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The Lancashire Dialect

There are those who regard dialect as simply 'bad pronunciation', the language of uneducated country yokels or of people who couldn't speak 'properly'. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dialects have often, regrettably, been associated with people who were illiterate - the assumption was that if you could read and write then you could use standard English 'properly'. Yet, dialects still show the richness and variety of English regional history. They identify the user as belonging to the place and as part of the culture.
You have to be born in a region to have its dialect. Even so, mass media (newspapers, radio, film and then television) have tended to narrow the range and produce a more standardised 'flatness' to the language, or to promote an Americanised form. Certainly, improved education and general literacy has tended to detract from oral traditions. This may explain why Lancashire produced a good number of dialect poets and writers in the 19th century - men like William Harrison Ainsworth, Samuel Bamford, Samuel Laycock and Ben Brierley all wrote in the Lancashire dialect at about the same time that books and news periodicals were being mass produced.
Lancashire is very rich in dialects. There are many variations of it - areas of Cumbria and the Lake District still use a dialect that is audibly 'Lancashire'. Manchester may now no longer be in the county of Lancashire, but its dialects are, to the rest of the world at least, plainly 'Lancashire'. Bolton, Oldham and Wigan have decidely individual and unique versions of Lancashire dialects.
Old performers like George Formby spoke a distinct Wigan dialect and Gracie Fields was plainly from Rochdale by her speech - yet they are all variations on the same dialect.

Dialects conventially seem to take three forms:

  1. Regional Pronunciation
    They may take the form of a local or regional pronunciation variation of a proper existing word;

  2. Newly Invented Words
    They may be a completely new, original and localised word or phrase invented in or used within the region;

  3. New Usage of Existing Words
    An existing standard or proper word may be used in a different or alternative way or with a different meaning to that generally accepted in standard 'Queen's English'.

Bearing in mind these definitions, what follows is a sample of dialect words and phrases that may be found throughout the county, despite the gradual decline in their usage. There are, of course, far too many to include here, so these are merely a small sample.

We are indebted to Dr Alan Crosby's book "The Lancashire Dictionary" (ISBN 1 85825 122 2) for many of the following extracts:

  • ah'm afeart = I'm afraid.
  • bally ann = a meal put together from whatever was available, as in "It's a bally ann meal today".
  • b'art or beawt = without. The former is also in common usage in Yorkshire, as in the song " Ilkley Moor b'art 'at".
  • bellin' = to cry out or make a great deal of noise (presumably a contracted form of 'bellyaching').
  • bidding = an invitation to a funeral.
  • blather, blether or blether-yed = someone with nothing between the ears. A head full of air. Hence, to blether meant to say a great deal about nothing.
  • bobber and bobbing = a man who woke up workers before clocks were common possessions; a so-called 'knocker up'; sometimes the man who also woke up those who fell asleep during church sermons. Bobbers often carried long poles, with which to tap roundly on bedroom windows or lightly on the head of a sleeper in chapel.
  • boggart = a ghost or spirit (as in Boggart Hole Clough in Manchester)
  • broo , brow or brew = a slight hill, bank or slope.
  • brew = also can mean a cup of tea as in "...dust want brew?" (Do you want a cup of tea?).
  • champion = grand, excellent, first class, superlative.
  • chitty = young girl or lass.
  • chunner = to mutter.
  • claggy = sticky as in dough that is too wet. Sultry or humid weather can also be described as claggy.
  • clough = steep sided valley or tributary to another valley.
  • cow slavver = cow dung. "Slavver" also means to slobber or dribble.
  • cratchy = irritable, bad tempered.
  • delph = quarry or excavation.(As in the district of Delph in Oldham).
  • dip = sauce or syrup - sometimes fat from the frying pan after cooking.
  • eawl-leet = twilight or dusk (from 'owl light').
  • faggot = derogatory term for a woman, as in "th'owd faggot" (the old woman).
  • fair = entirely or completely, as in "Ah'm fair worn out".
  • fettle = to repair or mend. Sometimes used to indicate a good state of repair or excellent condition as in "It were in fine fettle".
  • fleck and flecky = a flea, flea-bitten.
  • gill = a specific old Imperial unit of liquid measure, but locally it could mean any small measure of drink, as in "Wil't 'ave a gill wi' me?" (Will you have a drink with me?).
  • hippins = baby's nappies or diapers.
  • jessy = a cissy, or a mollycoddle, hence "Yer big jessy!"
  • keck-handed or cack-handed = left-handed or sometimes ham-fisted.
  • keks = trousers.
  • likely = handsome or comely, as in "a likely lad".
  • lurry = lorry or waggon, often written as well as spoken.
  • mash = weaving term for bad work or a messy job.
  • mawkin = dirty, slovenly or shabby.
  • motty = a small sum of money.
  • mun = must do, as in 'Yer mun do it" (You must do it). The negative form is munna , as in "Yer munna do it" (You mustn't do it).
  • nesh = feeble, weak or soft as in "Eeh lass, th'art nesh", surviving from a commonly used Old English word.
  • nobbut = no more than, nothing but, as in "Th'art nobbut a slip of a lass" (You are no more than a little girl).
  • nowt = nought or nothing.
  • nowty = naughty, bad-tempered, irritable.
  • owt = aught or anything.
  • perish = freeze.
  • petty = outdoor toilet.
  • piss-a-bed = dandelion, supposedly caused children to wet the bed, sometimes expressed more genteely as pee-a-bed .
  • pop his clogs = to die.
  • pop shop = pawnbroker, as in the folk song "Pop goes the Weazel"
  • put wood i' th' oil = close the door (literally "put the wood in the hole").
  • reasty or resty = rancid, rotten, putrid - usually of food.
  • seg = a callous or a corn, usually hard skin on the hand.
  • sen = self, as in "tha-sen" (thyself or yourself) and "mi-sen" (myself).
  • sennit = a week (seven nights), also "fortnit" for a fortnight (two weeks).
  • sithee = see you, or, I'll be seeing you.
  • skrike = to cry out, to weep or shriek.
  • starved = frozen with cold.
  • strap = credit, hence "on the strap" (bought on credit).
  • tater 'ash = potato hash, a local dish of corned beef and mashed potato - still a local delicacy.
  • tosspot = drunk or rowdy - a word now used commonly throughout England though originating in Lancashire.
  • wark = ache, as in "belly-wark" (stomache ache), also as in "tooth-wark" (toothache).
  • welly = well nigh, almost, nearly.
  • woven mi' piece = reached the end, come to the end of life (I am ready to die).
  • yammer = to yearn, lament or long for.

Books on Bolton Dialects

  • "A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Part I".
    By Graham Shorrocks
    Introduction, Phonology. Bamberger Beiträge zur Englischen Sprachwissenschaft (University of Bamberg Studies in English Linguistics) 41. Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris, Vienna: Peter Lang, Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1998. ISSN 0721–281X; ISBN 3–631–33066–9; US-ISBN 0–8204–3565–1.

  • "A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area. Part II".
    Graham Shorrocks.
    Morphology and Syntax. Bamberger Beiträge zur Englischen Sprachwissenschaft (University of Bamberg Studies in English Linguistics) 42. Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris, Vienna: Peter Lang, Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1999. ISSN 0721–281X; ISBN 3–631–34661–1; US-ISBN 0–8204–4323–9

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This page last updated 3 Mar 09.