Geordie Genes

This is another one of those blogs where I have to start by telling you a bit about myself, and where I am from: I have to, otherwise this is just an out of context waffle on about some dialect words used in a place, as part of the English language. My name is Richard Brink, and I am a “Geordie”. That is, I am from a small part of the North-East of England, specifically the North bank of the River Tyne.

The Geordie Accent is well-known, well-loved and oft-butchered by people who heard it once and failed to spot the subtle nuance of our local tongue. Sting, and Brian Johnson from AC/DC are both Geordies, in accent at least; Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer are very much not. To the ear of a native of the North-East of England, the accents of these two pairs are as similar as chalk is to cheese.

But our accent is only the half of it. How we pronounce our vowels and our diphthongs may well be unique, but the words we use can be, too. I’m not interested in words we pronounce differently to the rest of the world – e.g. “broon” for “brown” – or words where differences in our pronunciation results in seemingly new coinages – e.g. “Mebbes” for “maybe. Just uniquely Geordie words.

What happens when you touch a piece of rough wood without due attention? You get a splinter in your finger. Well, not if you’re a Geordie: to a Geordie, the word “Splinter” results in a mouth full of ashes; “Splinter” is a foreign word, like “Spanakopita” or “Neyðarútgangur”. The Geordie word for the tiny piece of wood which gets stuck in one’s finger, or heaven forfend under the nail, is “Spelk”.

I was in my thirties before I realised that the word spelk was solely a Geordie thing. It just seems so fitting, in the same way that it is so fitting that the English have so many varied words for forms of atmospheric precipitation. Given that I had spent so long living outside of the Geordie Land, it really should have come up a lot earlier. Maybe people were just too scared to correct me. Maybe not.

I spent half of my childhood pulling spelks out of my finger with pairs of tweezers. My mother swore by a poultice of sugar and soap – hard soap, you understand; none of this liquid shite – but that marked her out as a witch, so we let it go. When I found that the actual English word was some deeply timid, American sounding, dull word, it was as if the world had fallen apart beneath my feet.

Yet the next word I want to look at is a result of a difference in pronunciation in the North-East. I include it here because I feel that it represents a gap in the linguistic market. In much the same way that “pålegg” – a word for anything which goes on or in a sandwich – should exist in English, as should “Trett”. I once asked my mother how to spell it, and she was most unimpressed with me.

“Trett” really does exist in English, and it is “Treated”. That’s fine; a lot of fine people say the word “treated” all the time, and it is not going to fall out of usage any time soon. My contention is that “Trett” just feels right. More right than “Treated”, for sure. It has the strong feeling of the past tense about it. Meet; met: Treat; trett. It has a logical consistency which is thrillingly absent from most of the English language. I can imagine a small child, learning to speak, creating it by extension.

It is another word which I was older than perhaps I should have been when I found out that it was not real. Perhaps the hold it has on me is a hangover from that: it is lodged in my brain as something which exists, from my earliest days: my mind is hard-wired to require it to exist in the wider world.

But that is matless, as it does not exist. Nor, for that matter, does the word “Matless”. I even Googled it, in case it had cropped up in some old tome – and I couldn’t ascertain the correct spelling: is it double or single t, for instance – only to find the annals blank. I cannot (pronounced “Can-it”) understand how this word has evaded the written word for so long: it is another word of my youth.

“Matless” you will be happy to read means regardless, or meaningless. It lies somewhere between the two. Without matter, but where matter is less about physical stuff and more about need or substance. If a Geordie describes something as being matless, then it is either a done deal or it will have no effect on proceedings. It has a ring of the hopeless about it; it is a quite melancholic word.

Some will merrily contend that matless is a contraction of “Matterless”, and so should be spelled as such: “Matt’less”. I like it, but I’m not sure I wholly agree. The very fact that Geordie words are from an oral tradition, makes transliteration a perennial problem. Anything which makes a word harder to use makes it get used less. Although it is also more likely for its rough edges to get worn off in time.

Finally, a word which just screams “Geordie” to me, and is all the better for it, is “Sackless”. It is a specific kind of useless, and a certain quality of clumsy, all rolled in to one. It is cack-handed and it is daft. It comes from words for “Innocent”, as in “Free from accusation” (Its history can be traced back through the various Norse languages and Proto-Germanic as “Blameless”), but has mutated from the judicial to the naïve. That, to me, is its Geordieness coming out in the wash: we’re a bit critical.

There is a gormlessness which rings out when someone is described as being sackless. It’s as if they should have just given the job to someone more experienced and sat in the corner with a cup of tea. In that sense, I suppose it is similar to “Hapless”, although without being quite so accident-prone.

And yet, there is also a cruelty to the word. It has the reek of the domestic about it – husbands berating wives for not having their dinners on the table in time; women being kept out of the world of work for no reason other than their gender. Then again, that is the difficult past of the lands North of the Tyne. Much like the words we use, it is the difficulties which have made us who we are.

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