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Words In History: Kirk

...When each outlying farm and hamlet had a right of way to the parish church it was regularly called a ‘kirkegaite’ (1515), and access into the churchyard was via a ‘kyrke stele’ or stile (1542). It was traditionally a foot-way for ‘bride and corse’ (1583) but it had to be wide enough for people ‘to go and pass with corps and dead bodies’ (1742)...

Historian George Redmonds tells how the word "kirk'' gradually gave way to the word "church''.

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If language reflects a person’s social and regional background, and judgements about intelligence and job aptitude are made on the strength of that, it is hardly surprising that some people attempt to change the way they speak. Indeed many of us can remember being told to avoid using dialect words if we wanted ‘to get on’ - admonitions which had varying degrees of success but which certainly made us aware of ways in which our regional vocabulary differed from that of standard English. It also influenced us to think that there existed ‘correct’ forms of both the written and spoken language.

Some evidence can be found in early documents to demonstrate the influence that ‘standard’ English was having on the Yorkshire dialects even in the early sixteenth century, for in that period one regularly sees the regional word ‘translated’ by the scribe - ‘laith’, for example, giving way to ‘laith or barn’ and ‘stee’ to ‘stee or ladder’. One of the most interesting words in this respect is ‘kirk’ which, together with its numerous compounds, can be seen to be in a transitional stage from the late 1400s.

We know from place-names such as Kirkby that ‘kirk’ must have been in general use before 1066 and it remained in the vocabulary after the Conquest, as the creation of new parishes such as Kirkheaton proves. Indeed, from the evidence of wills it was clearly used in preference to ‘church’, well into the Tudor period. For example, many testators made cash bequests to the parish church, designed to go towards repairs or new building - described at Ousefleet as ‘kyrkewarke’ (1434) and at Bradford as ‘kirke works’ (1518). However, ‘chirch warkes’ is recorded as early as 1483.

In 1521 a Bradford man referred to his ‘stalle in the kirke’ and there is mention in a South Milford will of 1549 to ‘the parish kirk garth’ or church yard. Nevertheless, there is a reference to ‘the kyrk or church yerde’ in Austhorpe as early as 1517 and to ‘Rypplay church yerd’ in 1519. This was probably scribal preference and no doubt ‘kirk’ and ‘garth’ were still preferred in the vernacular, but it demonstrates the influences at work and may have helped to change some attitudes. Most place-names resisted the tendency, but in documents of 1579 we find both ‘Kyrkefenton’ and ‘Churchefenton’ and it was the latter which subsequently became the accepted form of the place-name.

The term ‘church warden’ also dates from that period in Yorkshire for, until then, those who held the office were known as either ‘kyrke graves’ (1541) or ‘kyrkmaisters’ (1530). These are both on record from the 1400s, but change was already taking place and we have both ‘kyrk wardons’ and ‘chyrchewardons’ in York in 1518-9. Even earlier was the hybrid ‘church maisters’ (1499), to be followed by ‘churche grevis’ (1539). And yet we know that the old words continued in daily use for centuries, for the Halifax historian Watson wrote in 1775 that ‘a Church-warden is also called here a Kirkmaister’.

When each outlying farm and hamlet had a right of way to the parish church it was regularly called a ‘kirkegaite’ (1515), and access into the churchyard was via a ‘kyrke stele’ or stile (1542). It was traditionally a foot-way for ‘bride and corse’ (1583) but it had to be wide enough for people ‘to go and pass with corps and dead bodies’ (1742). When this was made more explicit at Kirkheaton, in 1686, the footpath was described as ‘a sufficient churchway … for three men to goe in abrest’.

Ironically it is in Kirkheaton that the dialect word still has currency, if only as a place-name, for the Beaumont Arms, a public house that stands at the end of the former way into the churchyard, is still known locally as the ‘Kirksteel’.

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