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.


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
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]
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!



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.

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 – 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!



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).

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)

Early Germanic Dialects – The secrets of the HLC

We’ve come to the very end of our Early Germanic Dialect series!

I’ve simply run out of dialects! We’ve done Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Low Franconian, and Old High German! We’ve even done a reminder, a post on the relationship between the Germanic dialects and a post on Proto-Germanic itself!

So now what?

Well, I figure that I’ve been throwing features of phonology, syntax, morphologyl, etc., etc., at you for quite some time now – how will anyone ever remember all those details?!

Instead of continuing to throw such facts at you (however interesting they may be), today, I thought I’d tell you about my very special trick – a simple one that works in (some) cases – though not all – to separate all these dialects from each other, fairly quickly. (Just don’t quote me on it – it’s just to give you an inkling of what you’re working with so that you can continue with further tests to make sure.)

So, what do I do?

Well, if presented with a new text where I am unsure of which Germanic dialect I am dealing with, the first thing I do is start looking for pronouns. But not just any old pronoun – I look specifically for the masculine third person pronoun in the nominative form!

Gosh, that was specific. But, you see, these pronouns differ a bit from each other in some of the Germanic dialects.

GothicOld NorseOld EnglishOld SaxonOld FrisianOld Low FranconianOld High German

As you can see, using this technique means that you can exclude a number of choices: if the text is using hann it is likely Old Norse; if it uses er, it is likely Old High German.

Gothic may be a bit tricky as the morphological structure may allow for excluding the pronoun itself – in that case: look for reduplication as Gothic is the only Germanic language that has retained the feature!

But, as you can also see, that won’t help you all the way: Old English, Old Saxon, and Old Low Franconian all use he. So what do we do here?

Well, here, we start looking for a-stem nominative plurals in Proto-Germanic – like arms.

And, here, we see some differences between these languages too!

Old EnglishOld SaxonOld Low Franconian

And that is it! That is really all that I do (in the initial stages – then it all needs to be checked of course).

Basically, just ask yourself:
  1. Does it use reduplication? – If YES, you’re dealing with Gothic
  2. Which masculine third person plural is it using? – If a unique one, you’re in luck. If not:
  3. Which declension of Proto-Germanic a-stem nouns is the text using?

And you’re… well, not really golden but a step closer to figuring out exactly what you’re dealing with!


And with that, I am hereby declaring our Early Germanic Dialect series at an end.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about these dialects as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to read more about them!

Next week, we’re doing a bit of a breather for you (and me) with a book review before we dive into our next topic (and no, I won’t tell you what it is – surprises are delightful!).

So, join me next week when I take a look at the  #1 New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (and perhaps an inkling of what is to come….)!



As always, take a look at Robinson’s book Old English and its closest relatives.

For this post, I’ve also made use of Wikipedia’s entry for the etymology of day

Early Germanic Dialects – Old High German

Blog day!

Isn’t it just the best day?

Today, we’re looking at Old High German – our last and final Early Germanic Dialect (but see the end of this post for a hint of next week’s topic – it’s a juicy one!).

As usual, let’s start with a history lesson!

So, we really have three EGDs that were instrumental in the formation of the German dialects:

Old Saxon
Old Low Franconian
Old High German.

Saxons are associated with Old Saxon, and therefore the later Low German dialects of northern Germany. The Franks, with Old Low Franconian, are associated with the later dialects of Dutch as well as a number of High German dialects of central Germany.

Most of the High German-speaking area, though, is associated with three Germanic (sub)groups: the Alamanni, the Bavarians, and the Thuringians.

These three belong to a subdivision of the West Germanic tribes sometimes known as Elbe Germans, because, during the last few centuries B.C., they were grouped around the lower and middle Elbe.

Eventually, they started to expand from there, primarily towards the south. You see, to the east of them were the East Germanic tribes while the Weser-Rhine tribes, ancestors of the later Franks, occupied the area to their west.

And eventually, again as people tended to do at this point in time, they found themselves quarreling with the Romans. This, naturally (…), led to a war of about 400 years – sometimes quiet but never quite restful. The driving force behind this war was, during the last 200 years anyway, a loose confederation of a large number of people.

They were known as the Alamanni.

The Alamanni were dead set on breaking the frontier barrier of the Roman Empire, which they finally managed around 260 A.D.
For about 70 years, there was relative peace in the area, but then they set their sights a bit too high. Attempting to conquer what is today Alsace, they were defeated in 357 by the Roman emperor Julian.

