AskDefine | Define Cumbrian

Extensive Definition

Not to be confused with the Celtic Cumbric language
The Cumbrian dialect is a local dialect spoken in the English county of Cumbria. As in any county, there is a gradual drift in accent towards its neighbours. Barrow-in-Furness, in the south of Cumbria, has a similar accent to much of Lancashire whilst the northern parts of Cumbria have a more North-East English sound to them. Whilst clearly being an English accent approximately between Lancashire and Geordie it shares much vocabulary with Scots. 'Cumbrian' here refers both to Cumbria but also to Cumberland, the county which existed up to the enactment of local government re-organisation in 1974, when the distinction between Cumberland and Westmorland was lost. There is a Cumbrian Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore, which was written by William Rollinson, but is much harder to find a copy of than the respective dictionaries for Lancashire and Yorkshire.

History of Cumbrian language

Celtic influence

Despite the modern county being created only in 1974 from the counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and north Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, Cumbria is an ancient land. Before the arrival of the Romans the area was the home of the Carvetii tribe, which was later assimilated to the larger Brigantes tribe. These people would have spoken Brythonic, which developed into Old Welsh, but around the 5th century AD, when Cumbria was the centre of the kingdom of Rheged, the language spoken in northern England and southern Scotland from Yorkshire to Strathclyde had developed into a separate language known as Cumbric. Remnants of Brythonic and Cumbric are most often seen in place names, in elements such as caer 'fort' as in Carlisle, pen 'hill' as in Penrith and craig 'crag, rock' as in High Crag.
The most well known Celtic element in Cumbrian dialect is the sheep counting numerals which are still used in various forms by shepherds throughout the area, and apparently for knitting. The word 'Yan' (meaning 'one'), for example, is prevalent throughout Cumbria and is still often used, especially by non-speakers of 'received pronunciation' and children, eg. "That yan owr there," or "Can I have yan of those?"
The Northern subject rule may be attributable to Celtic Influence.
Before the 8th century AD Cumbria was annexed to English Northumbria and Old English began to be spoken in parts, although evidence suggests Cumbric survived in central regions in some form until the 11th century.

Norse influence

A far stronger influence on the modern dialect was Old Norse, spoken by Norwegian settlers who probably arrived in Cumbria in the 10th century via Ireland and the Isle of Man. The majority of Cumbrian place names are of Norse origin, including Ulverston from Ulfrs tun ('Ulfr's farmstead'), Kendal from Kent dalr ('valley of the River Kent') and Elterwater from eltr vatn ('swan lake'). Many of the traditional dialect words are also remnants of Norse settlement, including beck (bekkr, 'stream'), laik (leik, 'to play'), lowp (hlaupa, 'to jump') and glisky (gliskr, 'shimmering').
Old Norse seems to have survived in Cumbria until fairly late. A 12th century inscription found at Loppergarth in Furness bears a curious mixture of Old English and Norse, showing that the language was still felt in the south of the county at this time, and would probably have hung on in the fells and dales (both Norse words) until later.
Once Cumbrians had assimilated to speaking English, there were few further influences on the dialect. In the Middle Ages, much of Cumbria frequently swapped hands between England and Scotland but this had little effect on the language used. In the nineteenth century miners from Cornwall and Wales began relocating to Cumbria to take advantage of the work offered by new iron ore, copper and wadd mines but whilst they seem to have affected some local accents (notably Barrow-in-Furness) they don't seem to have contributed much to the vocabulary.
One of the lasting characteristics of still found in the local dialect of Cumbria today is an inclination to drop vowels, especially in relation to the word "the" which is frequently abbreviated. Unlike the Lancashire dialect, where 'the' is abbreviated to 'th', in Cumbrian (as in Yorkshire) the sound is harder like the letter '?' or simply a 't' and in sentences sounds as if it is attached to the previous word, for example "int" instead of "in the" "ont" instead of "on the".

Accent and pronunciation

Cumbria is a large area with several relatively isolated districts, so there is quite a large variation in accent, especially between north and south or the coastal towns. There are some uniform features that should be taken into account when pronouncing dialect words.


When certain vowels are followed by the glides /ɹ/ or /l/, an epenthetic schwa [ə] is often pronounced between them, creating two distinct syllables:
  • 'feel' > [fiəl]; 'fear' > [fiə]
  • 'fool' > [fuəl]; 'moor' > [muə]
  • 'fail' > [fɪəl]
  • 'file' > [faɪəl]; 'fire' > [faɪə]
The pronunciation of moor, poor, etc was once a feature of Received Pronunciation and can still be heard amongst some old-fashioned speakers. It is generally more common in the north of England than in the south.


Most consonants are pronounced as they are in other parts of the English speaking world. A few exceptions follow:
and have a tendency to be dropped or unreleased in the coda (word- or syllable-finally).
is realised in various ways throughout the county. When William Barrow Kendall wrote his Furness Wordbook in 1867, he wrote that 'should never be dropped', suggesting the practice had already become conspicuous. It seems the elision of both and began in the industrial towns and slowly spread out. In the south, it is now very common.
in the word final position may be dropped or realised as [w]: woo wool [wəw]; pow pole [pɒw].
is realised as [ɾ] following consonants and in word-initial position but is often elided in the coda, unless a following word begins with a vowel: ross [ɾɒs]; gimmer [gɪmə]; gimmer hogg [gɪməɾ ɒg].
is traditionally always pronounced, although in many places it has been replaced by the glottal stop [ʔ] now common throughout Britain.
may be consonantal [j] as in yam home [jam]. As the adjectival or adverbial suffix -y it may be [ɪ] or [iː] as in clarty muddy [klaːtɪ]. Medially and, in some cases, finally it is [ɐː] as in Thorfinsty (a place) [ˈθɔːfɪnˌstɐː].


