The Lake Dialect by Thomas De Quincey

Story type: Essay

To the Editor of ‘Titan.’

My Dear Sir,–I send you a few hasty notes upon Mr. Robert Ferguson’s little work (relating to the dialect current at the English Lakes).[1] Mr. Ferguson’s book is learned and seasonable, adapted to the stage at which such studies have now arrived among us, and adapted also to a popular use. I am sure that Mr. Ferguson knows a great deal more about his very interesting theme than I do. Nevertheless, I presume to sit in judgment upon him; or so it will be inferred from my assuming the office of his reviewer. But in reality I pretend to no such ambitious and invidious functions. What I propose to do, in this hasty and extempore fashion, is–simply to take a seat in Mr. Ferguson’s court as an amicus curiae, and occasionally to suggest a doubt, by possibility an amendment; but more often to lead astray judge, jury, and docile audience into matter growing out of the subject, but very seldom leading back into it, too often, perhaps, having little to do with it; pleasant by possibility, according to Foote’s judgment in a parallel case, ‘pleasant, but wrong.’ No great matter if it should be so. It will be read within the privileged term of Christmas;[2] during which licensed saturnalia it can be no blame to any paper, that it is ‘pleasant, but wrong.’

[Footnote 1:
The Northmen in Cumberland and Westmoreland. By Robert Ferguson. Carlisle: Steel & Brother. London: Longmans & Co.]

[Footnote 2:
Writing at the moment in Scotland, where Christmas is as little heard of, or popularly understood or regarded, as the Mahometan festival of Beyram or the fast of Ramadan, I ought to explain that, as Christmas Day, by adjournment from Lady Day–namely, March 25–falls uniformly on December 25, it happens necessarily that Twelfth Day (the adoration of the Magi at Bethlehem), which is the ceremonial close of Christmas, falls upon the 5th day of January; seven days in the old, five in the new, year. ]

I begin with lodging a complaint against Mr. Ferguson, namely, that he has ignored me–me, that in some measure may be described as having broken ground originally in this interesting field of research. Me, the undoubted parent of such studies–i. e. the person who first solemnly proclaimed the Danish language to be the master-key for unlocking the peculiarities of the Lake dialect–me, has this undutiful son never noticed, except incidentally, and then only with some reserve, or even with a distinct scruple, as regards the particular point of information for which I am cited. Seriously, however, this very passage, which offers me the affront of utter exclusion from what I had regarded as my own peculiar territory, my own Danish ring-fence, shows clearly that no affront had been designed. Mr. Ferguson had found occasion, at p. 80, to mention that Fairfield, the most distinguished[3] of the Grasmere boundaries, and ‘next neighbour to Helvellyn’ (next also in magnitude, being above three thousand feet high), had, as regarded its name, ‘been derived from the Scandinavian faar, sheep, in allusion to the peculiar fertility of its pastures.’ He goes on thus–‘This mountain’ (says De Quincey) ‘has large, smooth pastoral savannahs, to which the sheep resort when all its rocky or barren neighbours are left desolate.’ In thus referring to myself for the character of the mountain, he does not at all suppose that he is referring to the author of the etymology. On the contrary, the very next sentence says–‘I do not know who is the author of this etymology, which has been quoted by several writers; but it appears to me to be open to considerable doubt’; and this for two separate reasons, which he assigns, and which I will notice a little further on.

[Footnote 3:

‘And mighty Fairfield, with its chime

Of echoes, still was keeping time.’

WORDSWORTH–The Waggoner.
]

Meantime I pause, for the sake of saying that the derivation is mine. Thirty-seven, or it may be thirty-eight, years ago, I first brought forward my Danish views in a local newspaper–namely, The Kendal Gazette, published every Saturday. The rival (I may truly say–the hostile) newspaper, published also on Saturday, was called The Westmoreland Chronicle. The exact date of my own communication upon the dialect of the Lake district I cannot at this moment assign. Earlier than 1818 it could not have been, nor later than 1820. What first threw me upon this vein of exploring industry was, the accidental stumbling suddenly upon an interesting little incident of Westmoreland rustic life. From a roadside cottage, just as I came nearly abreast of its door, issued a little child; not old enough to walk with particular firmness, but old enough for mischief; a laughing expression of which it bore upon its features. It was clearly in the act of absconding from home, and was hurrying earnestly to a turn of the road which it counted upon making available for concealment. But, before it could reach this point, a young woman, of remarkable beauty, perhaps twenty years old, ran out in some alarm, which was not diminished by hearing the sound of carriage-wheels rapidly coming up from a distance of probably two furlongs. The little rosy thing stopped and turned on hearing its mother’s voice, but hesitated a little, until she made a gesture of withdrawing her handkerchief from her bosom, and said, coaxingly, ‘Come its ways, then, and get its patten.’ Until that reconciling word was uttered, there had been a shadow of distrust on the baby’s face, as if treachery might be in the wind. But the magic of that one word patten wrought an instant revolution. Back the little truant ran, and the young mother’s manner made it evident that she would not on her part forget what had passed between the high contracting parties.[4] What, then, could be the meaning of this talismanic word patten? Accidentally, having had a naval brother confined amongst the Danes, as a prisoner of war, for eighteen months, I knew that it meant the female bosom. Soon after I stumbled upon the meaning of the Danish word Skyandren–namely, what in street phrase amongst ourselves is called giving to any person a blowing-up. This was too remarkable a word, too bristling with harsh blustering consonants, to baffle the detecting ear, as it might have done under any masquerading aura-textilis, or woven air of vowels and diphthongs.

