M.L. Samuels – Patron Saint of January 2020

It’s the first weekend of the first month of a new decade!

Because it is the first weekend, I will introduce you to another amazing linguist. Today, I decided to go with a professor whose works are well-known in the community of historical linguistics. But, they might be less familiar to those who do not spend most of their life hanging around other historical linguists.

So, today, allow me to introduce you to
Professor Michael L. Samuels.

Professor Samuels was born on September 14, 1920. He tragically passed away on November 24, 2010, having been retired since 1990.

Retired or not, though, Professor Samuels kept working and his publications are among the most cited works in works focused on the English language 1. Quite a feat.

Projects of Professor Samuels that are, perhaps, most well-known are A Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English (which I talked about in more detail here) and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Having already taken a look at LALME, let’s focus this post on the Historical Thesaurus!

The Historical Thesaurus is a unique, amazing resource. It contains almost every single word in English from Old English to present day!

So, what does it do?

It allows its users to discover synonyms for individual words in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then, you can trace their development throughout the history of the English language!

Samuels had announced the project to the Philological Society in 1965. Forty years later, the dream came true in October 2009, when it was first printed.

Unfortunately, Samuels passed away a mere six days before its launch alongside the Oxford English Dictionary Online. The launch, however, ensured a continued spread of his (and his co-creators/editors) amazing work.

As if these amazing massive projects weren’t enough, Professor Samuels contributed immensely to the study of medieval English through his many publications.

Perhaps most famous is his article “Some applications of Middle English dialectology“, first published in 1963. In it, Professor Samuels outlined four types of written “standards” in late Middle English. The word “standard” here has been problematic and heavily discussed in the linguistic community, but should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. (Jeremy Smith introduced a very helpful distinction between a fixed standard and a focused standard. The distinction could perhaps be kept in mind when reading Samuel’s suggested four types, but I won’t get into that now (see the references though).)

Professor Samuels’s contributions to the field of historical linguistics are, without a doubt, substantial, but they may not be as commonly known as other linguistic names, outside the field of historical linguistics itself.

So, when considering the very first Patron Saint of 2020, I felt it is more than appropriate to celebrate the many contributions that Professor Samuels made to the field and, I hope, introduce some of you to a (to you) previously unknown amazing linguist!

Hats off to Professor Samuels,
the first Patron Saint of 2020,
here at the HLC!

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References

Michael Samuels obituary by Christian Kay (15 Dec, 2010)

Michael Samuels at the Historical Thesaurus of English

Michael Samuels in University News, June 2006, University of Glasgow

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED

Samuels, M.L. 1963. Some applications of Middle English dialectology. English Studies. 44: 1-6. 81-94. DOI: 10.1080/00138386308597155

Smith, Jeremy J. 1996. An Historical Study of English: Function, Form, and Change. Routledge. ISBN 9780415132725

The history of the English language – Old English phonology

Welcome to a new year (and decade) with HLC!

I am very happy to be here with all of you, my dear followers, and I hope that HLC will continue to grow during this new decade! In order to do that, please let me know if there is anything you’re missing from the HLC and I will do my best to provide it!

In the meantime, while you contemplate what you would like to see more of here at the HLC, let’s get back to HEL!

Today, let’s have a look at Old English phonology!

As I am sure you know, the HLC has done some work on this before (like here), but today, let’s have a closer look, shall we?

First, two words of warning: First, Old English underwent a lot of changes. It’d be a very long blog post if I tried to cover them all! Therefore, this will merely provide a bit of an inkling, outlining the sound system of Old English. On the topic of phonological changes that Old English underwent, Wikipedia has an abundance of interesting information – do check it (and my other sources) out!

Second, Old English phonology is, of course, somewhat speculative. This is necessarily the case because, obviously, we can’t exactly ask the speakers of the language how they would pronounce this or that, or listen to recordings of speakers.

