4 Main Regional Dialects in Old English which is Widely Agreed by Philologists

(a) Inscription on the Ruthwell Cross, an ancient stone monument located at the place called Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire. These inscriptions are in the runic alphabet characteristic of early Old English.

(b) Inscriptions on the Franks Casket. These inscriptions too are in the runic alphabet.

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(c) The earliest manuscripts of the poem, called Caedmon’s Hymn. In this poem, Caedmon, the poet, sings of the glory of creation and the language, therefore, comes very close to the language of inspired religious utterances.

(d) The earliest manuscript of Bede’s Death Song and similarly the earliest manuscript of the poem entitled Leiden Riddle. Both these poems are examples of the poetic use of Old English. The three non-runic writings have been compiled by Smith (1933) under the title of Three Northumbrian Poems.

(ii) Mercian:

This dialect was used in that part of England which is bounded by the river Humber in the north and the river Thames in the south. Some scholars, e.g., Campbell (1959:3), are of the view that the term Mercian referred not to any one of the many dialects of Old English but to all Anglian dialects other than Northumbrian.

The use of this dialect can be found in numerous charters of Mercian kings, i.e., in royal grants of land, etc., records of proceedings of councils, wills and private and official agreements, many of which have been compiled, edited and annotated by Sweet in his famous book Oldest English Texts.

(iii) Kentish:

This dialect was used in the south-eastern part of England known as Kent. The use of this dialect can be found in the early manuscripts of religious writings called Kentish Psalm, Kentish Hymn and glosses to Proverbs. As in the case of Northumbrian, the samples of this dialect that have survived are largely in the form of literary and religious writings.

(iv) West Saxon:

This dialect was used in south western part of England, in places like Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex. This dialect had the good fortune of receiving the patronage of the famous West Saxon king known as Alfred the Great. King Alfred was known for his genuine interest in academic pursuits.

He encouraged authors to write in this dialect and it was under his patronage that the famous book Anglo Saxon Chronicle was written by a number of scholars. It was perhaps in this book that this dialect faced for the first time the challenge of utilizing its resources for writing history. Alfred also performed the admirable task of translating Latin books into this dialect.

For example, he translated Cura Pastorialis (Pastoral Care) written by Gregory the Great and wanted that translation to be used by clergymen as a guide in the performance of their duties. He translated history of the ancient world written by Orosius and added a substantial amount of his own material to this book.

He also translated De Consolation Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) by Boethius and part of the Soliloquies of St. Augustine. Because of these translations and because of the original books written under his patronage, West Saxon emerged as a powerful vehicle for literary elegance and superseded the other three dialects from the point of view of its literary achievements.

Unfortunately for this dialect, the Norman Conquest took place in 1066 and, because of the political changes introduced by this conquest, French became the language of opportunities in England and the use of Old English was once again confined to freemen and slaves.

History played tricks with this dialect as it often does with the fates of kings, generals and political leaders, and so when things changed in favour of the English language once again after several generations, it was the Anglian dialect which emerged as the most dominant of all the dialects. Thus it was Anglian and West-Saxon which had the good fortune of being the direct ancestor of Modern English.

It has already been pointed out earlier that the three main Germanic tribes which invaded and occupied England during the 4th and 5th centuries were the Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons. Northumbrian and Mercian were the two dialects used in the area occupied mainly by the Angles. Kentish was used in the area occupied by the Jutes and West-Saxon was used in the area captured by the Saxons.

It is now believed that the invaders of these three tribes used three different dialects even in their original homeland in Western Europe. When these tribes established their separate kingdoms in England and thus became socially isolated from each other, the difference between their dialects became much more extensive.

An example of the differences between the various dialects of Old English can still be noticed in the two words of present-day English, the word weald /wi:ld/ and the word wold /wsold/. Both the words mean “forest”. The difference lies in the fact that weald is from West-Saxon whereas wold is from Anglian.

This difference exemplifies the fact that a pure vowel in an Anglian word was diphthongized before certain consonant clusters in a corresponding West-Saxon word. The same difference can be noticed in the two Old English words for “cold”, the Anglian word being cald and the West-Saxon word being ceald.