Archive for June 2015

The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.


The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.


There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.


East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:


Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   


The Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   Leave a comment


Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340


Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375


The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.



On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches


The Development of Middle English   Leave a comment


Above: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough) for 1137, written c. 1154.

The Transition from Old English to Middle English:

Before the first printing press was set up by William Caxton in 1476, many copies of books were lost. The more popular books, re-written many times, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, have survived, although Chaucer’s original manuscripts have been lost. Other works are known through a single surviving copy.

The writings of most early modern authors, from Shakespeare onwards, were prepared for printing in modern editions by editors who almost always converted the original spelling and punctuation into modern standard forms. For example, an early edition of Henry IV Part I printed in 1598 contains the following words spoken by Falstaff:

If I be not ashamed of my soldiours, I am a souct gurnet, I have misused the kinges presse damnablie. No eye hath scene such skarcrowes. Ile not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat.

It contains several unfamiliar features of spelling and punctuation, some of which, like souct gurnet, obscure meaning for the modern reader. It probably means ‘soused’ which has two meanings in modern English, both ‘soaked’ and ‘preserved’ in salted water or ‘pickled’ in vinegar, as in ‘soused herrings’. When we work out that gurnet may mean ‘gherkin’, we begin to make some sense of the phrase. The policy of modernising the spelling and punctuation of old texts which began with the eighteenth century dictionaries has obscured the regional spellings which still existed from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century and the gradual development of a recognisably standard form of spelling in English. Shakespeare, for example, was from Stratford, literally at the crossroads of these dialects, which also explains, in part, his lexical variety. However, few of his plays were printed and published during his lifetime, since they were first written to be performed rather than read. So while the original spellings of Chaucer’s ME manuscripts of 1390s survive into printed text, those of Shakespeare’s manuscripts in the Early Modern English of the 1590s do not. All printed versions of old texts compromise in reproducing the originals, but original handwritten scripts and facsimiles are often difficult to decipher.

The most important change in manuscripts from OE to ME, for example in The Peterborough Chronicle, is found in the absence of many of the inflections of OE, mainly by their reduction in sound. This led to a greater reliance on word order and the more frequent use of prepositions to show the meanings that might formerly have been conveyed by suffixes. The word-for-word translation of the entry for 1137, written in 1154, reveals this transitional phase:

I ne can ne I ne can tell all the

horrors ne all the pains that they caused wretched-men in this land… that lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king… ever it were worse and worse…

…then was the corn dear… flesh and cheese and butter… for none ne was in the land…

Wretched-men died of hunger…

…where so one tilled… the earth ne born no corn… for the land was all ruined… with such deeds… they said openly that christ slept and his saints…

Such and more than we can say… we suffered nineteen winters for our sins.

Another noticeable change was the inclusion of a small number of words, significant in their frequency, which were adopted from ‘Anglo-Norman’, the form of Old Northern French spoken by the Normans in England. Most typical are words like castel and prison, but other words which seem to have been adopted into English by the late twelfth century include:

Abbat, capelain, cancelere, cardinal, clerc, cuntesse, curt, duc, iustice, legat, market, prior, rent, serfise, tresor.

(abbot, chaplain, chancellor,… clerk, countess, court, duke, justice, legate,… service, treasure.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these words were either part of the lexis of administration and law, conducted mainly in Norman French, or that of the Church, conducted in a mixture of Latin and French. Another important source for the shift in the language after 1150 is the book called Ormulum, written by an Anglo-Danish monk named Orm. At the beginning of his book, he explains why he wrote it:

This book is called Ormulum… Because Orm it wrought… (= made)

I have turned into English… (The) gospel’s holy lore… After that little wit that me… My Lord has lent…

(Word-for-word translation)

Orm goes on to tell future readers, and to warn future scribes, that he had attempted to write correctly every letter and word in English. Not surprisingly therefore, his spelling is consistent and represents a conscious attempt to reform the system of recording sounds, relating each sound to a symbol. For example, he introduced three symbols for ‘g’ to differentiate the three sounds that it had come to represent, and substitutes ‘wh’ for ‘hw’ in OE, providing forerunners of ‘who’, ‘whose’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘when’ in Modern English, and ‘sh’ for ‘sc’ in OE, providing ‘shall’ for ‘sceal’ and ‘Englissh’ for ‘Englisc’. In word-for-word translation, here is an extract from Orm’s rendering of Luke’s nativity verses concerning the appearance of the angel to the shepherds:

An angel came from heaven’s land… in a man’s form…

To shepherds there where they that night… watched their folds.

