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Doric ~ The Local Dialect

One would imagine that the local dialect of Aberdeen would prove objectionable to those not familiar with it, but that is by no means the case. To quote Dr. Joseph Robertson he upheld "the Aberdeen dialect to be the only remnant of the pure Scotch now remaining."  Alas it is being diluted by Radio and Television and an urgency to 'spik pant loaf'

The Name attributed to or relating to the Ancient Greek Dialect of the Dorians - or was our native dialect all Greek to the Academics of Aberdeen's Universities when trying to converse at street level with the economically adept Aberdonians.  Seldom has such a dialect been given such a far reaching Greek name worthy of supporting the rich architecture of its heritage and transferred entirely phonetically from successive generations down the millennia yet never taught in any written form.

Spoken in a higher pitch than most Scottish Dialects and delivered with such haste that whole sentences are compressed into what appears to be a single word to those that are unfamiliar with the urgent brevity of exchanges - nae doot born of getting information across quickly for fisher folk in open boats rowed many leagues out to sea and before steam trawlers pillaged the bounteous harvest of Herring, Cod, Halibut, Ling etc., of the then generous North Sea.

The 1st Scot to apply the name Doric – as an alternative name for the Scots language in general – was the poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), writing in 1721.  Because of its use in pastoral, Doric came to be thought of as meaning 'rustic', at least in English, and was used from the 17th century to mean spoken in local dialect.  It has been used in Scotland, since before the time of Sir Walter Scott to mean spoken in broad Scots'

Scots was now compared with the ‘Doric’ speech of ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, and associated with the country and peasantry, while English, now the formal language of Britain, became associated with Attic, the ancient Greek language of the city states. When Ramsay described Scots as Doric he meant that it was associated with the countryside, peasantry and working class: it was therefore another way of saying rural or rustic language. Ramsay used the term with affection, and it was often understood to mean simple, ‘pure’, plain-speaking, but people coming after him often used it in derogatory or dismissive senses such as conservative or unsophisticated. The name was not confined to Scotland: some writers in England also called the speech of the peasantry of England Doric too.  Doric was first used to describe the dialect of North East Scots in 1792 when it was used by the Banffshire-born academic named Alexander Geddes (!737-1802). However, not one of the ministers describing the language of North East parishes in the Old and New Statistical Accounts, in the 1790’s and 1830’s, used the term Doric, but preferred names such as Scottis, Scots, Buchan or Aberdeenshire, etc. But in the usage of Scotland, the name Doric was not confined to any single dialect but came to be employed as an alternative name for the Scots language generally, whether from Aberdeen to Ayr or Dunbar to Dumbarton. But specifically, it was most often used to describe rural speech.

In contrast to regions such as Lanarkshire, where change driven by industrialisation was significant, the counties of Kincardine, Aberdeen, Banff and Moray remained very rural and so retained a strong sense of continuity, tradition and, perhaps, conservatism.  For this reason the term Doric had even more relevance than, say, a county like Lanark.  Gradually, during the 20th century, the use of the name Doric fell out of use in many places that experienced strong industrial growth and Anglicisation. More recently the name has taken on new life in the North East where its use has been increasingly preferred to Scots as a way of highlighting the very distinct features of the dialect spoken in the region. Because Doric was closely associated with rural speech, it has been used by North East organisations to give a name to the way of life in the region. Though farming and fishing, of course, are not peculiar to the North East alone.

In the use of our Mother Tongue exemplifying the dialect of  Aberdeenshire, we preserve from oblivion some fine old words and phrases which are gradually falling into disuse with received enunciation from the many media sources.  It is hoped that the spelling will pretty generally show the pronunciation, which is very different from that of the south of Scotland.  The final syllable ing, of participles and participial's, is generally pronounced in, and sometimes an, the g being omitted. In such words as mind, kind, etc., the final d is seldom sounded, but the i often retains its proper sound.  The final d is also often omitted in such words as band, sand, etc., and the final d and ed are often changed into t, as pleast for pleased, fill't for filled. In such words as brought, right, etc., gh has the guttural sound, represented by brocht, richt, etc.  By aa is indicated the sound of a in father, far, etc., much lengthened.  And almost always becomes an', and all becomes a', sounded as aa.  Jist for just and bit or bat for but occur so often that they are omitted in any Glossary. The sound of the French u, common in the south of Scotland, is never heard in Aberdeenshire from the mouth of a native.  Persons who generally use such words as occur, and the pronunciations which are indicated, will sometimes, even in conversation, use some of the corresponding English words, and pronounce them pretty correctly, owing to their training at school.

