Life on the edge in the ‘largest village
in the world’.
On the edge
Sheffield is on the edge and between things.
The largest city in Yorkshire, it lies at the
foot of the county, little more than a stone’s
throw from Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire.
Similarly, it straddles the border between
the midlands and the north. To a southerner,
it is in the north, to a northerner it is a long
way south…. As a locus, Sheffield is an
island geographically central to the country.
(Fine 1992: 9)
Sheffield is the only city
to lie astride this
division. To the west
of the rivers Don and
Sheaf are hills, to their
east are plains.
(Fine 1992: 3)
Mercia and Northumbria
Sheffield lies on the border
Northumbria and Mercia.
The border changed
several times. ‘Clumps of
and Britons lived together
in what had become a
bordrland, where political
boundaries were altered
by acts of sword rather
than acts of parliament.
characterised by –
cluster to the east of
Sheffield as a border city
Archbishopric of York/ Canterbury
Place- and river-names: ‘Dore’ = ‘door,
narrow passage’; ‘Sheaf’ = ‘boundary’.
Present-day North/ Midlands
The ‘largest village’
Sheffield has been famous for cutlery since at
least the 14th century. Chaucer Reeve’s Tale:
‘A Sheffield thwittel bare he in his hose.’
(thwittel = a type of knife). ‘Made in
Sheffield’ already a brand of quality.
The industry developed through a system of
small workshops run by ‘little mesters’.
Workers came from the immediately
17th –century Immigration
Hey (1998: 33-4)
‘For a brief period between 24th November 1653 and
5th December 1660 the marriage registers of
Sheffield parish record the place of residence for
both partners…. No bridegroom came from
further north than Leeds or further south than
Nottingham and all but ten of them lived within
ten miles of the centre of Sheffield.’
‘Between 1625 and 1649 the fathers of 23% of
apprentices lived in Sheffield township, 20% in
rural parts of Sheffield township, 41.3% within 21
miles, and only 16.2% 21 miles or more away.’
‘Most families had been settled in the
neighbourhood for several generations. The
continuity of local surnames is particularly marked
in the cutlery trades…. A shared interest in the
manufacture of cutlery and links forged through
marriage and apprenticeship gave the people of
Hallamshire a real sense of common identity. By
the sixteenth century, the place and the people had
acquired an identity whose distinctiveness was
recognised throughout England’ (Hey 1998: 34)
The ‘Steel City’: 19th-century
1841 census: ‘The distances that some
migrants had travelled were greater than in
previous centuries – 327 Sheffielders had
surnames beginning with Mc and 82 had
names beginning with O’ – but on the
whole the catchment area was similar to
what it had always been. (Hey (1998: 145)
Development of large-scale steelworks in the
second half of the 19th century.
36.3% born outside the borough boundary.
21.5% born in Yorkshire or Derbyshire
5.6% in Leics, Lincs or Notts
3.3% Irish, ‘some Scots’. (Hey 1998)
‘More Irish people settled in Sheffield in the next
few decades [after 1851]. They came mostly from
western and central Ireland and congregated in the
north-western part of the central township, where
in 1861 some enumerators’ districts contained as
many as 25 per cent Irish residents (if English-
born children of Irish parents are counted.) The
Irish in Sheffield were never as numerous as those
in Leeds or the industrial towns of Lancashire.
(Hey 1998: 148).
Condition of the Irish in
Holland An enquiry into the Moral, Social and
Intellectual Condition of the Industrial Classes of
‘I am at present attending three whose homes are
scenes of wretchedness that could not be
surpassed by anything in Ireland. It is often
necessary to insist on their going to the
workhouse, simply for protection from cold and
hunger’. (cited in Pollard 1959: 21)
Conditions of the Irish (cont.)
Pollard (1959: 21-2):
They lived in the most insanitary districts, sharing
their slums with pigs and other domestic animals
and with lodgers even more wretched than
themselves, cheek by jowl with the riff-raff of the
underworld, which every large city seemed to
breed, and the inhabitants of common lodging-
houses. In Sheffield, however, the small number
of Irish-born citizens made their problems less
acute than in other large towns in the North.
