On the history trail: Old dialects sadly disappearing

Sheep farmer John Sleightholme in around 1920.
Sheep farmer John Sleightholme in around 1920.

I was raised on a farm in Bishop Wilton and ever since I was a child I used to wonder about the strange way of counting my mother knew.

I did not think about it again until I recently came across a lot of research that had been carried out on the old methods of counting sheep. The research showed different words, but similar in sounds from different areas of the country. Most of the sheep counting was in the northern parts of England, the lake district and also in Wales.

The research showed the counting had very early origins and was from before the Vikings and even the Anglo Saxons and was spoken by the Celts and is about 1,500 years old. It was passed down from generation to generation and is now almost extinct with the decline in importance of agriculture.

My mother counted to 10 using the following words: “yan, tan, titherer, mitherer, pick, tresa, liser, catra, doner, dick.” But why would my mother, know these old words? Did she read the research and learn them? No, she left school at 14 and she told me that her mother taught them to her. Her mother was a Sleightholme from North Yorkshire, and her grandfather Joseph was born in Fadmoor in 1827. I have researched the Sleightholme family and discovered they were farmers and sheep farmers since records began. Nearly all Sleightholme names can be traced back to North Yorkshire and many link back to Fadmoor near Kirby Moorside.

In Fadmoor, the Sleighthome family have been sheep farmers since records began. Back to a tax record of 1301 for a Rogero de Sletholme of Fadmoor. The surname possibly originates from ‘Sleightholme Dale’ which runs alongside Fadmoor. In the transactions of the Yorkshire dialect society for 1927, J.R Witty documents the different sheep counting from various parts of the north country. In North Yorkshire it goes “Ean, tena, tethera, pethera, pimps, sarfra, larfra, ofra, dofra, dix”, Middleton-in-Teesdale has “yan, tean, tether, mether, pip, lezer, arzer, cartah, horner, dick” and Craven and N.W. Moorlands have “arn, tarn, tethera, fetherer, pubs, aayther, layather, quoather, quaaather, dugs.”

When I was in the Bishop Wilton Local History Group we were fortunate to have in attendance the local author Irene Megginson, a wolds farmers wife and she wrote in our bulletin her memories of old Yorkshire dialect and said the word luke came to her mind in connection with words of Norse origins.

Many years ago when she first married into a farming family, there were weeks of farm work known as ‘luking’. This involved laboriously chopping thistles out of the rows of young growing corn, be it oats, barley or wheat. The tool used was a hoe, and two or three men could be thus employed, working their way across a field. Her husband Jack’s work diary had the entry of one word during this time: ‘luking’. Luking, of course, was discontinued when sprays came into use to wipe out thistles and other weeds in cornfields.

She referred to the word, thinking it might mean ‘looking for’ thistles, when she was writing a column for the Dalesman magazine.

To her surprise she got a letter from Norway, and the writer explained quite simply that in Norwegian ‘luke’ means ‘a hoe’! The word hind was also strange to her, a townie from Hull, but on Wold farms the house near the big farmhouse was known as ‘the Hind’s house’, and the foreman’s wife was called ‘the Hind’s wife’. In this house the unmarried farm lads were looked after, being fed in the big kitchen with a dormitory-type room above where they would sleep two to a bed.

Again after writing about this custom, which saved the farmer’s wife from having ‘lads living in’, she had a letter from a dialect expert pointing out that the Norwegian word for foreman is ‘hind’. ‘Garing’ as in ‘now we come to the garing’ meaning ‘now we come to the leftovers’ (overheard at a meeting), derived from gara, old English for a triangle of land, giving gore, an odd corner of ploughed land (similar to butt).

There must be many words still in use today which are a legacy of early settlers in this part of the world, passed from generation to generation, but now sadly disappearing rapidly.

If you wish to learn more about this subject Pocklington and District Local History Group have a talk by Dr Barrie Rhodes entitled ‘The origins and history of Yorkshire Dialects’ on 17 March in the old courthouse, on George Street, at 7.30pm. All are welcome.