One afternoon this summer, my geologist dad and I were biking around the ruins of 18th- and 19th-century mines in west Cornwall. It is not such an unusual activity in my family, my father having spent his life working in mining, but what was unusual were the names of the places we were criss-crossing. The likes of: Wheal Jane, Wheal Rose, and my favourite, Wheal Busy. They sounded like a gaggle of elderly aunts, and I asked my dad ( who had a Cumbrian father and Cornish mother) what the words meant. "Wheal," he remembered, meant "place of work" in Cornish dialect and was routinely used in tin mine names.
It got him talking about the language of his youth. In his early teens in 1960s Penrith, a market town just outside the Lake District National Park, Dad explained he and his friends had a phrase they'd use to describe women who were, what they called in those days, well-endowed: "weel top niukled". He and a Cornish mining pal used to joke that if they ever owned a mine they would call it that: "Weel," he said, meant "well"; "top" took its usual meaning, but "niukled", the key word, he couldn't remember.
We trawled online Cumbrian dialect dictionaries and Dad asked his three siblings if they could recall it. Every time we drew a blank. The words, though, stuck with me. Silly, sexist, teenage humour, yes, but it was the otherness of the utterance, its absolute singularity that caught my attention. It struck me that Dad had something that I didn't have: a second language, a proper, geographically-specific dialect. It was rooted in him for life and could be reawakened at will. There are still a few random words that trip easily off his tongue – "aye" (yes), "clarty" (dirty), "tatie" (potatoes) – 40 years after leaving Cumbria. These linguistic quirks multiply when he goes north and in his weekly phone calls to his brother and sisters.
The meaning of "niukled" still evaded me, though. What did it mean? Where did it come from? Finally, I contacted The Lakeland Dialect Society. Jean Scott-Smith answered my plea. A passionate dialect speaker, Jean's been on the society's committee for more than 40 years. She unearthed two different examples in the late 19th century of my mysterious word. "Niukled – a coo new cauved in full milk is 'top niukled'," from an 1898 work based on the dialect of the Penrith. And "Top newkelt – full of milk, said of a cow in the early days after calving," from a glossary of Cumberland dialect published in 1877. Jean explained that although both were spelled differently, it didn't really matter. "The trick is to set the word down as you wish it to sound," she explained.
Not only did I get an answer to my question – I also got an invitation. Jean asked me to join the Lakeland Society for National Dialect Day, the Saturday of the weekend-long celebration of regional words and accents at Rydal Hall near Ambleside, where enthusiasts compete to win coveted trophies for writing and performing in dialect – a kind of Regions' Got Talent.
So that's how I ended up in the Lakes on a grey, damp October day in a picture postcard-worthy setting. Rydal hall is in the heart of Wordsworth's Lake District (the poet himself lived just up the road). The imposing house sits in ornate gardens that on one side rise up to the wooded slopes of the fells above. Cutting through it is Rydal Beck, roaring down the fellside on my visit after a particularly wet week. These unchanging scenes have inspired writers and artists for hundreds of years.
As we arrived, two men as un-dateable as the view appeared at our car window. One twinkly-eyed in tweed with a large red rose pinned to the lapel, the other sporting red braces over a Christmas tree-green shirt. They introduced themselves as Sid Calderbank and Keith 'Scowie' Scowcroft from Lancashire. Their interest in dialect grew from their own 'broad speaking' homes, and was honed by writing and performing folk music, poems and stories in their native vernacular. "Dialect is like an old coat you're happy to wear among friends," says Scowie. "It's a badge of identity, it is tribal and it's who we are and if you want to discard your identity, then so be it. I don't, I'm proud of where I come from."
Sid is a sort of dialect ambassador. "I thought there ought to be a focal point where people can come along and talk with kindred spirits..." he says, "...with other folk who are enthusiastic about England's accents and dialects, and to celebrate the diversity of our extremely rich language." And so National Dialect Day was born.
From a single afternoon competition in Fleetwood, Lancashire, in 2009, the event has grown to a weekend-long celebration. I missed the 'merry neet' (a sort of dialect variety show) hosted by the Lakeland lot on the Friday evening, but now everyone was gearing up for the hotly-anticipated competitions. Eight regions are represented, from Cumbria and Northumbria on the Scottish border, down to Devon and Cornwall in the south-west.
On the Saturday I am there, there are four trophies up for grabs for both original pieces and performances of works by other writers, as well as the awarding of the Far Weltered Trophy in the evening for the most entertaining performance based on audience reaction.
First up is Ted Relph, the 89-year-old president of the Lakeland Society, who tells me he was "bilingual" from an early age. Ted's helped on to the stage, but once up, gives a lively performance about clogs, which I learn was once the farmers' footwear of choice before wellies. His voice seems to echo the scene outside; evocative, richly-layered, with not even the faintest hint of modernity.
