The Philology of The Lakeland Dialect

By the late CANON E. D. ELLWOOD

Although the following article first appeared in our Journal in 1946, and there have been several theories put forward on the subject in the sixty years since then, it still gives us a scholarly background to the History of our Dialect.

It is reproduced here as a tribute to one of our founders and will provide a basic framework around which we can weave and attach some of the products of more recent research - Editor

This is an endeavour to discover and to specify the various linguistic elements that enter into the constitution of our Lakeland Dialect, and so to discover, so far as is possible, the origins of the form of speech commonly used by our dialect speakers.

The word origins is used as there are several diverse languages that have at various times been spoken in our district and traces of them still appear in the dialect.

Dr. Alexander J. Ellis, formerly President of the Philological Society and a voluminous contributor to the publications of the English Dialect Society has pointed out that dialects, far from being a corruption of our received or literary language are, in fact, the origin from which the literary language is derived, and he tells how he himself spent many years in a prolonged investigation of the dialects of forty two divisions of England and Wales and the Southern part of Scotland, in order to recapture the early pronunciation of what is commonly called the English language.

He regrets, however, that he was obliged to omit the recording of the actual intonation of dialect pronunciation because there was no means of recording it.

He lived before the days of gramophone records — his volume of over a thousand pages on this subject was published: about the year 1875.

His regret about the impossibility of capturing and recording the actual dialect way of talking emphasises the importance of this branch of the work of our Dialect Society and endeavour should be made as soon as possible to have permanent records made; for whilst it is true that dialect speaking is not dying out, yet the genuine free and unsophisticated use of dialect is getting rarer every year.


In the examination of dialect origins we must include the study of place-names and mountain and river names as well as the vocabulary and modes of speech in our country side, for these are normally a much more permanent and unvarying record of the sort of folk-speech prevalent in early times.

And, so as to gain a more accurate conspexus of the subject as a whole it seems wise to treat it chronologically, though it will be apparent as we proceed on our quest that this is only possible in a broad and general sense.

We go back then to the earliest days and we think of the British element, that is, the language spoken by the inhabitants of this country-side in the early centuries of the Christian era.

Professor Max Muller in his book “The Science of Language” shows that there were two branches of the Celtic tongue — one the Cymric and the other the Gaedhelic.

The Cymric is the Welsh, and the Gaedhelic is the Irish, the Gaelic and the dialect of the Isle of Man.

It is the Cymric which was spoken by the early inhabitants of our district; and the remains of it are found in the names of some of our mountains and rivers and also in some of our place-names.

The only remains of it in the folk-speech which can be easily identified, are to be found in the Sheep-scoring numerals—Yan, taen, tethera, methera, pimp—and these are not now in common use.

The city of Carlisle has the proud distinction of having retained its British name all through the long and troublous centuries since it was first founded as Caer-Luel—Luel’s fort. Penrith is probably also a British place-name.

The English Place Name Society has stated in one of its earlier publications that British place-names are numerous in Cumberland and that there are some also in Westmorland. They occur particularly in the North-East of the County of Cumberland along the river Irthing and near the Northumberland border, instances given are Castle Carrock, Cumrew and Triermain.

And mention is made also as of particular interest of the hybrids consisting of a British topographical term and an English— (i.e. Anglo Saxon) place-name such are. Cumwhitton, Carlatton, Carhullan. Names like these, it is said, indicate that an English population had been superseded by a later influx of Britons. This is certainly quite conceivable in the days of conquest and re-conquest; and it illustrates the difficulty of accurate chronological assignment.

In the Southern part of the Lake District, Old Man and Dow Craggs are both probably British mountain names. ,

The British people hereabouts became sorely beset in the fifth century, after the Romans had gone, by the inroads of the Picts and the Scots and they rashly asked the Angles to come across the sea and help them.

The Angles certainly came and the Jutes and the Saxons accompanied them; but the remedy proved more troublesome than the disease; and soon the Britons had to fight for their own existence against the newcomers, but still, being Britons, they stood their ground and British nests of population continued even when the Anglian power was at its zenith, as Professor Collingwood says in his “Lake Country History” it is probable that most of us have a bit of British in our make-up.

