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Territorial dialects of the period of the Anglo-Saxon invasion


The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the 5th and 6th century spoke closely related tribal dialects belonging to West Germanic subgroup. Their common origin and their separation from other related languages as well as their joint evolution in Britain transformed them eventually into a single language, English. Yet, at the early stages of their development in Britain the dialects remained disunited. Thus, Old English was not entirely uniform language. Not only are there differences between the language of the earliest written records and that of the later literary texts, but the language differed somewhat from one locality to another. We can distinguish four dialects in Old English times: Kentish, an offshoot of the Jutes who settled in Kent; West Saxon, spoken south of the Thames; Mercian, spoken from the Thames to the Humber (except in Wales, of course, where (Brythonic) Celtic was still spoken); and Northumbrian, spoken north of the Humber (hence the name), excluding Scotland, where, again, (Gaelic) Celtic was spoken. Since Mercian and Northumbrian share common features not found in West Saxon and Kentish, they are sometimes spoken of together under the name Anglian, because most of the Germanic tribes north of the Thames were the Angles. Unfortunately we know less about them than we should like since they are preserved mainly in charters, runic inscriptions, a few brief fragments of verse, and some interlinear translations of portions of the Bible. Kentish is known from still scantier remains and is the dialect of the Jutes in the southeast. The only dialect in which there is an extensive collection of texts is West Saxon, which was the dialect of the West Saxon kingdom in the southwest. Nearly all of Old English literature is preserved in manuscripts transcribed in this region. The dialects probably reflect differences already present in the continental homes of the invaders. There is evidence, however, that some features developed in England after the settlement. With the ascendancy of the West Saxon kingdom, the West Saxon dialect attained something of the position of a literary standard, and both for this reason and because of the abundance of the materials it is made the basis for the study of Old English. Such a start as it had made toward becoming the standard speech of England was cut short by the Norman Conquest, which reduced all dialects to a common level of unimportance. And when in the late Middle English period a standard English once more began to arise, it was on the basis of a different dialect, that of the East Midlands.


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