But (!) there is a relatively large corpus of the language (check out the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, which consists of at least one copy of every surviving Old English text 1 – isn’t that remarkable?!). This means that we can look at orthography, which is deemed to be quite faithful to pronunciation, to draw some tentative conclusions about how words were pronounced.

Now, let’s start with something fairly simple: a consonant sound inventory of Old English, which looks something like this:

 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

(Want to hear how they sound? Check out this amazing interactive IPA chart!)

Now, I won’t go into detail about allophonic variations and when they occur, simply because a blog post can only be so long. However, there are numerous, great books listed in my notes below if you want to take a closer peek at Old English phonology.

Alright, so we have the consonants. But what kind of vowels did Old English have?

Well, they had seven or eight vowels, depending on dialect:

 FrontBack
unroundedroundedunroundedrounded
Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

The front mid rounded vowel [ø] appears in the Northumbrian dialect (remember the Old English dialects?) but corresponds to [e] in late West Saxon, which is why it’s in parenthesis here in our table.

What about diphthongs, though? Surely, Old English had diphthongs!

It did! And here they are!
First elementShortLongSpelling (Old English)Spelling (modern)
Highiu̯iːu̯ioio, īo
Mideo̯eːo̯eoeo, ēo
Lowæɑ̯æːɑ̯eaea, ēa

*These are representative of the diphthongs that occur in the Anglian dialects of Old English – the high diphthongs io and īo had merged into eo and ēo in Late West Saxon.

And that is a very brief outline of the sound system of Old English!

Join me next week as we watch this vital part of a language change quite a bit in Middle English!

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Notes and references

If you want to have a closer look at Old English phonology (or Old English generally), there are a number of really great books for you. Here are some of my favorites, with my own thoughts on the source in parenthesis 2 !

Alistair Campbell. 1959. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (This is a classic – you won’t be disappointed.)

Roger Lass. 1994. Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (I will personally always recommend pretty much anything written by Roger Lass. The works are always filled with great information, written in an engaging and interesting way.)

Bruce Mitchell & Fred Robinson. A guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. (A very good overview with a lot of information.)

Richard Hogg. 2002. An introduction to Old English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (A thin volume, with easy access to a lot of difficult matters!)

Richard Hogg. 1992. Chapter 3: Phonology and Morphology (in The Cambridge History of the English language, vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-168. (Again, just as above, easy access to a lot of information – definitely worth a read.)

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (This is one of my absolute favorites – I used it extensively for my master’s thesis and found it extremely useful, not just regarding Old English but generally about the phonology of English.)

Fun Etymology Tuesday Special – Auld Lang Syne

Happy new year to all of you, my dear followers and friends!

Since it is New Year’s Eve and, more importantly (of course), Tuesday, I thought we should do something special for today’s Fun Etymology!

Today’s special Fun Ety is Auld Lang Syne.

The English version of this song, with which you are no doubt familiar, goes something like this:

It is traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve all around the world (often in the English version), but was created by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788.

Burns sent the song to the Scots Musical Museum, noting that it was an old song that he was putting into writing for the first time. So, although its been around since 1788 in the form we know now it, the lyrics may be significantly older.

It was eventually set to the slowed-down melody of a Scottish folk song (number 6294 in Roud Folk Song Index to be specific), giving us a lovely Scottish tune.

Regardless of whether you listen to the English or Scottish (or any other) version though, Auld Lang Syne is a lovely way of celebrating the past while ringing in the new year as its lyrics celebrate the old while the chiming of the clock will celebrate the new.

Once you’re done with ringing in the new year (and celebrating the beauty of the Scots language), join me as we continue our study of languages, their history and, their development.

Happy New Year!

via GIPHY

The history of the English language – Modern English morphology

Welcome back! I hope everyone (who celebrates) had a lovely Christmas!

Let’s get back to morphology!

Today, we’re not really doing historical linguistics, because, today, we’re looking at Modern English morphology.

Although Modern English is usually further divided into Early Modern English and Late Modern English and, by some, also into Present-Day English, we’ll do a general overview of this entire period – which stretches from 1500 to present day.

Why?

