Thursday, 1 December 2016

Thoughts on Bunting's 'bastard language': Geordie

As I read more about Basil Bunting for the critical portion of my PhD, and in preparing my paper this coming Saturday (which is only partially about Baz), I find myself getting irrationally-but-steadily-more-annoyed by the following quote, which he made in an interview recorded in 1981 (ed. Richard Swigg, re-quoted here from Don Share’s authoritative new Faber edition, The Poems of Basil Bunting):

“What is called “Geordie” is a bastard language, it’s a mixture mainly of south Northumbrian with the Irish that was brought in by the labourers who came first to dig canals, then to build railways, and finally settled down largely in the coal mines. So that a man from Jarrow is speaking what has a double origin in Northumbrian and in northern Irish.”

Are not all languages, and dialects, ‘bastard languages’ with, at least, dual origins? I understand and appreciate Bunting’s assertion that Geordie is a kind of hybridised mix of multiple ‘old’ northern tongues, forged both by necessity and serendipity in the mettle of the Industrial Revolution, along the banks of one of its great commercial rivers (the Tyne), but I detect a smug sense of superiority which seems to claim that a more authoritatively (because older) Northern vernacular lies behind it.

Sure, parochialism in its rawest sense is probably at play here: Basil Bunting was, as he was at pains to reiterate, a Northumberland man; and I am not. Bunting was not fond of the county boundary changes in the 70s, which would lead to the formation of Tyne and Wear, the metropolitan county borough which I have written and taken to be part of my address all of my life. And, yes, it’s true: certain partisans of the old county system still refuse to write ‘Tyne and Wear’ where ‘Durham’ or ‘Northumberland’ will do the job nicely thankyouverymuch.

Part of me thinks that this is all bollocks anyway: arbitrary borders, especially in as far as they are nearly always not real (certainly in the English counties sense), are part of this problem we now have of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘here’ and ‘there’. They are ways and means of tricking us into pens; siloing our concerns away and signifying them as ‘different’, when more often than not they are ‘same’, or ‘similar’.

I’d still venture that most people outside of the region (Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne and Wear and the Tees Valley – the North-East) would still say – yes, simplistically, in too-broad-brush-strokes – that we all speak Geordie. This is not accurate and belies the richness, variation and tonal dexterity of the region’s many accents and dialects, but to John Smith from Kent or Jane Doe from Shropshire, whether we’re from Berwick or Billingham, we pretty much all – or might as well all – speak with what they perceive to be Geordie accents.

Basil, then, is right to point out the complex ways in which Geordie is an inheritance of Irish and Northumbrian; but I think he is also wrong in that Geordie also influenced and shaped the Northumbrian accent of today. If the Geordie accent ‘peaked’ during the Industrial Revolution, sometime between the late-nineteenth and mid twentieth-centuries, and has been ‘receding’, ‘softening’ (or, as I prefer, ‘evolving’) since the late 1980s, then we must also assume that its influence spread north and west, co-mingling and co-habiting with more traditional, rural Northumbrian accents in towns like Hexham, Morpeth and Alnwick.

Thanks in part to the surge in international broadcast media, the general trend towards globalisation of goods, services and labour, and the calculated and measured decline of the once-prodigious manufacturing bases around the three (main) North-Eastern rivers (Tyne, Wear, Tees), the North-East’s accents are undoubtedly not as strong as they were 30-plus years ago. I notice this in the variation between my own accent and that of my parents and grandparents, the latter of which would be termed the ‘broadest’.

In many ways this is common sense stuff; and I have perhaps, in writing this, become as finicky as Bunting in highlighting the whole issue. However, as somebody fiercely proud to be from South Tyneside, born a kick in the pants from Jarrow, whose lineage traces directly back to Irish labourers, and who ultimately draws his surname from that great Scottish-Gaelic pool, I say: ‘Aye, it’s a propa bastad language, and aa bliddy love it.’ I think the Geordie accent, which I am proud to retain a diluted version of (but which I can and do ‘ramp up’, depending on company, excitement and/or levels of alcohol consumed) is a beautiful thing and not mutually incompatible with any of the various Northumbrian tongues. Listen to folk in Seashouses, for instance: it sounds initially like something you’d hear in Shields or Whitley Bay, but it’s quite different, and I think that’s a great thing!

Two things for the record: first – I am not a linguist; second – I love Basil Bunting’s poetry dearly. The fact that Faber & Faber have finally put out this edition is absolutely mint. But my God, he was some boy of an antagonist when the occasion took him!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that you write about differences in speech between Seahouses and Whitley Bay: all very true, there are regional variations within regions, especially in the North of England and southern Scotland. Denis Goacher and some other critics took issue with BB about his own reading voice, claiming that he exaggerated particular sounds for theatrical effect, as if it was some kind of cod Northumbrian, and some critics who aren't familiar enough with the regional differences went along with that. But BB's Northumbrian was essentially 19th century in origin: it came from his mother's side, the Cheesmans who lived around Throckley and Ryton, and Basil grew up surrounded by Cheesman voices. His Cheesman grandparents were both born in 1844, his mother in 1876. In those days Ryton and Throckley were villages, and the local speech would have been strongly Northumbrian. My understanding is that the Cheesmans also had Border roots, adding to the sense that their speech would have been strongly rural in its cadences. So not cod Northumbrian at all, but probably speaking a strain of Northumbrian which hasn't quite survived as originally spoken. But everyone has their own individual version of their local speech influenced by the timbre and tone of their voice, and if Basil modified his when reciting his poetry, that doesn't make it any less genuine.