To an unattuned ear, the words sound strange; some are words we recognise, just with the vowel sounds not the ones we expect after the letters we're used to, and rogue 'y's popping up in strange places. The various Lakeland dialects are influenced by the area's historic settlers; Celtic and Scandinavian, with old English structures still retained.
Following Ted, we hear more childhood memories and tales of courtship, cooking and farming tales. The themes are generally nostalgic and pastoral and not exactly feminist. If the pieces – and the performers – seem stuck in a bygone age, it's perhaps because, at first glance, they are.
Of the 60-odd people in the room, the average age must be near 70, though many look oddly timeless. There's a contingent from the Northumbrian Language Society, clad in pieces of Shepherds' Plaid, the distinctive black-and-white check traditionally worn by sheep herders and still treasured in Cumbria's neighbouring county. Over the back of one chair, a gnarled shepherd's crook is visible and one member carries some traditional Northumbrian smallpipes.
There are few concessions to the 21st century in the room, bar a videographer filming proceedings for a DVD and a bookseller selling dialect glossaries. It's been a long time since I've seen so few smartphones in a room. Instead of beeping and tapping, there is scraping of chairs as delegates strain to catch unfamiliar words.
The ageing demographic is something that Jean and the Lakeland group have been working to change. They are encouraging local Young Farmers groups to hold their own dialect competitions. Amanda Jackson, aged 23, won this year's competition and she's also on the society's committee.
"I come from a farming family and the dialect words are used as commonplace in the environment we live and work in and you just pick them up," she says. For Amanda, words like "coo" instead of cow, "yow" for ewe and "garn yam" instead of going home are the norm. The dialect she speaks was learnt from parents and grandparents, but she says she is keen to spread the enthusiasm for dialect among other friends, starting with her piece for this year: an ode to plate cakes (a type of Cumberland pasty).
Also with food on her mind, Cynthia Nicholas takes to the stage to perform a piece celebrating a local delicacy: the Cumberland sausage. "Hooever ye git them be sarten/ That they're Cumberland sausage – ye see/ The'll be far better for ye thaw t'others/ Cos they're van-ner cholesterol free."
Cynthia grew up in Penrith, living with her grandparents and her great-grandfather, who spoke in dialect. When she returned to Cumbria in the early Nineties, she signed up to a dialect creative-writing course: "I had a lot of words internalised that came out once I was in the right surroundings again," she says.
Her light-hearted piece you can imagine amusing people today, as it would have in her grandparents' time, but she tells me she worries about dialect dying out. "I'm not optimistic. Because, outside those four walls, I wouldn't think a lot of people, even Lakeland people, would be able to speak it."
This is tied to the idea that what we're hearing at Rydal is preservation of a dialect, rather than a living, changing language. It's a theme that comes up again and again throughout the day from speakers who defied society's conventions and often their parents' wishes, to use the old words and phrases.
Scowie, from a farming family, tells me his mother feared his insistence on speaking dialect would hinder his employment opportunities. These days, he sees young people's linguistic influences coming from further afield than the land they play on, or the industry they work in, and it worries him.
"There are very few people coming in that want to speak it. They all want to speak with a mid-Atlantic twang; those who wish to speak with a mid-Atlantic twang should go and live in the mid-Atlantic."
He tells me that for any contemporary topics he writes about, he will do it in Standard English.
"That's the way it forms in my mind," he says. "Modern-day stuff is very difficult to put in dialect." Which raises the question: are contemporary English language and dialect compatible?
There are those at Rydal who certainly think so. Brendan Hawthorne, from the Black Country and Poet Laureate of Wednesbury (population: 38,000), performs a piece on speed dating in the next round, weaving together the modern dating world and local politics. Later on, we hear pieces on sat navs, celebrity chefs, and The Angel of the North.
For Brendan, it's about making the old dialect words fit with modern-day situations. He's planning to host next year's event and wants to encourage younger delegates from a wider range of regions – there are many English dialects absent at Rydal, much of the south of the country is notably unrepresented. "I think to preserve dialect as a living language is to make it accessible for future generations to make it theirs," he says.
Clearly, the organisers hope dialect isn't only for events such as their own. And outside Rydal is, realistically, where the organisers hope the next generation can make the difference.
Seventy-year-old Peter Arnold from Northumberland is adamant that dialects should change with those who speak them: "If young people are coming in and speaking in dialect and adding their own words to it and their own way of speaking, that's fine. It just shows that dialect is moving on, like every other living language."
His wife, Claire, a teacher, wants to put dialect on the curriculum. She tells me animatedly about a lesson she taught in which she asked pupils to identify dialect phrases they used in their everyday speech, then imagine a world without them. She says the children were horrified at the prospect of losing these identifiers, or old coats, as Scowie would have it.
