A Layman’s Guide to “Roots of English”

by Professor Sali A. Tagliamonte
University of Toronto

Have you ever wondered about the weird ways of speaking of someone you know? In 1995, I moved to England from Canada, taking up a position at the University of York in Yorkshire. My colleagues came from all over Britain, the south, the north, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as other parts of Europe. The topic of dialect differences was in the air all the time as we compared our varieties of English. Surprisingly, despite the obvious phonological differences in my speech compared to all my colleagues, there were unexpected correspondences between myself and my Scots, Northern Irish and Northern English colleagues. In some cases, we had the same vowel merger or we had the same lexical item or some odd bit of syntax was similar or we used the same form of one adverb or another. The correspondences came from all levels of grammar and sometimes in unexpected ways. It was curious to me that there were so many similarities and I wondered, why? I discovered that northern varieties of British English were among the most prominent dialect regions from which people migrated to other parts of the world in the late 18th century, particularly my own country of origin, Canada. Could it be that the roots of my way of speaking could be tracked back to these founding dialects? In 1999, embarked upon a research project to study the varieties of English these dialect regions.

Linguistic Wooly Mammoths. The research traditions of dialectology, historical linguistics and sociolinguistics have demonstrated that researchers can gain access earlier points in time. In the absence of a time machine, how is this possible? Consider a woolly mammoth frozen in a glacier. We can gain remarkable insight into past time by studying its characteristics. Linguists employ a similar method.

Places that are geographically remote, socially isolated or set apart from the rest are slow to adopt new changes, or are missed entirely. Such areas are referred to as tend to preserve older features. In this way remote, inaccessible, or otherwise isolated locations provide prime evidence about an earlier stage (or ancestor) of a language and play a key role in reconstructing earlier stages of a language’s development. There is perhaps no place more akin to these descriptions than the British and Northern Irish north country.

Dialects galore!  What I refer to as the Roots Archive is a rich compendium of oral histories from dozens of elderly people that I collected between 2001-2003. The materials contain rich language data with a wealth of rarely heard features of the English language. There are innumerable dialect words and expressions, e.g. fuzzok, peery, thrang. There are unusual sounds, och, aye. There are unexpected twists in the arrangement of sentences and in the way sentences begin and end, e.g. and that, you know. There are unusual conversational rituals. There are many things that are unusual and exotic; there are some things that are entirely unknown and yet others are hauntingly familiar. In many cases, features long gone from mainstream varieties of English endure.  In order to give readers a profound sense of the dialects, I have sprinkled the chapters with quips, stories and interchanges from the conversations e.g. weans and it’s a good job, as in:



Aye, they just come on the phone- “Morag could you come out the night there’s somebody, ken. Such and such a body can nae manage yin”. “Aye, Aye, I’ll just come out aye”. She’s just leaving the dogs. Says I, it’s a good job it’s no weans you’ve got for you would nae- could nae go!


These quotes expose innumerable dialect features. I have made note of some of them in footnotes so that readers can try to spot the features themselves and then verify whether they have found them all. Here is the footnote to the ‘weans’ quote.

Note the use of aye as a discourse marker; ken as a discourse particle; somebody rather than someone followed by use of a body in the generic; yin for ‘one’; inverted, says; the expression it’s a good job; the syntactic structure it’s no weans you’ve got ‘you’ve got no children’; use of can nae, would nae for ‘wouldn’t’, ‘couldn’t’.

Many of the features I discuss in the book are well known across English vernaculars, including regularized pasts, e.g. knowed, come, past tense seen and done among others. Others are typical of the northern UK dialects and often reported in compendia of varieties of English. However, a few have rarely been reported.

Linguistic detectives. Each chapter of Roots of English offers readers a “Dialect Puzzle” so that they can get a taste of what it is like to be a sociolinguist.

Dialects are the storehouse of the heart and soul of culture, history and identity. For analysts of language, dialects are a tremendous resource for understanding the grammatical mechanisms of linguistic change. Delving deep into the nuts and bolts of language, deeper than words and phrases and expressions, down into the grammar, we discover a treasure trove. Beneath the anecdotes and nonce tales are hidden patterns and constraints that are a system unto themselves reflecting the legacy of regional factions, social groups and human relationships. As language evolves through history its inner mechanisms are evolving incrementally, but not in the same way in every place nor at the same rate in all circumstances. One of my goals is to leave the reader with new ideas about the roots of his or her own dialect and how its particular socio-geographic co-ordinates might offer a ‘goldmine’ for ongoing study.

Sali A. Tagliamonte is a professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Toronto. Her new title, Roots of English is now available from Cambridge University Press.

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