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The Norse presence in the Cumbrian dialect of English, and an introduction to the Cumbrian dialect

By Linden Alexander Pentecost

This article is a laal, little, introduction to the Norse elements inCumbria, and to the Cumbrian dialect. Cumbria is a mountainous region of northwest England, where there are many fells– mountains, meres–lakes (dialect spelling: meär(1)), and tarns –small upland lakes. The Cumbrian dialect of English shares its Old Northumbrian or old ‘Anglic’ roots with the Scots language in Scotland. Alongside a noticeable Norse presence in the dialect, and in the place-names in the Cumbrian landscape, this makes the Cumbrian dialect quite the linguistic curiosity.

A Herdwick sheep is a local Cumbrian type of sheep, resembling a teddy bear. The name herdwick means ‘herd settlement/bay’, the second element can be transliterated in Old Icelandic as vík, in Old Icelandic herdwick could be written *hjǫrðvík – ‘herd bay’. Often,terms in Cumbrian dialect are connected to Norse, but an Old Northumbrian English *heordwīc‘herd village/encampment’ is also possible.

Cumbrian dialect, whereand how does Norse come into it?

Thereis a range ofboth Old Norse and Old English possibilities that lie in the interpretation ofCumbrian place-names. Even though a lot of the place-names are ‘Norse’ by definition, their phonology is sometimes not consistent with Old Norse phonology, but rather with Proto-Norse phonology. For example the name Blea Tarn ‘blue tarn’ would be written in Old West Norse as blá tjǫrn. The word ‘tarn’ (upland lake)is only found, as far as I am aware, in the English and Scots West-Germanic languages, it is generally seen as a Norse word. But I feel that actually the form Blea Tarn more closely matches a Proto-Norse *blē(w)o ternō (2), which brings up some interesting questions.

Another thing about the Norse influence in the Cumbrian dialect, is that there seems to be quite a closeness to Danish, and more specifically toJutlandic, with regards to certain sound changes. For example:

Cumbrian dialect yam –‘home’, IPA: [jam], Danish and Jutlandic hjem, but Old Norse heim, Scots hame

Cumbrian dialect yan –‘one’, IPA [jan], Jutlandic jen or jæn, but Old Norse einn, Scots ane

Cumbrian dialect steean –‘stone’, Jutlandic stien but Old Norse steinn, Scots stane

Cumbrian dialect wost –‘curdles for cheese’ (1), West Jutlandic wost– cheese (3), but Old Norse ostr

Cumbrian dialect A –I, Jutlandic a or æ.

Some sentencesin Cumbrian dialect

A’z gaan yam ower t’ fells til Borrudal– I am going home over the mountains to Borrowdale

whatsta deeun (1) nuu? – what art thoudoing now? (what are you doing now?)

hesta sint’ auld huus (1) abeeun (1) t’ watter? – have you seen the old house abovethe water?

Putt’ laal Christmas keeak (1) back on’tyubm afooryan ov us eits (1)it! – put the little Christmascake back onthe oven before one of us eats it!

A’z gaan til yon worchard (1) widmimarras –I am going to that orchard with my mates

she’ll tak her bwoat (1) ower t’ mere til Ammalside –she’ll take her boat over the lake to Ambleside

t’ beeuk (1) is on’t fluur (1) naar t’ yubm, tak it yam! We divven’t hev mair ruum (1) for beeuks in’t kitchen! Theär’s (1) thuusands (1) ovbeeuks in’t kitchen!–the book is on the floor near the oven, take it home! We don’t have room for more books in the kitchen! There’s thousands of books in the kitchen!

A small Cumbrian wordlist

aks –to ask

divven’t –don’t

deeu–to do (1)

efter –after, compare Swedish efter

fell –a mountain, compare Old Norse fell, Swedish fjäll

frai– from, compare Scots frae, Danish fra, Jutlandic fræ

hev– have, e.g. A hev –I have, Icelandic ég hef

hesta? – have you/hast thou? Compare Icelandic hefurðu? – hast thou?

ista? – are you, literally ‘is thou’, Icelandic ertu –are-thou, a contraction of er þú

keeak –a cake (1), Old Norse kaka –‘cake’laik –to play, Compare Old Norse leika, Swedish leka

marra –a mate or a friend

ower –over, Old Norse yfir, compare WestJutlandic øwer (3)

t’ – the

thuu (1)you singular, thou, Old Northumbrian ðu/þu, Old Norse þú

thrang –busy, connected to Old Norse þrǫngr– narrow, crowded

tleeas –clothes (1), often standard English cl- and gl- are represented as tl- and dl- in Cumbrian dialect. Compare Scots claes – clothes

Note that eeu in my spelling generally represents a variant of[iu] or [ɪu] but perhaps better described ascloser to [iɜː] or [ɪɜː]. The spelling uuis for the Cumbrian equivalent of English ‘ou’ in ‘house’ and ‘mouse’, represented in the Lorton dialect book referenced below, as having two vowels, which I suspect to be something like [ɜu], but for many speakers in Cumbria this sounds similar to [u]. Standard English ea and ee are often of a different quality in Cumbrian dialect and sometimes with a variant of[eiː], for example weil –‘wheel’ (1), tlein –‘clean’ (1). Note also thataarepresents [aː] andairepresents[ɛː]. the oo in afoor is given as [uə] in the Lorton dialect book referenced below.

Note also that the appearance of [w] after certain consonants is not found all over Cumbria, but is present for example in the Lorton dialect (see below).


(1) Words given followed by (1) are spellings based upon the phonetic forms given in A grammar of the dialect of Lorton (Cumberland) – historical and descriptive with an appendix on the Scandinavian element in dialect specimens and a glossary, by Börje Brilioth, Oxford University Press. I have re-spelled the phonetically spelled examples given in this book. The realisation of diphthongs as given in this book is similar to where I have learned more common examples, like steean before. Note that the form theär’s is from the pronunciation of ‘there’ given in this book, as a long [i] followed by a schwa, also the same sound in meär. This is different from the [ia] found in words written here with eeawhere the [i] is also more often short in Cumbrian dialect. In the spellings eits I have taken the pronunciation as given the word ‘eat’in the Lorton Dialect Book.

This book is also for words such as yubm, although this was once quite a widespread pronunciation.

The spelling is based upon as found in John Campbell’s poem JOHNNY CAMPBELL’s WAA, pages 14 and 15 in New writings: In Oor Auld Dialect, A celebration of 21st century Lakeland Dialect authors published by the Lakeland Dialect Society, edited by Louise Green, Lakeland Dialect Society.

(2) – Proto-Norse reconstructions were based upon combining/using in context Proto-Germanic lemmas on wiktionary, which were not referenced but which seem accepted.

(3) – The West-Jutlandic word examples specifically given with (3) were given to me by Marc Daniel Skibsted Volhardt, a native speaker of Northwest Jutlandic.

Other examples come from more widely known information which I have learned. My interpretations and questions about the Scandinavian elements in the Cumbrian dialect are also my own interpretation and probably differ quite a lot from how this is generally described.

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