The History of the English language – LAEME and eLALME

Welcome back!

While I would normally move on to modern English dialects at this point, I did promise you a treat. So allow me to introduce you briefly to two marvelous sources in the study of Middle English dialectology: LAEME and eLALME.

The abbreviations stand for A linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English 1150 to 1325 (LAEME) and An electronic version of a linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English (eLALME). There is also a LALME, which stands for A linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English, and is the print version of eLALME (the latter was created years after the study itself was conducted and LALME printed).

Before I dig into these marvelous things, I can hear you asking “what is a linguistic atlas?”, so let’s start there!

A linguistic atlas is basically what you’d expect: a collection of maps. In this case, it is a collection of linguistic maps, which show the geographic distribution of speakers of a language. It can also show isoglosses, which separate areas that have a particular linguistic feature, of a dialect continuum.

Okay, so, what is a dialect continuum, you ask?

A dialect continuum is a situation in which a dialect spoken in one area differs only slightly from the dialect in the neighboring area. The further away we go though, the more differences we will find. Eventually, the varieties might be so widely separated that they are no longer mutually intelligible.

Both LAEME and eLALME are linguistic atlases, as their titles tell us. Specifically, though, they are linguistic atlases of Middle English, not modern. Their mapping of dialects concerns the dialects of Middle English, which we took a look at in last week’s post.

Now, obviously, when working with historical dialects, you’re in much more troublesome circumstances than when working with modern dialects. Why? Well, the introduction of LALME (reprinted in eLALME, of course) describes it pretty succinctly:

“It is rather as if the compilers of a modern dialect atlas had access to any number of speakers, all willing to be interviewed but very few of whom divulged where they came from”

§2.3.1. from A linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, Volume 1, General introduction
Can you imagine what that’s like? Sounds hard, right?

Well, I’ll wager that creating these tools was very hard. But they managed! How, you ask?

With the use of so-called anchor texts.

An anchor text is a text that can be localised to a specific place, or near it, on non-linguistic grounds. This may be letters that, for example, were written by a nobleman whom we know lived in East Anglia for all of his life. It could perhaps be records of courts, or manors, or legal instruments, and so on.

Once you’ve done that, you can start looking for linguistic features in those texts. Let’s say that an anchor text in Middle English uses a specific spelling for a word. Okay, so that spelling might then be characteristic of the dialect in that area.

And then, you look at another text from another place. That text shows a different spelling for that same word. And then you look at a third text, from somewhere between those first two areas. That text uses a spelling with some characteristics of both the first spellings.

Brilliant, you have a dialect continuum!

Alright, so that was ridiculously over-simplified, but you get the idea.

Anyway, my over-simplified explanation (kind of) describes what they did for LALME. They used a questionnaire, consisting of many words, looked in the manuscripts for those words, and voilà! There you are, a dialect continuum of the late Middle English dialects.

Alright, again, that was ridiculously over-simplified.

LAEME took a slightly different approach. It kind of had to as there are so few documents left from early Middle English. So LAEME used a corpus-method instead. They transcribed all early Middle English texts (or long passages from the really long ones) and put them into a database.

This allowed them to elicit all variations from the surviving manuscripts, meaning that they weren’t limited to particular words. Having done so, it is then possible to look for linguistic features that are used in one text and compare them to another, thus seeing dialect variation (see LAEME’s Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.5. for more info).

Now, one last amazing thing about these tools: the fit-technique.

Basically, what this means is that you take features of a dialect and, as more linguistic features are added, the area from which the person comes becomes more and more constricted.

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have two Swedish speakers. You ask them to pronounce the word “räka”.

One of them says “räka” with a fairly open mouth, producing [æː]. The other, on the other hand, pronounces it more like “reka”, with a reasonably closed mouth, producing something more like [e:]. Okay, there is something different here, so you ask them some more questions, and hear the same thing. So you go to your “anchor person”, who you know for a fact is from Stockholm. You ask him/her to pronounce “räka” and your other words, and you get “reka” in reply.

Great, one of your participants is probably from Stockholm (obviously, though, one shared feature is not enough). Then you look around, and you find someone who you know is from Gothenburg. You ask the same of him/her and get “räka” in response. And there you are!

