Dialect and Obsolete Words

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In the Brontës’ day most of the inhabitants of Haworth were Yorkshire dialect speakers; and since Charlotte Brontë complained that there was not a single ‘educated’ family in the place, it is likely that the ‘maisters’—the mill owners, gentlemen farmers, and independent craftsmen—used at least some dialect forms as well as broad northern vowels, especially when speaking to their employees. The well-educated and well-travelled Mr Yorke in Shirley, like his prototype, the Gomersal mill owner Joshua Taylor, is portrayed as equally fluent and forcible in dialect, ‘standard’ English, and French, but he was probably unusual in keeping the two English forms distinct. Within Haworth Parsonage, the dialect of the faithful servant Tabitha Aykroyd, born and brought up in Yorkshire, was familiar to the Brontës from an early age, and it was faithfully recorded in the speech of Hannah in Jane Eyre, the servant Martha in Shirley, and perhaps also Nancy Brown in Agnes Grey. Branwell Brontë probably heard more freely spoken dialect than any of his sisters. He and Charlotte used vigorous, fluent, dialect speech to characterize the servants and cronies of their Angrian ‘great men’. The ‘strong twang’ of General Thornton is used both for comic purposes and to indicate his honesty. The Brontës would be alert to the pronunciation and nuances of the local dialect partly because their own speech, influenced by their Irish father, Cornish mother and aunt, and the various teachers in their schools, was different: Mary Taylor recorded that when Charlotte first arrived at Roe Head school she ‘spoke with a strong Irish accent’. Emily was intrigued by Tabby's Yorkshire version of ‘Peel a potato’, and sought to write it down phonetically, ‘pillapatate’. She would later represent with a high degree of phonetic accuracy the dialect speakers in Wuthering Heights. Yorkshire people would consider that the Brontë sisters spoke ‘less gruff than we talk here, and softer’, as Ellen Dean remarked of Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights, a novel in which speech differences have a strong influence on personal relationships. The surly, ‘gruff’ servant Joseph, a broad dialect speaker, resents the refined speech of the Lintons, and affects not to understand Isabella's request to accompany her into the house: ‘Mim! mim! mim! Did iver Christian body hear owt like it? Minching un’ munching! Hah can Aw tell whet ye say?’ In Jane Eyre too, Jane and the ‘coarsely-clad little peasants’ who are her scholars at Morton at first ‘have a difficulty in understanding each other's language’.


From The Oxford Companion to the Brontes in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literary Studies (19th Century).

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