The original name of our Lakeland district which included all that part of Strathclyde now known as Cumberland, Westmorland and Lonsdale north of the sands wasCumbriaand this name was probably derived from the Cymri i.e. the British tribes who dwelt here at the time of the founding of the English Heptarchy.

This brings us on to the Anglian period and our chief authority for the history of this period is the Venerable Bede who wrote his “Ecclesiastical History of the English people” about the year 731 in the monastery of Jarrow. Bede’s history was written in Latin and translated later on by King Alfred the Great into Anglo-Saxon,

So far as we can tell the Angles came into our district about the year 607 when, as Bede tells us, King Aethelfrith defeated the invading Scots at Degsastan—this may be Dalston in Cumberland, or it may be Dawston near Jedburgh. From that time onward for many years the Angles seem to have pushed their way westwards and occupied much of the present County of Cumberland.

J. R. Green the historian tells us that at the outset the Anglo-Saxons subdued the east side of Northern England and drove the inhabitants into the west, and his map shows Strathclyde as being inhabited by the British whilst the Angles had conquered the whole country to the east known then as Northumbria. but gradually under the successive reigns of Eadwine (617-633) Oswald (633-642 and Oswi (655-670), heathen onslaughts were repulsed and the kingdom under King Ecgfrith won its way westward.

Speaking of Ecgfrith (670-685) Green says: —“Up to the very moment of his fall Ecgfrith raised Northumbria to its highest pitch of glory, his armies chased the Britons from the Kingdom of Cumbria, and made the district of Carlisle English ground, a large part of the conquered country was bestowed upon the See of Lindisfarne of which Cuthbert was bishop, but whilst Cuthbert was visiting Carlisle, in the year 685 news came of the defeat of the English army by the Picts at the battle of Nechtansmere in Forfarshire,” and, says Green “the supremacy of Northumbria fell for ever with the death of Eckfrith. and the defeat of Neahtansmere, and Galloway revolted from the Northumbrian rule.”

What precisely happened to the rest of the territory of Strathclyde is not properly known.

Mr. Richard Ferguson in his “History of Cumberland” quoting Burton says: —“Of these territories it can only be said that at that period and for long afterwards they formed the theatre of miscellaneous confused conflicts in which the Saxons, the Scots and the Norsemen in turn partook. Over and over again we hear that the district was swept by the Saxon Kings’ armies but it did not become a part of England till after the Norman conquest.”

Weturn now from the historical record to the records we gain from place-names. What distinctively Anglo-Saxon place names have we in our district ? The Reverend Isaac Taylor in his “Words and Places’, a most reliable authority, shews in a map several centres in our area where Anglo-Saxon place-names occur.

The termination ‘ham’ —home, is usually accounted as belonging to distinctively Anglo-Saxon place names, likewise the conjoint termination ‘ing;’ meaning family—so ‘ingham’ is the family home. Thus Addingham would be the home of tihe family of Add; in some cases ‘ham’ might be a form of the Norse ‘holmr’ a flat field, it is not always possible to decide between the two derivations; but ordinarily ‘ham’ is Anglo Saxon.

Again, the termination “ton” is usually Anglo-Saxon ‘tun’ but it also has sometimes a Norse origin. Still on the whole it seems likely that many of the ‘tons’ and nearly all the ‘hams’ hereabouts denote Anglo-Saxon occupation.

The late W. T. Mclntyre in a lecture on the place names of Cumberland stated that the Anglo-Saxons probably came in from Liddlesdale along the line of the Roman Wall, and on toward Penrith occupying the best land in the Inglewood (i.e. the English wood) Forest.

There are fifty-one ‘tons’ in the villages and towns of Cumberland, and .although they may not all be of Anglo-Saxon origin, most of them would appear to be so.

There is another source of evidence which must be cited. There are several remains of sculptured crosses in our area:

The two earliest, largest, and most famous are the Bewcastle Cross in Cumberland, and the Ruthwell Cross over the Scottish border, these crosses are adjudged by competent authorities to belong to the Anglo-Saxon period; they are both inscribed with Anglo-Saxon runes.

The Bewcastle Cross commemorates an Anglo-Saxon King— Alcfrith, King of Deira. and the inscription seems to imply that it was written i the first year of the reign of King Ecgfrith, that is A.D. 670.

