Geordie Mysteries—And the Mysteries of the Geordie Dialect

May 14, 2015 by

In my earlier post on the geography of detective fiction, I noted a trend for mystery novels and TV shows, especially in Britain, to be set in peaceful locations where in actuality relatively few murders occur. Instead, writers and TV producers pick locations that their audience would enjoy immersing themselves in; adjectives such as picturesque, quiet, quaint, idyllic are often used to describe such places. Yet, recently a shift seems to be unfolding in the British TV mystery fiction, away from the charming village and the public school and towards a grimier, grittier city. Some of the newer shows, such as Grantchester and Inspector Lewis, continue the venerable British tradition of genteel villages, sleuthing priests, murderous Oxbridge dons, and “body in the library” (in fact, in one of the recent episodes of the Inspector Lewis series, a body is found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the two lead characters quip about it). Yet several other recent shows, particularly Inspector George Gently and Vera, move away from that model, taking the viewers instead to a crime-ridden urban environment—whether in the 1960s or today—where the bodies turn up washed ashore by the hostile sea or dumped on a rubbish heap. Curiously, both Inspector George Gently and Vera are set in and around the same city: Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

NorthernEngland_ScotlandUK’s seventh largest city, Newcastle has historically been a major coal mining and industrial center. Although heavy industries in the city decreased in the later part of the 20th century, it remains far from the bucolic ideal of a traditional British murder mystery locale. According to the Wikipedia article, poverty rate in Newcastle is higher than the national average and life expectancy is significantly lower than elsewhere in England. The city’s on-screen image throughout the years has been less than flattering too: it has been the backdrop of such films as the gangster film noir thriller Stormy Monday (1988), football films Purely Belter (2000), The One and Only (2002) and Goal! (2005), as well as Public Sex (2009), exploring the underground subculture of “dogging”.

Many Newcastle residents blame the problems on UK’s central government. Last week, a popular movement was started on website, calling for the northern region to separate from England and to join an independent Scotland. The petition, cited in a ChronicleLive report, states:

“The deliberations in Westminster are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the north of England. The northern cities feel far greater affinity with their Scottish counterparts such as Glasgow and Edinburgh than with the ideologies of the London-centric south. The needs and challenges of the north cannot be understood by the endless parade of old Etonions [sic] lining the frontbenches of the House of Commons. The north of England should join the newly independent Scotland and regain control over its own destiny. We, the people of the north, demand that in the event that Scotland becomes independent the border between England and the New Scotland be drawn along a line that runs between the River Dee and the mouth of The Humber.”

Thus, if the movement succeeds, the entire north of England—including Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds—would be governed from Edinburgh rather than London, with the border running just south of Chester, Sheffield, and Hull (see map).

Curiously, the Tyneside area is in many respects linguistically tied with Scotland, as the dialect spoken in and around Newcastle—known as Geordie (a term also used for the local residents)—shares many features in pronunciation, lexical choices, and even grammar with Scottish dialects, as well as with other northern English dialects. For example, the pronunciation of certain words such as cow and house as “coo” ([kʰuː]) and “hoos” ([huˑs]) is heard also in the so-called Doric Scots, for example, in Buckie in northeastern Scotland. This pronunciation is conservative in that retains the vowel of the pre-Great Vowel Shift period. The word dead, pronounced in Geordie as deed, also exhibits a departure from the mainstream course of the Great Vowel Shift: elsewhere, in words such as dead, threat, head, and bread, the vowel ea before a /t/ or a /d/ was shortened to /ɛ/ in a process known as the bred-bread merger, but in Geordie it remained long and thus raised to merge with the vowel ee, just as it did elsewhere in contexts where it is not followed by a /t/ or a /d/: compare see and sea in standard English. Another parallelism between Geordie and Doric Scots is the pronunciation of long and strong as “lang” ([lɑ̈ːŋ]) and “strang” ([strɑ̈ːŋ]). Other phonological peculiarities of Geordie, such as the pronunciation of words such as come and love with the same vowel as in put or book, are common elsewhere in northern England. As for consonants, one of the most commonly-heard Geordie pronunciation features is the so-called T-glottalization, in which /t/ is realised in certain positions as a glottal stop [ʔ] (e.g. button as [ˈbʊʔn], get as [ɡɛʔ], pity as [ˈpɪʔi]).