Well, because, honestly, English morphology really hasn’t changed all that much since Middle English (that is not to say that it hasn’t changed at all, just that it hasn’t changed so much that it would add to your knowledge to divide it into its “typical” divisions).

Up to this point, we’ve mostly focused on inflectional morphology.

Inflectional morphology refers to something that is added to a word for grammatical reasons – like case, gender, number, etc.

In this, English really hasn’t changed all that much. Like in Middle English, Present-Day English has three cases: nominative, accusative, and genitive. In any other word than a pronoun, the genitive is expressed by the apostrophe (as in “My dog‘s toy“), while in pronouns, we see a bit more of a difference:

NominativeAccusativeGenitive
IMeMine
YouYouYours
HeHimHis
SheHerHers
ItItIts
WeUs Ours
TheyThemTheirs
WhoWhomWhose
This is not really all that different from Middle English.

In Middle English (as we talked about last week), the case system underwent a weakening and lost the distinctive dative case by the early Middle English period. And since then, this is pretty much the system that has been used.

Modern English has no real grammatical gender system left – that is, it has a system that is mostly based on natural gender. What that means is that it makes no difference to an English speaker whether a word is technically a masculine, feminine or neuter because there is no distinction between the forms (or their modifiers) anyway. Even dictionaries in English (like Merriam-Webster) do not attribute a gender to an English word.

Instead, the word, if necessary, coincides with the subject’s natural gender. That is, if you’re talking about a woman, you’ll say she, while, if you’re talking about a man, you’ll say he.

This is really not all that different from Middle English either.

Grammatical gender started to disappear from English during the Middle English period and by the late 14th century, it is pretty much gone (at least in London English). So, not all that different.

Last: technically, we have eight inflectional morphemes in modern English:

MorphemeFunctionAttaches toExample
'sGenitive (possessive)NounsThe child's book
(e)sPluralNounsThe books
The wishes
(e)dPast tenseVerbsBaked (from bake)
Played (from play)
-ingPresent participleVerbsI'm thinking
-en (also expressed by -ed, -d, -t, -n)Past participleVerbsThe boy taken to the hospital is getting better
-s Third person singularVerbsThe girl eats
-erComparativeAdjectivesHe is smarter than most boys his age
-estSuperlativeAdjectivesShe is the smartest girl in our class

Though we might also want to add -en as a possible way to show plural (i.e. oxen, children). Again, this is not very different from what we find in Middle English.

However, there is another form of morphology:
derivational morphology.

We haven’t really talked about derivational morphology (which is actually rather interesting since I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to account for a specific derivational morpheme).

Anyway, morphological derivation is the process by which you create a new word by taking an existing word and adding a prefix or a suffix to it. (There are a number of other affixes, such as infix and circumfix, but they are less commonly used.)

Basically, you take a word, like child. Then you add a suffix to your word; let’s add -hood – and, suddenly, you got childhood! (-hood and its sister suffix –head just happens to be the suffixes I’ve spent a loooong time looking into).

I haven’t really focused on this but derivational morphology has been an active part of English morphology since Old English, and thus, we find cildhad (childhood) in Old English.

And there you have it, a brief overview of modern English morphology! 

As you can see, in this very brief overview, there isn’t all that much that has changed from the Middle English period. That will soon change as we will, next week, start having a look at the development of English phonology! Check back then!

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References

For this post, I’ve had a look at:

The Dictionary of Old English

Morphemes in English

Gender in English

Morphological derivation

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Santa Claus

God jul, dear friends!

Today, I celebrate Christmas with my family in Sweden. But not only is it Christmas (for me), it is our 200th post on the blog!

Isn’t that amazing – when we started this blog about 2½ years ago, there was no telling how this was gonna go, but here we are! With a steadily growing readership, I am very happy to continue to entertain you each week. If there is anything you’re missing on the blog – please let me know!

But, it is not only Christmas Eve and our 200th post: it is also Tuesday, and as always, here is your Fun Etymology!