There are cross-fragments, of a somewhat later date, but still within the Anglo-Saxon period at Carlisle, Addingham, Dacre, Heversham and perhaps Irton.

It is probably true that the places where these crosses stood were occupied by Anglo-Saxon people and perhaps marked the sites of Religious houses, but the crosses are of Celtic origin (i.e. the Irish Celts) and came most probably from craftsmen trained in the island of lona where the Irish Mission was founded by St. Columba in the year 563.

Dr. Henry Sweet in the introduction to his “Anglo-Saxon Reader” says “The oldest stage of English before the Norman conquest is now properly called Old English but the older name of Anglo-Saxon is often used. In the course of time several distinct dialects of Old English developed themselves; the chief of which were the Northumbrian and the Mercian (or Midland), the Kentish, and the West Saxon, the two first being included under the name of Anglian.

Literature was cultivated in the North of England and the poems brought over from the continent were first written down in the Northumbrian dialect. Most of the poetry composed in England seems also to have been Northumbrian.

The Northumbrian literature culminated in the eighth century but was almost completely destroyed by the Danish inroads.

Dr. Sweet gives us one example “The Dream of the Rood” by Cynewulf, It is most interesting and important to our present consideration to find that a fragment of this poem is given in the Runic inscription on the Ruthwell Cross in the Northumbrian dialect— the extant version of the poem is a later West Saxon transcription.

Thus we have in the memorial inscription on the Bewcastle Cross and the poem inscribed on the Ruthwell Cross examples of the Anglian culture which undoubtedly existed in the seventh and eighth centuries and had spread into this area. -»>

It is most difficult to say how much of this early Anglo-Saxon language remains in our folk-speech or dialect.

There are three reasons why it is difficult to identify Anglo-Saxon words and phrases as belonging specifically to the older period.

First, because many undoubtedly Anglo-Saxon words which are used— especially in the Northern or Border pant of our district, may have come from Scotland where the Anglo-Saxon speech dominated the usage of the Lowlands, especially the Eastern Lowlands.

Secondly—Because there is often a difficulty in distinguishing between an Anglo-Saxon and a Norse origin for some of our dialect words because the two forms of speech, Norse and Anglo-Saxon, are so closely related.

The third reason is that many undoubtedly English words— Middle English and modern English—have been dialectised and whilst they appear to be of early Anglo-Saxon origin, may have come in much later, this is certainly the case with some of our place-names and field and farm names.

But we are on very sure ground when we come to the nextelement in our dialect speech—the Norse element.

Place-names, farm-names, field-names, customs, folk-lore, farming terms and current speech all abound with forms which are quite clearly recognisable as having a Norse origin.

The Reverend T. Ellwood in his “Lakeland and Iceland” and “Landnama Book of Iceland” and Professor W. G. Collingwood in his “Lake District History” and “Thorstein of the Mere” have adduced evidence to show how thoroughly the Norse element dominates the whole of the speech and usage of this country-side; so that the thesis of the Norse settlement is now, as Professor Collingwood says, as certain as a proposition in Euclid.

And in this matter our district is seen to have a unity founded on the Norse settlement; for it is in the district of Lakeland, i.e. Cumberland, Westmorland and Lonsdale North of the Sands that this Norse element chiefly prevails.

The way by which the Norsemen came, and the time when they came are not very clearly to be determined. But it seems almost certain that they came here and settled, not directly from Norway but after sojourning for a while in Ireland,

It was in the year 852 that the Norse Sea-King. Olaf the White reached Ireland -with a large fleet and founded a Norse principality in Dublin; from the same migration the Isle of Man, the Orkneys and Shetland and the Northern Counties of Scotland, Ross, Moray and Caithness were peopled.

Mr. W. T. Mclntyre was inclined to consider that the Norse migration into our district was mainly from the Isle of Man, but it seems likely that at any rate some of the settlers came from Ireland. This is reflected in some of our place-names, e.g. those ending “ergh” Skelsmergh, Sizergh, Mansergh and in some of the place-names ending in “er” as Birker. Mosser, and Torver which all apparently contain the Irish “ergh,” a sheiling (“Introduction to Study of English Place-names.”)