[Footnote 4:
It might seem odd to many people that a child able to run alone should not have been already weaned, a process of early misery that, in modern improved practice, takes place amongst opulent families at the age of six months; and, secondly, it might seem equally odd that, until weaned, any infant could be truly described as ‘rosy.’ I wish, however, always to be punctiliously accurate; and I can assure my readers that, generally speaking, the wives of labouring men (for more reasons than one) suckle their infants for three years, to the great indignation of medical practitioners, who denounce the practice as six times too long. Secondly, although unweaned infants are ordinarily pale, yet, amongst those approaching their eighteenth or twentieth month, there are often found children as rosy as any one can meet with. ]

Many scores of times I had heard men threatening to skiander this person or that when next they should meet. Not by possibility could it indicate any mode of personal violence; for no race of men could be more mild and honourably forbearing in their intercourse with each other than the manly dalesmen of the Lakes. From the context, it had long been evident that it implied expostulation and verbal reproach. And now at length I learned that this was its Danish import. The very mountain at the foot of which my Grasmere cottage stood, and the little orchard attached to which formed ‘the lowest step in that magnificent staircase’ (such was Wordsworth’s description of it), leading upwards to the summits of Helvellyn, reminded me daily of that Danish language which all around me suggested as being the secret writing–the seal–the lock that imprisoned ancient records as to thing or person, and yet again as being the key that should open this lock; as that which had hidden through many centuries, and yet also as that which should finally reveal.

