Birmingham the melting pot

The second city has grown by migration and this continues. 40% of school children have another maternal language. We will consider the effect of contact languages on the lexicon today, morphology and phonology next time.  


The few Celts before the Romans have left sparse traces; perhaps only place names like Barr. Romans passed through the forest of the plateau via a fort at Metchley to their population centres at Stratford and Alcester.

There were small Mercian hamlets in 700 CE. The tiny communities who lived in the area in the Middle Ages left us some place names:  

Beorma’s Ham  the hamlet of Beorma. The Domesday book records Birmingham as a “hamlet near Walsall”.  

Bramwich Ham  broom farm hamlet;  same place

Weoley       shrine-field

Aston          eastern enclosure

Erdington  the enclosure of Eored’s people

Moseley      moss meadow

Yardley      spar meadow, i.e. source of wooden laths

William the conqueror gave land in return for military service, and the de Birmingham family dynasty was created as part of this process. In 1166 Lord of the Manor Peter de Bermingham obtained a charter to hold a market at his castle. Only a few hundred people – with French names – lived there in 1300. The notorious John Dudley in the early 16th century stripped the de Birmingham family of most of their lands.  

Warwickshire Dialect

Warwickshire had had Birmingham at its north-west corner, but also included Sutton Coldfield, Erdington, Solihull, Rugby and Stratford. That Carl Chinn can write a 200 page book is largely about the “obsolete vocabulary of Warwickshire”, as G F Northall wrote in 1896.

hame  one of hundreds of words for parts of a horse-drawn plough, nearly all of which are now obsolete.

heckeforde  a female cow before calving, a heifer

frummety  cake made on 21st December

godcake   baked on New year’s Day by godparents

‘eavin days  when persons of the opposite sex were lifted onto a table and had to pay a fine, for alcohol

lewbelling  public shaming of adulterers outside their house

daint    mont   maunt  wornt            wunt    dure-no  old negation with “-na”.

drownded, grow’d, catch’d  weak -ed form past tenses where southern was strong 

gin, druv, slep, med (pp of make); strong non-standard past tenses

cob      a bread roll, firm, by contrast with bap; looks like street cobbles

gawk    stare   

gaupshite (or gobshite) fool

jack-   various animals, e.g. swift (-squaler) and -sharpling stickleback

Borrowings into high English from Greek

The Midlands Enlightenment after 1750 and provided the innovative high language of England, where the Lunar Society met at full moons. Its members included the chemist Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Franklin who later pioneered electricity in America, and the canal engineer James Brindley. Borrowings from Ancient Greek for Medicine and science were part of the Enlightenment. English was highly standardised by this time.  The English of London and Birmingham were the same, except that /a/ rhymes with TRAP in Birmingham, but with PALM in London 

Greek is a huge source of loanwords in English, including most of those with a regular etymology! The morphemes were combined for medicine and science.  loanwords from Latin, which is not the first language of any modern community, make up 29% of our vocabulary. We are losing Latin morphology. e.g. is it OK to say “the data on this cacti is clear” These numbers are now being recalculated from a PIE base. About 4,000 IPE cognates are recognised in English.  Here are some prefix pairs

an-/a-   not, without     anemic, asymmetric, anarchy

ana-, an-          up, against       anacardiaceous, anode, analog

ante-    before  antenatal, antechamber, antedate

anti-     opposite, against         antagonist, antivenom

apo-, ap-          away from, detached  aphelion, apogee, apomorphine

peri-     around, near or adjacent         perihelion, periphrase

cis-       on this side of cislunar, cisgender

trans-   across, over     transatlantic, transverse, transform, transgender

di-                    two      dicotyledon, dioxide

dia-                  through            dialysis, diameter

dis-/di-/dif-      apart    differ, dissect, divide

du-/duo-          two      dual, duet

hetero- different          heterochromia, heterogeneous, heterotroph, heterozygous

homo-  same    homogeneous, homogenize, homologous, homophone, homozygous

hyper-  excess, above, over     hyperthermia

hypo-   deficient, under or below something, low      hypothermia

inter-    among, between          intervertebral, internet, international

intra-    inside, within  intravenous

Borrowings into low English from migrants

2.  Irish

This Celtic language represents one of the six branches of Proto Indo European, which has had some influence on Midlands English.  50% of migrants in the 1851 census were from Connacht in the Gaeltacht.  Count Germanic branch of PIE as One.

whisky  uisghe bar, “the water of life” is both Irish and Scots Gaelic

galore  ge leor

dobbin  horse

crerta  whiskyit may be Irish for creature

kibosh ‘to put the kibosh on’: to end, put a stop to; alternatively, it could be Yiddish;

mither: perplex, muffle, smother, encumber; variant of moider; has been claimed as both Welsh and Irish.

