The Yorkshire Dialect in The Secret Garden

The Yorkshire Dialect in The Secret Garden

As published in the 2022 edition of the Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society.

by T.Q. Townsend

Many novels are set in Yorkshire and make use of the Yorkshire dialect with varying degrees of accuracy. Wuthering Heights is likely the best known, serving since 1847 as everyone’s favourite story about horrible people who end their lives in misery. Readers have been transported to gloomy crumbling mansions and breathtaking heather-covered moors as they followed the adventures of the pugnacious Nicholas Nickleby and the priggish Jane Eyre. There are many stories for adults set in Yorkshire, but the most prominent novel for children is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first serialized in 1910 and published as a novel in 1911.

In most British novels set in Yorkshire, writers made a safe assumption that readers would already be familiar with the geography and dialect of a county that has been such a significant centre of gravity for politics, culture, and religion for so long. But outside Britain, many readers might not know where Yorkshire is and may not even be able to distinguish the differences between northern and southern British accents, let alone understand the traits of the Yorkshire dialect.

Frances Hodgson Burnett made no such assumption in her own writing, a decision informed by her unusual biography. She was born in 1849 in Manchester and moved to Tennessee in the United States at age 16. She married the physician Swan Burnett and had two sons. After her writing made her one of the most rich, famous, and influential people in the English-speaking world, she would split the rest of her time evenly between the United States and England, with several tours of the Continent.

But she was not just familiar with the people of many different places. She also lived at every level of society, being born to an affluent middle-class family, then being suddenly plunged into poverty, spending her teen years as a hard-working, penniless immigrant, and then living the American dream to achieve the highest levels of fame and fortune. She was intimately familiar with the power of speech when it comes to social position and personal opportunity, and all three of her children’s novels – Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden – make heavy use of various dialects. But where most novelists of Burnett’s day would have used regional dialects to reinforce cruel stereotypes or associate speakers of non-standard English with criminality or stupidity, Burnett’s writing always shows deep respect for regional dialects and those who use them. The Secret Garden treats Yorkshire speech with a reverence far beyond any of her other uses of dialect in her fiction. And because Burnett knew that not all readers would be familiar with the Yorkshire dialect, she was very careful to explain its traits, using the character of Mary Lennox to ask questions the reader might have.

The Yorkshire Dialect is nearly a character in its own right in The Secret Garden. Its traits are explicitly discussed by the characters in the novels, and the main character, Mary Lennox, makes a deliberate and respectful effort to learn to speak it. Mary begins the novel as a neglected, bratty ten-year-old who was born in India to a wealthy couple serving in the colonial government who never wanted to be parents. When she is orphaned, she is shipped off to live with her uncle in Yorkshire. Mr. Archibald Craven, Mary’s uncle, is miserable and tormented, fitting nicely in the pattern of characters like Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester. Likewise, his home, Misselthwaite manor, is appropriately remote, mysterious, and gloomy in the vein of Wuthering Heights and Thornfield Hall. But unlike previous novels about Yorkshire, neither the Byronic Hero nor the spooky mansion are destined for destruction. Instead, Mary is redeemed through her work to reawaken a neglected garden, nourished by learning to care for plants and the love and care of working-class Yorkshire speakers who take an interest in her. In turn, Mary is able to inspire her moping uncle and sickly cousin to heal themselves, turning away from isolation and misery to become a happy, healthy, family unit.

The central message of The Secret Garden is that it is impossible to be healthy and happy without being rooted – metaphorically and literally – in a place. The rich, posh, Received Pronunciation-speaking characters are miserable, isolated, and unhealthy. The poor, working-class, Yorkshire speakers are happy, connected, and vigorous. Speakers of standard English belong, geographically speaking, nowhere. Speakers of a local dialect such as Yorkshire reveal a deep connection to a particular location. While a dialect is not what determines one’s character or health, it’s still important that Burnett used her writing to defend regional dialects as valuable expressions of identity at a time when speakers of non-standard English were often treated as unintelligent and unworthy of respect amongst those in power.