That, though again grossly over-simplified, is the fit-technique. You take an un-localised text and compare it to the variations you find in texts that you can place. The more features you add, the more you can constrict the area that text is likely to come from! Isn’t that quite amazing?!

Before I get to the “warnings” of this post, I’d like to encourage all my readers to check these resources out. Truly, they are quite amazing!

You can find LAEME here and eLALME here. Do take a minute, really.

Right, so on to the warnings.

The most important thing first:

While we might be able to say that this text was written in the northern dialect, it does not mean that it was actually written in the north.

For example, the text you are looking at was written in a dialect from southwest Yorkshire according to LAEME or eLALME. That does not mean that it was actually written in southwest Yorkshire.

Neither LAEME or LALME are geographical atlases, they are linguistic ones. Your results simply mean that the person who wrote this text was likely from southwest Yorkshire (or at least wrote in that dialect). The text itself, however, might have been composed in London. Or in Sussex. Or in Worcestershire.

You get the drift. Point is, you cannot conclude with certainty that a text was written in a specific area, only that the person writing the text wrote in the dialect from that area. Obviously, it could have been written there, but you can’t say for sure.

That’s probably the most important thing to remember here but one more little thing: the fit-technique works somewhat better for eLALME than for LAEME. This is simply because we do not have as much data from the early Middle English period as we do for the late period. In the introduction to LAEME, Margaret Laing (LAEME’s compiler) and Roger Lass write:

For much of LAEME, the display of linguistic data in map form at all is a convenient but highly generalised abstraction.

LAEME, Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.3.

and this must be kept in mind when using the resource.

Did I get carried away? I did, right?

Well, I’m done now, but again: Check these resources out!

(and while you’re at it, also check out the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies, another fantastic tool for the study of English historical linguistics).



For some more information on these fantastic resources, check them out by following the links in the post (or here: LAEME and eLALME). You can also have a look at the Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics introductory remarks (with, in the case of LAEME, a link to Rhona Alcorn’s beginners guide to LAEME) to the resources.

Click here for AMC’s introduction to LAEME
and here for AMC’s introduction to eLALME
(and here for AMC’s introduction to CoNE)

Laing, Margaret. 2013– A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, 1150–1325, Version 3.2 []. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Benskin, Michael. Laing, Margaret. Karaiskos, Vasilis and Williamson, Keith. 2013-. An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English []
(Edinburgh: © 2013- The Authors and The University of Edinburgh).

McIntosh, Angus. Samuels, M.L. Benskin, Michael. 1986. A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

Lass, Roger. Laing, Margaret. Alcorn, Rhona. Williamson, Keith. 2013- 
A Corpus of Narrative Etymologies from Proto-Old English to Early Middle English and accompanying Corpus of Changes, Version 1.1 []. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

The History of the English Language – Old English dialects

Welcome to a new series at the HLC!

I know that we’ve talked quite a bit about English and its history. (You’ll have to excuse me, but the topic is what I’ve studied for years after all.)

I also know that it’s been a bit disjointed. One week, we’ve been talking about English and the next week about something else entirely. That’s what happens when you’re several people working on the same thing (and it’s a good thing too!).

However, now, it’s just little old me. So, I’d thought we’d run through a standard little “course” on the topic and go through it a bit more systematically (don’t worry, we’ll do something similar with other languages following this one).

Originally, we were supposed to start with Old English phonology today, but, I went back and had a look at our previous posts of Old English. Doing so, I suddenly realised that we never really talked specifically about the Old English dialects.

So let’s do that! But first…

I think I need to give you a very brief reminder about what Old English actually is. As you know, English is usually divided into time periods (and if you want all of them at once, take a look at Rebekah’s earlier post here. Otherwise, get back to me next week when I’ll talk about Middle English).

Old English is the English language as it looked until roughly 1066. This is not from the very beginning of the world, so to speak, but from roughly the time that we start getting written records of English (ca. 450 AD – before that, we usually talk about “Proto-English”).

That’s it (for now).

Now, next step: when I say Old English, what I am actually saying is the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

But it was not the only Old English dialect.