ceilidh  an impromptu party

fáilte   welcome;  tá fáilte romhat means “welcome to this house”

craic was borrowed into Irish as craic in the mid-20th century and borrowed back into English

            Beidh ceol, caint agus craic againn

char  ‘tea’

clock ‘hit’

corrie ‘valley’

phoney fáinne meaning “ring”

tory derives from the Middle Irish word tóraidhe; outlaw, robber or brigand, from the Irish word tóir, meaning “pursuit”, since outlaws were “pursued men”; upheld James II to succeed Charles II to three thrones

Workers on the canals often migrated from Ireland were called “navigators” and pubs called “The Navigation” marked the places where they worked.  Digbeth is the traditional Irish area. while in the 1950s Sparkbrook and Sparkhill become more Irish.  St Chad’s Cathedral is one of only two of the minor Catholic Basilicas in the UK. Most Brummies with Irish backgrounds were by contrast highly respectable citizens, including some prominent policemen.

5a. Romany – Sanskrit branch

Romany (or Romani) are travellers who originated from India about a thousand years ago, and speak a language derived from Sanskrit. En route they picked up vocabulary from Farsi, albanian, In England they stopped speaking Romani in the mid-19th century, but Anglo-Romani continues to include an evocative Roma vocabulary. It is used within the framework of Romany-English conversation, with Romany specific English grammar and pronunciation. The word gypsy comes from Egyptian, based on a misunderstanding.

There are enough Romany loanwords in English to make up whole sentences:

the mush was jalling down the drom with his gry

            Anglo-Romani for “The man was walking down the road with his horse”.

rom husband, or member of the Romani community

didicoy  traveller, but not a full-blooded Roma

pogadi chib Anglo-Romani

o čhavo – the son

cushy – easy, good, fine from kusht or kushti

dick – detective from dik meaning look, see and by extension watch

drag – to wear clothing carrying symbolic significance commonly associated with the opposite sex

jell – to go, from jall

lollipop – a type of candy, from “loli phabai”, meaning red apple

mush – a man, a bloke; i remember being called a mush at primary school and being puzzled

mullered – dead or killed.

nark – a police informer (from nāk, nose)

pal – a friend, from the Romani word phral, meaning “brother”

skip (waste-collecting container) – from Romani word skip meaning basket

togs – clothes

Food words

Food has been the context of most recent borrowings. Modern Italian has given many food words, borrowed without their etymology. Which pasta has the following meanings?

tongues, stripes, noodles, bucatini, barley, candles, radishes, butterflies, little strings, butterflies

linguine, rigatoni, tagliatelli, bucatini, orzo, canelloni, ravioli, farfalle, spagi

The Italic branch also included migrants speaking the extant languages Romanian and Portuguese. Some very common Indian food words show unexpected borrowings from Portuguese:

vindaloo   Portuguese vinho d’aljo ”wine and garlic”, “very hot”

balti   is a way of quick cooking in a thin steel wok, probably invented in Birmingham around 1971. However it is also borrowed from Portuguese, from balde “bucket” 

Romanians in the UK now number 411,000. Burnt Oak in London has the most visible Romanian community,

Romanian: lexical similarity to French 75% , but 11.5% from Slavic, 3.6%  Turkish, 2.2% Hungarian. We have hardly nay loanwords from Romanian.  After pastrami (smoked beef), the next most frequent are ban a noble title, mineriad revolt by miners, and palatschinke – a pancake, originally Latin placenta “cake” 

Modern Greek borrowings are mainly from the dialect of Greek Cypriots who came to the UK and worked in the food industry. However, many of these foods are in fact from the Turkish Ottoman empire, which ruled Greece until 1820. Their Byzantine Greek in not mutually intelligible.  There are estimated to be 335,000 Greek Cypriots in England.

meze        snack foods; the Persian word is widely used

feta          soft curd cheese; this is authentically Greek and not via Turkish, but is actually the Italian for “slice”

tzatziki     yogurt; the word is from Armenian via Turkish

loukoumi Turkish delight; though it is probably Arabic

halva        a dense sweet, either nut butter-based or flour-based; Arabic for “sweet”, but entered via Yiddish

kebab      meat on a skewer; Arabic, wrongly assumed to be Greek

sherbet    a fizzy sweet; a drink;  Persian verb “to drink”

Borrowings from Balto-Slavic languages are also rare.  Despite the presence of half a million Polish speakers in Britain, they have not asserted much cultural presence. 

