Medieval peasants
Medieval peasants
The English we use today , whether dialectal or 'standard', is the regular descendant - with additions and subtractions - of Old and Middle English, Old English being the term generally preferred to designate the language of our ancestors the Anglo-Saxons. (Wakelin, 1977: 11)

A major source of the following brief description of the history of Yorkshire dialect is John Waddington–Feather’s (1970) Yorkshire Dialect. Where information has been extracted from other sources, this is acknowledged accordingly. The evolution of the dialect is discussed in terms of the old Yorkshire Ridings rather than the current administrative boundaries.

The earliest settlers of Yorkshire, about whose language we have some knowledge, were the Celts whose migration to Britain from the Continent commenced around 500 BC. However, their linguistic influence, on the English Language in general and Yorkshire dialect in particular, has been minimal. This appears to be largely due to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. Although adopting Celtic place-names and river names, the newcomers appear to have been reluctant to borrow other items of vocabulary. The result was that only about two dozen words were absorbed into Old English. Even then, not all these survived and those that did continued to exist only in dialect.

Regarding settlement of these Germanic tribes, Crystal (1995) observes that there is evidence to suggest that, by 600 AD, England consisted of 12 Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. More specifically, in relation to Yorkshire, Waddington–Feather (1970) claims that the area occupied by the modern county consisted of three separate territories: the Northumbrian kingdom of Deira which covered roughly the same area as  that of modern East Yorkshire plus a large section of the North Riding; the Celtic kingdom of Elmet occupying an area approximately equivalent to the modern West Riding; and the Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia which stretched to Cumbria in the West and north to the Scottish border. However, this claim that Bernician territory reached as far as Yorkshire is at odds with the views of Fisher (1973) who asserts that Bernicia was established north of the River Tyne. However, Fisher further speculates that Deira and Bernicia may have merged in the latter part of the 6th century and it seems likely that Waddington–Feather is referring to this hypothesized amalgamation.

With regard to the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, in 616 AD this area was invaded by Edwin, King of Northumbria, who ruled the region for sixteen years before losing it to Penda, the King of Mercia.. This part of Yorkshire thus came under the influence of the Mercian dialect which accounts, in part, for the contrast between the speech of the West Riding and that of the North and East Ridings. (The word Riding itself is derived from the Danish word "■ri­jungr" (third), an administrative area set up by the Danes after their invasion in 865 AD.) This fresh incursion brought not only new words but, in the view of some linguists, was the catalyst responsible for a fundamental change in the English language; the loss of inflections.

At this point it should perhaps be mentioned that, although the Viking invaders were referred to by the Anglo-Saxons as "Danes", Barber (1993) highlights the fact that, in reality, they consisted mainly of Danes and Norwegians (the Swedish Vikings tended to move eastwards into the Baltic countries and Russia). Barber adds that the Norwegians generally settled in the north-west around Cumbria and Lancashire while the highest concentration of Danes occurred in the areas occupied by present-day Norfolk, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire.

By the time of the Norman Conquest, English was well established and the use of French as the language of the ruling classes had no great effect other than the absorption of French words into the English dialects (see Middle English overview)

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, large numbers of people from all over the country, especially Midland agricultural workers, migrated into the West Riding. This, together the historical incursion of the Northumbrians, Mercians and Norsemen, may be the reason for the wide variety of dialect evident within the West Riding. Mile for mile, there is a greater variety of speech and, to some extent, vocabulary in the West Riding than over comparable distances in the North and East Ridings.

Ellis (1992: 14) refers to this as "the great dialectal gulf that separates Yorkshiremen in the North and East Ridings from the more industrial West Riding." Kellett (1994) suggests that Northumbrian is still the basis of the NER dialect whilst that of the WR has its source in Mercian (1994: xvi). Dean (1953: xliv) is a little more precise, proposing that the phonological differences date from the transitional period between Old English and Middle English (see Middle English Phonology).



Barber, C. (1993) The English language: a historical introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dean, C. (1953) Studies in the historical phonology of Yorkshire dialects, PhD Thesis, Department of English Language and Medieval Literature, University of Leeds.

Ellis, S. (1992) 40 Years On: Is Dialect Dead? In Transactions of The Yorkshire Dialect Society, Vol. XVIII, Part XCII.

Fisher, D. J. V. (1973) The Anglo-Saxon Age, London: Longman Group Ltd.

Kellett, A. (1994) The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore, Otley: Smith Settle.

Waddington-Feather, J. (1970) Yorkshire Dialect, Clapham: Dalesman.