Of course, the Alamanni were just as tenacious as the other Germanic tribes. So they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and tried again.

This time, they succeeded and conquered most of Alsace. At the same time, they pushed north and west toward the Moselle river and south into present-day Switzerland. Pretty impressive multitasking.

Buuut, they seem to have forgotten something about the northwest. Because there they, of course, encountered another Germanic people.

Unified, strong, and probably pretty scary. Can you guess?

Yep, you’re absolutely right – the Alamanni encountered the Franks. As you might imagine, the huge battle that ensued in 496 did not end well for the Alamanni. It thus marks the beginning of a long and very unhappy relationship (for the Alamanni at least).

In the sixth century, the Alamanni were already recognized as a part of the Merovingian Frankish kingdom. By the mid-eight century, the last illusion of their independence disappeared – they were totally subsumed by the Frankish kingdom.

Their (maybe) buddies, the Bavarians, suffered roughly the same fate.

The Bavarians seem to come out of nowhere in the late fifth century. Their origin is still largely unknown – who were they and where did they come from?

While we actually don’t know, scholars appear to be reasonably sure that they came from an original Elbe-German group. Their name might give us some clue: it is probably derived from a pre-Germanic tribe. Perhaps a Celtic or an Illyrian tribe called the Boii (by the way, I am curious if George R.R. Martin was inspired by the name Illyria – Valyria does seem remarkably similar…)

Anyway, their origin remains argued about but it is not very relevant for our purposes so let’s move on.

Last of the groups, we have the Thuringians. The Thuringians appear to have worked together with the possible ancestors of the Bavarians – a group known as the Marcomanni – for a little while at least. And then, of course, they decided to “compete” with them (which appears to be a fancy word Robinson uses for “making war upon”).

Anyway, they took over parts of Bohemia and extended their area quite significantly for a while…

And then, they encountered the Franks.

Well, actually, they met with a joined force of Franks and Saxons and –poof – gone was the kingdom of Thuringia. By 531, northern Thuringia fell to the Saxons and the rest quickly became integrated into the Frankish kingdom.

And that’s the end of our tale! Let’s look at language.

Obviously, the most distinguishing feature of Old High German and its surviving descendants is that odd little thing they did to some of their consonants. That is, the shift we now know as the High German consonant shift or the second Germanic consonant shift.

There are three phases to this shift:

The first phase, controversially dated to as early as the 4th century, affected the entire High German area.

In this phase, the voiceless plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ changed when they were found between vowels or in word-initial position.
Here, they changed, becoming long fricatives, like so:

/p/ > /f/ – for example, OE slǣpan > OHG schlafen ‘sleep’
/t/ > /ts/ – (often spelt <z> or <zz>) for example, OE strǣt > OHG strāzza ‘street’
/k/ > /x/ – for example, OE rīce > OHG rīhhi ‘rich’.

This shift did not affect the consonants if they were found in word-final position. This phase also didn’t affect the consonants if they were already geminated or if they occurred following another consonant. So the two p’s in appul ‘apple’ remained unaffected, as did skarp ‘sharp’.

The second phase of the shift was completed by the 8th century. At this point, the same sounds became affricates in three environments: in word-initial positions, when geminated or when following a liquid (/l/ or /r/) or a nasal (/m/ or /n/). And so, we get:

/p/ > /p͡f/ – also written ⟨ph⟩ in OHG
/t/ > /t͡s/ – written ⟨z⟩ or ⟨tz⟩
/k/ > /k͡x/ – written ⟨ch⟩ in OHG

and so, we find:

OE æppel > OHG apful ‘apple’
OE scearp > OHG scarpf ‘sharp’
OE dic > OHG Deich ‘dike’ (trench)

This shift didn’t take place if the plosive was preceded by a fricative. So in the combinations /sp, st, sk, ft, ht/, the plosive remained unchanged. The plosive /t/ also didn’t shift if it was followed by /r/. This stopped the shift of modern German words like bitter or Winter, as these stems had /tr/ in their inflected forms in OHG (so, bittr– and wintr-)

Some of these were simplified in some German dialects. I won’t talk about that other than to note it, though.

We have enough things to go through without it!