Today’s word is Santa Claus!

First attested in the New York Gazette as St. A Claus in 1773, this name comes to English (specifically to American English) from the dialectal Dutch Sante Klaas from Middle Dutch Sinter Niklaas.

As you might have guessed, the Dutch word refers to Saint Nicholas. The bishop of Asia Minor during the end of the Roman Empire was named the patron saint of scholars, especially of schoolchildren, and of children generally, following his death.

Image result for saint nicholas
Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is actually still visible in some variations of the Santa suit.

Santa is often associated with the red suit with white fur trimmings, which can be attributed to Thomas Nast. Nast first dressed Santa in a red suit in an 1881 illustration, but the Coca Cola Company, who started its campaign with Santa in a red suit during the 1930s, is often given credit for it. Santa may, however, sometimes be dressed in long robes and a bishop’s mitre – thus calling back to Saint Nicholas.

And that is the story of Santa Claus! He may, of course, be known by other names (Father Christmas is found in English since around 1650), but regardless of the name, I do hope he brings you a merry and joyful Christmas!

via GIPHY

The history of the English language – Middle English morphology

Welcome back to HEL!
(History of the English Language –
and no, it is not intentionally close to H-E-double-hockey-sticks)

Last week, we did Old English morphology and, boy, that was a complex system! By comparison, Middle English morphology is easy.

The trickier (and perhaps more important) question might be:
why is it so easy?

First things first.

By the time we reach Middle English, we see a significant simplification of the complex Old English system.

While Old English had four distinct noun-endings for different cases (the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative), Middle English had only two such patterns:

 Old English: SingularOld English: PluralMiddle English: SingularMiddle English: Plural
Nominativeenġelenglasengelengles
Accusative
Genitiveenglesenglaengleengle(n)/englem
Dativeengleenglumenglesengle

The distinctive dative case – ending in -um – was lost during the early Middle English period. The genitive, however, survived, though only the strong ‘s ending was in use (and, like most things Middle English, variously spelt).

The strong (e)s plural form of Old English survived even into Present-Day English, and even the weak form -en is still found in a few words (like children, oxen, brethren).

How about verbs?

Well, again, like most things Middle English, it is really hard to say anything that covers everything. You see, because there was no written standard, Middle English had so much variation that a word might be spelt differently even within one text, written by one author. It’d be like I suddenly started spelling the word “though” as þhou, or why not thawe or thaue. And then went back to though all of a sudden. You see the problem?

With that said, as a general rule, the first person singular of verbs tends to end in –e (ich here “I hear”), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest “you speak”), and the third person in –or –eth (he comeþ/cometh) or –es (as today).

Again, general rules tend not to work well for Middle English and you should really not consider this a “rule” as such.

It’s more of a… guideline.

Alright, so, these changes may seem like pretty small changes, but it had a pretty massive effect on the language.

The simplification of morphology affected phonology, which affected orthography, which affected grammar, and round and round the wheel goes.

It’s kind of like the butterfly effect.

But why did it happen?

Well, we don’t really know. Perhaps a phonological weakening, causing the distinct forms of Old English to become less distinct, eventually causing a collapse of the system when people could no longer distinguish the forms? (I personally believe this theory)

Or, perhaps, the intense contact with Old Norse and/or Anglo-Norman led to Middle English becoming a creole? (We discuss that in more detail here)

What do you think?

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References

I have double-checked some things in this post to make sure that I remember correctly. This is primarily done using this page to check some morphological patterning as well as getting some examples from Wikipedia.

Additionally, although I haven’t used it for this particular post, I highly recommend An Introduction to Middle English (2002) by Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith and An Introduction to Middle English (2012) by R.D. Fulk (both of which grace my bookshelf) for those who wish to get a brief, but well-written, introduction to the Middle English language.

Enjoy!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Advent

Ladies and gents! We’re getting close to the Fourth Sunday of Advent!

via GIPHY

So, in honour of that, today’s word is Advent!

