Why Geordie is Hard to Understand

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 , ʃɪ wʊdn̩ lɛʔt 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.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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26 Responses to Why Geordie is Hard to Understand

  1. ds says:

    Yes geordie is a very unique dialect of English. One of the few I genuinely have (at times) a little trouble understanding. It’s amazing the pressures of mass media and TV haven’t made it conform more to a ‘standard’ variety of English. But I’m happy it’s survived and I’m all for more variety in dialects!

    One thing I would say though is that the use of ‘us’ in the singular isn’t confined to Geordies! In my dialect (Manchester area) I use it fairly often, in phrases like ‘Could you pass us that book’ or ‘Give us that sandwich’ (sorry for the trite examples!), and I’d bet that usage is quite common over much of England, especially in the north.

    • Marc Leavitt says:

      The use of “us’ in this context isn’t restricted to Geordie. Here in the Northeastern US it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “Give us a kiss,” or whatever, and the “me” is always understood. This is, however, restricted to the imperative as far as I know.

    • trawicks says:

      @ds,

      I’m quite happy Geordie has survived as well! Given all the talk about English dialects becoming more alike, it’s nice to see there are some holdouts.

      Oddly, in the command form (as in your examples), this use of ‘us’ doesn’t stick out as much. Not quite sure why!

      @Marc,

      As I just mentioned, I’m not sure why ‘us’ seems more acceptable in the command/imperative/request form, but for some reason, ‘give us a kiss’ sounds fine (if maybe a tad antiquated) while ‘they picked us up at the bus stop’ sounds peculiar.

  2. garicgymro says:

    “Us” for “me” is actually pretty common throughout England (although, I guess it may be especially common in the north-east).

  3. Lars says:

    I love the words they use in Geordie. I especially like like how they say bairn to mean child which is so much like Norwegian barn. Yes, I know that’s probably not a coincidence.

    • boynamedsue says:

      It’s really not a coincidence. Northern English dialects have considerable influence from Danish, particularly in Cumbria and Yorkshire.

      Other northern dialect words you might recognise are: Lek/lake = play, skell = fall, beck = stream, nay = no, cal = talk

      • Lars says:

        boynamedsue: “It’s really not a coincidence.”

        Did you even read my comment?

        • boynamedsue says:

          Yep, I did. “It’s REALLY not a coincidence” is a perfectly logical answer to “it’s probably not a coincidence”.

          So might I recommend you put those claws away?

    • trawicks says:

      There’s also a tendency to pronounce ‘-ong’ words in Geordie as if they were spelled ‘-ang.’ Again, this corresponds to Danish, which has ‘lang’ for ‘long’ and ‘sang’ for ‘song.’

      • Danny Ryan says:

        The -on- ~ -an- variants are no so much owing to Scandinavian influence (unless by reinforcing inherent tendencies) rather than a very old Old English dialect feature. Backing of Gmc (Germanic) /a/ before nasal is a feature typically ascribed to Invaeonic, i.e. the North-Sea coastal Gmc. dialects some of which were transferred across the channel with the settlement of the English.
        /a/ in ‘long’ is not so much an innovation caused by Scandinavian but a retention of an older Gmc feature. It’s common in the North-East of England and in Scotland, cf. ‘Auld lang syne’ etc.

      • Dai Hawkins says:

        The use of ‘a’ for Standard modern English ‘o’ has nothing directly to do with Danish. The ‘a’ in ‘lang’ is normal West Germanic (as in mod. German ‘eine lange Straße’. It’s English that has changed the vowel into an ‘o’ over the centuries. The word ‘lang’ is evidence that Northumbrian dialect and Scots are conservative English, not that they are Scandinavian.

    • Randy E says:

      Scots has “bairn” too, I think, and Frisian has “bern”, which I would guess is a cognate.

    • Dai Hawkins says:

      The word ‘bairn’ (‘child’) as heard in most of the north-east of England and in Scots isn’t Scandinavian in origin , but West Germanic – but the word ‘barn’ (‘child’) heard in Teesdale and North Yorkshire *is* Scandinavian.

  4. AJC says:

    It’s only by convention that [@z] is spelt like [Us]. In use they are entirely separate – the first only used in unstressed positions and only singular – the unstressed form of the plural being [w@], as you point out. In fact, there’s an entire set of unstressed pronouns, though only some of them differ quite so dramatically from the stressed versions.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s an interesting point: I never really considered the stressed and unstressed forms might be different, although it does seem that ‘stressed’ we is used in the conventional sense for than the unstressed version. Unstressed ‘we’ doesn’t really sound like ‘we’ at all: you could just as easily write it as ‘wa.’