Among the peculiar Geordie words are the often-heard bairn and hyem, for ‘child’ and ‘home’. These are Scandinavian loanwords from the Viking period; compare barn and hjem in modern Norwegian. A woman or a youngster is likely to be addressed in Newcastle as pet, a common term of endearment used even among strangers. Some Geordie words are found further north, in Scots, as well: for example, bonny lass (meaning ‘pretty girl’) is a typical Geordie phrase—compare with Bonny Prince Charlie, an 18th-century Scottish national hero. Other words are shared by Geordie with other northern English dialects, for example, aye ‘yes’ (pronounced the same as eye in standard American English), nowt ‘nothing’ (pronounced [naʊt], rhyming with out), gob ‘mouth’, and chuffed ‘happy’.

Grammatical peculiarities of Geordie include the use of the first person plural pronoun for the singular (us meaning ‘me’), the use of the simple past form of standard English as a participle (e.g. I’ve took one and He’s never went there), the dropping of the plural s on nouns used with a numeral (e.g. five year and ten pound; this phenomenon is also found in many other English dialects, such as in East Anglia, St. Helenian English, and the English on Tristan da Cunha), and the use of double modals (e.g. He might could come tomorrow); the latter feature is also common in many Scottish dialects of English. Another constructions that can be heard in Geordie, as well as in Irish English, is the so-called “subject-contact relative”, where the subject relative pronoun who is omitted, as in There is a fellow wants to buy it.

Geordie is exemplified beautifully in several of the above-mentioned detective TV series, particularly in Vera: the eponymous character DCI Vera Stanhope often speaks with Geordie features, as does her side-kick DS Joe Ashworth (played by David Jeremy Leon, a Newcastle native), DC Kenny Lockhart (played by a Scottish actor Jon Morrison), and most other local residents. The mastery of Geordie by Brenda Anne Blethyn, playing Vera, is particularly impressive considering that she was born in Kent in southern England. She moves in and out of the Geordie accent depending on context, her interlocutor, and the image that Vera is trying to project in any given conversation: for example, she speaks in a thicker Geordie when Vera tries to establish a connection to friends and family of a murder victim, especially if they are working-class and thus themselves speak with a heavier Geordie accent.

George_Gently_1397006cThe Inspector Gently TV series also feature many characters that speak with the Geordie accent, although the eponymous detective, played by Birmingham-born Martin Shaw, does not: George Gently is a Londoner and is often mocked as such, especially in earlier episodes where his difficulties at understanding a particularly thick Geordie accent or peculiar local words are laughed at by other characters. Yet the lack of Geordie in Inspector Gently’s speech is amply compensated by the accent of his side-kick, Detective Sergeant John Bacchus (played by Lee Ingleby, born in Lancashire). As with Vera, Bacchus’ accent changes depending on the context: he uses a thicker Geordie accent in informal situations or when he is less self-conscious, and more mainstream English, for example, when interrogating the victim’s parents, who stress their dissociation from their daughter’s working-class boyfriend (see here, around 20-25 minutes into the episode). You can hear examples of Geordie features in Bacchus’ speech in this episode as well: come pronounced with [ʊ] (3:39 and 44:31), get and hit with T-glottalization (4:50 and 45:12), bairn (11:52 and 25:39) and gob (1:12:30), and “subject-contact relative” If it was Jimmy Cochran murdered Maggie… (29:27). Geordie is also heard in the speech of many other characters in Inspector Gently, including—contrary to Gently’s expectations—British-born Arabs in this episode (see around 15:06).

Ironically, just as George Gently is a southern transplant in Tyneside, Robbie Lewis, the eponymous detective in the Inspector Lewis series (familiar to viewers first as Detective Sergeant Lewis in the Inspector Morse series), is a northern transplant in Oxford. Played by Northumberland-born Kevin Whately, Robbie Lewis, a working class man with a Geordie accent, is a striking contrast to his Oxford-educated, RP-accented superior Inspector Morse in the earlier series, as well as to his own junior, a Cambridge-educated Detective Sergeant James Hathaway (played by Laurence Fox). Perhaps some of the more posh accent of Morse and Hathaway rubbed off on Lewis though, as his Geordie accent gradually diminishes in the course of the two TV series.




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