The ‘Black Country’ is an area within the county of the West Midlands, named after the forges and coal mines of the industrial boom that blackened its buildings and transformed its landscape.

The exact boundaries of the Black Country – and of its distinctive dialect – are a matter of heated debate. For some, its borders extend south to Stourbridge, north to Wolverhampton, and east to Smethwick, while for others only the ‘core’ areas of Dudley, West Bromwich, Tipton, Quarry Bank and Cradley Heath can claim the title of Black Country – and certainly nowhere east of the M5.

Wherever you draw the border, local pride in the Black Country is strong, and its dialect is remarkable for being one of the most distinctive and well-preserved varieties in the country. West Midlands dialects seem to have kept some vowel sounds that changed in other parts of the country during the ‘Great Vowel Shift’ that occurred in the Late Middle English period (13th-17th centuries). For example, words tea and pea which may sound more like tay and pay in Black Country English. Many words that the Survey of English Dialects (SED) fieldworkers recorded in the west Midlands in the 1950s also have an antiquated ring to them, such as aforetimes (‘in the past’) unbeknownst (unknown), thenadays (‘in those days’), thataway (in that way’’), most ingenerally (generally), blackguard (villain), and glassen (‘made of glass’).

Generally, young people tend to be the leaders of language change, using newer ways of speaking. But in the Black Country, dialect still thrives and even young speakers use traditional local words such as wommal for dog, bostin’ for great, and suck for sweets. Other Black Country words include bobowler (a large moth), snout (nose) and cake-hole (mouth). The use of the word bit is another Black Country hallmark: for example, ta-ra-a-bit is a Black Country way of saying ‘see you later’, and you’re more likely to hear ‘wait a bit’ than ‘wait a minute’.

In 1955, SED fieldworkers visited the village of Himley at the edges of the Black Country – at the time it had a population of just 300 people. One of the words they found in Himley was crumby, used to describe a child with a bonce (head) full of lice!

The people of the Black Country are sometimes known as ‘yam-yams’. The term refers to one of the dialect’s unique grammatical features, whereby all of the first and second person forms of the verb ‘to be’ (i.e. ‘I/we/you are’) occur in the form ‘am’, that is: I am, we am, and you am. In rapid speech, you am sounds more like you’m or yam. For example, you might tell your friend ‘yam great’ to pay them a compliment, or ask ‘yam alright?’ to see how they are doing.

Another remarkable feature of Black Country English noticed by the Survey fieldworkers is the way verbs are marked as negative. This is achieved by changing the vowel sound only, and without adding the negative particle not. For example, the negative forms of can and am in Black Country English are car and ay, as in ‘You car say that, it ay true!’. In the past tense, weren’t and didn’t are wor and day, for example ‘We wor at work yesterday because we day feel well’.

Black Country dialect is rich with interesting pronunciation features. Here, singer rhymes perfectly with finger, and you’ll hear a strong ‘g’ sound at the end of words like bring and hang. Words like man, sand and bank often sound closer to mon, sond and bonk. Ronk (rank) is another example – though it’s useful to know that in the Black Country, perhaps confusingly, rank can be a good thing – rather like wicked and sick in other parts of England! When you wave goodbye to a Black Country dialect speaker, listen out for the tap of their tongue on the roof of their mouth as they say ta-ra – it’s something like a rolled ‘r’ sound.