Recently NE Bylines ran a piece on so-called ‘malapropisms’ and how they accidentally shape our way of speaking. And that got me thinking about how our language constantly evolves. Just listen to any newsreel recording from the 1940s or 1950’s – just a lifetime away. The strangled vowels of their received pronunciation (RP) English seem to be thousands of miles away from what we hear around us nowadays.
And the same is true of local lingo. A few years ago, a study by Cambridge University, using app-based data collection, argued that local dialects are migrating. It said that ‘estuary English’ – the sort of mockney beloved of comedians like Mark Steele – would become a standard for the whole of the South outside of London, whilst the capital would become a place where dialect linked to elements of West Indies and African idiom would be the normal language for everyone outside of the professional middle class. Same too, they argued, for the North East and Yorkshire, where Geordie would be advancing remorselessly southwards from the Tyne and Durham.
The Teesside accents
From where I live, I’m not so sure. The Teesside accent or the East Cleveland dialect are tough old beasts, and I think will easily withstand any try-ons from the other linguistic tribes. For what it’s worth, I think the boundary between the two accents of ‘pitmatic’ Geordie and Teesside is one of the sharpest in the country. A journey across the fields for just two or three miles – from, say, Hartlepool to Horden, or Darlington to Shildon – straddles one of the great dialect boundaries in the UK.
Village by village
Then, as a local, there are the internal subtleties. The lingo of East Cleveland, although linked, is still totally recognisable from that of downtown Middlesbrough or Eston. And, even a few decades ago, someone with a sharp ear could still make a fairly good guess as to which town or village a person came from just by their voice. Then, the Loftus accent was not the Guisborough twang, and what was said in Brotton was not the same thing as Lingdale chat. I guess the same was and is very much the case in Co Durham, or on the Wear, Tyne and the Tees.
Our local language has many roots. Remember that just over 150 years ago what was Teesside was just a collection of muddy fields and small farms lying between Stockton and Whitby. The discovery of ironstone, the coming of the railway and the birth of iron and steelmaking meant a whole new workforce had to be conjured up – and from everywhere where work was scarce. So, over a mere two decades or so, a new polyglot population came together from the four corners of the land. A look at the old census records shows this graphically.
In the small terraced Skelton street I lived in up to a couple of years ago, there were men and women whose birthplace was Ireland, Suffolk, Cornwall, Durham and Lancashire. Elements of their native accents and phraseology fused with the local twang to produce what we now know and love.
But, as I said at the beginning, our language is still poetry in motion.
Research by Prof Carmen Llamas
Prof Carmen Llamas, has looked at the way we all – in this little bit of England – talk now. Carmen is “a sociolinguist with a particular interest in phonological variation and change” says her employer, York University, on their website. Still, as Carmen is a Boro girl, she knows what she talks of and about.
Her central argument is that a long-term shift in our local tongue is underway, and is generationally rooted. In her interviews with local people, she found a huge contrast between older people, who identified with what they felt was a ‘Yorkshire accent’, whilst younger middle aged people or those lucky people still in their teens and twenties saw themselves as ‘Teessiders’ or from Middlesbrough, or the Middlesbrough area.
Now I guess there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the old Yorkshire links are, for all intents and purposes, gone. What is now North Yorkshire is now utterly distinct from Teesside. It is wealthier, thinks differently, by and large votes differently and is occupationally largely non-industrial. The voices there are now increasingly Middle English. If you don’t believe me, just go to any supermarket in Northallerton and eavesdrop on the chit chat in the checkout queue.
Secondly, the rise of mass identification with music and sport has also accentuated the ‘otherness’ of this area. Look at football. Up to a few years ago, Middlesbrough had no label or real nickname. Now, just as Newcastle fans are ‘Mags’ or ‘Geordies’, and Wearsiders ‘Mackems’, we are now all ‘Smoggies’.
Now this name was originally seen as an insulting name for us all, and was coined by opposition supporters. But, like the British Army of the 1914 – 18 war which was called “a contemptible little army” by Kaiser Bill, and for whose veterans the name ‘Old Contemptibles’ was adapted to become a badge worn with pride, the ‘smoggy’ sobriquet is now one that’s thrown back across the terraces – and increasingly elsewhere. You can now get smoggy car stickers, dolls and T’s. You can even drink in the Golden Smog pub.
Sure, there are changes, but these are as yet not easily discernible. Slang terms come and go, often within the span of a year. Some are bizarre; a friend of ours who is in the local police and is part of a neighbourhood team looking after some of the nicer Stockton suburbs finds it hilarious that he and his mates are called ‘The Feds’ by the urban ‘gangz’ of the gritty ghetto of Ingleby Barwick. The real impact of continent spanning YouTube and the like will force change, but will it be enough to alter deep local Teesside roots and identity? I think not.
Now, for me at least, that is something to celebrate. Unlike the unloved promotional name of the ‘Tees Valley’ (created, I remember, by some marketing whizz kids after Cleveland County was abolished, the Smoggy image of the towns on the Tees is one a lot of local people are now proud to be associated with.