)
state before firing, by rubbing it with waster (21/25)
tow, sand-paper or flannel 1892 nasty person/villain (26/30)
Iisulting name (26/30)
Other sources: low-life/naughty person (31/35)
tough, difficult, nuisance/mischievous child “
tools, apparatus good for nothing (41/45)
oat cake (Stoke on Trent) tow used in hospitals to clean up/scruffy boy (41/45)
you old tow-rag (46/50)
slang word (61/65)
variants across all age ranges naughty/untidy/unpleasant person
TWO-THREE Other sources: a few of us (31/35)
A few; N.Staffs; 1895 two-three of us (36/40)
Sc Irel Amer Cum Wm Shr Hrf wCy Dev a few (46/50)
Stf starting instructions (56/60)
A large quantity. a few (56/60)
only in above age groups,
variants on two-three of us/a few
WENCH OED: To associate with common women, to a woman (16/20)
wench out (time); to spend it wenching. girl (26/30)
Earliest recorded date: 1599. girl/female (31/35)
Other sources: hate this word (41/45)
lass/wench = miss; a prostitute - wencher lass (76/80)
consorting with prostitutes; from Old throughout age group:
English ‘wencel’ - child; family variants of girl/woman/
servant; a woman of loose character; women
Traditional dialect of Stf
YED OED: Old English zieddian. Gather head (16/20)
together. c888. 1205-1362. your head (21/25)
From Sc, song, poem, speech, tale, h’s dropped (31/35)
riddle. Beowolf 1160. Fib, exaggerated throughout age group:
tale, contention, wrangling, strife. mainly head
A way where one collier only can work
at a time; head, Lancs. The head, Ned,
HEAD: Sc Irel Eng and Amer. Dialect.
Yks Lan Chs Stf Der Not Lei War wWor Shr