And last, the third phase. This phase likely began in the 8th or 9th century, after the first and second phases had stopped. How do we know that, you ask? Well, if not, the voiceless plosives that were the results of the third phase would have continued to shift according to the first and second phases of the shift – which they did not.
You see, during this phase, the voiced plosives become voiceless:

b > p
d > t
g > k

You might be familiar only with the second shift here – the dental shift from /d/ to /t/. This is the only shift that universally finds its way into standard German. So, for example, English day but German Tag.

If you think about it though, you might recognise the other two shifts in some German words.

These are the original geminates, so, for example, Rippe ‘rib’, Brücke ‘bridge’. In single consonants, the shift is restricted to the High Alemannic German in Switzerland, and south Bavarian dialects in Austria.

And that is it for the High German Consonant Shift. Naturally, these aren’t the only changes (and they are, of course, only a very brief overview). These are the three commonly recognised distinct phases of the shift though.

You still with me?

Good – let’s look at some other distinctive features of OHG!

Now, obviously, German today contains numerous umlauted vowels (ä and ö for example). These are often (though not always mind you) evidence of i-umlaut (remember i-umlaut? If not, check it out here).

For example, the Proto-Germanic vowel /ɑ/ became /ɛ/ in numerous Germanic languages, like English, German, Swedish and Icelandic. Yet, we all appear to be spelling it a bit differently.

Let’s look at the word men, for example.

In English, of course, we spell this plural form (from Proto-Germanic *manniz) with <e>. Icelandic also spells it with <e> (menn), while both Swedish and German spell it with <a>, complete with umlaut marks (<¨>) over it – that is, <ä> (German Männer, Swedish män).

Similarly, we find <ä>, <ü> or <ö> in some words where English spells it <ee> or <ea>, for example, Gänse ‘geese’, Füße ‘feet’ or hören ‘hear’.

I think you get the picture.

Obviously, there are many interesting features of Old High German that I haven’t talked about today, but a blog post can only be so long (and I tend to be better at writing books than short stories) so I’ll stop myself there. As always, check out our sources for more information about Old High German and other Germanic languages!

This was our last Early Germanic Dialect! However, it is not over quite yet… Tune in next week when I will tell you my personal (super-secret so hush) cheat-sheet for recognising the different Early Germanic Dialects!



As always, I refer you to Orrin W. Robinson’s (1992) book Old English and its closest relatives.

For this post, though, Robinson’s book was a bit dense, so to clarify some points, I’ve also looked at Wikipedia, this Powerpoint presentation from the Middlebury Blog Network (specifically the first two slides on page 4), and slide 23 and 25 of this slideshow.

Early Germanic Dialects – Old Low Franconian

Blog time!

Today, I am so excited to introduce you to Old Low Franconian! I never had the opportunity to look at this particular Early Germanic Dialect before, so I had some great fun reading up for this post. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as me!

So, off to our history lesson we go!

At the beginning of the Christian era, it seemed as if the Roman Empire was about to take over the heart of the Germanic area.

And perhaps they would have succeeded if it hadn’t been for the Franks.

As I am sure you’ve gathered by now, the Franks (like basically all the Germanic people) were aggressors in the ancient world. Though the Romans, bless their little hearts, really tried, they never quite managed to subjugate this Germanic people.

With the decay of Roman power in the third and fourth centuries, the previous border along the Rhine got some pressure from a newly formed Frankish federation. This was really just a loose agreement between a large number of tribes, consisting of three major subdivisions: the Salians, the Ripurians and the Hessians.

Rome did a reasonably decent job in holding this newly formed alliance at bay – until the end of the reign of Constantine I.

Then, in the mid-fourth century, Cologne fell to the Ripurians. And then the Salians took the Batavian islands and most of present-day North Brabant. Rome did manage to take back Cologne, but they didn’t push back the Salians. They were instead left to manage the lands they had taken, under their own rule (though officially a part of the Roman Empire, of course). The Salians, in exchange for this, were supposed to defend the area from other Germanic attacks.

You noticed the “supposed to” there, didn’t you? Yeah, turns out, the Salians pretty much sucked at defending, but they were very good at attacking. So, they soon broke across the Scheldt River into modern Brabant and continued south.

Must have been an ugly shock for the Romans, don’t you think?

In the fifth century, the Franks were steadily advancing in most areas. However, they clearly weren’t on bad terms with the Roman Empire because they stood with them in the legendary battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451. (The battle was against the Huns, check out more about it here).

It is possible that the leader of the Franks at this point was a man named Merovech – whom we actually know little about. However, we do know that he was a figure of legend to the Merovingian kings. His grandson Clovis (Chlodwig) is often recognised as the greatest of the Merovingians.