The angel came and stood them by… with heaven’s light and brightness…

And immediately as they saw him… they became very afraid.

And God’s angel them began… to comfort and to encourage…

And said to them thus on God’s behalf… with very mild speech…

Ne be ye not afraid of me… but be ye very blithe …

For to-you is born now today… saviour of our sins…

A child that is Jesus Christ… that know ye for truth …

Ye shall find a child… in swaddling-clothes wound…

And it is in a crib laid… and there ye it may find.


And soon at once they went forth… to Bethlehem’s city…

And found Saint Mary there… and Joseph her husband…

And also they found there the child… where it was laid in crib …

And soon at once they made-known forth… among Jewish nation…

All that they had heard of Christ… and saw well with eyes.


And our lady Mary took… all that she saw and heard …

And laid it all together always… in very thoughtful heart…

All that she saw and heard of Christ… whose mother she was become.


Above:  The original text of  The Shepherds at the Manger, Ormulum, late twelfth century

Orm’s twenty thousand or so lines of verse are important evidence for some of the changes in the language that had taken effect by the end of the twelfth century in his part of the country. He lived in northern Lincolnshire, now South Humberside, so he wrote in the East Mercian dialect, like the authors of the Peterborough Chronicle continuations. His main objective was to teach the Christian faith in English, and the verses were to be read aloud. His system of spelling was therefore designed to help the reader to pronounce the texts properly. What is especially noticeable is the number of letters he wrote as double consonants. His lines, however, are not great literature, since according to his purpose, they are absolutely regular in metre and therefore monotonous. He is therefore often overlooked even in the limited canon of ME literature, though his writing is very valuable to students of the language.

All present-day dialects of English, including the regional accents in which Standard English may be spoken, can be traced back to the dialects of the ME period (c. 1150-1450) in their pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. There was no standard form of the language then, and the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation varied from one part of the country to another, even within distances of twenty miles. Differences in spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar in manuscripts are first-hand evidence of varied usages and forms of pronunciation, and of the changes which took effect over the period. When this evidence is examined systematically, knowledge of the probable dialectal region in which a text was written can be deduced.


Geoffrey Chaucer, writing in the 1390s in the southern Mercian, or London dialect, used the new form of subject pronoun, which by his time had been ‘borrowed’ by the Northern dialect of ME from ON and had spread southwards, but did not become completely assimilated into the Southern dialect until the beginning of the fifteenth century:

And thus they being accorded and ysworn

However, he used the older forms for the object and possessive, as in:

And many a lovely look on hem he caste

Men sholde wedden after hir estaat

The vocabulary of the northern text, Cursor Mundi contains a number of words derived from OE. It was written in the North of England in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. It consists of thirty thousand lines of verse, retelling Christian legends and Bible stories. The following couplet is one indicator of its Northern origins. In the ME original, wrong (in the southern Mercian dialect used later by Chaucer), is ‘wrang’, loth is ‘lath’ and ‘angry’ is ‘wrath’, all three retaining the long /a:/ vowel:

Wrong-doing is loth to hear of justice

And pride is angry with humility

An example of the East Midlands dialect in ME from the thirteenth century worth examining is the only surviving manuscript of the medieval Bestiary, which was based on the belief the animal and plant world was symbolic of religious truths – the creatures of this sensible world signify the invisible things of God. Later scientific knowledge revealed that some of these things were not true of the real animals described, while other animals, like the unicorn, phoenix and basilisk are purely imaginary, the stuff of myths, legends and Harry Potter books! Here is the description of the eagle’s flight in modern word-for-word translation:

Show I wish the eagle’s nature…

How he renews his youth

How he comes out of old age

When his limbs are weak

When his beak is completely twisted

When his flight is all weak

And his eyes dim…


A spring he seeks that flows always

Both by night and by day

Thereover he flies and up he goes

Till that he the heaven sees

Through clouds six and seven

Till he comes to heaven.

As directly as he can

He hovers in the sun.


The sun scorches all his wings

And also it makes his eyes bright.