Influence of Scots and Irish
There is virtually no evidence of any substantial
Irish migration is small compared to other
northern towns and cities
Where Irish were relatively numerous, they
clustered in the poorest districts, drawing attention
from social commentators for the ‘wretchedness’
of their lives.
The ‘village’ nature of Sheffield, with its long-
established networks of long-settled families,
would militate against the Irish having any
Accounts of the Sheffield dialect go back to at
least the early 19th century (Hunter 1829).
The strong sense of identity forged by the
close networks of the cutlery industry is
reflected in pride in the dialect.
‘Dogs that didn’t bark’
There is no evidence in accounts of the
Sheffield dialect for features identified
elsewhere as marking Scots and / or Irish
Lenition of final voiceless stops
Second person pronouns
Yous absent from Sheffield, but (in more
traditional dialect) Thee/ thou fulfil the
function of number contrast and provide a
‘vernacular’ variant. Thee-ing and tha-ing is
used as a term meaning to speak in broad
dialect. One elderly female informant from
the Survey of Sheffield Usage said to the
interviewer ‘Thee thee and tha thyself and
see how thou likes it’.
Spread of yous
There is evidence of yous spreading to areas in which it was
not used until recently. A recent student survey in
Warrington (midway between Manchester and Liverpool)
provides apparent-time evidence for its introduction within
the last 15 years. Although Warrington has a sizeable
population of Irish ancestry (of which I am a product!),
this is a case of a feature being transferred, not directly
from Hiberno-English, but either from the neighbouring
cities (yous found I both Liverpool and inner-city
Manchester), or, given the disappearance of thou, simply
to ‘broaden the vernacular base’ (Meyerhoff& Niedzelski).
I have found no evidence of yous in Sheffield, but, since
thou is receding, it could appear in future.
Some words found in glossaries of Sheffield
dialect (e.g. Hunter 1829, Bywater 1854,
Addy 1888), appear to be Scots or Irish.
However, these are or were in use
throughout the North of England so cannot
be attributed to dialect contact in any
Boke: Hunter ‘to boken’, to
nauseate, ready to vomit.
BOKE v.2 and sb. Sc. Irel. Nhb. Cum. Wm.
Yks. Lan. Chs. Der. Not. Lin. Pem.
Sooa nivver boak at t’nastiest pill. Leeds Merc
Suppl (Nov 14 1891)
Also cited from e. Yorks in Marshall’s Rural
Crack: Hunter ‘to boast’
Commonly assumed to be a recent import from Irish
craic. However, Wright:
Var. dial. Uses in Sc. Irel. Eng. And Colon.
7. Talk, conversation, gossip, chat. Citations from
Scotland, Northumberland, Durham, Yorks,
n. Yorks ‘He stopped for a bit of a crack’ (1865)
W. Yorks ‘Cracks in t’ingle neuk’ (1895)
OED gives ‘loud talk, boast, brag’ arch. and dial.
‘brisk talk, conversation’ Sc. and northern dialect.
Meaning of ‘talk, gossip’ seems established
throughout Scotland and the North of England.
Could more recent meaning be due to semantic
transference c.f. Old English/ Scandinavian
No solid evidence of Scots or Irish influence on the dialect
The ‘critical mass’ required for influence via dialect
contact never reached
Sheffield had close networks of artisans linked for
generations through apprenticeships and strategic
This led to early development of urban identity
External influences less likely to affect the dialect.
Immigration from surrounding counties would reinforce
the ‘border’ nature of Sheffield and its dialect.
Addy, S. O. (1888) A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood
of Sheffield London: Trubner for the English Dialect Society
Bywater, A. (1854) The Sheffield Dialect London ; Halifax ; Sheffield
: William Evans : Milner and Sowerby : Rodgers and Fowler
Fine, D. (1992) Sheffield: History and Guide Stroud: Alan Sutton.
Hey, D. (1998) A History of Sheffield Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing
Hunter, J. (1888) The Hallamshire Glossary London: Wiliam
Meyerhoff, M. and Niedzielski, N. (2003) ‘The globalisation of
vernacular variation’, Journal of Sociolinguistics 7 (4): 534-555.
Pollard, S. (1959) A History of Labour in Sheffield Liverpool:
Liverpool University Press.