Yorkshire Dialect in 19th Century Fiction and 20 th Century Reality. A Study of Dialectal Change with the Example of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and the Survey of English Dialects

Seminar Paper 2005 17 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Yorkshire Dialect in Victorian Fiction and Modern Reality
2.1. Joseph’s Speech in Wuthering Heights
2.1.1. Spelling and Pronunciation
2.1.2. Grammar
2.1.3. Lexis
2.2. The Survey of English Dialects (SED)

3. Comparison between Joseph’s Speech and Yorkshire Dialect in the SED

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Emily Brontë’s only novel is considered to be one of the most powerful and enigmatic works in English literature.” (Alexander/Smith 2003: 553) Wuthering Heights (first published in 1847) is indeed a very powerful novel which is to its greatest part achieved by its setting in the Yorkshire moors and the realistic representation of the local transactions.

Emily Jane Brontë was born in 1818; at the age of two she moved with her family to Haworth, West Riding of Yorkshire. Except for a few short journeys, Emily Brontë stayed in Yorkshire all her life and could thus vividly describe her Yorkshire surroundings as the setting of her novel. Furthermore, the Yorkshire dialect (based on Haworth dialect) in the speech of some of her characters adds to the completeness of the novel’s setting (Waddington-Feather 2004: 1). Most characters in the novel use a dialect word or phrase every now and then; Joseph, however, speaks Yorkshire dialect almost exclusively.

Joseph is the old servant at Wuthering Heights (which is both, the name of the novel and that of the house). Joseph is very religious and loyal to whoever is his master at the time. According to Ellen Dean, the housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, he is “the wearisomest, self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a Bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses on his neighbours.” (Brontë 1994: 48-49) Hence, Joseph is an ambiguous character in the mind of the reader: on the one hand, he is always grumpy, quite harsh and even mean at times; on the other hand, he is an old man who is always truthful and loyal; it seems he is always as good a person as his respective master is.

Joseph’s use of dialect reflects the roughness of Wuthering Heights and its surroundings. The old man speaks an old dialect and lives in the old farmhouse. The house is habitable but not comfortable and it is always exposed to stormy weather. The same holds true for Joseph’s dialect: it is intelligible but not easy to understand and it is constantly looked down upon by the higher classes. Joseph’s dialect sounds quite rough although there is a certain beauty in it, just like the Yorkshire moors are said to be rough but beautiful. Finally, it suggests a lack of education if a speaker uses dialect solely, as Joseph does. Nonetheless, Joseph and his dialect resist all the storms which approach throughout the novel.

In this paper, Joseph’s speech will be examined, particularly by dealing with spelling (and the suggested pronunciation), grammar and lexis. This paper will discuss Emily Brontë’s realization of dialect in her novel and eventually compare the Yorkshire dialect presented in Wuthering Heights to the Yorkshire dialect recorded in the Survey of English Dialects (SED) in 1950-1961.

2. Yorkshire Dialect in Victorian Fiction and in Modern Reality

In the 19th century, spoken dialect was quite common among all people in Great Britain except the well-educated (Görlach 1999: 28). Thus, many 19th-century English novelists used dialect speech in their novels in order to give them more reality (Görlach 1999: 33). Dialect served as a means to place the characters; not only in a certain region but also in a social hierarchy (Chapman 1994: 39). Not many novelists desired to render dialect speech as consistent and accurate as Emily Brontë tried to in her novel. Moreover, it simply was not and still is not possible to convey accurate speech with the single use of our alphabet to a reader who is ignorant of the dialect (Chapman 1994: 53). Nonetheless, novels which include strong dialect were accepted and even admired in the 19th century because they reflect Victorian daily life and create an experience of regional life (Chapman 1994: 56).

In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the old servant Joseph either preaches to the other characters or he utters an unfriendly question, order or accusation. Almost all of Joseph’s utterances include Yorkshire dialect: he uses dialectal pronunciation as in neeght ‘night’ (Brontë 1994: 24), dialectal grammar as in I seed ‘I saw’ (Brontë 1994: 85), and dialectal lexis as in lugs ‘ears’ (Brontë 1994: 33). Brook (1965: 88) states that “dialect speakers often show a fondness for alliteration and rhyme…”. Brontë included this feature in her work: “…fahl, flaysome devil…” (1994: 85), “…nor noan on ‘em, not he!” (1994: 99), “Minching un’ munching!” (1994: 125), “…seed a seeght…” (1994: 157), “Thear, that’s t’father!” (1994: 213) and “I hed aimed to dee, wheare I’d sarved fur sixty year…” (1994: 264). Joseph’s speech is not always easy to understand; however, it is an essential part of the novel because it underlines the importance of social barriers in Victorian times and plays a great role in the development of the atmosphere, the characters and their surroundings. (Ferguson 1998: 2) Brontë’s use of dialect strengthens the readers’ consciousness of the locality of the novel and makes it seem more realistic (Waddington-Feather 2004: 1).

