ONE of my newspapers recently carried a feature about Yorkshire Dialect but this title is not entirely accurate.

There is no such thing as a single Yorkshire dialect – there are dozens or even hundreds of dialects within this huge county with more along the coastline and others reflecting the neighbouring counties or conurbations.

The definition of dialect itself a puzzle because people from outside the county often refer to the dialect when in fact they really mean a Yorkshire accent. People from various parts of the former West Riding will use the word 'were' when in fact they mean 'was' whilst York residents can be recognised because they rarely pronounce the letter T when it appears in the middle or end of a word. “I’m feeling better because I got a letter” becomes “I’m feeling be**er because I go* a le**er.”

I should add that there is nothing wrong about the way we speak – even grammatical errors can be tolerated in day-to-day chatter but the point is that our speech can provide clues as to our native areas and perhaps the local manner of speech we heard and spoke as children. I can recall my grandmother calling me a canny lad, but she came from the Sunderland area and her accent revealed her association with that locality.

So what do we mean by the word dialect? It may include an accent but it also depends on unusual words that are particularly associated with a locality, district or one of our splendid Dales. In the past the people of Wensleydale spoke quite differently from those in Swaledale, and in turn, the residents of both those dales spoke unlike the people of Teesdale or those living in the North York Moors, the East Riding Wolds or the West Riding.

I recall working in Whitby where the fisherfolk spoke a dialect which was quite different from that of people living in the nearby moors. I heard a fisherman say to another “Vairst du gahin?” which means “Where are you going?” – very like the Germanic phrase “Vo gehst du?” which means the same thing.

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines dialect as a form of language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group. In discussions about our dialects we tend to omit social groups and their manner of speech which we might dismiss simply as jargon. Certainly if you overhear two business-folk chatting over a meal, their discussion is usually incomprehensible to outsiders because they use “business-speak” which is often liberally interspaced with the use of initials. For example, “DG interacted with JB to facilitate a head-to-head about the proposed re-direction of FD17XF”. This might have been a chat about the design of a new car or anything else! But is such speech a form of dialect?

It seems to fit the dictionary definition and there is no doubt that organisations like sports clubs, social clubs and various societies who deal with matters like the arts, music, literature and so forth, all have their own jargon which can be incomprehensible to outsiders.

In the course of my work, I need access to dialect words because they might be spoken by one of my fictional characters. I have A Dictionary of the North Riding Dialect written by Sir Alfred Pease in 1928 which remains a most useful source of curious words. Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, in their book The Yorkshire Dales, included a short list of dialect words from Swaledale and Wensleydale.

Richard Blakeborough, father of Major J. Fairfax-Blakeborough, compiled a list of North Riding dialect words in his book – Wit, Character, Folkore and Customs of the North Riding of Yorkshire (1911) which is on my shelves, and for West Riding words I rely on Arnold Kellett’s Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore (1994).

I have to say that many words are similar in all those areas, even when spoken with differing accents. In Swaledale and Wensleydale, maffly meant muddled or not-so-well, but in other parts of the North Riding the word waffly indicated someone muddled and unsure of themselves. Arnold Kellett features waffly as meaning unsteady or dizzy whilst Blakeborough says it means undecided or wavering. And, of course, all these words are spoken with different accents.

On this topic, I have received a note from the Bainbridge artist, Janet Rawlins, who refers to a type of stool called a buffit by Arnold Kellett but which in the moors, we named as puffet pronounced as puffay which was a type of hassock – but this does not appear in North Riding dialect dictionaries.

Like most dialect speakers (as I was when a child) I have my favourite words and one is thrang. A local saying was “Ah’s as thrang as Throp’s wife” Thrang meant being very busy and it seems Throp’s wife was “that thrang she hanged hersen wiv a dishclout.”

A fierce creature

A few minutes before settling down to compile this weeks’ Diary, my wife and I returned from a short outing and as I parked the car, we noticed a great spotted woodpeckers having a great time on our feeder full of peanuts. The lack of a red spot on the back of its head told us she was female but she attacked the nuts with a ferocity that can only come from a woodpecker.

We sat in the car only yards away to observe her at close quarters, witnessing the power of her tail to aid her balance on the feeder, and the sheer power of that sharp beak as she demolished her meal. A beak that can drill holes in trees made short work of many peanuts. All the smaller garden birds kept away during this powerful feeding session – but then a bluetit appeared and began feeding on the opposite side of the container.

I thought the woodpecker would drive away the bluetit but she appeared to ignore the visitor and continued to attack the nuts. In time, of course, she had satisfied her appetite and left the feeder with the brave bluetit in sole charge.

But as great spotted woodpeckers like to do, she shinned up the branches of our cherry tree on the side away from us, thus keeping out of sight until she reached the top. Then she flew off to an unknown destination where, it seems, a male would be waiting. Male and female do visit our feeders, sometimes together, but we do not know where they have made their base.

Although green woodpeckers were common when I was a child, I have never seen one in or near our garden although I’ve heard their famous laughing call nearby on occasions. Lesser spotted woodpeckers have never appeared either so our pair of greater spotted woodpeckers represents the woodpecker tribe.

With eye-catching black and white plumage and a red patch beneath their tails, they can not be mistaken for anything else. The male has a red patch on his head but the female lacks this identifying feature.

Continuing the dialect theme, all woodpeckers are known as peckatrees, sometimes with the spotted woodpeckers being called pied-peckatrees, and green woodpeckers as either yaffles or green peckatrees.