Friday, 27 May 2011

Drink to me only with thine ayes

Effective communication is a wonderful thing, isn't it? My husband and I consider ourselves lucky, in that we communicate very easily and honestly with each other, something which, sadly, not everyone can accomplish.

You could say we speak the same language. And in a way, we do.

But occasionally, just occasionally, we realise we are speaking completely different languages. And I don’t mean metaphorically. You see, my husband is a Geordie*; I grew up in a village which is a satellite of a town which is a satellite of Birmingham, so I'm very much not a Geordie.

One day I was doing some decorating. I was sanding down a very rough door frame, and my husband told me to be careful I didn’t get a spelk in my finger. I looked at him, baffled. He looked back at me, equally baffled that I obviously didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

After he’d explained - and we'd agreed that what he really meant was 'splinter' (!) - I thought to myself, that word comes from Old Norse.  That’s why you use it so naturally, husband, and I’ve never heard it. So I went to my dictionary and found this:

spelk n (Scots and northern English) dialect: a splinter of wood (from Old English spelc; related to Old Norse spelkur 'splints')

The Geordie dialect is full of words that have their roots in Old Norse, a legacy of Viking settlement from the 8th century onwards.

I would stress that I'm no expert in etymology (I even had to check how to spell it!), but it is something which interests me. And I thought I'd share a few snippets which I've discovered whilst researching the origin of 'spelk'.

  • In common with Scots and many northern English dialects, Geordie commonly uses the word aye meaning 'yes', (from the Old Norse 'ei').
  • When a Geordie says 'Aal larn yer', (as Scott Dobson did in his enlightening book 'Larn Yersel' Geordie'), we might assume that the word 'learn' has been incorrectly subsistuted for the word 'teach'. But the truth is much more interesting: a Geordie is drawing on his centuries-old heritage and using the Anglo Saxon 'laeran', meaning 'to teach'. Fascinating, isn't it?
  • Newcastle upon Tyne has a massive annual fun fair on its Town Moor, called the Hoppings. 'Hoppings' was the Anglo Saxon word for 'fayre'.
  • The Geordie phrase for 'go home' - 'gan hyem' - sounds almost identical to the equivalent Danish and Norwegian phrase: 'gan' was the Anglo Saxon word for 'go'. (In fact, someone once told me he knew of a group of Geordies who had visited a bar in Denmark and been able to converse fairly effectively with a group of Danes, without the need for translation.) 

I find it fascinating that an invasion that happened well over a millennium ago left its mark so indelibly on the local dialect. Better still, it has been gloriously un-superseded by that new kid on the block, Received Pronunciation, a legacy of the later Norman invasion which left the north comparatively untouched.

Before I go, I'll leave you with this: the Vikings also gave us the origin of the words 'smile', 'cake' and 'happy'.

The more I find out about them, the more I like them.

* If you're reading this from outside the UK - I know quite a few people do, and it's lovely to see you! - I should explain that the definition of a 'Geordie' varies considerably. Nobody would dispute, however, that someone born in Newcastle upon Tyne, in north east England, is a true Geordie, and that makes my husband one. Very proud of it he is, too. And quite rightly.


  1. Oh dear, please do not get me started. Another fascinating thing to wish I had time to study. The more I study England and a touch of Scotland, the more I want to study. What great fun!

  2. Maybe some of those Captcha Code words are Norse? lol.

  3. Hello Debbie! It's lovely to see you! Thank you for your comments and for joining the blog. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it!

    It's funny how we take things for granted. I do like the area I live in, but sometimes it takes someone pointing out how lovely and interesting it really is to make you appreciate it fully!

    You're right about those Captcha Code words. That's certainly how true Geordie sounded to me the first time I heard it, but it didn't take long to tune in to it, and it really is glorious.

    We will get you that English castle - or at least the plane ticket - Yet!

    Thank you again.


  4. I did visit one castle. Unfortunately, it was only six years old. Other than that, though, it was wonderful! It was made from hewn stone from Europe and had many fixtures from real European castles. Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley, wine country. I got to sit on a throne in the banquet room. :)

    Yes, it really is a treat that you can live there.

  5. I've had a look at that link, and what can I say?! It's absolutely beautiful. I love that gorgeous vaulting. Really sumptuous. Thank you for sharing!