For many years, the main industries in the north-east of England were mining, ship building, fishing and farming. Many local dialect words come from these industries. We focus here on two of these industries, coal mining and fishing.


Mining has shaped the landscape and the language of the North-East. Coal mining has particularly strong associations with the area. It was a major industry in the area from the medieval period to when the collieries began to close in the late-20th century. The industry was so significant in the area, it even had its own vocabulary, called Pitmatic. Miners in Northumberland and County Durham were known as Pit-yackers. This name may refer to manual labourers who had to hack or thrash (yark). It also may be associated with the verb to yack (talk or chatter), which may link to the pitmatic used in mining communities.

Not surprisingly, pitmatic is full of mining terms. For example, at bank (on the surface), cracket (a stool on which a miner sat while hewing coal), kenner (the end of the shift) and arse-flap (a loop attached to the winding rope in a shaft, which someone would sit on while carrying our repairs).

The Survey of English Dialects (SED) fieldworkers visited rural communities in the North-East between 1953 and 55. They collected examples of local industries and the dialect words associated with them.

Fieldworker Stanley Ellis interviewed Bob Levison (born 1878) in Ellington, Northumberland in 1953. Bob worked as a farm labourer before becoming a miner, and describes the working conditions in the mine and recalls the time he went on strike and how hard it was to be without an income during this time. During his interview, he uses the Pitmatic word canch (a step-like rise in a coal-pit). Jerry and Joe in Washington, Co. Durham, also describe the physically demanding nature of work in the mine. They recall a particularly successful hewer (one of the jobs in the mine – to ‘hew’ or extract the coal from the seam) During the First World War, men who had worked as hewers before enlisting were often given the job of digging trenches.

Listen here

'Jerry and Joe describe the physically demanding nature of work in mine'
( D95)


Dance to thy daddy, sing to thy mammy,

Dance to thy daddy, to thy mammy sing;

Thou shalt have a fishy on a little dishy,

Thou shalt have a fishy when the boat comes in


May we get a drop, 

Oft as we stand in need;

And weel may the keel row

That brings the bairns their bread.


Dance to thy daddy, sing to thy mammy,

Dance to thy daddy, ti’ thy mammy sing.

Thou shalt have a fishy on a little dishy,

Thou shalt have a salmon when the boat comes in.

(Excerpt from north-eastern folk song, When the Boat Comes in)

The North-East’s coastline runs from Berwick upon Tweed on the Scottish Border to the Cleveland Coast. Fishing has been a key industry in the region for centuries, due to its close proximity to the North Sea. Communities along the coast of Northumberland especially, have always depended on the sea for their food and livelihood. The industry is still important to the local economy, although most local boats now concentrate on fishing for crabs and lobster, due to the decline in North Sea white fish stocks in recent years.

Craster in Northumberland is famed for its kippers (smoked mackerel). While the SED fieldworkers were gathering dialect in Northumberland, informant Willie Pitt mentioned the villages of Craster and Embleton, and talked of Craster kippers.

Survey of English Dialects informant, Willie Pitt, standing in the doorway of his home in Embleton (Northumberland)

( LAVC/PHO/P1870)

Traditional Northumbrian fishing vessels are called cobles.  Their distinctive flat-bottomed, high bowed shape allowed them to be launched and landed off Northumberland’s shallow and sandy beaches, but they could also cope with rough seas. 

The fieldworkers also spoke to Mrs Henry from Cullercoats in Northumberland (now in Tyne & Wear). In the following recording, she describes week-long mussel-fishing trips and the work of the fisher wives, baiting lines and waiting with creels (wicker baskets) for the catch to arrive. She describes selling mushels (mussels) by the stone at Newcastle Quays.

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Mrs Henry from Cullercoats, describes week-long mussel-fishing trips.
( 1LL0014719)

During another interview in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, informants were recorded having a conversation about mushel (mussel) fishing. In the following recording, they discuss the preparations required the following morning and comment on the poor quality of mushels recently. They explain they are northing but clarts (mud).

Listen here

Several speakers discuss mussel fishing and the recent poor quality of catches.
( D86)