A Brief History of the Potteries Accent and Dialect

How Language Developed

 

Each country has its own language into which there are regional variations. The most obvious examples in Britain are Cockneys, Geordies, Scousers, and those from the Black Country. Possibly lesser obvious examples include Yorkshire, the West Country, and that of the Staffordshire Potteries. The only exceptions are the region-less accent of what is termed ‘received pronunciation’ or ‘standard English’ usually as a result of public school or elocution. This is often adopted by many TV & radio presenters, although some, such as Melvyn Bragg still speak it with their own regional accent.

 

Most professional actors can completely change their accent when in character. Don’t forget that they’re adhering to a prepared script and therefore aren’t using their natural dialect.] Listen to the normally broad Scot Robert Carlyle in ‘The Full Monty’ in which he plays a Sheffielder. One exception however is Yorkshire-born Sean Bean. He appears to be unable to disguise his South Yorkshire accent in whatever character he plays, whether it’s an Irish rebel or one of Frodo’s companions in ‘The Lord of The Rings.’

 

Standard English developed from a south Midlands dialect, the speech of a particular social group that frequented the Royal Court. By the C16th courtiers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, who spoke in the broad accent of his native Devon, were an exception. If the capital of England had been York then Standard English would have shown a close resemblance to the northern dialect. In a country with many regional variations Standard English dialect began to be used for official purposes and became the dialect that children were taught to read and write at school.

 

The English language was bought to Britain by Germanic-speaking invaders 1500 years ago. Over the centuries it’s changed enormously with the result that what is now termed as ‘Old English’, or the Anglo-Saxon as spoken by King Alfred, is no longer comprehensible to us, and that the ‘Middle English’ of Geoffrey Chaucer is only slightly less difficult to understand. Medieval England had an enormous variety of dialects as Middle English developed out of Old English with influences from Scandinavian and Norman French. In the C12th William of Malmesbury wrote that the speech of northern England was incomprehensible to those who lived in the south.

The Difference between Dialect and Accent.

 

Regional speech relies on two main features: accent and dialect. Today most people think of these as being one of the same, although strictly speaking accent refers to pronunciation, while dialect refers to vocabulary, grammar and idiom. Both work hand-in-hand, therefore most regional dialects are spoken with their corresponding regional accent (Yorkshire dialect + Yorkshire accent). Dialect musn’t be confused with slang. Slang words don’t have the same value as genuine dialect. Dialect developed organically over many centuries, while slang can be considered as made up words and phrases that go in and out of fashion.

The Formulation of Dialects and Accents.

 

Dialect and accent is part of our identity and it is often possible to judge the area where someone originates from by the way they speak. There are no sharp dialect boundaries in Britain - Yorkshire dialect, for example, does not dramatically change as you cross the county border into Durham. There is no such thing as an entirely separate, self-contained dialect, it is only for convenience that they are usually associated with a county of group of counties or a geographic area.

 

Dialects and accents developed because of changes in the English language. Some changes have been nationwide, while others only occurred at specific regions, and it is for this reason that differences in dialect within the same country occur. Some of these changes are caused by lack of communication with neighbours such as through geographical barriers. Some can be through immigration, hence the adoption of many words of Dutch origin in East Anglia. Dialects also change lexically. For example, during the 1950s most people said ‘wireless’ whereas today we refer to the same device as a ‘radio’.

 

Although a scholarly interest in local speech began towards the end of the C17th it was Joseph Hunter in his ‘The Hallamshire Glossary’ (1829) who first made the point that many dialect words were archaic survivals that had been more widespread in earlier times, and could be found in the works of Chaucer and Shakespear. Another of the earliest serious investigators was Georgina Jackson in her ‘Shropshire Word Book: A Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words Used in The County’ (1879). Dialects have never been static and the loss of vocabulary is a natural process. This is best demonstrated by the decline of handcrafts resulting in the disappearance of specialist terms associated with such trades.