Meaning the ecclesiastical season immediately preceding Christmas, this word was attested as early as 1119 in English and as early as the 7th or 8th century in Latin so it has certainly been around for a long time!

From Latin adventus, this word means “a coming, approach, arrival”. In Church Latin, though, it has the extended sense of “the coming of the Savior”. The Latin word comes from the past participle stem of Latin advenire, meaning “arrive at, come to” and can be divided into two parts:

ad-, a word-forming element that expresses direction toward something or in addition to something. The Latin word ad – meaning “to, toward” in space or time or “with regard to, in relation to” as a prefix – comes from the PIE root *ad-, meaning “to, near, at”.

ventus, which comes from venire, meaning “to come”. This word comes from a suffixed form of the PIE root *gwa-, meaning “to go, come”.

And that is the history of advent!

Next Tuesday is Christmas Eve, which means that I’ll be celebrating Christmas and have an armful of nephews to play with! But don’t fret, I am ever faithful to my dear followers!

Welcome back next week and learn the etymological origin of
Santa Claus!

The History of the English language – Old English morphology

Having looked at the dialects of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, let’s return to Old English again!

Today, let’s look at morphology.

But first, what is morphology, really?

Well, in linguistics, morphology is the study of words. Specifically, morphological studies look at how words are formed and analyse a word’s structure – studying, for example, stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

This may mean that you separate a word into its different morphemes to study how a word is constructed. Here is an example of how that might look, based on the word independently:

Created by Annie Yang (25 April 2017)
Got it? Great! Let’s move on to Old English morphology!

Now, when it comes to morphology, Old English is quite different from Modern English.

Being much closer in nature to Proto-Germanic than modern English is, Old English has a morphological system that is quite similar to its predecessor. If you want to have a modern language to compare with, Old English morphology might actually be closer to the system used in modern Icelandic than it is to modern English! (If you are unfamiliar with Icelandic, think a more conservative version of modern German).

What does that mean, though?

First, it means that Old English had retained five grammatical cases:

  1. Nominative
  2. Accusative
  3. Genitive
  4. Dative
  5. (Instrumental)

(The instrumental case is quite rare in Old English, so you could say that it really only retained four).

Three grammatical genders in nouns:

  1. Masculine
  2. Feminine
  3. Neuter

And two grammatical numbers:

  1. Singular
  2. Plural

In addition, Old English had dual pronouns, meaning pronouns that referred to, specifically, two people – no more, no less.

As you can probably see, this is quite different from what Modern English does.
If you can’t quite put your finger at exactly what is different…
  1. Modern English has retained the nominative, accusative and genitive case, but only in pronouns. So, we find differences in I/he (nominative), me/him (accusative), and mine/his (genitive), but not really anywhere else. In Old English, though, we would find a specific inflection following the nouns, verbs, etc. for this too (so a word like se cyning ‘the king’ in the nominative form becomes þæs cyninges ‘the king’s’ in the genitive and þǣm cyninge in the dative becomes ‘for/to the king’.
  2. English has not retained the grammatical genders (thank any almighty power that might be listening). This means that, unlike in German, there is no declension depending on whether the word is masculine, feminine or neuter (like the infamous German articles die, der, das).
  3. But, as I am sure you are already well aware, English has retained its grammatical numbers (singular and plural), though it has lost the dual function that Old English had.

A bit different, clearly.

To add to the above, Old English also separated between its verbs: all verbs were divided into the categories strong or weak.

Strong verbs formed the past tense by changing a vowel – like in sing, sang, sung, while weak verbs formed it by adding an ending – like walk – walked. As you can see, Modern English has retained some of this division though we nowadays call strong verbs that have retained this feature irregular verbs while weak verbs, interestingly, are referred to as regular verbs.

Sounds easy, right? Yeah, we’re not done.

In Old English, you see, the strong verbs were divided into seven (!) different classes, each depending on how the verb’s stem changed to show past tense. I will not go through them all here – it is simply a bit too much for this blog, but check out my sources if you want to know more.