The Secret Garden isn’t set within a particular location in Yorkshire. In fact, much of the story was inspired by Burnett’s experiences with reviving a garden attached to her house in Kent. But the author did make trips to Yorkshire, and like so many other visitors, she was amazed by the sweeping beauty of the moors. The Secret Garden should be thought of as set in Yorkshire in the same way that many Western films are set in The Old West; it’s more of a mythic feel than a specific geographical setting. This was probably a better choice for an author who only ever visited the county as a tourist. Without deep knowledge of a specific location, Burnett would have had more experience writing about the county and its dialect in a more general way.

As a native of Manchester, Burnett wasn’t a native Yorkshire speaker but she seems to have largely gotten things right, as in over a century no scholars have taken issue with her presentation of the Yorkshire dialect. In fact, scholarly writings about The Secret Garden take it for granted that Burnett’s representation is accurate. But . . . is it?

Burnett, like every other author when writing in a non-standard dialect, had to make choices about how to represent the sounds of spoken language in written form. If she went too far into dialect, her novel might be difficult to read for the largely young and international audience it was intended for. But with no modifications at all to standard spelling and punctuation, there would be no way to distinguish Yorkshire speakers from the characters in The Secret Garden who speak standard and upper-class dialects. Burnett wisely split the difference, modifying in her writing the speech of characters native to Yorkshire enough to make their language distinct, but showing enough restraint so that children reading the book would not struggle to understand the text. Children, after all, will still be learning to read and write standard English. It would be unfair to expect them to be able to infer the sound and meaning of passages heavily written in dialect when they have yet to master more familiar forms of language.

Burnett had obvious respect and admiration for the Yorkshire dialect. The most interesting and well-developed characters in the book are working class, Yorkshire-speaking people who have a healthy work ethic, respect for themselves and others, and an admirable intolerance for nonsense. The head gardener Ben Weatherstaff is prickly yet still lovable. Burnett writes of him, “It is a Yorkshire habit to say what you think with blunt frankness, and old Ben Weatherstaff was a Yorkshire moor man.” Ben Weatherstaff lives up to this description, speaking in a kindly yet straightforward way to Mary, who is his social superior yet also a child who obviously needs his guidance.

The most virtuous and happy characters in her novel are the members of the Sowerby family. These three characters speak with heavy Yorkshire dialects, and only Martha, who is employed at the great house, is able to code switch into a slightly more standard form of English when she really makes an effort. Burnett very explicitly connects their more ancient, regional way of speaking to their healthier ways of thinking and living with great appreciation for nature and being outdoors. When Mary becomes curious about the moors, Martha slips into full dialect and speaks quite poetically about her native landscape:

“I told thee tha’d like th’ moor after a bit. Just you wait till you see th’ gold-colored gorse blossoms an’ th’ blossoms o’ th’ broom, an’ th’ heather flowerin’, all purple bells, an’ hundreds o’ butterflies flutterin’ an’ bees hummin’ an’ skylarks soarin’ up an’ singin’. You’ll want to get out on it at sunrise an’ live out on it all day like Dickon does.”

Martha introduces Mary to her younger brother Dickon, who at only twelve years of age is an experienced gardener and is happy to advise the newcomer on how to bring the neglected flowerbeds at Misselthwaite Manor to life. He teaches Mary her first Yorkshire word – wick – when she asks him to tell her in early spring if the bare rosebushes are still alive. Dickon becomes not only Mary’s gardening instructor, but also her Yorkshire teacher. The first time Mary attempts to use the Yorkshire dialect, it is to demonstrate her emotional vulnerability as, for the first time in her life, she tries to ask for friendship.

“Does tha’ like me?” Mary asks, shifting from her stiff, upper-class speech into the rooted language of Yorkshire. Dickon welcomes her as a Yorkshire speaker instantly, responding in his own broad speech, “That I does. I likes thee wonderful.”

Mrs. Susan Sowerby could be described as the ancient Greek goddes Ceres in Victorian form. A mother of twelve, she is credited with nourishing all she meets with kindness, moral guidance, and good old fashioned home cooking. She uses the Yorkshire dialect to express thoughts that are sensible, unpretentious, and wise – a combination that would have been quite unusual in 1911. After she advises Mr. Craven on how to help the sour-faced, sickly Mary, the aristocrat says of her, “She thought [Mary] needed fresh air and freedom and running about . . . She is a respectable woman.” After some reflection and seeing the wisdom of the Yorkshire housewife’s advice, Mr. Craven commands that, “Mrs. Sowerby is to come and see her now and then and she may sometimes go to the cottage.”