    • Ellen K. says:

      AJC, I’m not sure I understand you. You seem to be saying that the Geordie word we are discussing, written “us”, is different from the standard English word “us” and that it’s just a coincidence that the two words are spelled the same. I disagree. Listening to the sample (on the page linked to in the original post) it definitely sounds like “us”, with any pronunciation difference due to accent; thus it makes a certain sense to spell it the same.

      • AJC says:

        He pronounces it [ɪz] rather than [ʊs]. It may be more liek “us” than it’s like “me” but, given that the sounds are distinguishable and that the words have distinct meanings and usages, I can’t see any reason to spell them the same if all its going to do is cause confusion where the stress placed on the word and context it’s used in can’t be easily spotted. Why not spell it “iz” instead? That way, those familiar with the word would know what was meant and those who are not familiar with it would at least avoid misunderstanding.

        • Ellen K. says:

          I guess we disagree. I don’t find it distinguishable, pronunciation-wise, from 1st-person plural word “us”. At least in that one example.

        • Danny Ryan says:

          /ʊz/ is typically Northern English for . It’s also the pronunciation in Lancashire, even in near-standard varieties of speech. For a long time I was convinced it was an American feature to pronounce it /ʌs/, but then I heard ‘Southerners’ talk and noticed it, in their speech, too.

        • Sarah says:

          Hi,
          I’m a Geordie and a Linguistics graduate and I agree with AJC. I’d say “us” and “iz” are to completely different items just coincidentally spelt the same. When I say for example “He was talking to iz and then just walked away” I am in no way implying there is another person present or even using the word “us”. My pronunciation of the word at question is almost always [iz] and therefore definitely distinguishable from “us”. The standardised spelling of “iz” as “us” really bothers me!

    • Trevor says:

      As a Geordie born and bred in Gateshead I feel I should just complicate matters slightly by mentioning the fact that Geordie men and women pronounce some words differently. Men tend to say “iz” and women “us” which sounds like “uz”. There is a clip on Youtube where Simon Cowell corrects Cheryl Cole who says “us” instead of “me”.

      Trev the Geordie.

  5. Ed says:

    Newcastle-upon-Tyne is a very long way away from London, so it’s been outside its range of linguistic influence. If you go north from Newcastle, speech gets gradually more Scots-sounding until you reach the border. It’d be interesting to hear a dialect recording from Berwickshire or Roxburghshire (both south-east Scotland) to see how similar they are to Geordie.

    Don’t you think that the reason why certain dialects are hard for outsiders to understand is that they don’t get much exposure in the media? I expect that the Potteries accent in the Midlands of England would confuse a lot of people because it is never on the telly.

    • trawicks says:

      Lack of exposure definitely has a lot to do with it. I find that Americans generally have a harder time understanding Northern English dialects than Southern. I don’t think that’s due to anything intrinsic to those two accent, but rather than Southern English dialects are more common in the media.

      • Danny Ryan says:

        I think so, too. It’s to do with lack of exposure and getting the chance to get accustomed to the accent.
        I remember my nana telling me that when US American GIs were stationed in the north of England before the invasion of the continent on D-Day, she had a hard time understanding them, too, just because she’d never really been exposed to American English, but after a period of adjustment and the flood of American films after WW2 she had no trouble with the range of accents in the States any more.

  6. Danny Ryan says:

    Thanks for this! I love Northern English accents and dialects. My family’s from the north Manchester area, and some of my older relatives are from places like Bolton, Oldham, Blakeley and still speak the traditional Lancashire dialect of the area. It’s great to hear the eastern and north eastern varieties, too!

  7. Jo Hawke says:

    This adds so much to the linguistic discussions my husband and I have been having while watching the awesome “Inspector George Gently” TV series on Netflix. We’re American, both southern-Virginia-born and -bred, but we’ve watched a lot of British TV (and I’ve read a lot of British novels and short stories, both classic and modern) through the years, but the use of “us” as first-person objective (in a natural, non-humorous way) and the word “bairn” for baby/child are new to us both. In one episode of the show, Sergeant Bacchus (Lee Ingleby) has to translate a witness’ speech for the Inspector (Martin Shaw), who is not native to the area. We are thankful for the caption feature on this one!

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