 

Using C16th and C17th probate wills and inventories it’s possible to analyse the pronunciation of many words since these were quite often spelt phonetically. Spelling in wills appeared to be more ‘correct’ and standardised than those of the corresponding inventories, suggesting that these were written by the more educated members of a community. Inventories, however, reveal more words that appear to be spelt phonetically, written by friends and neighbours of the deceased and spelt how the word would have sounded to them. Besides the obligatory interchange of ‘y’ for ‘i’ and the excessive habit of ending a word with the letter ‘e’, there are certain consistencies, in different hands, for words such as ‘tow’ (two), ‘fowre’ (four), ‘ould’ (old), ‘lowmes’/’loames’ (looms), ‘mault’ (malt), ‘yoekes’/’yoakes’ (yokes), ‘boutes’ (boots), ‘toungs’ (tongues), ‘soulde’ (sold), and ‘househould’ (household) to specify a few. Because these words were spelt phonetically rather than to a standardised system we can tell what they sounded like and reveal that even 400 years ago these words were pronounced in a similar manner to that of the present dialect of North Staffordshire.

The Potteries Dialect and Accent.

 

English language scholars claim that the Potteries dialect still retains many characteristics associated with Anglo Saxon Old English. For example, the word ‘nesh’ meaning soft, tender, and easily feeling the cold is derived from the early English, ‘nesc, nescenes.’ Similarly the word “slat” meaning to throw, is from the old English ‘slath’, moved.

 

The presence of an accent and dialect can be seen by three things:

 

i) Firstly a localised difference in the intonation or meter of a sentence. It’s difficult for the person who lives in the locality to notice this because everyone speaks in the same manner. It only becomes obvious to those from another district, for example how we (meaning those indigenous to the Potteries) hear those speak who originate from elsewhere, for example the Black Country.

 

ii) Secondly, a method of pronunciation which is unique to a restricted geographic area. For example, in the Potteries the vowel O followed by an L is pronounced ‘OW’ as in towd (told), owd (old), cowd (cold), gowd (gold).

 

iii) Thirdly there are words that are particular to that area, or sometimes a couple of areas, that are not regarded as Standard English. For example ‘sneep’ as in to snub or upset someone appears to be local to the Potteries, while those from outside the district would be unfamiliar with the term. Similarly in Sheffield those from outside the district would be unfamiliar with local terms such as ‘genell’.

 

Language, especially the spoken word, continually changes as evidenced by the annual addition of words in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are even variations of the same dialect within a region and within living memory many people will testify that the Potteries dialect used to be broader and more obvious in Tunstall and less pronounced and more refined in Longton. It’s interesting to note that in the Potteries towns the broader the dialect - the coarser the product manufactured. For example Tunstall in the north had a preponderance of brick manufacturers, the other towns largely produced earthenware and stoneware with Longton the southernmost town having the most china potworks.

 

Dialects are diluted where there is mobility of the population and are strengthened where there is a more static community. The fact that there used to be two main occupational groups in North Staffordshire, potters and miners, meant that people of these specific social classes spent most of their days in close proximity with people with the same way of speaking which helped to reinforce and preserve the dialect.

 

What North Staffordshire dialect is most famous for is its common use of the word ‘duck’ as a term of greeting. This supposedly originated from the Saxon word ‘ducas’ which was meant as a term of respect. It’s also similar to the Middle English ‘duc’ which denotes a leader, and from which comes the title of ‘Duke.’ From these origins it became used as a greeting and then as a term of endearment. In ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ Shakespeare used the phrase ‘O dainty Ducke: O Deere!’ as a term of endearment. This use of ‘duck’ as a greeting is not restricted to the Potteries, although the use here is much more common than anywhere else. Even though they have different dialects from the Potteries the greeting is used in Derbyshire, Nottingham, Warwickshire and the Black Country. In Yorkshire the main term of greeting is ‘luv’ but in Sheffield, which is close to the Yorkshire – Derbyshire border the main form of greeting is ‘Ey up mi duck’.