Fariwigan - where are we going?
Fadidat - Who did that?
Fididedee - What did he do?
Fawistitlicketye - Who was it that punished you?
NaeSpikkin - Are you ignoring me?
Sat et a - Is that it all
Keekin roon - To look round any obstruction, usually a street corner.
Wir simmits - Our vest or similar undergarment
Gyad sakes Min - A description of that which looks distasteful.
Yer Sapp’n weet - The clothes soaked by water, all the way through the to the skin.
Feet eneath i' table, - First visit to a girl friends home, When your morals would be discussed over tea and half a ’softie’.
Nae afa fine wiz at - That incident was slightly uncomfortable.
Charge a' Bullie - Two groups of boys running towards each other throwing stones. 
Smoken Tabbies - Inhaling nicotine from half-inch cigarette-ends. Usually those discarded by other people. Tabbie King was a great gutter snipe.
Fair Scunnert - Quite put off
Sair Trachle - Painful and considerable effort.
 Fit Fet fets es fet
Faa? who, whom?
Faan, fin? when?
Faar? where?
Faas? whose?
Fit? what?
Fit wye? why, (sometimes) how?
Foo? how, (sometimes) why?
Awa ye swick! - defaulting on an obligation - to cheat
Fine Pleast - Well Pleased

It may well be proven that that this dialect was the precursor to the ever abbreviating text language so beloved of those with ambi-dexterous thumbs using a cellular phone for communication and a complete urgency to get the message over quickly.

“I mean o' coorse, to write to ye in the same way as I wud dae if I were crackin’ wi’ ye ower the fireside, using my ain auld Doric for the maist part, no because I couldna’ manage to write gae an’ fair English, if I were to pit mysel’ till’t in earnest, but jist because I think my ain hamely Scotch to be every bit as expressive, - or even mair sae!"  Sandy, newspaper writer, from ‘The People’s Journal’ (Dundee), 1858.

Discourse on Doric

The Citizens of Aberdeen were never Gaelic-speakers.  (If they had been, Aberdeen might now be called Inverdeen) They spoke Lowland Scots, albeit with a notably shrill intonation and an extensive vernacular vocabulary.   Lowland Scots was a version of the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, which for about 500 years extended from the Humber estuary to the Forth estuary, or from Hull to Edinburgh and beyond, from the 6th to the 11th centuries.   Before this time, the Pictish people of North-east  Scotland would have spoken a Celtic language best described as an early form of Welsh, hence the place-name ‘Aberdeen’.   There are many place-names beginning with Aber- in Wales, none at all in Ireland.   The Northumbrian or Anglo-Saxon language developed into ‘Inglis’ (English) and ‘Scottis’ (Lowland Scots) variants, which were distinct but mutually comprehensible.   ‘Scottis’, or Lowland Scots came to be regarded as the authentic language of the people of Scotland.   The real, Gaelic-speaking Scots, the Highlanders of the North and West, came to be referred to as ‘the Irish’ and their language, incomprehensible to Lowlanders, as ‘Irish’ or ‘Erse’.   But the Lowland Scots dialect itself began to lose ground as a literary language from the 15th century, although it remained the spoken language of the common people.   The advent of the King James Bible in 1611 served to standardise its version of written and spoken English in both England and Scotland.   A Welsh version of the Bible was produced fairly early on, but Scots and Gaelic versions did not appear until much later, for the simple reason that there was insufficient demand; the Lowland Scots could read English easily enough, and there weren’t enough mono-glot Gaelic-speakers to constitute a worthwhile market.

North East Scotland has traditionally spoken a form of the Scots language, just like its neighbouring regions, and the dialect was often known as Scots.  But the North East has very distinct features not present in other regions, features such as the classic foo, fit, far and fan, which in general Scots are hoo, whit, whaur and whan (English how, what, where, when), or forms like steen and been – general Scots stane and bane (English stone and bone). Also, in the North East, people don’t say thir and thae (English these and those) but rather 'is and 'at. In other respects much in the dialect is in common with other Scots-speaking areas, but features like those above made it stand out. This gave rise to such rhymes as:

Bi foo, fit, far an fan,
Ye can tell a Farfar man
which meant the border where hoo changed to foo, or whit to fit, etc, started around Forfar, in Angus, and ran northwards, though Northeasters today probably wouldn’t think of Forfar as ‘Doric’.

An illustration of the distinctness of the North East dialect, even 150 years ago, can be gleaned from the following little extract. In 1850 William J Milne, from Forfarshire (Angus), who travelled through Formartine district, north of Aberdeen, and left his general impression of the language spoken there. He commented:-
"I also found myself among a people speaking a quaint-sounding and strange Scotch dialect, not exactly uncouth, rather musical, but much of it really silly in its idioms, and very redundant in its colloquialisms, where the Scotch adjective diminutive was used to almost everything, and everybody, large or small, and where in the case of a stranger asking his way on the country roads, and the distance to the place he wished to arrive at, he was told it might be a mile, or any number of miles, “an’ a bittie,” this gait, or that gait, while the distance undefined, but said to be “a wee bittie yet”, in the informant’s reply, was generally longer than the number of miles.”