The Yorkshire-speaking Sowerby clan is treated with immense respect by their author. In fact, the only complaint one can make about Dickon, Martha, and Susan Sowerby is that they are too perfect. Twelve-year-old Dickon is a model Noble Savage. Martha is cheerful and grateful for her job as a housemaid and all too happy to contribute her wages to the family budget. Susan Sowerby is the kind, wise, and gentle mother that would leave even the most talented writer of Mother’s Day cards speechless.

However, Burnett’s representation of the Sowerbys could never be considered patronising because the characters are so fully fleshed out and interesting in their own right. These are no stock characters of virtuous country bumpkins, but very real people with distinct personalities and interests. They are very good people, but they are the sort of people that might be known in real life. Mary Lennox is forever changed through her friendships with members of the Sowerby family, and readers of The Secret Garden benefit vicariously.

The most audacious aspect of The Secret Garden is how Mary Lennox – a very posh, very wealthy child born abroad to a cosmopolitan, high-status family serving the empire – comes to admire the Yorkshire dialect. At a time when the trend was to look abroad for adventure, Mary turned back to discover a tiny part of her own nation that many would have considered unglamourous and unimportant. Mary treats the Yorkshire dialect with the same respect as any other language, an act which would have not met with approval in the snobbish high society of Edwardian England. She is at first intrigued by Dickon’s way of speaking because it comes across to her as natural and wholesome. Mary reflects:

“She wished she could talk as he did. His speech was so quick and easy. It sounded as if he liked her and was not the least afraid she would not like him, though he was only a common moor boy, in patched clothes and with a funny face and a rough, rusty-red head.”

At the beginning of The Secret Garden, Mary is snobbish, seeing those of lower social rank and their manner of speaking as beneath her. She has haughty opinions of the Indian people who served her. When Martha refuses to accept verbal abuse from the bratty new resident of Misselthwaite as part of her job, Mary is indignant, calling her a “daughter of a pig.” Martha calmly rebuffs the insult, saying:

“Who are you callin’ names? . . . You needn’t be so vexed. That’s not th’ way for a young lady to talk.”

Ironically, a working class, Yorkshire-speaking girl who has likely never been more than five miles from home instructs a wealthy, upper-class globetrotter on “th’ way for a young lady to talk.” Gradually Mary begins to show interest in Yorkshire speech, learning phrases like “nowt o’ th’ sort” and words like “wutherin’.”

Mary treats Yorkshire speech with the same legitimacy as higher profile languages such as French and German, subversively making the case that local dialects are no less worthy of scholarly consideration than any other way of speaking. “I’m learning it as if it was French,” she informs an upper-class adult who questions her about her Yorkshire speech. “It’s like a native dialect in India. Very clever people try to learn them.” When Martha uses an unfamiliar phrase, Mary asks questions with the respect and eagerness of a star pupil. “What does that mean? I don’t understand your language,” she asks Martha early on, showing that she sees Yorkshire speech as a legitimate form of communication. If she did not, she might have said something like “speak properly.”

In a similar exchange later on, Mary is able to connect her childhood experiences with the numerous dialects of India to the new sounds she hears in Yorkshire:

“What does that mean?” asked Mary seriously. In India the natives spoke different dialects which only a few people understood, so she was not surprised when Martha used words she did not know.

Eventually Mary works up the courage to try speaking in the Yorkshire dialect herself in a quiet moment alone in the garden with Dickon. Having spent her entire life being emotionally neglected, this is a big step for her and she is unable to express herself in the stilted, cold language of the upper class. Instead, she reaches for the more natural, authentic language of the Yorkshire speakers who have helped her learn to care for herself and others:

“She leaned forward and asked him a question she had never dreamed of asking anyone before. And she tried to ask it in Yorkshire because that was his language, and in India a native was always pleased if you knew his speech.”

This is an impressive act for a ten year old. When a foreigner puts in sincere effort to learn to communicate in a new language with fluency, only an unkind or xenophobic native speaker could respond with anything other than friendly appreciation. Not very many children would have the awareness to realise this, and she is able to make a very personal connection by asking Dickon, in his own language, “Does tha’ like me?”