His feathers fall because of the heat

And he down then to the water …

Falls in the well bottom

Where he becomes hale and sound

And comes out all new …

The variety of ME can be seen in that there were many possible spellings for the same word, according to the period and the dialectal area in which a particular manuscript was copied. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary has the following twenty-seven spellings for ‘shield’ from Old English to Modern English:

scild, scyld, sceld, seld, sseld, sheld, cheld, scheld, sceild, scheeld, cheeld, schuld, scelde, schulde, schylde, shilde, schelde, sheeld, schield, childe, scheild, shild, shylde, sheelde, schielde, sheild, shield.



The Impact of ‘Old Norse’ and Norman French on English.   Leave a comment

One of the important results of Danish and Norwegian settlements was its effect on the English language, though archaeological evidence suggests that, apart from the obvious variations in place-names, this may have been exaggerated, especially given the relatively short periods of Danish hegemony, even in northern England. There are a large number of proper names, including place-names, of Scandinavian origin in both OE and Middle English (ME) documents. Also, English and Norse speakers lived in communities which were close enough for exchanges in transactional language to take place, and sometimes they lived in the same settlements, albeit, as in York or ‘Jorvik’, in distinct districts.


Above: A tenth-century Anglian helmet found in Jorvik (York) during the Coppergate excavations.

In these trading centres, inter-marriage took place, as in Ireland, but the distinctive patterns of English and Viking villages suggest that rural farming and family life was not widely integrated. In time, some of these communities merged, but English dialects emerged as the dominant forms of everyday speech, with some modifications in pronunciation, vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, in grammar. The earliest written evidence, however, does not appear until the Middle English period, as most written forms of late OE are in the Wessex dialect, which had become the standard form under the ruling House in England from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of Norse are still present in the modern-day dialects of East Anglia, the Midlands, northern England and lowland Scotland, the latter in the Scots dialect based on Northumbrian English.

Unlike the English, the Danes and Norwegians did not develop a system of writing other than in runes, so no contemporary evidence of the Norse spoken in the Danelaw is available. Norse must have been spoken throughout the territory, and would have continued in large Viking settlements like York throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries, but in most areas it must have become assimilated into English. Some physical evidence of this can be seen in a small church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, St Gregory’s Minster. In the porch, a sundial dating from about 1055 has been preserved, with the following inscription carved in stone (given here in translation):



Tostig was Earl of Northumberland and brother of Harold Godwison, who became King Harold in 1066, on the death of Edward the Confessor. Orm and Gamal were Norse names, but the languages of the inscription are Old English and Latin. ‘Orm Gamalsuna’ (in the original) meant Orm, son of Gamal, and this way of creating personal names by adding a ‘patronymic suffix’ (a name derived from the father) was a Scandinavian custom, just as the Welsh custom was to add the prefix ‘ap’. This custom must have been adopted throughout the Danelaw, if not other parts of England, hence its prevalence in modern surnames such as Davidson, Jackson, Johnson, etc. The fact that even the Saxon Earl Godwin’s sons were christened in this way is testimony to its widespread use in England, probably from the time of the Danish King Cnut, possibly a means by which they could demonstrate their loyalty to the foreign ruler, who was, by the end of his reign, keen to represent himself as a naturalised King of the English as well as the Danes.


West Saxon, Latin and Old English:

The Saxon suffix was –ing, shown in the naming of the young Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, as the Aetheling, the rightful heir of King Aethelred and the Kings of Wessex, and therefore a rival to the throne of both Harold and William I. Henry I’s unfortunate son was also known as ‘Edward Aetheling’. The names with the ‘ing’ suffix were also incorporated into place names such as Walsingham, Billingham, Birmingham, Kidlington, but the ‘ing’ was also used in a more general way as well, so that it must not always be taken to mean son of the family of… The suffixes that indicate place-names in OE included –hyrst (copse, wood), -ham (dwelling, fold), -wic(k)(village), -tun (settlement) and –stede (place), as in Wadhurst, Newnham, Norwich, Ipswich, Heslington and Maplestead. The detailed study of these place-names provides much of the historical evidence for the serttlement of Danes and Norwegians in England.