Others than natives have commended the dialect of Aberdeen. Dr John Leyden, that remarkable youth who, had he lived, might have taken rank as a Scottish writer only second to his friend Walter Scott, visited the town in 1800. "The town dialect of Aberdeen," said he, "seems not, to my ear, inferior to that of Inverness," and as Inverness was supposed to have the purest speech in the British Isles, commendation could hardly go higher. Nay, even the Highlanders looked to Aberdeen as leading the fashion in speech as well as doctrine, and the proverbial attitude found itself sometimes embodied in rhyme, as in "The Stabliad," of 1825, which tells of
"Aberdeen, That ancient place, which every mountaineer,
Admires for language pure and truth sincere."
It is very remarkable for that with all its dogged conservatism

One can scarcely close a paper on Aberdeen without a few remarks on the characteristics of the Aberdeen people.  Both friends and foes admit that they have characteristics, and are not so wholly disagreed as to what those characteristics are, as to make it hard to see the reality which is looked at from the different sides!  A few items taken at random from Civic records (as narrated by Mr. George Cadenhead), reveal something.  In 1749, a boy rifles the poor box of the old Cathedral and is detected by the number of farthings and bad ha’pennies which he presently introduced into his sports.  Four years later, a parishioner was fined for disturbing the harmony of the most important City choir - simply that he might do, despite the presence of 1 of the College Professors.  Then, when the name of the House of Hanover was finally introduced into the public prayers, there were old Citizens who put their fingers into their ears, and coughed loudly to drown the sound of King George's name.  Again, when Provost Cruickshank "illegally" placed his private House Arms on Ruthrieston Bridge, the Town ordered the City Heraldry to be substituted, the thrifty mason simply turned the Provost's stone and cut the new inscription on its back!

Aberdeen humour is dry and caustic, as Dr. Samuel Johnson found out, when standing in Castle Street, watching a man "harling" (rough-casting) a house; he said: "But perhaps, my man, I am in your way," and got the prompt reply: "Na, na, sir, if ye're nae in your ain wye, ye're nae in mine," straightway splashing on with his lime, and "sparking" the great Doctor’s clothes.  John Wesley said of the Aberdonians: "They were swift to hear, slow to speak, not slow to wrath." Professor Masson, himself a "town's bairn," has described the people of his birthplace as "a population of Saturday reviewers in a crude state."

On the other hand, though the Aberdonian may be "canny" and "pawky," yet southern strangers remark how readily the humbler citizens render little services without thought of "tipping," nay, often with blunt resentment against any such suggestion.  Then there is a very characteristic story of the old servant woman who used to help the son of her master the Minister with his notes of his father's sermons.  Suddenly, the divine found something in the notes which he had not said, "a new idea," as be put it, and "interesting."  The lad was taken aback, and took an early opportunity to speak on the matter to his adviser. "That's it, is it?" said Nannie, "weel, weel, all I can say is that if he didna say it, he ought to have said it!"  A present day writer compares the native temperament to "a volcano under a mountain of snow."  Mr. Gladstone considered the people of the City and County are especially distinguished for force of mind and character.  "They wander all over the world, and no emigrants attach themselves more loyally to the lands of their choice than do these genuine settlers, but they never lose a tender recollection of what has been called "The Silver City by the Sea," nor fail to stretch a warm hand of welcome to any who come from it.

The Wizard o the North
There is a Wizard in the North
He makks a magic brew
That changes aa the wirdies
That are bidin in yer moo!

In English, fowk say 'What' and 'Who'
And 'When' and 'Why' and 'Where'
In Glesga toun, it's 'Whit' an 'Wha'
An 'Whaur' that they say there.
Bit ower the Doric Loons an Quines
The wizard shakks his wand
Fur it's 'Fit', 'Fa', 'Fan' and 'Far' we say
Aa roon the Nor' East Land!

Should ye faa upon an English 'stone',
In Glesga it's a 'stane'
They'll tell ye o'er the telephone
They're hurt their funny-'bane'
In Aiberdeen, it's 'steen' an 'been'
The Wizard's wark again!

A 'crow's' an English birdie
He's a 'craw' in Glesga toun
Bit the 'crow' becomes a 'craa'
Fin he flees oot the wizard's goun!
On England shines the silver 'moon'
A 'muin' o'er Glesga's seen
Bit the wizard casts his spell on us
Up here, we see a 'meen'!

In Scotland, they may tell ye tae
'Awa an 'bile' yer heid.'
In England, 'boiling' heads would be
An odd pastime indeed
Bit fur eence, the wizard's sleepin
Fur he disna bat an ee...
It's the same 'biled' heid in Glesga,
Embro, Fitty, an Dundee!

I think I ken the secret o the Wizard's magic laws...
It's aboot far bairns come frae an the wye ye wirk yer jaas! -
Sheena Blackhall


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Last modified: 01/09/2013