Stress is usually placed on the initial syllable: yakeren acorn [ˈjakɜɾˌən].
Unstressed initial vowels are usually fully realised, whilst those in final syllables are usually reduced to schwa [ə].

Dialect Words

General words

  • ars I am
  • awez Come on
  • cowie thing
  • thew you
  • thine yours
  • us, es me
  • wherst where is the
  • djarn doing (as in 'whut yer djarn? - what you doing?)
  • betch bitch, to spread rumours
  • grass to tell
  • divn't don't (as in 'divn't do that, lad')
  • how'do How are you doing?
  • Barra Barrow


  • kaylied intoxicated
  • kystie squeamish or fussy
  • la'al small
  • ladgeful embarrassing or unfashionable (only in and around Penrith)
  • slape slippery or smooth as in slape back colly, a border colly with short wirey hair
  • yon used when indicating a place or object that is usually in sight but far away. abbreviation of yonder.


  • gey very
  • owwer over ("ars garn owwer yonder fer a kip" - I'm going over there for a sleep)
  • vanya almost, nearly. vanear is a coastal variant


  • bait packed meal that is carried to work
  • bait bag bag in which to carry bait
  • bab'e baby
  • biddies fleas
  • bift/bifter cannabis joint
  • britches trousers
  • cheble or chable table
  • cur dog sheepdog - collie
  • garn thread for knitting (Furness)
  • kets sweets
  • lewer money
  • mebe maybe
  • scrow a mess
  • shillies small stones or gravel
  • skemmy beer
  • snig small eel
  • yam home, as in: as garn yam (I'm going home)
  • jinnyspinner A Daddy Long Legs


  • bowk retch (as in before vomiting)
  • bray beat (as in beat up someone)
  • bubble cry
  • chess chase
  • chor steal (Romany origin, cf. Urdu chorna)
  • clarten messing about
  • deek look (Romany origin, cf Urdu dekhna)
  • doss play (wanna doss hide and seek? - Do you wish to play hide and seek?)
  • fistle to fidget
  • gander look
  • gar go
  • garn going
  • howk to pick at or gouge out
  • hoy throw
  • jarn or jurn doing
  • laik play
  • lait look for
  • lowp jump
  • nash run away
  • "'raj" to be angry'
  • ratch to search for something
  • scop to throw
  • scower look at
  • sow sexual intercourse
  • skit make fun of
  • twat hit someone ("I twatted him in the face")
  • twine to whine or complain


  • bairden child
  • boyo brother/male friend (Carlisle)
  • buwler/bewer girl
  • cus or cuz friend (from cousin) (East Cumbria)
  • gammerstang awkward person
  • mot woman/girl/girlfriend
  • offcomer a non-native in Cumbria
  • potter gypsy
  • gadgey man
  • charva man/friend (West Cumbria, Carlisle)
  • marra friend (West Cumbria, Furness)
  • t'ol fella father
  • t'ol lass mother
  • jam eater describing someone from Whitehaven if from Workington or vice versa

Farming terms

  • boos a division in a shuppon
  • cop the bank of earth on which a hedge grows
  • fodder gang passage for feeding cattle (usually in a shuppon)
  • liggin' kessin when an animal is lying on its back and can't get up
  • stoop a gate post
  • lonnin country lane
  • yat gate


  • hossing raining heavily (it's hossing it duwn)
  • glisky when the sky is really bright so you can't see properly
  • mizzlin misty drizzly rain
  • syling pouring rain


  • ars garn yam I'm going home
  • hasta Have you?
  • oust fettal How are you
  • werst thew of te where are you going
  • wh'ista Who are you? (especially used in Appleby)
  • werst t' frae Where are you from?
  • owz it gan? How is it going? (how are you)
  • howays then provoke fight
  • wha ya de'yan? What are you doing?
  • wer y'ofta? Where are you off to? (Where are you going)
  • ahreet, marra. Hi, Mate.
  • Gammy LoveBite
  • Recke'd Intoxicated (Cumbria, Barrow-in-Furness)
  • Shadda Shadow (Cumbria, Barrow-in-Furness)

Cumbrian numbers

The Cumbrian numbers, often called 'sheep counting numerals' because of their (declining) use by shepherds to this very day, show clear signs that they may well have their origins in Cumbric. The table below shows the variation of the numbers throughout Cumbria, as well as the relevant cognate in Welsh and Cornish, which are the two geographically closest British languages to Cumbric, for comparison.
NB: when these numerals were used for counting sheep, reputedly, the shepherd would count to fifteen or twenty and then move a small stone from one of his pockets to the other before beginning again, thus keeping score. Numbers eleven, twelve etc. would have been 'yandick, taendick', while sixteen and seventeen would have been 'yan-bumfit, tyan-bumfit' etc.

Cumbrian poetry

The following poets are known for writing about Cumbria:


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