Some words of Latin origin in OE had already been adopted by the West Germanic languages brought over by the Angles and Saxons. The Germanic peoples had long been in contact with the Romans. However, since there are no written records from this period, the evidence for the early adoption of Latin words lies in the analysis of known sound changes. Although Latin words were spoken in Britain during the fifth century by educated Britons, and transferred into Brythonic and Old Welsh, hardly any words were passed on to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. One exception were the –caster/-chester suffixes in names like Doncaster, Cirencester and Manchester meaning camp, and the –car prefixes in name like Carshalton and Carstairs, meaning fort. Other Latin words were adopted into OE in later periods in the Anglo-Saxon settlements, mainly through the conversion of the kingdoms to Christianity and the gradual establishment of the Roman Catholic Church from the seventh century onwards. The only available version of the Bible was in Latin, the Vulgate, and church services, learning and scholarship all took place solely through the same medium.


In Old English, the order of words in a clause was more variable than that of Modern English, and there were many more inflections (prefixes and suffixes) on nouns, adjectives and verbs. So, one of the main differences between OE and MnE is that the latter has lost many of inflections of OE. We can observe the beginnings of this loss of suffixation from the evidence of the surviving manuscripts, in which spelling irregularities become frequent. Therefore, although in late OE times the West Saxon dialect had become the standard written form of OE, and therefore did not reflect differences of pronunciation, scribes sometimes ‘mis-spelt’ because changes in pronunciation were not matched by changes in spelling.

Change and Continuity: The Conquest and Middle English:

In 1066, when Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings and went on to become William I, there were profound effects of the subsequent ‘Conquest’ of England on every level of society, but especially in every sphere of the language – spelling, vocabulary and grammar, but it was Anglo-Saxon, in the form of Middle English, which remained the dominant written and spoken language of the new Norman territory, not Norman French. However, this was no longer the standardised West Saxon of the House of Wessex and its scribes.


Above: The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE  

We call the linguistic period from 1150 to 1450 Middle English (ME), because from the Modern point of view in time it comes between the periods of Old English and Early Modern forms of English. The evidence for change and continuity from in Middle English comes from before the setting up of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476, and therefore comes in the form of manuscripts, just as with OE. Every copy of every book had to be written out by hand, as well as copies of letters, wills and charters, but only a few of the existing manuscripts in ME are originals, in the hand of their author. On the other hand, some works are known through a single surviving original copy.


As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into ME. After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the NE Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. Another short account of the Conquest, written anonymously in the fourteenth century, in the dialect of the South West Midlands, and in metrical ‘verse’, reveals continuing Saxon hostility towards Norman domination of England:

After reigned a good man

Harold Godwin’s son

He was called Harefoot

For he was runner good

But he ne-reigned here

But nine months of a year

When William bastard of Normandy

Him disposed that were a villainy

Harold lies at Waltham

And William bastard that this land won

He reigned here

One and twenty years

Then he died at (the) home

In Normandy in Caen


(Word-for-word translation).


William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the ‘independence’ of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the ‘pestige’ language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. This situation was described by a Plantagenet chronicler, writing in about 1300, given again in word-for-word translation:

…thus lo the English folk, for nought to ground came*…

…for a false king that ne-had no right, to the kingdom…

…came to a new lord… that more in right was…

…but their neither (of them) as one may see… in pure right was.

…thus was in norman’s hand… that land brought certainty …


…thus came to England, into Normandy’s hand…

…the Normans ne-could speak then, but their own speech…

…spoke French as they did at home… their children did also teach

…so that high-men of this land… that of their blood come…

…hold all the same speech… that they from them took…

…for but a man knows French… one counts of him little…

…but low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

…i believe there ne-are in the world countries none…

…that ne-hold to their own speech… but England alone…

…but well one knows for to know… both well it is…

…for the more that a man knows… the more worthy he is…

…this noble duke William… him(self) caused to crown king…

…at London on mid-winter’s day… nobly through all things…

…by the archbishop of york, aldred was his name…

…there ne-was prince in all the world of so noble fame.

(* = were beaten)

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends.

The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what mark the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain.

Main published source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

What and when was ‘Old English’?   Leave a comment


Above: The Heptarchy, or seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Northumberland, given here, was more often known as Northumbria before the Norman Conquest.

We call the language of the Anglo-Saxon period up to about 1150, following the Norman Conquest, Old English (OE). Our knowledge of OE is based on a number of manuscripts that have survived from those times, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, working from the sixteenth century onwards, but especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   They have provided us with the dictionaries and grammars of OE, and the editions of OE texts on which we can rely.