 

Many dialects have words that are unique to a particular area and a person from outside that area might not know what the word meant if used in isolation. The greeting ‘duck’ could be thought of as one example. Another word that appears to be unique to the Potteries is ‘surry’, meaning friend. This is derived from an obsolete form of ‘sir’, used as a form of greeting, such as in ‘Good day sir’, and which gained an extra syllable when used in general conversation. ‘Clemmed’, meaning hungry, is derived from a similar sounding Norse word meaning ‘press’, ‘squeeze’ or ‘to pinch’ as hunger or fasting does. From these origins it was used in general conversation to mean hungry, but has largely been superseded by ‘starving’ or ‘famished’, although the phrase is still widely used in Yorkshire.

Attempts to record the Potteries dialect

 

The first attempt at recording the dialect of the district was probably made by John Ward in his ‘History of The Borough of Stoke upon Trent’ published in 1843. Ward recorded a conversation between John Tellwright and Ralph Leigh as they met each other in the market-place in Burslem in 1810 and followed them while they continued their conversation in The Turk’s Head. Their topics included the changing behaviour of pot-bank owners, Molly Leigh the Burslem witch, The Young Pretender’s march from Scotland and his arrival at Bagnall, and the state of local roads before turnpiking was introduced. It’s interesting to note that Leigh mentioned the Wedgwood family name three times, each occurrence of which was pronounced ‘Wedgut.’

 

It needs to be ascertained how accurate did Ward record the conversation? It’s difficult to write how words are spelt phonetically, and the lengthy conversation would have to have been written down extremely quickly simply to keep pace with the speakers. Possibly Ward recorded this in the English that he was used to and later transformed it into how he thought the words should appear when printed. Not withstanding however, it is still worth examining.

 

The conversation contains much of the dialect still in use almost 200 years later. The elongated vowels of ‘o’ and ‘u’, where, when spelt phonetically, would have an extra vowel included, are present in such words as ‘mon’ (man); ‘owd’ (old); ‘coomin’ (coming); ‘gooin’ (going); ‘soorts’ (sorts); and ‘yoost’ (used). If Ward was accurate there is more of an emphasis on the ‘e’ and ‘i’ vowels, most of which have now been replaced by ‘a’. Although Ward notes the use of ‘mester’ (mister) and ‘feyther’ (father), until fairly recently quite common, he is also consistent in recording ‘O’im’ (I’m), ‘mytch’ (much) and ‘teymes’ (times). The following list helps to demonstrate how the accent has shifted over 200 years towards a more pithy sound with the change of ‘i’ and ‘e’ to ‘a’.

 

 

Standard English

1810

2006

I’m (I am)

O’im

Arm

About

Abait

Abart

Alright

Awreet

Owrate

Find

Feynd

Farnd

Mind

Moind

Marnd

Like

Loike

Lark

Times

Teymes

Tarms

 

 

The conversation also uses words that are no longer in daily use such as ‘yunkers’ (youngsters), ‘gawmin’ (looking), ‘tin’ (used in place of ‘until’), ‘farrantly’ (meaning good or amiable, such as ‘he were a farrantly mon’) and the aforementioned ‘Surry’.

 

Another attempt at recording the dialect was given in Wolliscroft and Rhead’s book ‘Staffordshire Pots and Potters’ published in 1906, in which they captured the monologue of a ‘Biddle Moor’ crockery hawker attempting to sell his wares. The hawker’s dialect also contains the elongated ‘o’ and ‘u’ vowels, but with more of a use of ‘a’ in place ‘e’ and ‘i’, such as in ‘naar’th’n’ (now then) and ‘males’ (meals). It is interesting that both this attempt at recording the dialect and the one by Ward was undertaken because the authors thought that the dialect was dying out. ‘Biddle Moor’ is of course the local dialect of Biddulph Moor. Other place names that have been re-Christened with local dialect include ‘Boslem’ (Burslem), ‘Auger’s Bonk’ (Alsager’s Bank), ‘Neck End’ (central Longton), and ‘Ucheater’ (Uttoxeter),

 