Well, he killed all the leaders of all the subtribes of the Salians and Ripurians. By doing so, he made himself the undisputed king of all the Franks.

And then, he expanded his territory.

Under Clovis, the Franks controlled present-day France down to the Loire and other Germanic groups soon learned to respect his power. When he died, he thus left behind a strong, united country.


An ancient custom among the Franks was that the country had to be divided equally among the king’s sons, of which Clovis had four. Not exactly the best way to get a nice family dinner going. So, after some murder and treason (because, you know, talking about it never solved anything), the remaining son, Chlotar I, ascended the throne as the undisputed king.

Despite this little family feud, the Franks had continued to spread and had managed to conquer the Burgundians, Thuringians, and Bavarians.

And then he died in 561, leaving behind four sons, and it all started over again.

This time, though, it took such a long time to work it out that no king ascended the throne until 613. At this point, the Frankish nobles were quite disenchanted with the family and left their “kings” to play at country estates, far beyond the reach of actual power.

The administrators of the three (semi-)autonomous districts of Austrasia, Neustria and Burgundy, the so-called “Mayors of the Palace”, now had most of the real power. During the 7th century, the line of Pippin I, the mayor of Austrasia, came to preeminence.

Pippin I was succeeded by Pippin II who was succeeded by his illegitimate son Charles Martel.

Martel, perhaps the greatest of the mayors, strengthened the internal borders, put an end to the Muslim expansion northward into Europe and expanded the Frankish sphere into Frisia (as well as exacted a tribute from the Saxons).

Eventually, though, Martel died as well and his son, Pippin the Short, came to power. He wasn’t quite satisfied with being just a mayor and quickly deposed the last of the Merovingian kings. Then, he had himself anointed king of the Franks.

Impressive as that is, though, what we really care about is what came after Pippin…

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Pippin’s son was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.

Enter… Charlemagne.

Charlemagne did many things during his ruling years and I won’t take up too much time here – the history lesson has already gone on long enough. However, while I might talk about all of Charlemagne’s military triumphs, I will instead send a note of thank you to the man.

You see, it is partly thanks to Charlemagne that we have so much information on the Early Germanic Dialects. Charlemagne was a man of culture and an avid encourager of textual prowess. As such, it is (partly) thanks to him that our literary culture developed the way it did.

I’ll stop my history lesson there and, instead, go over on a language-related topic.

But I won’t go directly onto our usual listing of features in Old Low Franconian. First, I must warn you about a certain bit of trickiness when it comes to this particular language: it might occasionally seem to be different languages.

Yeah, I know, that’s a bit confusing.

With the expanding Frankish empire, you may come across references to Old West Low Franconian (also called Old Dutch) and Old East Low Franconian. But that’s not all: there are several dialects in modern-day Germany that are called “Franconian”.

It is easy to think that the Franks actually spoke two different languages but this, to quote Robinson, “is faulty reasoning”.

First, the two dialects were likely no more different than dialects in Old English or Old High German and their similarities are such that it often is troublesome to separate between them. As a result, many don’t make the distinction anymore, simply calls them Old Dutch and move on with their lives.

Next, the Franconian dialects in the German area. These are spoken along the Rhine between Cologne and the border between Germany and the Netherlands. During the 19th and 20th centuries, these dialects have gradually been replaced by Standard German. The Franconian dialects are occasionally grouped together with Low German.

But, there are a couple of things missing for us to be able to do so.

The trick, you see, to check which dialect belongs to which language: Check if it underwent the High German Consonant Shift (which we’ll talk more about next week)!

On that note, off to language we go!

Let’s start with consonants, as per usual.

Most are unsurprising in comparison to what we might expect.

A couple of things that I should mention though…
  • The letter sequence <sc> is occasionally replaced by <sch> which might indicate that it was pronounced as [sx].

  • The combination <th> likely represented the voiced fricative [ð], tending toward the direction of [d]. We, therefore, find spellings like ward and warth, both meaning became.

  • The letter h is similar to those found in other languages: syllable-finally and before consonants, it was pronounced [x]; otherwise, it was pronounced [h]

    and finally:

  • The letter <g> was probably pronounced as the stop [g] after a nasal or when geminated (doubled). Otherwise, it was most likely the fricative [x] or possibly [ɣ].
Let’s move on to vowels, shall we?

Again, there are very few surprises in store here.

