Echoes of the Vikings - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Echoes of the Vikings

Echoes of the Vikings

By Mike McDowall

Source John Lund/Drew Kelly/Corbis


Because you might want to visit, but you should avoid getting lost in translation.

By Mike McDowall

Cumbria, in the north of England, boasts the mountains and lakes that inspired Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. People come from all over the world to enjoy its big skies and serenity. But a problem you may face, even if you’re an English-speaking visitor, is the language barrier.

You see, they speak English there, but it’s not the English you’re used to. 

  • Aye means yes and nah means no.
  • Ah-reet, as a question, means how are you? As a response it means OK or fine. If you encounter a friend in the street, you might say, “How do. Ah-reet?” And they might respond, “Aye, ah-reet.” Or, if things are going really well, they might say, “Bahry,” which means good or nice.
  • The first-person pronoun, I, is pronounced ah. So I am becomes ah’m, or sometimes ah’s. Other vowel sounds are troublesome too. Wash is pronounced wesh and long is pronounced lang; bath rhymes with math, not hearth. Warm sounds like arm, and cold, when talking about the weather, is another word altogether: parky.
  • A young man is a charver and an older man a gadgy; his brother is his boyo and his children are his bairdens. His fizzog is his face, his gia his backside, and his fettle is his health. You might point to a man on the other side of the street and say, “Wee’s yon gadgy?” Meaning who’s that man?  And to inquire about the well-being of someone’s children, you could offer a cheery, “How’s t’bairdens’ fettle?”

Suzy Henderson is a writer of historical fiction who, despite having lived in Cumbria for many years, has yet to completely master the vernacular. During a storm, one of her neighbors hit a fallen tree with his car. Shaking his head, he told her he’d “fine fettled it.” Fettle, confusingly enough, means “health,” but also means “to fix.” What he actually meant, she soon realized, interpreting the typical Cumbrian understatement, was that he’d done a fair bit of damage.

  • Greet means big and lahl means small; owt is anything and nowt is nothing. Your kecks are your trousers and your dookers are your swimming trunks, though you won’t need those as it’s usually too parky to swim.
  • donnet is a fool and a wazzock is an annoying know-it-all. If you’re told to ho’d thy whisht, you might want to consider being quiet, because it means hush, and if you’re asked to giv’ower, then the speaker wants you to stop whatever you’re doing.
  • coo is a cow, a yow is a sheep and a dewkle is a dog, as in: Ower yonder, down t’lonnin, theer’s an aul’ gadgy wi a bahry greet dewkle. (Over there, down the lane, there’s an old man with a nice big dog.)
  • You’ll need scran, which is food, perhaps in the form of bait, which is a packed lunch. And at the end of the day you’ll likely want to cowp in front of a roaring fire and enjoy a jar, which is a pint of beer. Or perhaps several.

If you’re wondering why Cumbrian dialect is so distant from the Queen’s English, look to the local toponymy. Vikings arrived in the early 10th century and changed Cumbria forever. Richard Byers, the current editor of Dickinson’s Comprehensive Dictionary of Cumberland Dialect, first published in 1859 and still in print today, told me it’s Norwegians — perhaps even more than Brits — who are right at home with the strange tongue.

If you venture thataway, well: Howay — thee’ll hev a reet bahry time, ah’v nee dowt.

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