Claire's only caveat is that she would like to see women getting out of the dialect kitchen, as it were. "Dialect is often viewed as being linked to industry, a male domain; some of it is, but not all and perhaps more attention and validity [should be] given to the regional language of women past and present."
When it comes to redressing the gender balance, for modern speakers at least, John Bright's plans for the future of Dialect Day could help. He already runs forums with audio and shares video on his popular We Love Accents website. His vision is to run vlogging competitions, with participants submitting entries via YouTube. He directs me to his page where I can see what people are already doing. One user, 'GoAlybong', a "sarcastic Yorkshire lass", vlogs about everything from dating to politics. Her online offering also includes a few videos on her accent, one with more than 300,000 views. Likewise, BuzzFeed's regional-themed content is extremely popular. A piece entitled '26 Words That Have a Completely Different Meaning in Yorkshire' has thousands of online shares.
The day after the competition, I’m in Penrith back with Cynthia Nicholas reflecting on the day before. I ask her again whether she’d be tempted to give “modern stuff” an airing in her dialect pieces.
She’s thoughtful for a moment. "Some topics lend themselves very readily. I haven’t really considered that but having heard that, I thought it a good attempt to bring it forward.”
As for me, I came back from Cumbria envious. I grew up in Sussex but our family has no roots or history there. The bookseller at the competition gave me his volume on my area's dialect and there's not a single word that chimes with me, as 'wheal'/'weel' did for Dad. I couldn't help thinking the passionate people I met were lucky to have such a rich linguistic inheritance. Long may it continue, in one form or another.
The weird and wonderful world of dialect poetry
A laal bit aboot clogs
by Ted Relph (Lakeland)
Noo, Ah wad say ye’ll aw hev haard ov clogs.
but nut sea menny on ye ‘ll hev ivver hed a pair
Noo, when Ah wes a laal baarn, maist ivverboddy in
t’ Westmorland valleys hed a pair o’ clogs.
Mi fadther hed a girt stang pair, at cum reetup ower
yer ankles, mudther hed a law sided pair, an’ Ah
hed a llal pair. Aw t’ farmers hed them, but ‘Wellies’war jist cummen in.
Clogs war aw med wid ledther tops an’ wooden
boddems, wid ledther leeaces fer fadther’s, an’ a laal
metal clasp fer mudthers and mine.
nin ov yer fancy man- med fibres like the’ hev
A new pair tyak a laal bit o gitten used tul,
but they war gay waarm an comforable.
sum fwoakes wad put a wisp o’ hay inside
Us baarns gat them a bit bigger, coz
yer feet grew faster ner t’ clogs wore oot!
We oales went te t’ skeul in oor clogs at Crosby
sec a clatter the’ med on t’ thick wooden fleer.
On t’ underneath’ the’ hed metal caulkers, nailed on
That wes like a strip o’ steel wid a groove alang
fer t nail heeds te bide in.
We hed a last at haym fer cawkerin oor own clogs,
Ah still hev it, see Ah fetched it fer ye te see. .
Father laarn’t us te use it when A wes aboot 8.
Ye wad think the’ war cauld i’ winter, but the’ waarnt
aw that bad coz t’ wood seeun gat waarm
an’ girt fun on a bit of ice fer slidin’ far eneuf.
big lads used te watter t’ ice sea it froz mair an gat
thicker. - it med t’ slide langer naw
But if there wes ony snaw it used t clag on t’ clog
an build up like a snow baw - we cawed them
an ivvery noo an than yed hed te kick them off,
else ye cuddent walk varra weel.
T’ wooden soles war med of beech, twas gay hard
an’ did’nt hod a lot o watter, some fwolks wad oil t ‘
swoales as weel as shinen t’ ledther uppers wid
Until aboot two year sen. there was still a clogger
(or clog mekker) leeved at Cawdbeck,
Ah yance tyak a lad theere te git measured fer a
it wes a gey interesting set oot,
Ah hwope the’ hevven’ chucked it aw oot!!
An’ of course there war t’ ‘Clog Dancers’, but they’re a bit thin on t’grund noo, anaw!
by Brendan Hawthorne (Black Country)
Owd Albert from the terraces
Ad become a lonely simple mon
'is missus ad left I'm 'ears ago
Fer the bloke oo ran the cafe Fryin Pon
So e thought e'd try some speed datin
Just the other side o Brum
So e gorriself dressed up
And left his Black Country wum
Well aer maert coudnt believe his luck
With all this posh totty on view
An they wuz naermed Jessica, Jemima an Canasta
Not Traercy, Donner or Suw
So when they finally caught up Canasta
Before getting on the Solihull bus
They asked why shed left so quick
And had med so much ov a fuss
She said owd Albert was a really nice bloke
But wor he offered her ad med feel sick
Er thought 'Im a little bit forrered
When e offered er his grotty dick*
*Grotty Dick is a traditional Black Country pudding