gherkin  a small cucumber; via German

pirogi     semi-circular dumpling of unleavened dough with various fillings

bigos      a stew made with meat and cabbage

schmuck a clumsy or stupid person; via Yiddish

zloty        the currency from Polish złoto “gold”, Proto-Indo-European ghel

Afro Caribbean loanwords reflect music and its associated cannabis use, but also through religion.                                                                                 

ganja   cannabis

reggae   music

ska         music

Iyaric. Rastas have developed a deliberately new language from the Jamaican creole. Invented language such as Esperanto often have little long-term effect, but Rasta speech has persisted. They believe that the English language is a tool of Babylon (English colonialism). By formulating their own language they are launching an ideological attack on the integrity of the English language. “Rivers of Babylon”! 

dreadtalk developed among Jamaican practitioners in the 1940s. Rastas typically regard words as having an intrinsic power, with Rastafari language reflecting Rastas’ own experiences, as well as fostering a group identity and cultivating particular values. Rastas seek to avoid language that contributes to servility, self-degradation, and the objectification of the person.

Iyaric (I and I).  “I-ceive” in place of “receive”, “I-sire” in place of “desire”, “I-rate” in place of “create”, and “I-men” in place of “Amen”, “Isciousness” for consciousness.

Ras tafar was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. His name in Amharic is the title ras “prince” plus tafari, means “one who is respected or feared”.

Downpression is used in place of “oppression” because oppression bears down on people rather than lifting them up, with “up” being phonetically akin to the “opp-“. Rastas also typically believe that the phonetics of a word should be linked to its meaning.

Livicate replaced “dedicate” because “ded-” is phonetically akin to the word “dead”.

Creoles have no bound morphemes so speakers of a creole will tend to not use -ly, sing-s, me for I and mine

But probably not enough creole speakers to have effect outside their community

Birmingham industrial-era language

Birmingham grew with canals to move goods, and even more so with railways.  By 1700 Birmingham’s population had increased fifteenfold and was the fifth-largest in England and Wales.  The Birmingham canal navigations started to trade in 1772, and the Grand Junction Railway arrived at Curzon Street in 1839.

Birmingham was the world leader in engineering, but also the place where metal products were mass produced at competitive prices. The “workshop of the world” has now moved to Asia, so the same mixed feelings about price versus quality now attach to the phrase “made in China”.  Low language reflects our conflicting attitudes about price and quality:

  Brummagem screwdriver a hammer

  Counterfeit from French contre-fait, meaning silver plate

“Brummagem screwdriver” is purely derisory, implying bad quality workmanship, but “counterfeit” shows grudging appreciation. Many people could afford silver plate cutlery, but only a few rich people could afford solid silver. One expert counterfeiter was William Chaloner, a Birmingham metalworker and engraver with skilled hands and a busy brain. Isaac Newton, the great scientist, became warden of the Royal Mint, and eventually found enough evidence for the conviction and hanging of Chaloner, told in a gripping story by Levenson (2010).   

back of Rackhams  a euphemism for sex workers

pikelet  same as crumpet

bottler a popular and enjoyable song

cob  a crusty bread roll; which is hard and looks like street cobbles

gambol  a forward roll

go and play up your own end; said to intrusive children making a nuisance; also autobiography of radio presenter Malcolm Stent

the outdoor  exclusive West Midlands term for off-licence

pop another word for a carbonated drink; also a euphemism for alcoholic drink

scrage a scratched cut, where skin is sliced off, e.g. “I fell over and badly scraged my knee”

trap  to leave suddenly, or flee; from greyhound racing

git as in useless git, probably flashing on a steel mould

planishing  achieve a high polish

dolly the curved surface for a workpiece for metal-bashing; now a wheeled camera trolley

dreadnought a coarse file, probably after the enormous warship

harrage create a curved edge, chamfer; used in Longbridge car works

gunner            a one-eyed person; the other closed, as in sighting a rifle

the Rupert      the officer class

the Andrew   the Royal Navy

Peaky signature flat cap     vs cap with razor blades sown in

Blinders          strikingly attractive vs capable of damaging rivals’ eyes

Carl Chinn has examined the real history of “sloggers”, of whom the most notorious was Billy Kimber. Chinn gives rival interpretations of this phrase: stylish clothing or extreme violence: The TV series “Peaky Blinders” revived interest in the horse racing and gambling in Small Heath.  

Birmingham was the most prosperous city in England until as late as 1970. Then wealth declined as globalisation of the world economy meant that most metal working, as well as coal and iron extraction, was being carried out in Asia. The UK is now an 80% service economy, so industry has large disappeared from the North and South, though what remains is mostly in the East and West Midlands.