The most celebrated author associated with The Potteries is of course Arnold Bennett, whose descriptive powers have been compared to that of Dickens. He was born in Hanley in 1867, although spent a large part of his childhood living with relatives in Burslem, before the family relocated to 205 Waterloo Road, Cobridge, then a district of professional families. It was from here, during his late teens in the 1880s, that he began to contribute occasional articles to local newspapers. Employed in his father’s solicitors office and wishing to escape parental repression and earn higher wages he obtained a position as a solicitors clerk in London. He had no desire for writing, only to escape the confines of his hometown, and would only return to the Potteries again to visit his mother. He enjoyed promotion at the solicitors’ office and began drifting into journalism, although it would not be until 12 years after moving to London that his first book, ‘Anna of The Five Towns’, was published. Set in Bursley, a pseudonym for Burslem, the story largely dealt with parental authority and the values of working class Victorian lives. The success of his novel set Bennett upon a literary career in which many of his stories were set in the hometown that he had a love/hate relationship with. When Bennett paraphrased his characters he would conservatively use the North Staffordshire dialect to add flavour, although this conservative use was possibly employed to make the dialogue more understandable to a wider literary audience.

Characters that have originated as vehicles for popularising the Potteries dialect

 

i) Jabez.

 

This character was created by Wilf Bloor, born in 1915 and raised in the North Staffordshire mining village of Scot Hay. He spent his working life as a scientist engaged in research to help prevent occupational diseases in the pottery industry. Jabez first appeared in the local newspaper ‘The Evening Sentinel’ in September 1968, under the pseudonym of A Scott, recording both the author’s childhood memories in Scot Hay and the disappearing dialect of the district. With the exception of a short break during the 1980s Wilf Bloor produced a Jabez story for ‘The Evening Sentinel’ every week from 1968 until his death in 1993. In addition to these he also produced a series of bible stories told in the North Staffordshire dialect. Three collections of his stories were published between 1972 and 1978 and each sold several thousand copies. He also read a selection of his stories on BBC Radio Stoke, and made many personal appearances at local venues reading his stories and explaining the dialect. He also produced two audio cassettes ‘The Jabez Album’ (1980) and ‘Jabez Stories’ (1988) as well as recording his tales for the local talking newspaper for the blind. After his death his collection was deposited at Keele University and comprises of manuscripts and typescript articles, cuttings, correspondence and audio cassettes.

 

The character can best be described in Wilf Bloor’s own words. ‘Jabez was one of those characters one comes across in village life. He was sturdily built, had a face best described as craggy, eyebrows that were distinctly bushy, and small but bright blue eyes that betrayed his roguish sense of humour. His normal clothes, Sundays excepted, were a nondescript jacket, a "union" shirt and a pair of "moleskin" trousers, the legs of which were tied just below the knee with string or pieces of old bootlace. It was said that in his youth he had worked in the pit, but for as long as I knew him he never had what you might call a regular job. He was seldom short of work though. He was much in demand by local farmers for seasonal work, and could lay a hedge or plough a field as neatly as any in the district. He was also a competent bricklayer and carpenter, and I have seen him wipe a lead-pipe joint that would do credit to any plumber. He could also give you a passable haircut or sole and heel your shoes. In a village such a man had no need to go looking for jobs.’

 

As well as a vehicle for local dialect, which Bloor noted had many characteristics of Chaucer and the earlier Anglo Saxon, Jabez also captured the essence of the dying breed of village odd-job man. ‘Cost remember me tellin' thee abite that greet big ginger mare wot was frittened with that steym-injin an' welly kilt me? Well, ar was thinkin' abite that mare th'other dee an' ar remembered as 'er once brok a bloke's leg an' then seeved 'is leyfe. This bloke was leebourin' at th'farm ar th'tarme, an' when ey wanted 'er ey used go ter th'fer end o' th'farmyard an' whistle it.’

ii) Owd Granddad Piggott. (OGP)

 

Alan Povey began writing the OGP character in 1966 at the age of 17. Four years later he approached Radio Stoke with the scripts who became enthusiastic about broadcasting them but had nobody suitable as a narrator, which prompted Povey to tackle the role himself. Over 1,000 OGP stories have been written, although with only a dozen tapes/CDs available, each featuring an average of twelve stories on each, this represents only about 10% of them.