Boundaries and Dialects:

The English were not a particularly unified nation until late OE times, from about the time of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. The Anglo-Saxons came from different parts of Western Europe and spoke different dialects of West Germanic. Different tribes settled in different parts of Britain, but were able to communicate with each other in an increasingly common tongue, though retaining differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. The ‘country’ which existed during the seventh and eighth centuries is sometimes referred to as the heptarchy, the seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. There were frequent wars between these kingdoms, in which one tried to dominate the others, first Northumbria, then East Anglia, then Mercia and finally Wessex, until it was overthrown by the Danes under Cnut in 1016. The fact that there were seven kingdoms does not mean, however, that there were seven different dialects. The evidence from the manuscripts suggests that there were four: Northumbrian, Mercian and Anglian, in the North, East Anglia and Mercian, or Midland, from the West Germanic settlers, and a dialect which mixed Jutish with West Saxon across the south. It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect of the tenth and eleventh centuries to describe OE in its written form, because Wessex was by then the dominant kingdom, and most of the legal manuscripts were written in it, although Mercian remained the most widely spoken dialect north of the Thames throughout the Middle Ages.

005 Above: A chart of runic symbols with their equivalent phonemes in modern English.

The writing system of the earliest English was based on the use of signs called runes, which were devised for carving in wood or stone. One of the few examples to survive in Britain is the eighteen-foot cross in the church in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. On it are some runic inscriptions in the Northumbrian dialect, part of a famous OE poem called The Dream of the Rood (from the OE for ‘cross’, relating the events of the Crucifixion). The Ruthwell Cross probably dates from the eighth century. Written English as we know it had to wait for the establishment of the Church and the building of monasteries, at which time the monks wrote in Latin. This began to happen in the seventh century when much of Northumbria and East Anglia was converted to Christianity by monks from Ireland, while Augustine had been sent by the Pope to convert the southern English, beginning in Kent. The monks adapted the Latin alphabet to write in English, which means that OE gives us a good idea of its pronunciation. The variations in spelling provide evidence of the different dialects which existed in English.

For example, the earliest known poem in English is Caedmon’s hymn, found in the OE translation of Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in Latin and finished in 731. Bede’s history was translated into English in the late ninth century as part of the great revival of learning under King Alfred the Great of Wessex. The poem, a hymn to God the Creator, is all that survives of the devotional poet, Caedmon, who lived in Bede’s time. Here are the first lines from it in, first, the West Saxon and then the Northumbrian dialects, followed by a word-for-word translation into modern English:


Nu we sculan herian heofonrices Weard

Metodes mihte and his modgethonk

weorc Wulfdorfaeder; swa he wundra gehwaes

ece Dryhten, ord onstealde.


Nu scylan hergan hefaenricaes Uard

Metudaes maecti end his mogdidanc

uerc uuldurfadur; sue he uundra gihuaes

eci Dryctin, or aestelidae.


(Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian

Creator’s might and his mind-thought

work Glory-father’s; as he of-wonders each

evelasting Lord, beginning established.)


Runes and Early Writing:


In printing and writing Old English today, present day shapes of Roman letters are used, with three additional non-Roman letters, or phonic symbols, because there was no equivalent sound or letter in Latin. These are the short ‘ae’ vowel sound, known as ‘ash’ in runes, as in the modern word ‘cat’, and two symbols used interchangeably for the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ sound in modern English. These runes are called ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’. A complete list of the vowels and consonants and their corresponding sounds in modern Received Pronunciation (RP) is given below:


A small book called a Testimonie of Antiquietie was printed in 1567. Its purpose was to provide evidence in a contemporary religious controversy about the Church sacraments. It reproduced, with a translation, a sermon ‘in the Saxon tongue’ by Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury in 995. He was not only a famous preacher in English, but also a grammarian. The book is of interest to linguists because the translation provides an example of Early Modern English (EME) both in style and spelling and printing as well as a copy of the OE manuscript forms. The beginning of Aelfric’s sermon is given below, together with its sixteenth century translation and the list of the Saxon characters or letters that be moste straunge. The word-for-word translation of the OE in the facsimile is:

Aelfric abbot greets Sigeferth

friendily; to me is said that

thou saidest about me that I other

taught in English writings,

than your anchorite*

at home with you teaches,

because he clearly says that is

permitted, that mass priests

well may wive, and my

writings against speak this.