The place-names Bridekirk and Kirkbride and perhaps Brigham have reference to the Irish Saint Bridget.

As to the time of this Hiberno-Norse settlement; it seems likely that it was some time near the beginning or the middle of the tenth century, about 925 or 950 and it seems likely that the use of the Norse language, continued until the time of the Norman Conquest, and of course, as has already been said, some of it still continues.

We shall need to consider some other minor linguistic influences if wo are to complete our task.

The Danes are another Scandinavian people to immigrate to our countn. Their first coming was a visitation of plunder and pillage. They sacked the Cit\ of Carlisle in the year 876 under the Danish King Halfdan and left it in ruins. _ Professor Collingwood says this was the only visit the Danes paid to the Lake district: certainly they made no settlement here at that time, so far as we can tell It was on the East side that they made extensive coastal settlements in Yorkshire, penetrating later on into the dales, and they seem to have come through that wa\ by degrees into Westmorland.

The place named “thorp” is the characteristic sign of Danish occupation, just as the place name “thwaite” is the mark of Norse occupation. There are no “thorpes” in Cumberland, there are at least two in Westmorland.

The termination “by” in place names is common to both Danes and Norsemen; some of the Westmorland and perchance some of the Cumbrian Eden Valley “bys” may point to Danish settlements.

Another slighter influence of a much later date came about through the introduction of German miners into the copper and iead mines of our district in the sixteenth century.

The copper miners came to Coniston and the lead miners to Keswick.

Those who are familiar with the deviations in speech of the different areas of Lakeland are probably aware of a certain vowel broadening in those two areas and it may be due to this infusion of the Teutonic speech.

There are a few dialectic usages which seem to illustrate the separate spheres of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian influence.

The use of the ‘t’ for the definite article, as “in t1house” for “in the house.” Dr. Ellis took a great deal of pains to discover the incidence of this variation and found that this t’ usage existed in the southern rather than in the northern area of our Lakeland district. The t’ seems to be Scandinavian usage and “the” Anglo-Saxon.

The usage of ‘at’ for the infinitive, as “its gaan at rain” seems also to point to the dominance of the Norse over the Anglo-Saxon where it is in use.

Another variation instanced by Dr. Ellis is in the pronunciation of noose for house, and coo, noo, for cow, now.

He says the line of difference begins at the mouth of the River Esk in South Cumberland; to the North of this line they say coo; to the South they say cow, but the distribution is not easy to ascertain and the significance of the variation is uncertain.

It may be well to add a few words about dialect speech and usage generally. We have spoken about Anglo-Saxon and Norse, but it is clear that no dialect speaker ordinarily uses either of these languages or would understand them if he heard them spoken.

Anglo-Saxon is now an entirely dead language; it is neither spoken nor written. As regards the Norse language, something very closely akin to Old Norse is still spoken and written in Iceland, the same migration which reached our shores peopled Iceland at about the same time and their language there has suffered little change, but whilst the language of Iceland and the place-names and farm customs of Iceland have a strong resemblance to those of Lakeland, a Lakelander and an Icelander would be hard put to it to carry on a conversation.

The fact is that the Anglo-Saxon and Norse elements in our dialect consist mainly of derivative words and certain usages of speech; but there is enough both of scattered words and ways of talk to warrant our statement that the dialect of Lakeland shews indubitable signs of its Norse origin, and in a lesser degree the Anglo-Saxon or Old English is clearly shewn to have had its influence.

It is not a little strange that we have inherited no literature of those early people; there are no sagas or eddas of the Lake district, a few, a very few, inscriptions on stone are all we have to show, but our dialect literature of the past hundred years serves to make some amends for this dearth, and it is part of the work of our Lakeland Dialect Society to collect and to conserve this literature.

Finally if we were asked why we love the dialect and find delight in hearing and studying it, we should be led to give three reasons.

First, because it enables us to recall the forefathers of our race, their ways, their sayings and their doings.

Second, because it is so closely associated in our minds-with the beauty of lake and tarn of fellside and ling and bracken and herd-wick sheep.

Third and most chiefly because we have learnt greatly to hold in affectionate esteem the folk who speak the dialect - and it is to knit more closely this bond of brotherhood that our Dialect Society was founded and continues to prosper.