 

There was no single inspiration for the central character, being a caricature of some of the population of Longton during the 1950s. The wife-beatings that Grandma Piggott suffered are considered as no longer ‘politically correct’, although drunken excursions, violence and acute xenophobia still form a large part of his character. Like Jabez, OGP is also a retired miner rather than a potter.

 

However, that’s about where the similarity ends. OGP lived for pension day. His daily routine usually consisted of going ‘banging down to the lavatory’, giving Grandma Piggott either verbal or physical abuse, & emptying the gas meter before going out, not returning until he wobbled his way home around midnight, usually after spending the majority of the evening in Tummy Dawkins’ pub.

 

The precise location of OGP’s house was never revealed, although a number of clues suggest that it lay somewhere in the East Vale area. There are a few references to OGP having to go up ‘Engine Bonk’ to get into Longton, while the character’s creator once referred to the area as ‘Dishcloth End…and it was never unpleasant when the sun went down over Tam’s Potbank’. It was also possible to see the fair whenever it came to Box Lane at Meir. Once OGP chased someone from the house down the street, round the corner & caught him trying to disappear in an entry on Anchor Road.

 

The house appeared to be a typical two-up, two-down back-to back terrace with a front sitting room, back kitchen, pantry & two bedrooms upstairs. The outside lavatory was down the bottom of the backyard, along with the coal house. OGP’s neighbours were Povey on one side & Perc & Lizzie Lockett on the other. At the end of the street was waste ground & either on the opposite corner to this, or at the other end of the street was Hilda Aspinall’s grocery shop.

 

OGP & Grandma Piggott had two children, Ernie & Norma. Despite being referred to as ‘granddad’ they only had one grandchild, Norma’s son Peter. OGP taught him to beak in a gas meter when he was nine, & despite incidences including being given a custard cream full of mustard when asking for a biscuit, or a glass of liver salts when asking for a drink of pop, young Peter idolised his granddad.

 

Like Doctor Who, OGP was able to transcend time. He’s always been in his early 70s since 1970 when the stories first appeared and which were set in the early 1950s, through to the C21st that has seen the character confused with technology from computers to CB Radios.

 

Although OGP himself was a fictitious character, some of the others mentioned were real such as Len Birks the village bobby at Caverswall and the notorious gang known as The Cheadle Cowboys. OGP’s closest associate, despite living a couple of miles away at Bentilee, as well as being at least ten years younger, was Club-Paper Jack. He was a little thick-set bloke with a patch over one eye who used to wear a filthy red tam covered with badges, flared trousers that were too short, green socks & pumps. Would do ‘owt for money except work. Had nine kids, three ferrets, a loft full of pigeons & an Alsatian bitch. Last job he’d had was milk-monitor, although could strip lead out of derelict buildings faster than ‘Potteries Demolition’ on time-and-a-half. Often seen wandering around Longton with two whippets.

 

Because the stories were originally set in the early 1950s they also record half a century of change within the town. A plethora of long-vanished pubs include The Cricketers, The Clock, The Heathcote, The Robin Hood, The Roebuck, The Sailor Boy, The Union, as well as some from further afield including The Lord John Russell at (Dresden). Likewise a number of shops that no longer exist include Brookfields, Copestake’s Butchers, Dicky Fido’s pet shop, Wally Wembley’s, and Wedge’s Café. The Bus Station has changed beyond recognition, The Cameo Dance Hall above Burtons clothes shop, a favourite place for bostin’ lips on a Satdee nate is no longer in existence, and St John’s Churchyard, a favourite spot for gutsin’ pies, now lies partly under sheltered housing accommodation. Potbanks such as Hudson & Middleton, Morley Fox’s, and TC Wild’s at nearby Normacot have also disappeared.