Point is, that means that there were seven different ways a verb could change to indicate past tense + the weak verbs.

Now, the weak verbs also had classes. Three, to be specific. I won’t go through those either (trust me, it’s for your benefit because you’d be stuck here all day).

So, we have two main categories and ten sub-categories.
Woof.
That’s a lot to keep track of.

And that is not even considering the changing patterns of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, etc., etc., or the numbers, or context.

Gosh, and I keep getting stuck at concord in Modern English! (Swedish doesn’t use something equivalent to the s on verbs in third-person singular, and it is one of my more commonly made mistakes when writing in English).

Old English morphology is obviously very different from Modern English! And, although this is obviously just a very brief glance, I’m going to stop there. This is the very broad strokes of some of the major differences between Old English and Modern English, but we’ll explore more how it went from this:

Se cyning het hie feohtan ongean Peohtas

Extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 449

to this:

The king commanded them to fight against [the] Picts

Translation of the extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 449

next week, when we take a look at the changing system of Middle English morphology and experience the loss of many of the inherited morphological systems! Join me then!

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References

For this post, I’ve relied on my own previous studies of Old English Grammar by Alistair Campbell (1959); An introduction to Old English by Richard M. Hogg (2002) and Old English: A historical linguistic companion by Roger Lass (1994).

However, I’ll admit to having refreshed my knowledge of Old English morphology by having a look at Wikipedia, as well as comparing it with modern English morphology in the same place.

The text from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, both in Old English and in Modern, is retrieved from here.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Reindeer

One week closer to Christmas! And, as promised, another Christmas-related word: reindeer!

Of course, most of us know the story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Santa’s request for aid on a foggy Christmas Eve, but where does the word reindeer come from?

Well, most likely, it came from my own little area of the world: Scandinavia. Borrowed into English around 1400, it is most likely from Old Norse hreindyri, meaning reindeer.

This word can be divided in two: hrein and dyr(i).

Hrein– is from the word hreinn, the usual name of the animal. You can see it preserved in the modern descendants of Old Norse (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic) today:

DanishNorwegianSwedishIcelandic
Ren (or rensdyr)Rein (or reinsdyr)RenHreindýr

Interestingly, you can’t actually say *rendjur in Swedish, referring to the reindeer, which you seem to be able to do in the other descendants of Old Norse. As a native Swedish speaker, trust me, it sounds really weird and is certainly incorrect.

I wonder why that is.

Anyway. Hreinn comes from Proto-Germanic *khrinda, which is also the source of the Old English word hran, also meaning reindeer. *khrinda likely comes from PIE *krei, from the root *ker-, meaning horn or head. That totally makes sense; have you ever seen the horns of a reindeer? They’re magnificent.

Image result for reindeer

The PIE word may also be related to Greek krios, meaning ram, and some sources further connect it to words in Sami and Finnish.

Dyr simply means animal and corresponds to Old English deor (which later became deer). From Proto-Germanic *deuzam, meaning (wild) animal. The Proto-Germanic word likely comes from PIE *dheusom, which, rather unspecifically, simply means creature that breathes (and isn’t human).

And that is the story of reindeer!  

The History of the English Language – Modern English dialects

Our last little installment of dialects! I know that this is a historical linguistics’ blog, but, today, let’s talk about Modern English, shall we?

Before we can do that though, we need to talk about something else: the distinction between a dialect and an accent.

Up until now, I haven’t made this distinction because it hasn’t been truly necessary; you see, when talking about Middle English and Old English, the term dialect holds quite true. When it comes to modern English, however…

Not as much.

Although often used interchangeably, the terms dialect and accent actually refer to two different things in linguistics. So what is an accents and what is a dialect?

Well, an accent is one part of a dialect.

That… didn’t clear things up, did it?

Alright, an accent refers to how people pronounce words, while a dialect is much more all-encompassing and includes pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

As I have been focusing on the England in this post, I’ll be focusing on the accents (commonly called dialects) in British English, but don’t fret! I’ll come back to other varieties of English (like American English) in a future post.

via GIPHY

Yeah, that was a bit creepy, but hey, what can I say – I am a horror-flick fan.

