The History of the English Language – Middle English dialects

Alright, Middle English time (my favourite time)!

Today, I’ve promised you the Middle English dialects and that’s what you’ll get!

First, a bit of a recap, though.

When I say Middle English (or ME, which is the usual abbreviation), I am talking about English as it was between (roughly) 1066 – the Norman invasion – and 1500. Now, obviously, there is no exact date: people didn’t talk Old English one day and woke up the next speaking Middle English. But it is a convenient way of dividing the history of the English language into manageable chunks.

We must also remember that we can divide Middle English into two parts: Early Middle English (c. 1066-1300) and Late Middle English (1300-1500). The closer we get to our own age, the more recognisable the language will be.

So, now we know that. Let’s look at the dialects!

The Middle English dialects are commonly divided into five distinct dialects: Kentish, Southern, Northern, West Midlands, and East Midlands.
The Middle English Dialects, as presented on Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website

The Kentish dialect is also found in Old English but during Middle English, the area in which the dialect was spoken diminished. By late Middle English, it was spoken only in Kent and Sussex.

The Southern dialect was also spoken in (west) Sussex as well as south and southwest of the Thames. This dialect is a descendant of the West Saxon dialect in Old English and was quite conservative. It didn’t show a lot of influence from other languages which makes it an interesting topic of study!

The Northern dialect is an interesting one too. It is in this dialect that we find very rapid developments in morphology and syntax. This may be due to intense contact with Old Norse, but that’s simply a hypothesis – it is quite possible that these changes would have happened regardless.

Last, the East and West Midlands dialects. These dialects are a bit of an intermediate between the conservative dialects of the south and the fast-moving ones in the north.

What is particularly interesting about Middle English is, of course, its spelling. You see, during the Middle English period, there was no standardised spelling, meaning that people spelled according to their own dialect – which gives rise to some interesting variations.

Which is actually what we’ll look at next week! You see, this was primarily just a little primer so that you’ll know a bit about the Middle English dialects; next week, we’ll get to the really interesting stuff: a brief introduction to two amazing resources when it comes to studying Middle English dialectology!

I won’t tell you which though (though I’m sure some of you are already quite familiar with them) – consider this a teaser.

Until next week!

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References

For this post I have used the Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website’s entry on the Middle English dialects as well as this entry (which appears to be by Randall (2000), although the link itself gives no author).

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