I have thus come round to the name of Fairfield, which seemed to me some forty years ago as beyond all reasonable doubt the Danish mask for Sheep-fell. But, in using the phrase ‘reasonable doubt,’ I am far from insinuating that Mr. Ferguson’s deliberate doubt is not reasonable. I will state both sides of the question, for neither is without some show of argument. To me it seemed next to impossible that the early Danish settlers could, under the natural pressure of prominent differences among that circuit of hills which formed the barriers of Grasmere, have failed to distinguish as the sheep mountain that sole eminence which offered a pasture ground to their sheep all the year round. In summer and autumn all the neighbouring fells, that were not mere rocks, yielded pasture more or less scanty. But Fairfield showed herself the alma mater of their flocks even in winter and early spring. So, at least, my local informants asserted. Mr. Ferguson, however, objects, as an unaccountable singularity, that on this hypothesis we shall have one mountain, and one only, classed under the modern Scandinavian term of field; all others being known by the elder name of fell. I acknowledge that this anomaly is perplexing. But, on the other hand, what Mr. Ferguson suggests is still more perplexing. He supposes that, ‘because’ the summit of this mountain is such a peculiarly green and level plain, it might not inappropriately be called a fair field.’ Certainly it might; but by Englishmen of recent generations, and not by Danish immigrants of the ninth century. To balance the anomaly of what certainly wears a faint soupcon of anachronism–namely, the apparent anticipation of the modern Norse word field, Mr. Ferguson’s conjecture would take a headlong plunge into good classical English. Now of this there is no other instance. Even the little swells of ground, that hardly rise to the dignity of hills, which might be expected to submit readily to changing appellations, under the changing accidents of ownership, yet still retain their primitive Scandinavian names–as Butterlip Howe, for example. Nor do I recollect any exceptions to this tendency, unless in the case of jocose names, such as Skiddaw’s Cub, for Lattrig; and into this class, perhaps, falls even the dignified mountain of The Old Man, at the head of Coniston. Mr. Ferguson will allow that it would be as startling to the dense old Danes of King Alfred’s time, if they had found a mountain of extra pretensions wearing a modern English name, as it would to the Macedonian argyraspides, if suspecting that, in some coming century, their mighty leader, ‘the great Emathian conqueror,’ could by any possible Dean of St. Patrick, and by any conceivable audacity of legerdemain, be traced back to All-eggs-under-the-grate. If the name really is good English, in that case a separate and extra labour arises for us all; there must have been some old Danish name for this most serviceable of fells; and then we have not merely to explain the present English name, but also to account for the disappearance of this archaeological Danish name. What I would throw out conjecturally as a bare possibility is this:–When an ancient dialect (A) is gradually superseded by a more modern one (E), the flood of innovation which steals over the old reign, and gradually dispossesses it, does not rush in simultaneously as a torrent, but supervenes stealthily and unequally, according to the humouring or thwarting of local circumstances. Nobody, I am sure, is better aware of this accident, as besetting the transit of dialects, than Mr. Ferguson. For instance, many of those words which are imported to us from the American United States, and often amuse us by their picturesqueness, have originally been carried to America by our own people; in England they lurked for ages as provincialisms, localised within some narrow circuit, and to which some trifling barrier (as a river–rivulet–or even a brook) offered a retarding force. In supercivilised England, a river, it may be thought, cannot offer much obstruction to the free current of words; ages ago it must have been bridged over. Sometimes, however, a bridge is impossible under the transcendent importance of a free navigation. For instance, at the Bristol Hotwells, the ready and fluent intercourse with Long Ashton, and a long line of adjacencies, is effectually obstructed by the necessity of an open water communication with the Bristol Channel. At one period (i. e. when as yet Liverpool and Glasgow were fifth-rate ports), all the wealth of the West Indies flowed into England through this little muddy ditch of the Bristol Avon, and Rownham Ferry became the exponent and measure of English intercourse with the northern nook of Somersetshire. A river is bad; but when a mountain of very toilsome ascent happens to be interposed, the interruption offered to the popular intercourse, and the results of this interruption, become much more memorable. An illustration which I can offer on this point, and which, in fact, I did offer (as, upon inquiry, Mr. Ferguson will find), thirty-eight years ago, happens to bear with peculiar force upon our immediate difficulty of Fairfield. The valleys on the northern side of Kirkstone–namely, in particular, the three valleys of Patterdale, Matterdale, and Martindale–are as effectually cut off from intercourse with the valleys on the southern side–namely, the Windermere valley, Ryedale, and Grasmere, with all their tributary nooks and attachments–as though an arm of the sea had rolled between them. It costs a foot traveller half of a summer’s day to effect the passage to and fro over Kirkstone (what the Greeks so tersely expressed in the case of a race-course[5] by the one word diaulos). And in my time no innkeeper from the Windermere side of Kirkstone would carry even a solitary individual across with fewer than four horses. What has been the result? Why, that the dialect on the northern side of Kirkstone bears the impress of a more ultra-Danish influence than that upon the Windermere side. In particular this remarkable difference occurs: not the nouns and verbs merely are Danish amongst the trans-Kirkstonians (I speak as a Grasmerian), but even the particles–the very joints and articulations of language. The Danish at, for instance, is used for to; I do not mean for to the preposition: they do not say, ‘Carry this letter at Mr. ‘W.’; but as the sign of the infinitive mood. ‘Tell him at put his spurs on, and at ride off for a surgeon?’ Now this illustration carries along with it a proof that a stronger and a weaker infusion of the Danish element, possibly an older and a younger infusion, may prevail even in close adjacencies, provided they are powerfully divided by walls of rock that happen to be eight miles thick.

[Footnote 5:
I mean that they included the progressive or outward-bound course, and equally the regressive or homeward-bound course, within the compass of this one word [Greek: diaulos]. We in England have a phrase which conventionally has been made to supply the want of such an idea, but unfortunately with a limitation to the service of the Post-office. It is the phrase course of post. When a Newcastle man is asked, ‘What is the course of post between you and Liverpool?’ he understands, and by a legal decision it has been settled that he is under an obligation to understand–What is the diaulos, what is the flux and reflux–the to and the fro–the systole and diastole of the respiration–between you and Liverpool. What is the number of hours and minutes required for the transit of a letter from Newcastle to Liverpool, but coupled with the return transit of the answer? This forward and backward movement constitutes the diaulos: less than this will not satisfy the law as the complex process understood by the course of post. Less than this is only the half
section of a diaulos. ]

But the inexorable Press, that waits for few men under the rank of a king, and not always for him (as I happen to know, by having once seen a proof-sheet corrected by the royal hand of George IV., which proof exhibited some disloyal signs of impatience), forces me to adjourn all the rest to next month.–Yours ever,

THOMAS DE QUINCEY.

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