Mary Barton

Lancashire Dialect

Buy Study Guide

Although Elizabeth Gaskell would not have spoken anything resembling a Lancashire accent, she set many of her novels in the northern region of England. Mancunians (citizens of Manchester) spoke in the Lancashire dialect, which involves a different vocabulary and perversions of standard grammar. The Lancashire accent and vocabulary are near descendants of Anglo-Saxon and the middle English of Chaucer. Those archaic languages are in turn descended from a mixture of German, Latin and French. The Lancashire dialect sounds strange to outsiders, although it is still spoken today in rural parts of Northern England. Nowadays, the dialect is looked upon as an antiquated curiosity. In Gaskell's day, though, it was commonly associated with the working classes of Manchester and the surrounding areas.

Detail-oriented in all her writing endeavors, Gaskell gathered Lancashire words and phrases from her own observation of the Manchester vernacular, but she had other help as well. Her husband, William Gaskell, published two lectures on the dialect of their town. Elizabeth leaned heavily on Gaskell's lectures, which trace the Anglo-Saxon roots and compare the Lancashire dialect to standardized English. Through her husband's philological research, Gaskell was able to portray Manchester realistically in her novels. Here is an example of William Gaskell's pronunciation comparisons.











In Mary Barton, Gaskell uses the colorful word "frabbit", meaning peevish, to authenticate the speech and behavior of characters like Jane Wilson. The Lancashire word she uses most frequently is "clem", which means to suffer from extreme hunger. Gaskell chooses this word aptly for the theme of her novel. Other words are footnoted or explained in the margins. Elizabeth's Gaskell's creative use of the Lancashire dialect demonstrates her dedication to describing real life in her fiction. She offers her readers a sense of what the people of Manchester would have sounded like during the Victorian era.