In terms of accent, Dales dialect shares many features that are typical within Northern England, such as the pronunciation of words like face, goat and price as long monophthongs (with a single vowel sound rather than two combined). The vowel at the end of a word like happy is closer in many parts of the North of England to the ‘i’ sound of pin than to the ‘ee’ sound of pea. Words like foot and strut are pronounced with the same vowel sound, meaning that word pairs such as could/cud, look/luck and book/buck are homophones (words that have different meanings but sound the same). This is a result of changes to Middle English that occurred in the South of England but not the North.

Often commented on is the Yorkshire treatment of the definite article, the, commonly shortened to the ‘t sound only, as made famous by the Ilkley Moor Bar t’At song. This is known by linguists as ‘definite article reduction’ or D.A.R for short. Perhaps less noticeable, but just as widespread, is the strongly stressed vowel found in the first syllables of words like absorb, employment, continue, and computer. In terms of grammar, nouns describing units of height, weight, value or volume often do not have the plural marker s in Yorkshire: e.g. twenty gram, five pound, or two pint. This is common in many dialects.  Plurality is instead implied through context. An unusual grammatical feature often found in the Dales is the use of sen in reflexive pronouns, e.g. her sen meaning herself.

Stepping back in time

Historically, different parts of Yorkshire belonged to two separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Mercia and Northumbria. Each was affected by the different dialects of their Germanic invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries. The linguistic legacy of this – a mini-dialect divide on either side of the River Wharfe – is living evidence of the effects that geography and politics can have on language.

Even within the Dales, ways of speaking vary from place to place. Fieldworkers for the Survey of English Dialects were actually able to distinguish between the dialects of individual villages! The Yorkshire Dales National Park, established in 1954, stretches across a large area of North Yorkshire, but also parts of neighbouring Lancashire and Cumbria. As this letter from a Survey of English Dialects fieldworker shows, dialects are not dictated by county boundaries. The dialect of Soulby in Cumbria (formerly Cumberland) is similar to Hawes in Yorkshire:

A building

17/11/54 (Ellis to Orton)

… I was very successful in Soulby. I had two men and one woman, and made a good tape recording. The dialect is very interesting since it sounds to me to be very like parts of Yorkshire around Hawes, which is not very far away. Many of the words are the ones used in Yorkshire rather than Cumberland …

Letter from Stanley Ellis to Professor Harold Orton, the co-founder of the Survey of English Dialects. Reproduced with the permission of Martin Ellis, Andrew Ellis and Hilary Templar.

A building

Dales Farmstead LAVC/PHO/P0179


Across the Dales, the effect of Viking invasions in the eighth and ninth centuries is also seen in the language. Dale itself comes from Old Norse, as do words for other features of the landscape like beck (a stream), fell (a hill or mountain) and hag (a patch of woodland on sloping ground). Farming words, too, reflect Scandinavian roots, such as laithe (a barn or building) and toft (a small farmstead).