The dialect of Robert Gilchrist
Most of Gilchrist’s songs were written in local dialect, which included words of Northern English (Yorkshire, Cumbrian, Northumbrian, Geordie) origin, alongside some Scots and Irish. Some of the dialect words used by Gilchrist made it into The English Dialect Dictionary, compiled Joseph Wright (1855-1930) – a self-taught philologist at the University of Oxford. The Dictionary was published by Oxford University Press in 6 volumes between 1898 and 1905. The EDD contained 70,000 entries. Gilchrist is a source for the following words: ACLITE; AX; BLARING; BOB; BOGIE; BOUK (BOKE); BOX; BRUST; BULLY (BULLIE); CHOP; CHUCK; CLICK; CRAW; CRIKEY; CROSS; CULL; DINGIN; DOWLY; DUDDIN; FLEER; FORENENT; FRAY; GLIB; GLOWER; GOWK; GRIG; GUT; KESSLE; KICKMASHAW; MAZLIN (MASELIN); RANK; RUSH; SCUM; SHANGY; SLUMP; SWATTLE; TINT; TOWT; WEEL. Gilchrist is recorded too for phrases such as ‘To take the bag’ (to be discharged from employment), taken from the line ‘tyek the bag’ from the song ‘Bold Archy and Blind Willie’s Lament on the Death of Captain Starkey’. Also, HITCH, STEP, AND LOUP (or Hop, Skip and Jump), from ‘Voyage to Lunnin’. HOWDON PAN CANT, meaning an awkward fall or an upset or overturn, which derives from the drowning of Jackie Forster, the Howdon Pans Fifer, during Barge Day on 27 May 1824, in whose memory Gilchrist composed ‘Poor Jackey, the Howdon Pans Fifer’.
The Oxford English Dictionary credits Gilchrist with the earliest etymological example for TYNESIDE (‘Hail, Tyneside lads in collier fleets’), from ‘Voyage To Lunnin’ (1824), BOGIE, a small four-wheeled truck from which train bogies derive, from ‘Song of Improvements’ (1835), and PEEDEE, a boy belonging to the crew of a Tyne keelboat. He is also listed in the entries for MARROW, meaning companion, RANK, meaning strong, and SLUMP, meaning to fall or sink into.
For English language scholars and historians the use of dialect by labouring-class poets is potentially politically troubling. It raises the issue of whose voice is being spoken? Many of his songs included caricatures of local eccentrics, pitmen, keelmen and sailors. It is noticeable how a number of dialect words used by Gilchrist are put in for comic effect, referring to stupid, ignorant, or foolish people. Words here include: CULL; FUEL; FUNNIN; GOWK; MASELIN. Other words give comic descriptions of uncouth or ungentle behaviours: BLARING; BOUK; BUMMIN’; CRAW; DINGIN’; FLEER (FLIR); GLIB; RIVE; SHANGY; SWATTLE. For critics such as David Harker the satirical portraits of Tyneside’s working people produced by Gilchrist and his contemporaries are patronising depictions, written from a position which lacked genuine involvement in the life of the lower town community (which abutted the river), and intended for middle class audiences of the more respectable upper town. The frequent depictions of keelmen and sailors – in common with the portraits of pitmen - as drunken, illiterate, and intellectually stunted, argues Harker, was a product of a class-based politics that reflected the songster’s own social position and aspirations (Harker, 1972).
Yet, it may also be the case that Gilchrist’s satirical portraits were the product of a prevailing taste for caricature in North-East oral culture, with songs produced by labouring-class writers and performers of the early nineteenth century using expressions of behavioural and physical abnormality in ways that amused audiences, projecting, as Colls writes, ‘a place of substance and spirit’ (Colls, 1977, p.163). As Patrick Joyce argues, rather than see language as constitutive of experience or class-consciousness, leading to us to evaluate an inadequate social outlook, it is imperative we ‘attend to what dialect had to say, to the actual historical form in which society got talked about and imagined’ (Joyce, 1991: p.267).
Understanding the performative contexts is important. Songs in this period would have originally been performed to limited audiences. Early nineteenth century Tyneside poets and songsters mostly wrote for their own amusement and sang at social meetings amongst their friends, or to entertain fraternal or supper clubs that met after work. The use of dialect could be seen as preserving a set of social and cultural meanings of characters and events that projected, writes Joyce, ‘a rather homogeneous, extra-local popular culture’ celebratory of its people (Joyce, 1991: p.233). Whilst there is an ongoing debate on the degree to which the songs were satirical or celebratory, prejudiced or populist, or representative of divergent audience tastes and expectations, it is clear that closer attention needs to be paid to the composers and performers that shaped and circulated comic depictions of the region’s people.