Regional dialects in writing: The power of the English language
“Whet are ye for? T’maister’s dahn i’ t’ fowld. Goa rahned by th’ end ut’ laith, if yah went tuh spake tull him”.* In this manner, Mr Lockwood is “greeted” by one of the locals of Wuthering Heights at the start of the novel of that name by Emily Bronte. What’s more, this narrator, who speaks to us in a form of English clearly intended to be seen as the linguistic norm in the nineteenth century, is told by “vinegar-faced Joseph” that there is little point in knocking the door to get information from any of the other inhabitants, since “they’s nobbut t’ missis; and shoo’ll nut oppen ‘t and ye mak yer flaysome dins till neeght”.**
Coming at the start of Wuthering Heights, it seems that Emily Bronte wants to use this verbal onslaught to confirm a view that was even held by so-called authoritative dialect specialists in nineteenth-century England: that regional dialects, such as those found in Yorkshire, were the language of “barbarians” (uncultured, brutish people outside civilisation). One of the strengths of the novel, however, is that Lockwood is often ridiculed for being “uneducated” in the ways of Yorkshire, and for making facile assumptions about the people and customs of that region. Inevitably, if imperceptibly, we begin to question the assumed authority of the language he speaks to other characters and to us, as readers of the novel. What presents itself as “normal English” is not only out of place in this society, but also manifestly ill-equipped to deal with the culture and practices of the people who live at Wuthering Heights.
With this representation of a Yorkshire dialect we see an excellent example of how the nineteenth-century novel made its readers aware that there were other voices, other social norms, and other cultures within what was casually assumed to be the “one nation” of England. Even as written English was later imposed as the “mother tongue” on to those attending the new, national Elementary schools, literature gives us a history of other languages and voices in England. Those diverse ways of speaking became part of what readers came to expect – even to a point in the mid-twentieth century, when JB Priestley’s attachment to Yorkshire and dialect speakers in no way diminished the view that his writings captured the essence of “Englishness”
Like language in general, however, the stories told by – and about – dialect speech are ever-changing. So, moving into the later twentieth century, Tony Harrison makes use of the dialect he knew from Leeds, not least of all to say, (in the title of one of his best-known poems), “V” to the literary establishment. Importantly, that poem also writes in defence of minorities determined by class and race, using a mix of so-called “standard English”, references to Greek and Latin, and dialect terms to raise awareness of cultural, social and political exclusions. That is part of the rich history of dialect speech in literature, and the way it is played out on large and small screens into the twenty-first century makes Leeds a centre of media production intent on bringing those voices in, rather than keeping them out. It can be uncomfortable, as a linguistic encounter with Toria Garbutt, the West Yorkshire “word-artist” or punk poet, confirms. But let’s not be like Mr Lockwood and remain outside all that this world of language has to offer us.
So, next time you read a novel like Wuthering Heights, do not see the opening as a closed door, intended to keep you out. Rather, think of this as a fine historical example of how writing in the English language can make us aware of so many other voices spoken by cultures and societies that may be strange to us, but which we are invited to explore through literature and multi-media.
* “What do you want? The master's down in the fold [sheep pen]. Go round the end of the barn if you want to speak to him.”
** “There's nobody but the mistress, and she'll not open it for you if you make your frightening din [noise] till night.”
Andrew Cooper is Dean of Cultural Studies and Humanities. He joined our University in September 2015, and in addition to his duties as Dean also teaches and researches in the area of English language and literature.