In terms of the actual language used in The Secret Garden, words distinctive to Yorkshire are used sparingly and only when they will be of greatest effect. This was a wise choice by Burnett, who would have known that most of her readers would not have been British and might struggle if she used too much regional vocabulary. Most of what gives her text the flavour of Yorkshire speech comes from contractions to words like “them,” “of,” “the,” or “and.” The suffix “-ing” is also shortened, as in the following passage, when Dickon delivers packets of seeds which Mary has ordered from nearby Thwaite village:

“There’s a lot o’ mignonette an’ poppies,” he said. “Mignonette’s th’ sweetest smellin’ thing as grows, an’ it’ll grow wherever you cast it, same as poppies will. Them as’ll come up an’ bloom if you just whistle to ’em, them’s th’ nicest of all.” 

The following is a list of Yorkshire terms used in The Secret Garden, along with their definitions in standard speech. This book is more than a century old, and the author was about sixty when she wrote this novel, so the words should be considered as reflecting speech that would have been heard in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.

aye – yes
a body – someone
cheeky beggar – someone who is slightly rude or cocky but still endearing
daffydowndillys – daffodils
Eh – an expression of surprise or pleasure
heather-bells – the flowers of a variety of heather that grows in Yorkshire
lass – a young girl
marred – spoiled, grumpy
Mester – a way to write “Master” in dialect
mun – must
munnot – must not
nowt – nothing
taters – potatoes
th’ – the
tha’ – a form of “thou”, the second person singular subject pronoun
thee – the second person singular object pronoun
thysen – yourself
vexed – irritated, overly emotional
victuals – nourishing food
well enow – well enough
wench – a young girl
wutherin’ – the sound of strong winds
yeller – yellow as written in dialect

Burnett, like all authors, had to make choices about how to represent certain sounds in dialect. The word which may cause the most confusion to readers unfamiliar with Yorkshire speech is “th’”, which is an abbreviation for “the.” In all but a few areas of Yorkshire, the article “the” is shortened to just the sound of the letter T, with a slight puff of air behind it. This is a very recognisable trait of many northern dialects, although in other places, such as Burnett’s native Lancashire, the word is spoken as “th’,” as in the final sound of the word “tooth.”

There are two ways that readers might interpret this representation. First, it is possible that Burnett has imagined that the part of Yorkshire in which the fictional town of Thwaite and the nearby Misselthwaite Manor is in the far west of the county, where the dialect shares traits with Lancashire speech. Or it is possible that Burnett meant for the word “the” to be pronounced as it is more usually in Yorkshire  – with just the sound of the letter T – and that the letter H is kept in the spelling to suggest the slight puff of air that follows. This is a minor detail and there is no reason for scholars to argue over it, but at the same time it does present the possibility that a pronunciation guide may be useful to readers of The Secret Garden who are unfamiliar with the Yorkshire Dialect and would appreciate guidance on how to interpret passages written in dialect when reading the story aloud.

Frances Hodgson Burnett showed remarkable respect for regional dialects in all three of her children’s novels, arguing through her writing that good character is not automatically bound to standard ways of speaking English. The rough-spoken Yankee shopkeeper Mr. Hobbs is one of the most morally upright characters in Little Lord Fauntleroy, and a starving homeless child with a Cockney accent in A Little Princess becomes a highly valued, presentable young apprentice at a bakery. All she needed was to be removed from the gutter and treated like a human being.

Frances Hodgson Burnett showed remarkable respect for many dialects that were considered unworthy by scholars of her day, and her greatest admiration was lavished on the Yorkshire Dialect in The Secret Garden. More than a century after its publication, reading this novel remains a common way that children from outside of Britain will first hear of Yorkshire and the speech distinctive to its people. Burnett’s words and characters speak not only for the legitimacy of the Yorkshire dialect, but for regional forms of speech everywhere.

Citing this article:

APA: Townsend, T.Q. (2022). “The Yorkshire Dialect in The Secret Garden.” Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society 2022, 15-25.

MLA: Townsend, T.Q. “The Yorkshire Dialect in The Secret Garden.” Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society, 2022, pp. 15-25.

Chicago: T.Q. Townsend, “The Yorkshire Dialect in The Secret Garden,” Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society (2022): 15-25.