I’ve shown you this map before in my Early Germanic Dialects series:

But, while I warned you about how Old English tends to equal the dialects of West Saxon, I didn’t actually say anything about the other dialects.

Let me fix that!

So. Old English had four commonly recognised dialects: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian. Each of these dialects* was associated with an independent kingdom in the British Isles.

Of these dialects, we know most about West Saxon. However, the earliest surviving Old English materials are actually written in Northumbrian.

Spoken from the Humber (now in England) to the Firth of Forth (now in Scotland), the Northumbrian dialect is recorded in texts like Cædmon’s Hymn, a short poem composed between 658 and 680. It is the oldest surviving Old English poem and one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was, supposedly, composed by an illiterate cow-herder.

We also find surviving examples of Northumbrian in Bede’s Deathsong (a five-line poem that supposedly is the final words of the Venerable Bede), the runes on the Ruthwell Cross from the Dream of the Rood, the Leiden Riddle, and the famous mid-10th-century gloss of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Northumbria was, however, overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. As a result, most of the written records of the dialect have been lost.

The same is the case for Mercian.

The Mercian dialect was spoken as far east as the border of East Anglia, as far west as Offa’s Dyke (bordering Wales), as far north as Staffordshire and as far south as South Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire – basically, it was a pretty huge dialect.

But then came those pesky Vikings… And Mercian goes the same way as its sister dialect, Northumbrian. (The two dialects together are often talked about as Anglian.)

As with Northumbrian, we do have some surviving textual records of Mercian, but very few. These include the Old English martyrology, which contains 230 stories about the lives of saints and was probably compiled in Mercia – or by someone who wrote in the Mercian dialect anyway. We also have six hymns in the Vespasian Psalter that are written in Mercian, but that’s really pretty much it.

And then, we have Kentish.

Now, Kentish didn’t quite suffer the same fate as Mercian and Northumbrian. Despite that, according to Baugh and Cable, even less material from Kentish survives than from the other two dialects. We could speculate as to why, but that is an exercise in futility – it happens sometimes, unfortunately.

Kentish, as the name tells us, was spoken in the county of Kent. It was eventually submerged in the West Saxon dialect. Most of our surviving textual records are early law texts, for example from the Kentish kings Hlothere and Eadric. However, the surviving materials were late 12th century copies and studies have shown that they have been altered and “modernised”. That means, unfortunately, that little of what survives of the dialect is truly representative of the dialect itself.

And thus, we are left with West Saxon.

Originally spoken in the kingdom of Wessex, West Saxon is typically divided into two: Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon.

Now, Early West Saxon is the language used by Alfred the Great. Aside from keeping the Vikings at bay, Alfred avidly encouraged education. He even translated some things himself. However, this is not the dialect we mean when we say Old English.

What we mean is the Late West Saxon dialect – yes, I know this is getting confusing. But, following the Athewoldian language reform, started by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, Late West Saxon emerged. Some even argue that Late West Saxon is not a direct descendant of early West Saxon! This is the dialect we talk about when we say Old English.

We have quite a bit of surviving evidence from Late West Saxon – if I were to try to count them up, we’d probably be here ’til New Years. So I won’t. But I will say that this was the first standardised written language in England, sometimes referred to as the “Winchester standard” (as it was primarily used in and around the monastery at Winchester). This is the language that you find in evidence in the Old English poem Beowulf (though it is worth mentioning that you also find some Anglian features in the poem).

And those are our four Old English dialects!


Next week, we’ll continue with something else tricky: the Middle English dialects. Join me then (if you dare)!


*This post actually triggered a very interesting discussion – are the Old English dialects really dialects or languages? As you know by now, the separation between language and dialect is a tricky one (linguistically) (and if you can’t remember why, check out Lisa’s post on this topic here), but play with the thought for a bit: should the language/dialect of an independent kingdom be considered a dialect in this instance – or is it a language, regardless of the close similarity to another nearby kingdom’s language?



On the dialect of Beowulf

On the Old English dialects (and links therein for each dialect) and this book by Ishtla Singh (primarily page 75).

On Kentish and its surviving texts (page 69)