As a part of the Yorkshire Day weekend in Keighley, the Yorkshire Dialect Society and the Yorkshire Society, in partnership with the Friends of Keighley Library and Bradford Council, staged Yorkshire Dialect Day, a special day school on July 30th in Keighley Local Studies Library.  Over 40 people attended presentations and discussion.

The event was also dedicated to the memory of the late Ian Dewhirst, (1936-2019) the remarkable Keighley librarian, historian, storyteller and poet, in both standard English and West Riding dialect, The Keighley library staff prepared a small exhibition of Ian’s life and work to coincide with the event.

The day opened with a fascinating talk by noted Yorkshire dialect scholar and linguistic Ian Stevenson, who explained that far from being slovenly or ignorant speech, the dialects of Yorkshire originated in Anglian Old English, with strong Norse (Viking) influences from Danish and Norwegian settlement in eastern England from the eight century onwards.  Dialect is therefore a form of English which goes back to the earliest uses of the Germanic languages in our island, and is therefore as correct and authentic as anything in standard English.

Rod Dimbleby, Chairman of the Yorkshire Dialect Society took forward the afternoon session by examining the life and work of the great Victorian Dialect scholar, poet, writer and editor, John Hartley of alifax who through his popular Click Almnack H  Halifax (1839-1915) who for decades published and edited The Clock Almanac, a popular magazine of working class literature, mainly stories, humorous poems and comment, offering important insight into the life and work of ordinary people in Victorian and Edwardian Yorkshire.

Eric Scaife then offered a combination of highly amusing stories, poems and anecdotes by noted dialect writers, including work by Ian Dewhirst, John Hartley and several others, illustrating how dialect, the language of ordinary working people on the farms and in the mills, factories and mines, had a vividness and wit that so called standard English could not match.  He ended his presentation with an acrobatic waving of Yorkshire flag over the audience’s heads.

In the discussion that followed several  interesting issues were raised. Though dialect is less prevalent than it was in the past, (and its death has been long predicted) it is has not yet died out, but changed with different social conditions and influences.  But if the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots and more recently the Cornish have saved  their ancient languages, which only in recent years were considered heading for extinction but now thrive, could not the same be done for Yorkshire?   Yorkshire has a similar population to Scotland but larger than that of Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall.  Could there not be a case for teaching Yorkshire in schools or in further education/U3A groups, including raising an awareness of dialect literature to include such masterpieces as the Lyke Wake Dirge and the York & Wakefield Mystery plays, as well as the work of more recent writers and poets?   How could a younger generation be encouraged to believe that their native speech is in fact “cool” and worth speaking, reading and writing?

It was agreed the Yorkshire Society and the Yorkshire Dialect Society would see how they might work together with academic Institutions in Leeds and elsewhere in Yorkshire to see what practical ways could be developed to bring back dialect  – local language – studies at every level as something to be taken seriously.  The adage to emerge from discussion was that Yorkshire in essence is “a landscape, a people, a language”. We need to therefore examine what resources in terms of dictionaries and publications exist within the tradition of West Riding, East Riding and North Riding (Cleveland) spoken and written dialects, and if and how these linguistic traditions can not only be preserved but brought back to life for a new generation, whether by seminars, educational materials, competitions, social gatherings, performances (linked to traditional music perhaps) as a process of reclaiming Yorkshire culture and identity.

The Friends of Keighley Library are considering turning the Yorkshire Dialect Day into perhaps an annual event at the Library, perhaps with a re-showing Ken Loach’s film Kes with its brilliant use of dialect/working class speech for its central character.  There could be other film making opportunities  to explore perhaps using social media, including YouTube, to appeal to an IT literate younger generation.

Thank you to Colin Speakman, Society member and attendee, for this report.

Thank you in advance too to BBC for use of Last of The Summer Wine photo.

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