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:
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.
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…