Of the many wonderful sections of the British Library site, one of my favorites is this fabulous dissection of the Geordie dialect of English (i.e. the dialect spoken in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne). It presents, in immaculate detail, all of the salient phonological and grammatical quirks of this fascinating type of English. And it has sound clips!
Geordie is renowned in Britain as being one of the most difficult to understand of mainstream British dialects. If you’re new to Geordie, this story told by Newcastle humorist/cartoonist Gary Hogg gives a great idea of what it sounds like:
Geordie pronunciation is at least partially to blame for its difficult reputation: bite, bout, and burt can overlap almost perfectly with Received Pronunciation (“Standard” British) bait, boot and bought (IPA bɛɪt, bu:t and bɔ:t). Such realizations are less common in the 21st-Century, but can still befuddle outsiders listening to the broadest of Geordie.
However, what strikes me about the British Library’s Geordie page is that it’s really the grammatical and lexical peculiarities of the dialect which are to blame. For example, in broad Geordie dialects, standard English us is often replaced by we. So, for example, the BL cites this example:
…, she took we, she wouldn’t let we go, I mean, she, she did, she’d always took we on these trips…
That in itself is bound to confound listeners. But I’m not doing this phrase justice: the vowel in ‘we’ is extremely reduced (i.e. becomes a schwa sound; I’d recommend listening to the sample here to get the full effect–it’s about halfway down the page.) So the above snippet sounds a bit like:
…she took wuh, she wouldn’t let wuhgo, I mean, she, she did, she’d always took w’on these trips…
[IPA ʃɪ tʊʔk wə, ʃɪ wʊdn̩ lɛʔt wə go:, ə min, ʃɪ, ʃɪ dɪd, ʃɪd ɑɫwes tʊk wɒn ðis tɹɪps]
Geordie pronunciation and lexicon conspire together to create a phrase inscrutable to outsiders.
Then there are those words that, while comprehensible, have a different meaning in Geordie than in standard English. For instance:
…used to get dropped off, off the bus in the mornings and, uhm, they picked us up on the way back…
The meaning of this seems fairly obvious, until you realize that us in Geordie often refers to the first person singular (i.e. ‘me.’) Hence, a listener might be perplexed as to who this Geordie’s friends are that he isn’t mentioning.
And of course, there are a variety of older dialect words which in rapid speech can cause all kinds of comprehension issues: gan (meaning go), nae (meaning not), clarts (meaning mud), among many others. Although a city, Newcastle’s local speech features words which are more common in rural ‘traditional dialect’ areas of England.
So, to summarize, three factors make this dialect uniquely difficult for outside listeners. First, Geordie pronunciation (even in “milder” accents) has many features uncommon among urban English accents. Then there’s the fact that Geordie seems to undergo an unusual amount of vowel reduction: the vowels in I, it, they, and we often become a schwa or seem to disappear completely. Then, of course, the dialect boasts a very unusual grammar and lexicon.
Geordie is an odd duck among ‘major’ dialects in England. It is obviously quite different than the English of Southern England. But it is also different from other types of Northern English, to the extent that I would almost leave it out of discussions of Urban Northern dialects entirely. It’s in a category all its own.