* = religious hermit


The Incursions and Immigrations of the Norsemen:


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an event in 787 which proved to be an ominous portent of things to come (in word-for-word translation):

Here took breohtric king offa’s daughter eadburh… in his days came first three ships of-northmen from hortha land… and then the reeve thereto rode… he wished drive to the king’s manor because he knew-not what they were… him one slew there. That were the first ships danish men’s that Angle-people’s land sought.


By the end of the eighth century the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had finally occupied almost the whole of what we know of England today, as well as modern-day Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record battles for supremacy between the kings of the seven kingdoms, as in the following example of the annal dated 827:

In this year there was an eclipse of the moon on Christmas morning. And the same year Egbert conquered Mercia, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be ‘Ruler of Britain’: the first to rule so great a kingdom was Aelle, king of Sussex; the second was Caewlin, king of Wessex; the third was Aethelbert, king of Kent; the fourth was Raedwald, king of East Anglia; the fifth was Edwin, king of Northumbria; the sixth was Oswald who reigned after him; the seventh was Oswy, Oswald’s brother; the eighth was Egbert, king of Wessex.


But by this time the three ships that the king’s reeve had ridden to meet forty years earlier had been followed by greater numbers of ships and Norsemen, making annual raids for plunder along the coasts and up the rivers of northern France and England. The Peterborough Chronicle annal for 793 records the first Norwegian Viking attack on the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Jarrow:

793, and a little after that in the same year on 8th January* God’s church on the island of Lindisfarne was miserably plundered and destroyed by the heathen, with great slaughter.


(*794 in the Gregorian calendar)


The Norwegian Vikings soon began to raid around the northern and western coasts and islands of Scotland, the north-west coasts of Cumbria, Northumbria, Mercia, Wales and the north of Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Danes began raiding the eastern coasts of the Anglian and Saxon kingdoms in 835, and by the mid-ninth century larger raiding parties regularly ravaged the hinterlands and began to occupy and settle major tracts of these. The most famous of the Saxon kings, Alfred, King of Wessex, after years of continual defeat, negotiated treaties with the Danes. By the time of his death in 899, only Wessex remained intact and independent. The rest of Engaland, north and east of the old Roman road called Watling Street, from London to Chester, was in the hands of the Danish settlers and became known as the Danelaw. The Scandinavian attacks and incursions continued throughout the first half of the tenth century. One of them, dated 937 in the annal, is celebrated in poetry as the Battle of Brunanburh in modern-day Scotland (the exact site is unknown), where Aethelstan, King of Wessex, defeated the Norwegian Vikings attacking from Ireland.

 001Above: The Battle of Brunanburh, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Parker) for AD 937.

(In OE manuscripts, poetry was set out like prose, not in separate lines. Lines and half-lines were often clearly marked with a dot like a full-stop.)


A period of twenty-five years of peace after 955 was once again broken when more attacks by Norsemen began in the 980’s. Some came from Normandy across the Channel, where they had also settled, as well as from Denmark and Norway. In 1017, the Danish king, Cnut, became ‘King of All England’; Danish rule was not ended until 1042, when the Edward the Confessor became the King of England.

004 (2)

The settlement of the Danelaw had important effects on the English Language. Old Norse (ON) is the name now given to the language spoken by the Danish and Norwegian Vikings. It was ‘cognate’ with Old English (OE); that is, they both came from the same antecedent West Germanic group of languages. It seems that the two languages were similar enough in vocabulary for OE-speakers to understand common ON words and phrases, and vice-versa, so that the English and the Norsemen could communicate. Many OE words therefore have a cognate ON word, and we cannot always be sure whether a Modern English reflex is derived from OE, ON or from both. An Icelandic saga says of the eleventh century that there was at that time the same tongue in England as in Norway and Denmark, but speakers of their own tongue simplified it when making transactions with the other, so that OE dialects in the Danelaw became modified in ways which were different from the west Mercian, East Anglian and Wessex dialects. These variations are detectable in present-day northern and East Anglian dialects, which reveal ON features, especially in vocabulary.

Main Published Source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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