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Old English dialects

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The language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons at the time of their migration to Britain was probably more or less uniform. The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries spoke closely related tribal dialects belonging to the West Germanic subgroup. Their common origin and their separation from other related tongues as well as their joint evolution in Britain transformed them eventually into a single tongue, English.

Yet, at the early stages of their development in Britain the dialects remained disunited. On the one hand, the Old English dialects acquired certain common features which distinguished them from continental Germanic tongues. On the other hand, they displayed growing regional divergence. The feudal system was setting in and the dialects were entering a new phase. Tribal division was superseded by geographical division, in other words, tribal dialects were transformed into local dialects.

The following principal Old English dialects are commonly distinguished:

1) Kentish, a dialect spoken in the area known now as Kent and Surrey and the Isle of Wight. It had developed from the tongue of the Jutes and Frisians.

2) West Saxon, the main dialect of the Saxon group, spoken in the rest of England south of the Thames and the Bristol Channel, except Wales and Cornwall, where Celtic tongues were preserved. Other Saxon dialects in England have not survived in written form and are not known to modern scholars.

3) Mercian,a dialect derived from the speech of southern Angles and spoken chiefly in the kingdom of Mercia, that is, in the central region, from the Thames to the Humber.

4) Northumbrian,another Anglian dialect, spoken from the Humber north to the river Forth (hence the name – North-Humbrian).

The boundaries between the dialects were uncertain and probably movable. The dialects passed into one another imperceptibly and dialectal forms were borrowed from one dialect into another. However, information is scarce and mainly pertains to the later part of the Old English period. Throughout the Old English period the dialects enjoyed relative quality. None of them was the dominant form of speech, each being main type used over a limited area.

By the 8th century the center of English culture had shifted to Northumbria, which must have brought the Northumbrian dialect to the fore. Yet, most of the writing at that time was done in Latin, or, perhaps, many Old English texts have been perished. In the 9th century the political and cultural center moved to Wessex. Culture and education made great progress there. It is no wonder that the West Saxon dialect has been preserved in a great number of texts than all the other dialects put together. Towards the 11th century the written form of the West Saxon dialect developed into a bookish type of language, which, probably, served as the language of writing for all English-speaking people.

The changes in the linguistic situation justify the distinction of two historical periods. In Early Old English from the 5th to the 7th century the would-be English language consisted of a group of spoken tribal dialects having neither a written nor a dominant from. At the time of written Old English the dialects had changed from tribal to regional. They passed both an oral and a written form and were no longer equal. In the domain of writing the West Saxon prevailed over its heighbours. Alongside Old English dialects a foreign language, Latin, was widely used in writing.

All of these dialects have direct descendants in modern England, and American regional dialects also have their roots in the dialects of Old English. “Standard” Modern English (if there is such a thing), or at least Modern English spelling, owes most to the Mercian dialect, since that was the dialect of London.

Most Old English literature is not in the Mercian dialect, however, but in West-Saxon, for from the time of King Alfred (reigned 871-899) until the Conquest Wessex dominated the rest of Anglo-Saxon England politically and culturally. Nearly all Old English poetry is in West Saxon, though it often contains spellings and vocabulary more typical of Mercian and Northumbrian—a fact that has led some scholars to speculate that much of the poetry was first composed in Mercian or Northumbian and later “translated” into West Saxon. Whatever the truth of the matter, West Saxon was the dominant language during the period in which most of our surviving literature was recorded. It is therefore the dialect that this book will teach you.

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