Books and the Yorkshire dialect

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read
A bit of Yorkshire.
May 2020

One of my favourite books as a child was The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett so I’m not sure why it is that I had never read The Secret Garden. My sister who never used to read much, until her beloved Blacksmith came into the scene, has read it. The father thinks it’s a most excellent book. It turns out we even have it on the bookshelf here.

So why hadn’t I read it?

I knew the vague outline of the story, because when we were children my sister and I had the film which stars Maggie Smith as Mrs Medlock and we must have watched it over and over again, delighting in the magic. However, I hadn’t appreciated the full wonder of the book itself.

The Secret Garden is a beautiful depiction of the Yorkshire accent, with the protagonist Mary slowly taking on more and more of the Yorkshire dialect as the story progresses, simultaneously becoming a nicer, kinder person as she adopts a playful ‘tha’ for you and the single aspirated alveolar stop of ‘t’ for ‘to’.

Away from the sound of home, I’ve gained deeper appreciation for the accents of the North

I expend so much effort trying to clean up my speech that sometimes I forget the wonder of its original form, with its double contractions and missed consonants. There’s no shortage of un-official English in my family. Apparently, my southern grandfather used to say skellingtons and my mother still does slip into such a form from time to time and so there’s no wonder it’s my natural inclination to say skellington too (dear students: the word you want is skeleton).

But Yorkshire, with it’s ancient twists of words, is also a place of wisdom

If anyone is currently bored by the lack of freedom to socialise, the ‘born ‘n’ bred in Yorkshire’ character of Martha in The Secret Garden has some advice:

Martha looked perplexed.

“Can tha’ knit?” she asked.

“No,” answered Mary.

“Can tha’ sew?”

“No.”

“Can tha’ read?”

“Yes.”

“Then why doesn’t tha’ read somethin’, or learn a bit o’ spellin’? Tha’st old enough to be learnin’ thy book a good bit now.”

“I haven’t any books,” said Mary.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

It makes my heart sing to read such a conversation written on the page

The book includes this beautiful explanation on the word ‘wuthering’ which was famously used in the title of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights written and set here in Yorkshire where I currently live. I don’t personally recommend the book. I thought, when I picked it up, that it would be a romance. I was wrong, it was a horrible portrayal of domestic abuse.

Mary did not know what ‘wutherin’’ meant until she listened, and then she understood. It must mean that hollow shuddering sort of roar which rushed round and round the house as if the giant no one could see were buffeting it and beating at the walls and the windows to try to break in. But one knew he could not get in, and somehow it made one feel very safe and warm inside a room with a red coal fire.

Frances Hodgson Burnett The Secret Garden

Continuing the reading update, I’ve also finally finished Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I enjoyed but in my ranking of 17th century Russian literature it falls below Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

When someone makes a remark on how certain politicians seem to believe that they are above the rules, I’m reminded of some of the long, meandering convoluted essays of thought portrayed in the book.

Yet I wondered if they book should be re-written using the structure of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (Rayuela) which has an appendix of unnecessary philosophising conveniently disguised as an alternative reading option. Or at least I think it does… I’ve only read the short version.

Trying to curb my book buying habit a little, I continued with foreign literature, reading Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, for which I had high expectations. I remember James Wood waxing lyrical about Flaubert’s impact on modern fiction in his book, How Fiction Works, but I found that since I didn’t like any of the characters it was difficult to find much appreciation for the style. My favourite moment was when Flaubert described the animals all gathered up for the agricultural show:

The beasts were there, their noses towards the cord, and making a confused line with their unequal rumps. Drowsy pigs were burrowing in the earth with their snouts, calves were bleating, lambs baaing; the cows, on knees folded in, were stretching their bellies on the grass, slowly chewing the cud, and blinking their heavy eyelids at the gnats that buzzed around them.

Gustav Falubert, Madame Bovary

At least I felt like I could relate to those marvellous beasts.