This first appeared in Bayfair, June 2011
"Haar was”, the man explained to some visitors in late spring, “the local name, of the cool sea fog that might have been spoiling their visit”. I asked him how he knew this and was curtly told that I should ask any fisherman or local as they all used this term. When I mentioned that I’d never ever heard other locals, including the Whitby fisherman I knew, use the term Haar and had only ever heard the word Sea Fret used locally, he dismissed my comment saying that the fisherman didn’t know anything. His accent gave away the fact that he came from West Yorkshire where Sea Frets never occur. I found no mention of Fret or Sea Fret in my Chambers, Oxford or Collins dictionary. Haar did get mentioned as being used on the Scottish east coast but is also used in Northumbria. South of the tyne, Sea Fret is used. Haar is of Dutch origin and its use on the Scottish coast is evidence perhaps of the huge influx of Dutch fishing vessels there in the last couple of centuries.
The fact that sea fret wasn’t in any of my dictionaries doesn’t make its use incorrect though; many local dialect words can’t be found either even though we use them regularly.
Our language and dialects are not fixed. The words and grammar we use and the ways we use them evolve and change. Ask a farmer now what ‘shocking’, ‘stiching’ and ‘thriving’ are and he is unlikely to know because mechanisation has removed the need for these terms. Words fall out of use in our own life span, it’s a long time since I heard anyone here say they were vexed or referring to someone being cack handed.
Just because we have a standardised English written down doesn’t mean that variations to it are wrong. Try telling an American that he is wrong when he calls the boot of a car, the trunk or an Australian he’s wrong when referring to opening a tinny, having a barbie, or being taken away in an ambo.
Similarily in Ireland a beach is known as a strand, a plank of wood is a stick, the dry stone walls and banks I built were ditches – because those are the right words to use in those countries. Likewise the regional English spoken anywhere in the UK is the correct English regardless of usage, accent and regional variations. Indeed if you are teaching foreign learners English there is absolutely no point in teaching anything other than ‘English-as-it-is-spoken’. New use of our grammar evolves all the time. Fifteen years ago you would not have heard people use the present continuous tense, as in , “I’m loving it”. We all used the present tense, as in, “I love it”. This usage is now in common and widespread use. It cannot be ‘wrong’.
The same words can have totally different meanings if spoken by a teenager or adult. We know what wicked means don’t we? But spoken by a teenager it spells out enjoyment, as in, “It was a wicked party” I don’t think they use the similar meaning word, ‘minted’ anymore either.
Even local dialect words can vary within quite short distances. In Hull the path between houses is called a ten foot, or eight foot in Grimsby. In industrial Yorkshire ginnel is used. In York they’d wonder what you were talking about unless you called it a snicket and you’d have to tell a Londoner it’s an alleyway.
Writing in the 1920s Fairfax-Blakeborough listed many local words that are now long forgotten and he recognised that English is ‘elastic’ as he called it and was different from the Yorkshire dialect of his youth. David Crystal the eminent linguist, explains that our current concern with ‘standard’ English is only the result of countless books and grammatical texts describing what is considered normal use at the time and cannot possibly cover all uses in all parts of the UK. Normal English isn’t decided by retired generals writing letters to the times, nor professors of linguistics, it’s us, the everyday speakers of the language and is thus correct for whatever part of the country you come from.
Should the loss of local terms, regional accents and so on be mourned in the same way as we might mourn when we loose a valued building or some species of wildlife?. I don’t know, maybe not, but I’m glad we don’t all speak the same way. The distinctive accent used locally, which is unique to just a small part of the north Yorkshire coast, goes someway towards our self-identity and sense of being, like all regional accents.
Travel, people from different regions relocating elsewhere, widespread standard usage of English through national press, magazines, books, radio and TV all help erode the use of local terms and sayings. So I was thoroughly delighted when I recently heard the BBC use ‘Sea Fret’ to describe sea fog, rather than the word in my dictionaries. Perhaps the BBC was bucking the trend by using a relatively local word in place of haar..
It certainly proved that the locals and fishermen of this coast know more about our language than the man from west Yorkshire. Perhaps the BBC will be using more vernacular English soon! But Haar Haar? I don’t think so!!