Old Low Franconian has the vowels i, e, a, o, u, both long and short. So far, no surprises.

But they also had a number of diphthongs: ei, ou, ie, uo and io, the last sometimes alternating with ia.

However, something you must remember when you’re studying old languages is that, as Angus McIntosh wrote:


Whatever we may claim to know is derived indirectly ; by
making a study of written material and drawing certain conclusions from it

– Angus McIntosh, (1956)
The analysis of written Middle English, page 27


Although McIntosh spoke specifically about English, the statement, I believe, holds true for any language that does not survive in modern-day.

And so, linguists have looked at the evidence in the form of surviving texts and have reached the conclusion that, although we do have six spellings that appear to indicate diphthongs, only in the first two would be pronounced as the individual vowel components would indicate.

In the others, there is some evidence to suggest that the second component had weakened to [ə], or tended in that general direction. This means, linguists have concluded, that the last four spellings actually only indicated two diphthongs: [iə] and [uə].

A few more short notes and then, I think, it’s time to call it quits.

  • Unlike Old English and Old Frisian, Old Low Franconian kept West Germanic [a:] (from Proto-Germanic [æ:]) as [a:]. We therefore get:

    Old Low FranconianGothicEnglish translation
    gāuongēbun'they gave'

  • In Old Low Franconian, the original Germanic diphthongs ai and au developed in two ways:

    – The diphthong ai becomes the monophthong [e:] before r and w (and possibly also before h and in final position). In other positions, it is reflected as ei (e.g. Old Low Franconian stein opposite Gothic stains or Old English stān.
    – Similarly, the diphthong au becomes [o:] before h, r, any dental consonant, or in final position. Elsewhere, it becomes ou.

  • There is no evidence of sharpening in Old Low Franconian.

  • But it has undergone rhotacism.

Aaand, I’ll stop there.

Gosh, I had a lot to say about Old Low Franconian in the end, didn’t I?!

I do hope that you found it as interesting as I did, and if you did, do tune in again next week, when we take a look at our final Early Germanic Dialect: Old High German!



As always, I refer you to my primary source: Robinson, Orrin W. Old English and its closest relatives from 1992.

For this post, I have also taken a look at:

McIntosh, Angus. 1956. The analysis of written Middle English. Transactions of the Philological Society. Volume 55. Issue 1.
Pages 26-55.

The SciHi Blog’s entry on the battle of the Catalaunian Plains.


Wikipedia’s entry on Low Franconian languages.

Early Germanic Dialects – Old Frisian

It’s time for our second language in the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic languages! Let’s take a look at Old Frisian!

Now, though I usually start these posts with a history lesson, this one I’m going to start off a bit differently: with a word of caution.

You see, we say Old Frisian, but in fact, the surviving texts that we have are from periods which would qualify as the middle periods for most Germanic languages (e.g. Middle English). The oldest surviving Old Frisian texts are actually from the middle of the 13th century, a very late “start”. Why? Well, for that, we need our history lesson!

Very little has actually been said about the history of Frisia…

In fact, we have gaps of a few centuries in which they are barely mentioned at all.

The first we hear about it is in Tacitus’ account of the Roman general Drusus crossing the lower Rhine in 12 B.C. There, he apparently encountered a tribe named the Frisii. Now, because he was Roman and that is what Romans did, Drusus immediately subjugated the Frisii. And, for the next three hundred years or so, the Frisii were under the yoke of the Roman Empire.

It may seem obvious that these people called the Frisii were the ancestors of the later Frisians. However, there are actually some conflicting opinions on this matter. Some scholars have suggested that the Frisii might actually have been a non-Germanic group. This group merged with Germanic groups, lending their name to the final result.

The etymology of the word Frisii or Frisian doesn’t really help. There are some potential Germanic roots, but there are also some non-Germanic ones. Ideas range from meanings like friends or free men to edge dwellers or curly-haired ones.

Where exactly the Frisii lived is also a bit unclear. Their homeland might have stretched as far down as the Old Rhine (which flows into the North Sea at Katwijk in the Netherlands) and as far northeast as the Ems, or potentially only as far as the Lauwers.

So what do we know?

Well, we know that the early Frisii were herders rather than farmers. We also know that they supplied provisions and soldiers to the Roman army. Likely, they were also a part of the Roman garrisoning of Britain.

We know that they successfully cast off the Roman yoke in a revolution in A.D. 28 but that, 19 years later, they were back under the yoke. After that, we, again, hear very little about the Frisii.