Anyway, the accents of (British) English!

Trudgill divided the accents of English into ten (!) different accent regions. In no particular order, with their accent name in parenthesis following, these are:

Accent regionAccent nameStrongest center
West MidlandsBrummieBirmingham
SouthwestWest CountryBristol/Plymouth
Northwest MidlandsManchesterManchester/Salford
NortheastGeordieNewcastle/Sunderland
MerseysideScouseLiverpool
Home CountiesLondon/EstuaryGreater London
East, North, and South MidlandsEast MidlandsLincoln
East AngliaEast Anglian (traditional)Norfolk/Suffolk
Central LancashireLancashire (traditional)Rossendale
Central and lower NorthYorkshireLeeds/Bradford

Trudgill divided the accents into these groups based on a simple sentence: very few cars made it up the path of the long hill.

Ignoring the function-words here (that is it, of, and the), Trudgill recorded the pronunciation of these eight words and noted the following:

Accent"y" in "very""ew" in "few""ar" in "cars""a" in "made""u" in "up""a" in "path""n" in "long""hill" in "hill"
Brummie/i//juː/[ɑː][ʌɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
West Country/ɪ//juː/[ɑːɹ][eɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[ɪl]
Manchester/ɪ//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Geordie/i//juː/[ɒː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[hɪl]
Scouse/i//juː/[äː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
London/Estuary/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ~æɪ]/ʌ//ɑː//ŋ/[ɪo]
East Midlands/i//juː/[ɑː][eɪ]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]
East Anglian/i//uː/[aː][æɪ]/ʌ//æ/ [æ]/ŋ/[(h)ɪl]
Lancashire/ɪ//juː/[aːɹ][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋg/[ɪl]
Yorkshire/i//juː/[äː][eː]/ʊ//æ/ [a]/ŋ/[ɪl]

In addition to these features, the absence or presence of the so-called trap-bath split was also recorded (under the feature path). The trap-bath split is a vowel split by which some words come to be pronounced with a long /ɑ:/, mostly in the southern English accents, and short /a/ in the northern ones. If you are unsure of how that would sound, check out the sound examples at the Pronunciation Studio.

Using this fairly simple sentence, it was possible to discern some general patterns of accent “boundaries”, thus creating the accent-boundaries of modern (British) English! Using the results, it was then possible to divide the country into six major dialect areas:

  • Scots (which Lisa talked about here and here)
  • Northern dialects
  • Western Central (Midlands)
  • Eastern Central (Midlands)
  • Southwestern dialects
  • Southeastern dialects

Isn’t that quite amazing? (and, as usual, a bit ridiculously oversimplified)

However, there is one accent that I haven’t mentioned yet:
Received Pronunciation, or RP.

Also known as Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English, BBC English, Standard British pronunciation or Southern British pronunciation, RP is a highly prestigious “standard” accent in Britain. However, very few British English speakers actually speak RP: Trudgill estimated only about 3% in 1974. This has since been questioned but the highest “guestimates” appear to be 10% – which is really not a very high number any way.

And there you have it – the British English dialects!

I hope you enjoyed that little tidbit, but check out the references if you want to learn more – because, naturally, I can’t go through all of the details here (nor, if I am frank, do I know them) and there is a lot more to learn!

Join me next week when we go back in history again, and take a look at Old English morphology! Until then!

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References

If you want to learn more about the difference between dialects and accents (and dialects generally), check out this OED blog post.

Wikipedia’s entry for the English dialects (*cough* accents *cough*) is quite informative and well-worth a look (and I’ll admit to having largely reproduced the table from theirs, with some adjustments).

On a more formal level, Trudgill’s study was reported by Ossi Ihalainen in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. 5, where you can read more about the study. Or go straight to the source, which in this case is The dialects of England by Peter Trudgill (1990).

I’ve also had a brief look at Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (2013) Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects.