What a Beautiful Language #3: Regional Variations in the Assignment of Nouns (UK)

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For me, one of the most intriguing elements of UK culture is the fact that, despite our comparatively minimal size (when compared to, say, Russia or America), we are still inhabited by a multitude of heterogeneous communities, which are usually (but not always) identifiable by their geographical location within the country. Within England, for instance, there is often talk of a divide between North and South – an issue which is often framed by a series of assumptions based on socioeconomic status, class and background. However, even when looking at a particular region, such as the North East, there are clear distinctions between communities which are situated relatively close together – a ‘Geordie’ (inhabitant of Newcastle-upon-Tyne), for instance, is quite distinct from a ‘Mackem’ (resident of the Sunderland area), and one would not take kindly to being mistaken for the other.

I find that in order to really get to know a place, you need to take a look at the region’s unique dialect. Of course, accent and pronunciation are inevitably a factor here, but it is perhaps more revealing to examine the nouns (i.e. names of things) that are collectively agreed upon within any given community. The naming process is an intrinsic part of the way that humans understand and interact with the world, but it only works if the system is mutually agreed by others – so, for example, it is no good referring to the remote control as a ‘zapper’, if everyone you are communicating with only recognises this as a ‘doofer’ or a ‘flipper’ (incidentally, the British have more than 50 names for this device, which differ from household to household).  Interestingly, I have found that people can become quite passionately, vehemently defensive of their use (and their community’s use) of certain words, seeing their word as the ‘real’ name for something and being dismissive of all others.

Take, for instance, the names given to bread by different communities in the UK. True, we all call a loaf a loaf, but I have witnessed (and, I will confess, sometimes participated in) many heated debates about what constitutes a roll, bap, bun, batch, barm, teacake muffin or cob. Anyone who has stepped into a bakery (or sandwich shop) in an unfamiliar part of the country will have no doubt encountered problems with this: ask for a bun anywhere but the North West and you’re likely to be served something with icing, and in areas in the Midlands, asking for a blueberry muffin would only get you a bread roll full of fruit (and, most likely, a rather bemused-looking server).

For your average southerner, a bread roll needs no other name. However, as you start to head north, the assigned noun undergoes some interesting changes, as can be seen on the map below:

The Bread Map(Image taken from Chronicle Live, 2013, via Us Vs Th3m)

This map oversimplifies some of the oddities that arise in smaller areas, as it only considers the most prominent noun used. If you look closer, you will find that depending on their size and area of origin, bread rolls can be barm cakes and oven bottoms (Lancashire), cobs (East Midlands), bread cakes (Yorkshire), blaa (Ireland), stotties (North East), bannocks and butteries (Scotland), nudgers and bin lids (Merseyside) and batches (Shropshire). Bap is commonly used all over Britain and, rather confusingly, it also describes lots of different types of bread.

Another interesting variation arises when looking at what different communities call their midday and evening meals. Whereas everybody seems to agree that what is eaten in the morning is ‘breakfast’, after that, all bets are off! Depending on whereabouts in the country you are, you may be having your tea, supper or dinner.

As with many other things in Britain, the origins of these noun variations are rooted firmly in differences in socioeconomic status and designated class. In the former industrial heartlands of the North (Yorkshire, Lancashire and the far North), people often use ‘dinner’ to mean a midday meal or lunch. Children eat ‘school dinners’, and their parents give them ‘dinner money’ to pay for them. Lunch is widely understood, of course, but ‘dinner’ as a midday meal is something that’s seems to have stuck. ‘Supper’, in contrast, seems to be reversed exclusively for the upper classes and residents of the South.

Evening Meal Map

(Image taken from Chronicle Live, 2013, via Us Vs Th3m)

 It seems there are many things we can’t agree on, even down to the names of footwear, trousers, ditches and alleyways (which, where I’m from, is a ‘dyke’ and a ‘jitty’, respectively), or the names of childhood games… in many ways, there are many different forms of English being used and spoken throughout the country at once! Isn’t that a wonderful thing?

Feel free to comment below with any examples of amusing or interesting regional variations of which you are aware…

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27 thoughts on “What a Beautiful Language #3: Regional Variations in the Assignment of Nouns (UK)

  1. Jon

    I once heard a chap in Gateshead make an innocent inquiry as to what a woman had on her sandwich, but she interpreted ‘What’ve you got fillin’ yer farge, pet?’ a bit … wrong.

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  2. I remember poring, as a teenager, over the Opies’ Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, which first introduced me to regional differences in terms. This was especially enlightening as I’d spent most of my first ten years in Hong Kong, culturally and geographically half a world away. The midday meal was ‘lunch’ until we moved back to Bristol where it was ‘dinner’, and now our ‘dinner’ was ‘supper’. ‘Plimsolls’ were now ‘daps’ and to any old Tom, Dick and Harry I was ‘mate’ — my mother, brought up in India, was scandalised to be called ‘love’ or even ‘ducks’.

    It’s interesting to see the above maps now that I lived in West Wales — Welsh-speakers regularly throw in English words in everyday Welsh conversation, but I’ve not paid attention to their versions of your touchstone words. Perhaps now I shall!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d love to hear your findings, calmgrove! 🙂 Thanks for your comment, it’s interesting to hear some of the variations you’ve offered (for instance, where I’m from they’re ‘trainers’ and pretty much everybody gets called ‘duck’ or ‘love’!)

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      • I’ll aim to keep you posted!

        ‘Trainers’ — they’re universally that now, aren’t they, but there was a huge range: basketball shoes, sneakers, daps and no doubt many more because trainers became the norm (in the 80s or 90s, I’m guessing).

        Terms of endearment give to strangers may also be subject to fashion. I remember a time when, in Bristol and the surrounding area, ‘squire’ was a popular alternative to ‘mate’. No idea if that’s still the case. I suspect not.

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      • ‘Squire’… I rather like that. Something quite polite and inherently friendly about it.

        And I mean that everything – plimsolls, slip-ons, and proper trainers – was universally called ‘trainers’; no distinction was made, really, between the different variations.

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  3. My Corner of the Library

    In America, the same regional difference between “dinner” and “supper” still exist (I’m American). I notice people from the American South say “supper” more than people up North or out west. It is interesting to notice the North/South thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it is interesting, especially given there’s class divides in the US between north and south, too. I’m thinking of doing more research into exactly why mealtime names are such a potent signifier of this…

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  4. It’s rare to see a local girl in the WordPress area, coming from Mansfield myself this makes us almost neighbours. I remember going up to Lancashire and when asked if I would like a barm cake, I asked what one was to many flummoxed looks, in the end they brought one out for me and I said ‘ooooh a cob’ and then felt really common for the rest of my stay. When in the US I naturally said tea and that was all confused for a while with dinner, still old habits and I know I am right in what I say!

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    • Hi Ste 🙂 Vehemently agree that it is a ‘cob’, despite what anyone else says. I, too, grew up close to Mansfield (in Ollerton, do you know it?) and have often found myself being considered ‘common’ because of my phrasing and regional dialect. I’ve just got a bit of Nottingham mixed in there for good measure now 🙂

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      • I know Ollerton but not to well, in the US, we just come across as eccentric which makes me happy and also the centre of attention over there as I was considered a bit posh lol. Personally I think we have the bestest accent around. Sadly I’m pure Mansfield not upper class like you Nottingham sound people lol.

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  5. Ha! Yes, I do think the English accent comes off very well in America – there’s a reason they use English actors to play all their villains! We all sound so sophisticated somehow… although there are some UK accents – like brummy – that I’m not sure would fare so well.

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  6. Wow… I read the whole article and still don’t know what you’re talking about. You are talking about sandwich bread right? The kind you have sliced up and put lunchmeat into for a sandwich?
    THIS is why we Americans are so fascinated by you Brits. You can take such simple stuff and make it so DIFFICULT =-)
    We seriously watch shows like “Downton Abbey” fascinated and perplexed at the sheer unnecessary complexity of simple things like silverware and meals!

    I can’t being to count the number of people I unintentionally offended while I was over there in Shropshire. I do recall the landlady gaping at me when I couldn’t understand why she was upset at “dirt” being tracked in by the dog.

    Turns out “dirt” is not the same thing as “soil” in your country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m talking about individuals bread rolls, a bit smaller than a American burger bun. Like a hot dog roll, but round! 🙂 Ha, I’m starting to see your point Jimbo – we do overcomplicate things, don’t we?!

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      • I’m not sure how I feel about that….
        I’ve had deep fried twinkies before at the Fair, and I AM an American. We love our deep fried food! But on the other hand… a deep fried Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich could be… problematic.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Scotland. Don’t worry, they deep fry their haggis, too! 🙂 And I’m all for bacon, but I don’t understand Americans putting it on pancakes with syrup all over it. That’s mixing breakfast with pudding, surely??

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      • Okay… “pudding” is a wholly different topic we could go off on. What y’all consider “pudding” is NOT at all what WE think it is.
        There’s really only two “pudding” types in this country. There’s the gelatinous Vanilla/Chocolate/etc Bill Cosby Pudding. Custard basically.
        Then there’s the “bread pudding” where you put maybe raisins in it or cinnamon.
        You put MEAT in yours.
        Crazy…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha OK, OK, ‘dessert’ then. You have a point though…. Yorkshire pudding can be eaten with jam and cream, or with meat, potatoes and gravy. we call Christmas treats mince pies, but it’s not actual meat, it’s fruit and stuff.

        I still think the American appetite’s weirder.

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      • Well our trademark is to take things and CHANGE them to make them ours. Hamburgers, French Fries, Spanish Rice, hell even our “Chinese” food is NOTHING like what they eat in China… aside from it including rice and some noodles. 😉

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