However, even though we don’t hear anything, we know that a lot of things must have happened.

For one thing, the beginning of the 5th century marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. This was followed by the great migration (that is, when the Saxons and Angles actually moved to Britain). Suddenly, there was a lot of land no longer in use and the Frisians spread out over the area.

Until the 7th century, when they made the mistake of trying to retain Frisia Magna despite increased Frankish pressure. Most Germanic groups appear to have had some or another difficulty with the Franks, and Frisians were no different. Although valiantly attempting to defend their territory, their most famous defender, King Redbad or Redbod, was defeated in 719. During the following decades, the Frisians were gradually annexed by the Frankish empire, but they remained in its periphery.

This may actually have been considered a blessing for a long time.

You see, it allowed the Frisians more independence than most annexed areas. But, it also meant that the Frisians received less protection from the mighty Frankish empire. This likely became unpleasantly obvious for the Frisians with the arrivals of the Vikings in the 9th century.

It is always the Vikings, isn’t it?

Anyway, Charlemagne’s grandson didn’t really want the hassle of a Viking invasion. So, he simply ceded parts of Frisia to the war-crazed people from the North. It was basically a, “Here, take this for not invading us. Also, it’s your responsibility now, have fun with the other Vikings!”

It didn’t last very long and appears to have had no direct influence on the history or culture of the area; however, it did lead to an increase in power for the Frankish counts in Holland. They eventually pressed a special claim on West Friesland, and the area fell to them in 1289.

That wasn’t the end of it. In 1464, German East Friesland was given to the Low German-speaking counts of Cirksema. As a result, the Frisian language came under immense pressure. Eventually, the northern areas of Groningen also went over to using Low German. In Germany today, Frisian is only spoken in an area known as the Saterland.

Similarly, in Holland, the Frisian language is under heavy pressure from the Dutch standard language.

The prognosis for the continued survival of Frisian is not good, Robinson noted in 1992. And it hasn’t gotten better since.

According to the Endangered Languages Project, Frisian (also known as Saterfriesiesch) has roughly 5,000 native speakers. Compare that with a “strong” Germanic language, like Swedish with its roughly 9.2 million native speakers. Its survival is thus qualified as “Threatened”.

So, if you, after this post decide to learn Frisian, and teach it to your kids and so on… Go for it!

With that said, let’s look at the language (or its historical ancestor anyway).

Old Frisian and Old English are pretty closely related, so it is unsurprising that they share a number of features. One example is palatalization:

For example, we find the combination [ts] or [ tʃ] in church, a sound that came to be written in many different ways in Old Frisian (e.g. tsyurka, szurka, tszurka). We also find palatalization in Old Frisian g, which can be pronounced as [g], [ɣ] or even [x] or [ç] in certain dialects (I’ll take this opportunity of loads of IPA characters to remind you of Rebekah’s previous post on consonants).

Some other things that Old Frisian has in common with Old English are:

  1. No evidence of sharpening – that is, the general sound development in Gothic by which Proto-Germanic *ww becomes ggw (as seen in Gothic)
  2. Rhotacism has taken place – that is, Proto-Germanic *z has become r
  3. Evidence of metathesis of the sequence CrV to CVr – that one might be tricky because I did not mention it in my post on Old English. Basically, what it means is that in words like Old Saxon brennian, where a consonant precedes the <r> and a vowel follows it, the vowel and the <r> trades places. Hence, Old Saxon brennian ‘burn’, becomes Old Frisian berna (Old English beornan ‘be on fire’ or bærnan ‘to kindle’).

This list is by no means exhaustive!

Let’s move on from the things Old English and Old Frisian share and look at how they are different!

Unlike Old English, <k> is much more common in Old Frisian. In fact, <k> was required before the letters i and e.

Also unlike Old English, there is some variation in the reflexes of the Proto-Germanic diphthong /ai/. In Old English, this diphthong invariably becomes [a:], but in Old Frisian, it can also become [ē] (e.g. mēn ‘false’ vs. Old English mān).

Similarly, the Proto-Germanic diphthong /au/ becomes ā in all circumstances. For example, Old Frisian rād ‘red’ but Old English rēad.

And… well, in terms of what my primary source has to say, that’s pretty much it.

However, again, the lists (both here and in my sources) are not exhaustive. I’m sure you can find plenty more differences between Old Frisian and Old English! Why don’t you tell me some of the ones that you can spot?

