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I recently had a non-native English speaker ask me for help understanding this passage from Wuthering Heights:

'Have you found Heathcliff, you ass?' interrupted Catherine. 'Have you been looking for him, as I ordered?'

'I sud more likker look for th' horse,' he replied. 'It 'ud be to more sense. Bud I can look for norther horse nur man of a neeght loike this—as black as t' chimbley! und Heathcliff's noan t' chap to coom at my whistle—happen he'll be less hard o' hearing wi' ye!'

Most of this I can more or less understand, but the part before "he replied" is opaque even to me (a native English speaker who's spent significant time in Yorkshire). My educated-guess rendition of his speech is:

I should more likely look for the horse. It would make more sense. But I can look for neither horse nor man on a night like this - as black as the chimney! And Heathcliff's not the man to come at my whistle - probably he'll be less hard of hearing with you!

Does "sud more likker" mean "should more likely"? I found this page which renders it as "would much rather". I haven't read Wuthering Heights (too miserable for me), but this appears to be a rural working-class West Yorkshire accent, if that helps anyone in understanding it. How should one parse "sud more likker", in this context?

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  • Not an answer as I have no concrete references to point to here. However, I would treat this as an attempt at phonetically rendering a (spoken) dialect. With this in mind, I interpret 'sud more likker' as 'should more like to', where the 'to' has become an 'uh' sound. I think this is a familiar pattern of the dialect even today. This interpretation would fit well with the rendition as 'much rather'.
    – avid
    Jan 12, 2023 at 16:18

2 Answers 2

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“Sud” is an old form of “should”:

shall, v. Forms. 2. Past tense. a.β. Middle English solde, Middle English sollde, Middle English soolde, Middle English sulde; Scottish and northern Middle English sald, Middle English salde, Middle English sold, Middle English suuld, Middle English–1700s sould, Middle English–1800s soulde, Middle English–1800s sulde, Middle English– suld, 1500s sowld, 1700s soud, 1700s sud.

Oxford English Dictionary.

“Likker” is an old form of the comparative of “like”:

like, adj. adv. Forms. Comparative. β. Middle English licker, Middle English lickor, Middle English likker, Middle English likkere, Middle English likkir, Middle English lyckore, Middle English lykar, Middle English lykker, Middle English–1600s lyker, 1500s– liker; Scottish pre-1700 lykar, pre-1700 lykare, pre-1700 lyker, pre-1700 1700s– liker, 1800s likker, 1900s– leker.

Oxford English Dictionary.

Note that “more likker” is thus a double comparative: this grammatical device is now non-standard, but it was formerly commonplace, for example Shakespeare uses “more fairer”, “more worthier”, “more hotter”, “more sharper”, “more harder” and so on. In context in Wuthering Heights “more likker” is a comparative adverb (it modifies the verb “look”) so the modern equivalent would be “more likelier”. Double comparative adverbs are rare, but Shakespeare uses “more proudlier” in Coriolanus IV.7. Since “likker” is an adverb we have a limited choice of senses: of those in the OED, the only plausible one in context is B.5. “likely, probably”.

So “I sud more likker” means “I should more likelier” as you guessed. The Reader’s Guide to Wuthering Heights that you linked to gives “I would much rather” which is not as precise, but conveys a similar meaning in a way that’s idiomatic in modern English, corresponding to the author’s stated goal of translating “into modern speech”. (But having written that, I’m not keen on “I would much rather” as it is too polite! Joseph’s speech is generally blunt and often rude.)

Update Some skepticism was expressed in a comment, so here are a couple more examples of “likker” meaning “likelier” (not “like to”) in northern English dialect in 19th century texts:

“Ho’ll be likker to leeten yo abeawt this job nor me.”

Edwin Waugh (1869). Lancashire Sketches, p. 92. Manchester: Alexander Ireland & Co.

“More likker a weddin’, bi th’ look on him; for he's donned like a mountebank's foo."

Edwin Waugh (1879). The Chimney Corner, p. 126. Manchester: Abel Heywood & Son.

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    Unless I'm mistaken, I believe "more" in early modern English double comparatives actually functioned more like "by much." At any rate, they were not only common, but had the approval of Ben Jonson of all people. It only became proscribed in the 19th century when the grammarians thought English should sound a bit more like Latin.
    – cmw
    Jan 12, 2023 at 1:12
  • (Yet even in Latin you can have multo + a comparative!)
    – cmw
    Jan 12, 2023 at 1:13
  • @cmw Why do you think double comparatives expressed a stronger degree of comparison than comparatives without the "more"?
    – minseong
    Jan 12, 2023 at 2:29
  • @theonlygusti I'm not an expert in this area, but I believe it has to do with the fact that there's an intensifier at all when there are alternative options. Whether that was felt in Shakespeare's time, I have no idea.
    – cmw
    Jan 12, 2023 at 3:58
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    @cmw I've read that at least in the case of double superlatives, it was simply seen as the only grammatically correct option. Demonstrating high education and good mastery of English. Maybe it's the same for double comparatives, "more healthier" might not be even healthier than "healthier", it might just have been seen as the only grammatically correct way to express the comparative degree.
    – minseong
    Jan 12, 2023 at 13:21
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'I sud more likker look for th' horse,' he replied. 'It 'ud be to more sense. Bud I can look for norther horse nur man of a neeght loike this—as black as t' chimbley! und Heathcliff's noan t' chap to coom at my whistle—happen he'll be less hard o' hearing wi' ye!'

The Oxford English Dictionary resolves "likker" to "like", with an archaic comparative "liker". Meanings include "likely" (sense 10), but perhaps nearer this quotation is sense 12, "English regional (northern and north midlands). Constrained or obliged to do something." This seems especially apropos since he is justifying not following Catherine's orders. The double comparative ("more likker") argues against this interpretation but that also might be appropriate to the dialect in question. I'd transliterate the passage into standard spelling this way:

'I should more liker look for the horse,' he replied. 'It would be to more sense. But I can look for neither horse nor man of a night like this—as black as the chimney! and Heathcliff's none the chap to come at my whistle—happen he'll be less hard of hearing with ye!'

and translate it into modern English as follows:

'I'd be more obliged to look for the horse,' he replied. 'It would make more sense. But I can look for neither horse nor man on a night like this—as black as the inside of a chimney! and Heathcliff's not the sort of man to come at my whistle—perhaps he'd be less hard of hearing with you!'

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