Yes- this is English, Jim – but not as we know it. It is the opening line of “On Ilkley Moor”– the nearest thing Yorkshire tykes have to a national anthem. You may not have heard of Yorkshire. It is the largest county in England, and lies in the north-east of the country.
Together, Yorkshire and Lancashire are the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom, with the rocky spine of the Pennines in between them, the long arms of Wales and Cornwell to the west, and the fat bum of East Anglia and London to the east.
The song is long and repetitious, so let me outline the story.
A young man goes courting with his girlfriend on Ilkley Moor ( a pleasant country walk) – but he makes a fatal error. He forgets to put on his hat. He is “baht ‘at”, and this minor forgetfulness will spell his doom. Yorkshiremen still tend to wear a hat, or rather , a tweed cap for most of their lives. Many never take it off at all – even in bed . It keeps off the blistering Sheffield sun in the summer, and you can use it to bat the snow off your coat in the winter. It is the mark of a true Yorkshireman.
Hatless, the young man is struck down with illness and dies. The worms eat him. The ducks eat the worms. His friends eat the ducks. His friends take delight that they have got the better of him. Logical ? Don’t ask.
But this song ( sung to an old American hymn tune by the way) is a prize example of Yorkshire dialect. We Brits don’t all sound like BBC newsreaders (or David Beckham, for that matter.) Despite the homogenising power of international communication, dialects are still alive and well- and changing to accommodate a rapidly changing world. Southerners may pronounce “ hat” as “het”, “government” as “ gavernment” or “house” as “hice.”
But Yorkshire is a foreign country. We do things differently here.
“Hat” is alway “ ‘At”; “government “ is pronounced “ them buggers in London” and “ house is always “Owse.”
And we have our own vocabulary as well – “fettle” means “ to fix, to repair”; “crackin” means very good as in “ Crackin’ cheese, Gromit.” The list could go on and on- “laikin” means to play, a “lop” is a flea . Two words which have a similar meaning are “ claggy” and “clarty” – they both mean sticky- as in mud or glue. “ Frame yersen !” means “ Get a move on ! Get going !”
I could go on for ever. I knew one man who did just that. He managed to stretch a PhD in Yorkshire dialect out to ten years. It meant that he spent ten years going round every pub in the county, listening to “owd ‘uns (old ones) nattering away. What a sacrifice. He was nursing his pint and listening to a couple of elder statesmen in a pub outside Skipton one day. They were having lunch.
“Harold ! said one, “ Why dosta leave yer peyes ?” ( Why do you leave your peas ?)
The other shook his head. “ Nay,” he said, “Peyes give me bellywarch” (Peas give me stomach ache.)