Have you ever been called mardy, been mithered, complained of someone being nesh, labelled them a numpty or had people look at you blankly because a word you have used since childhood does not form part of their vocabulary?
If any of the above sounds familiar then congratulations: you are living proof that the death of dialect is greatly exaggerated.
Dialect has been mourned for a while now. It is well over 20 years since the term “estuary English” was first coined, while a more recent report concluded that “talking to machines and listening to Americans” could spell the death of regional accents and much-cherished dialect words within the next 50 years.
This fear does not, however, extend to the British Library where linguists continue to chronicle words used in different places and, where possible, preserve them by recording people using them.
Jonnie Robinson, lead curator of spoken English at the British Library and the author of the Evolving English WordBank, says the exercise – which saw ordinary people across the country “donate” words in special recording booths between 2010 and 2011 – proves that dialect words are far from being extinct.
“A lot of people feel dialect is dwindling but actually, although it’s changing … you can find examples of continuity,” Robinson says. The Evolving English WordBank contains 1,500 contributions to date, many of which are dialect words.
Some have shown incredible longevity. Robinson points to the word “puggle”, a word donated by a woman in Birmingham in 2010 which she defined as having “a poke about” or having “bit of of a look” for something.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” the well-spoken woman in her early 30s said in her contribution. “I always thought it was a real word and it turns out it’s not.”
Yet when Robinson looked into it he found puggle in the 19th-century English Dialect Dictionary, one of two major linguistic projects examining how geography and social class affects vocabulary (the other is The Survey of English Dialects, a collection of more than 1,300 words from 300 locations across England in the 1950s).
“The word puggle has been used in the home counties for at least 100 years,” Robinson says, “and here it is being used today, somewhat self-consciously, but used nonetheless by a middle-class young female in the south of England.”
Other submissions are instantly recognisable, either because they are still commonly used or because they have been popularised, or both. “Mardy” (meaning moody or irritable), a word chronicled more than a century ago, is still widely used in the north and Midlands of England. Its further popularisation through the Arctic Monkeys song Mardy Bum helped make it one of the most commonly donated words to the WordBank.
The collection also captures once common words that now survive in just a few geographical pockets. For example “owt” (meaning anything) was widespread in Old English. Now it only persists in certain areas in the north and Midlands, including Yorkshire.
Dialect words can be a way of establishing a person’s shared roots and the basis for unusual social bonds: one woman told the story of a work colleague who, on finding out she was from Grimsby, immediately asked if she knew what “spoggy” meant (chewing gum).
However, words are not necessarily unique to one location – dialect tends to turn up in different locations. A common example is that words and phrases that originated in Scotland often appear in Northern Ireland because of the strong historical connections between the two places.
So children are still being called “thrawn” (difficult or contrary) in Northern Ireland more than 500 years after its first documented use in the Oxford English Dictionary, while the same child might be told to “hold your whisht” (be quiet) over 200 years after Robert Burns used the line in verse.
Of course words do die. The distinguished linguist David Crystal has produced a book and website chronicling disappearing words, while Bradwell Books’ county series of dialect glossaries features many old word forms that are no longer with us.
Robinson is not blind to the evolution of language, but he does not believe that younger generations not using the words their parents or grandparents did spells the end of dialect.
“It’s very easy to pick up a dialect glossary of the 1950s, give it to a group of teenagers and say: ‘How many of these words from your town do you know?’ Many teenagers might not know them but that would have been the case if you had carried out the same exercise in the 1960s. Language is constantly changing.”
Research shows people are most likely to use dialect in their formative, playground years and again in their later years once they have left the professional sphere. This is partly because, in the work environment, people tend to gravitate to a “very mainstream vocabulary” to ensure they are understood.
He says the growing tendency for people to grow up in one area, then move to another for educational purposes and somewhere different for work also has an impact. “The fact is that people now encounter different social groups and we operate across those dialectal boundaries,” he says.
“But go to a pub where a group of people who all grew up in that town are out and having a non-self-conscious conversation among themselves [and] you’ll capture dialect,” he says, adding that this in itself is evidence that helps unpick the “urban myth that we are all beginning to sound the same”.