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.   



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