Comparisons

 

Sheffield in South Yorkshire is far enough away (50 miles) to give a good comparison over variations in dialect and accent. Its natural boundary can be considered the Peak District and it also had a majority occupation in the form of its steel industry. Its dialect, along with Yorkshire dialect in general, is mostly associated with its substitution of the words ‘you’ and ‘your’s for ‘thee’ and thar’s respectively (‘has thee got all thar tranklements?’). Another characteristic is the use of ‘were’ in place of ‘was’ (‘she were out when I went round’). Those two examples apply to Yorkshire generally, however one word found exclusively in Sheffield was the substitution of ‘until’ with ‘while’ (‘can thee wait here while I get back?’). When describing a narrow walkway alongside a building, Yorkshire people frequently use the word ‘ginnel’, whilst in every other region of the country the word ‘alley’ is used. Growth of a unique word such as this could be used to indicate migration of Sheffielders. 

 

 

Standard English

Potteries Dialect

Sheffield Dialect

About

Abite

Abart

Down

Dine

Darnt

Gate

Geet

Yate

Going

Gooin

Bahn

Road

Rowed      

Roored

Round       

Rind

Rarnt

Told

Towd

Tolt

Water

Wayter

Watter

Yourself

Tharsen

Theesen

 

 

Just as the Potteries dialect was considered to be broader in the north of the district and more refined in the south, the opposite synopsis applies to Yorkshire. North Yorkshire accents are regarded as being softer than those in the remainder of the county and retain their traditionally sayings. The harsher accent and diction of the dialect in the central and southern parts have been blamed on the hardships endured by the C19th millworkers, while the softer north and east dialect represents the language of farmers and small (isolated) rural communities.

Conclusion.

 

Within the Potteries the broad dialect is no longer heard as often as it once was amongst the general population. Uniformity of teaching has contributed to the dilution of dialects, and Ward noted in his book that the Potteries dialect was ‘now almost banished by the schoolmasters assiduous care’. Today we are an extremely mobile society with the migratory patterns of students, health workers, etc. Since the Second World War immigration has also included those of different ethnic groups from overseas, and multi-culturalism naturally dilutes dialect. Television has also played a part as we watch programmes set in a variety of British locations and become accustomed to localised phrases. However visitors to Stoke on Trent from outside the district immediately notice that Potteries folk do have a different accent which shows that a dialect is still present in everyday conversation.

 

The majority of people with regional accents are often proud of them, especially when resident in a different part of the country that distinguishes it more. A gentleman from North Yorkshire who submitted his opinion to the ‘BBC Voices’ project, established to monitor changes in dialect, was annoyed at what the general population perceived as a Yorkshire accent, that being one from the South of the county. He commented ‘Personally I don’t like the South Yorkshire accent and get extremely annoyed when people say I haven’t got a Yorkshire accent simply because to them it doesn’t sound like the stereotypical one that they associate with the whole of Yorkshire, that being from the south of the county.’

 

People become enormously attached to their dialect. Whenever you visit a different city, such as Liverpool, Birmingham or Sheffield, you can guarantee that some reputable bookshop will have a book on understanding the local dialect for the uninitiated. Stoke on Trent is no exception and books such as Fred Leigh’s ‘Ow Ter Toke Raight’ can usually be found in Hanley. ‘The Evening Sentinel’ regularly publishes the ‘May Un Mar Lady’ cartoon strip by the late Dave Fellows, as well as local sayings contributed by readers. In Penkhull one pub has a pub quiz with questions and answers read in local dialect. Some breweries have begun incorporating dialect words by naming their beers with them, such as ‘Riggwelter’ (Black Sheep Brewery, Masham, North Yorkshire) and ‘Sneck Lifter’ (Jennings Brewery, Cumbria). Stoke on Trent’s local brewery, Titanic based in Burslem, pays homage to Captain Smith of that ill-fated ship, but possibly one day in the future we’ll see a ‘Saggar-Maker’s Thirst Slaker’.

 

Stoke on Trent has sadly lost much of its Physical identity of the Potteries. If Stoke City Football Club were only just being formed would they have still chosen ‘The Potters’ as their nickname? Thankfully we’re still known the world over as the Potteries, a name both interchangeable and synonymous with Stoke on Trent. Just as bottle ovens, a once regular feature of our skylines have been preserved, so too should be the dialect and accent of those who toiled in them.