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this little bit on Old Frisian! Next week, we’ll start to check out our last group: the Proto-German languages, starting with *drumroll* Old Low Franconian!



As always, I direct you to our primary source: Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives.

In addition, I have been using:

The Endangered Languages Project

The article “How Many People Speak Swedish, And Where Is It Spoken?” by Steph Koyfman in +Babbel Magazine.

Omniglot’s pronunciation charts of Frisian


Etymonline’s entry on the development of ‘burn’ in English.

Early Germanic Dialects – A reminder

And we’re back!

Gosh, long time no see!

As I am sure that you are aware, the HLC is undergoing some changes. I do hope you enjoy the ones that I’ve done so far! If not (or if something could be done better), just contact me under “Contact” and tell me!

We’re back on track now though, and I am taking you back to my Early Germanic Dialects series!

However, as you haven’t heard anything about EGDs since this spring, and summer offering all those lovely distractions, a recap might be in order.

During spring, we talked about Gothic, Old Norse, Old English and Old Saxon. We also went through the relationship between the Germanic languages, and that is where I am going to start!

As you might (or might not – I don’t judge) remember, we talked about the Germanic language family. I tried my best to explain that there are three distinct branches of Germanic (and hope I succeeded reasonably well!)

These branches are: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

East Germanic had only one known descendant: Gothic.

Gothic, of course, is now extinct, meaning that this particular branch of Germanic is, unfortunately, lost. But not completely, thanks to surviving materials and hard-working historical linguists!

The most famous work written in Gothic is the Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Bible. If you find yourself close to Uppsala, Sweden, go by the Exhibition Hall at Carolina Rediviva and check it out. It truly is a marvel (and entrance is free of charge!).

While you’re there, check for some of the unique traits of the Gothic language – like the use of reduplication and the lack of rhotacism! (If you can’t remember what that is, check out our original post here!)

Let’s move on, shall we?

The next branch of Germanic is slightly larger than its sibling: let’s talk about North Germanic.

The surviving daughters of North Germanic are all found in the northern parts of the world (surprise, surprise…). They are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. The languages are usually divided into West Scandinavian Languages (Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese) and East Scandinavian Languages(Swedish and Danish).

The sub-division is simply because the languages hail from different dialect groups of Old Norse. They therefore differ a bit from each other.

Among the notable features of Old Norse, we find some assimilatory phenomena that, collectively, are quite unique. I won’t go over them all here, but, as an example, the Gothic consonant cluster [nþ] becomes [nn], as in Gothic finþan ‘find’, which becomes finna in Old Norse.

If you would like to read up more about the Old Norse language, check out our original post here. And don’t forget to check out some of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas! (Like the Codex Regius, meaning “Royal Book” or “Kings’ Book”. The manuscript has been photographed and is available here.)

And now, we reach the final, and largest, branch of Germanic: West Germanic.

Now, West Germanic, in comparison to what we’ve just looked at, is huge. It consists, at the first level, of the Proto-German and Anglo-Frisian languages.

Let’s take a look at the Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic) languages first.

The Proto-German languages are the ancestors of German, Yiddish, Low German, Dutch, and Afrikaans. Here, we also find Old Saxon, which we’ve briefly talked about before.

Our most famous source of the Old Saxon language is the Heliand, an alliterative poem of some 6000 lines. Surviving evidence of Old Saxon indicates several unique, or mostly unique, features, such as the unconditional change of the Proto-Germanic diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to [e:] and [o:].  For example:

Old Saxonstên
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

However, the poem isn’t interesting only for its linguistic features but also for how it was written. The poem itself is, or should have been, a pretty standard retelling of the life of Jesus. But the Heliand actually changes the setting!

Instead of describing some far-off Holy Land, the story is set on the marches and plains of Northern Germany! Worth checking out just for that, isn’t it? Well, if you feel up to the challenge – check out the British Library’s manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A VII) here.

Finally, the Anglo-Frisian languages.

As I’m sure you’re expecting by now, this is where we find the ancestor of English and Frisian. We haven’t actually talked about Old Frisian yet, but we have covered Old English!

Remember: surviving texts of Old English are mostly written in the West Saxon dialect. What we mean when we say “Old English” is really “Late West Saxon Old English”. You should keep that in mind if you want to study, say, dialectal variation in Old English.

We have many surviving texts of Old English. Beowulf is the typical example (check it out here). But we also find The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Cædmon’s Hymn and many others.

