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Dialect expert has the last word; Tony Henderson on the last legacy of a champion of the North East dialect culture.

ONE of the ingredients which help make up the distinct identity of the North East is its dialect. But in a world of increasing globalisation and uniformity, there are those who fear that regional dialect has had its day.

Another threat has come from the demise of industries like mining and fishing, which has rendered whole sets of dialect words redundant.

It was against this backdrop that Northumbria University launched its Wor Language project to collect and log dialect words before they are lost forever. The project produced two books by Bill Griffiths - Stotty 'n' Spice Cake: The Story of North East Cooking and Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coal field.

Bill, who had already written a Dictionary of North East Dialect, had completed the preliminary draft of the third of the Wor Language trilogy, Fishing and Folk: Life and Dialect on the North Sea Coast, when he died last September.

Yesterday his final book was published, examining life and language along the region's coastline.

The book, partly financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, mixes history, language and recollections of the folk who have lived the coastal life.

It ranges over words for headlands, rocks, water features, bays, harbours, beaches, the sea, weather, names for fish, sea birds, boats, navigation, fishing, fishermen's clothing, communities, smuggling, sea songs, leisure, angling and holidays. Its diversity mirrors that of Bill himself, who lived in Seaham in County Durham. He came from an orchestral family, trained as a classical pianist and performed solo at the Barbican Centre. His musical education was followed by a degree in history and a doctorate in Old English.

Bill Griffiths was also a poet of high reputation and visiting professor in poetry at several universities. From 2000, he was a fellow and researcher at the Centre for Northern Studies at Northumbria University, where he concentrated on regional dialect.

At the same time, his tattoos were evidence of his involvement with the Hell's Angels in the 1960s. Close friend Bill Lancaster, director of the Centre for Northern Studies, says: "Bill was a formidable student of Saxon literature who took great pleasure in living amongst the vestiges of Old English from which came the core of North East dialect."

Bill Griffiths also helped set up the Tyneside and Durham Dialect Society.

Also an archivist, he found the time to catalogue the papers of the Northern Sinfonia and, in the spring of last year, he finished the job of listing over 100 hours of oral recordings of 1960s Newcastle City Council supremo T. Dan Smith.

Of Bill Griffiths' enthusiasm for the study of language, Bill Lancaster says: "We can take surprise at his demonstration of the important Dutch contribution to the language of the region, and puzzle over the failure of Irish to have a linguistic impact on the region, despite the scale of 19th Century immigration.

"Labour historians are indebted to his rescue and preservation of Pitmatic, the rapidly disappearing language of the Great Northern Coalfield. This alone is an achievement of historic significance."

Now, as his last legacy, Bill Griffiths has done the same for fishing and the coast. For example, the keel boats of the Tyne come from the Old English word ceol, meaning boat, while in the 19th Century a cockle seller was called Bad Weather Geordy.

In an occupation as dangerous as fishing, superstition was rife and there were a number of taboos.

The word P-I-G was never mentioned. Joan Phillips, of Cullercoats, recalls: "Fishermen would turn back if they met a cross-eyed woman, or clergyman, or pig en route."

At the time of Bill's death, a new venture was being planned on the dialect of children's games and pastimes. "It is the intention of all those involved with Bill that this work should be undertaken," says Mr Lancaster.

Fishing and Folk: Life and Dialect on the North Sea Coast by Bill Griffiths (Northumbria University Press, pounds 11.99).


CHAMPION OF DIALECT The late Bill Griffiths with his earlier work, A Dictionary of North East Dialect.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 6, 2008
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