Today, Yorkshire dialect is not as commonly used anymore as it was in Victorian times. Nowadays, the number of people who still speak dialect only has become very small: dialect speaking is confined to a small group of older people. Local dialect is threatened every day by the great mobility of people, by TV, radio, telephone, education, etc. This threat began in 1870 when compulsory education was introduced. Since modern media did not exist at that time, only traveling, education and migration had an impact on the change of dialects. But although there was migration to the industrial centers in the North, the northern dialects remained stable because most migrants came from nearby (Görlach 1999: 29).

2.1. Joseph’s Speech in Wuthering Heights

Unfortunately, today’s version of Wuthering Heights does not contain Emily Brontë’s original spelling of Joseph’s speech. Her sister Charlotte deemed Emily’s realization of Yorkshire dialect unintelligible for most readers. She admitted that readers from Yorkshire would find that the Yorkshire dialect was accurately spelt in Emily’s novel, but since she doubted that any Southerner would be able to comprehend Joseph’s discourse she simplified the spelling (Ellis 1989: 224). Nevertheless, even the remainders of Emily’s original seem to be very authentic. Brontë’s realization of Yorkshire dialect offers both greater enjoyment for readers who have knowledge of it and intelligibility for readers who do not have any knowledge of the Yorkshire dialect at all.

Still, readers who have never heard Yorkshire dialect before will have difficulties in deciding on the pronunciation of certain words because spelling can never equate to spoken language. This is easy to understand when we look at how different people spell nicknames. /ki:ki:/, for example, can be spelt Kiki, Kiky, Kyki, Kyky, Kicki, Kicky, Ciki, etc. All of these words can be pronounced /ki:ki:/ but the vowels can also be shorter or rounded, C can also be /ts/, etc. It is the task of the reader to decide which pronunciation is the one that the author wanted to express.

As this paper will show in the following chapters, Emily Brontë realized her image of dialect not only by non-standard spelling. In order to produce accurate dialect, she transmitted dialectal pronunciation through spelling and included dialectal grammar and lexis. Yet, her use of certain spellings and grammatical constructions is not consistent throughout the novel which is in conformity with reality where dialect speakers also tend to switch between different forms of pronunciation and grammar.

2.1.1 Spelling and Pronunciation

Deriving Emily Brontë’s intended pronunciation from her spelling is met by major difficulties. Sometimes modern readers may ask themselves why Emily Brontë chose non-standard spelling for certain words which are pronounced the way she spells them anyway, e.g. amang (1994: 99) for ‘among’ and ses (1994: 84) for ‘says’. This may have two reasons: some words are simply misspelled in order to elucidate Joseph’s lack of education (Chapman 1994: 21). Other words had a different standard pronunciation in the 19th century than they have today (Chapman 1994: 21); in consequence, Brontë’s spelling rendered non-standard pronunciation for Victorian readers. In Victorian times, spoken Standard English (StE) was much closer to written language than it is today (Görlach 1999: 27). Unstressed vowels were pronounced more clearly instead of being reduced to /ə/ (schwa) as it is the norm in today’s Standard English.

Not only vowels are important when comparing dialect speech to StE but also consonants. Joseph leaves out a great number of mediate and final consonants, e.g. in ta’en (k) , fro’ (m) , o’ (f) , can’de-light (l) , cham’er (b) , tum’le (b) , mista’en (k) or even taen/taan (k).

The following table shows some realizations of Yorkshire dialect in Joseph’s speech:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Definite articles are always reduced in Joseph’s speech, either to t’ or to th’. However, the distribution of t’ and th’ is not regular. T’ has appearances in front of nouns with initial consonants only, whereas th’ appears in front of nouns with initial consonants as well as nouns with initial vowels. Sometimes a particular noun is preceded by t’ at one point in the novel and by th’ at a different point. This matches the reality of speech since most people tend to switch between different realizations of morphemes. In this case, Emily Brontë’s spelling does not leave any doubt about the pronunciation, she uses t’ for /t/ and th’ for /ð/.

Many words in Joseph’s speech have monophthongs where StE has diphthongs. There are many different examples but the most frequent is the pronunciation of /ɑ:/ instead of /aʊ/. Emily Brontë always spells this sound with an ah. This realization of /ɑ:/ cannot be misinterpreted by Germans but people from English speaking countries may have difficulties in imagining the right sound because they are not familiar with the combination of ‘a’ and ‘h’. Another example for monophthongization is the change of /a I / to /i:/. In her spelling, Emily Brontë replaced the i by ee, which keeps the reading simple but, nevertheless, is an unambiguous sign for the pronunciation of /i:/.

There is another phenomenon in Joseph’s speech that deals with the phonetic realizations of vowels, namely the pronunciation of diphthongs in places where StE has monophthongs. It is not as consistent as the monophthongization but it appears in many different places: words where the standard vowel sound is /i:/or /a:/ can all be pronounced with /e I / by Joseph. Emily Brontë’s spelling is as inconsistent as the appearance of this phenomenon. In some words she uses simply a, other words are spelt with ai, some even with ay. This may be accidental but it may also be a depiction of the inconsistency and haphazardness of dialect and common speech in general.



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University of Hamburg – Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Yorkshire Dialect Century Fiction Century Reality Study Dialectal Change Example Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights Survey English Dialects Proseminar English Dialects



Title: Yorkshire Dialect in 19th Century Fiction and 20 th Century Reality. A Study of Dialectal Change with the Example of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and the Survey of English Dialects