Linguistically, Old English underwent a process, shared among its siblings only by Old Frisian, known as palatalization of the stops k and g – meaning that these become [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively.  This is the process by which we get corresponding pairs like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the palatalized Old English form, while skirt was borrowed from Old Norse, which didn’t undergo this process and thus retained the hard [k] sound.

Of course, that is not the only thing that is interesting with Old English. To learn more, check out the original post here.

And that’s our recap (with some additional links to some great manuscripts!).
Join me again next week when we continue our trip down memory lane and dive into Old Frisian!
Until then!



You’ll find most references for this post in the links that are provided throughout the post. In addition, I refer you to Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

We’re not so different, you know?

Insights from the ISLE Summer School, 24-28 June 2019

This week, I had the pleasure of attending the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE) Summer School. The summer school is bi-annual, and explores different themes each time – this year, the theme was using the past to explain the present, with the description: “A special focus will be on evidence for past states of English and Scots, with reference to the functioning of writing systems in manuscript and printed contexts.”

With a theme like that, there’s no wonder that this summer school caught the interest of two HLC:ers: Sabina and myself (Lisa)!

The summer school was organised at the University of Glasgow by the ISLE president, Professor Jeremy Smith. On the first day, he held a workshop which led us to think more about how the past can help us explain the present, and he emphasised the importance of considering that the old languages and writing systems we study were produced by people who were as much conditioned by social factors as we are today. In fact, the name of this year’s theme is a scrambled version of a pioneering publication by famous sociolinguist William Labov, On the use of the present to explain the past, which explored the idea that humans are not so different in history and today, and thus we can use our knowledge of today’s languages, and the people who speak them, to make inferences about history. Likewise, through looking at material culture (for example scribal practices, and the look and material of manuscripts), and through exploring the social context in which they operate, we can learn more about what drives language change. 

The exploration of manuscripts continued into the workshops in the morning of the second day. Professor Wendy Scase from the University of Birmingham held a workshop about writing systems, and made us aware of the social factors which may condition how we write. The traditional view of spelling is that it follows pronunciation, but it’s not usually that straightforward, and there are often social cues in what spelling systems we adhere to. 

One simple example is, of course, the differences between British and American English; the use of colour or color says nothing about pronunciation, but reading one or the other immediately tells you something about the writer. Consider also things like “heavy metal umlaut”, as found in the band names Mötley Crüe and Motörhead; these umlauted letters are pronounced a certain way in the languages who use them in their writing systems, such as Swedish and German, but these bands use them as a form of identity marker. If these social identity markers are used in the present day, we should be aware that this may also be the case in the past. As an example of this, a mediaeval writer may have chosen to use the italic script to advertise to the reader that they are a humanist. 

Italic script. The image is taken from this article, where you can also read more about the history of Italic script.

As the second day progressed, we received introductions on how to use historical corpora by Dr Joanna Kopaczyk (University of Glasgow) and Dr Kristin Bech (University of Oslo). While these workshops were more focused on presenting resources for doing research in historical linguistics, the theme of the week still ran like a red thread through them: for example, we were reminded that when looking at historical written text, the scribal practice should not only be taken to be dialectal, but can also be socially conditioned. 

On the third day of the summer school, we went on a field trip to Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire. The runes inscripted on the cross make the earliest evidence we have of Anglo-Saxon in Britain, and it was interesting to learn about some of the unique features of the runic system which are only found on this monument, which again led us to think about what the purpose was behind using these particular symbols.

The Ruthwell Cross, photo by Lisa Gotthard

In the final two days of the summer school, all participants presented their PhD research, and we reflected on the mechanisms behind language change in a discussion led by Jeremy Smith. In this discussion, we looked at different examples of words or expressions which use and meaning had changed in the history of English, and whether social factors may have driven these changes. In the HLC’s weekly etymologies on facebook, we have sometimes demonstrated how social associations may trigger the meaning of a word to become more negative or positive – an example being the word ‘villain’, now a pejorative term, which developed from simply referring to someone living on a farm. This is only one type of language change that can be socially conditioned, and this week we’ve come to learn even more about how identity markers and other socially conditioned factors play a role in how we express ourselves, both in writing and speaking. This is why it’s so important for historical linguists to approach our textual sources with the same sociolinguistic awareness with which we would approach today’s spoken data.

Personally, I found this week to be incredibly inspiring, and in our final discussions you could tell that we had all received plenty of input and inspiration for continuing our research with some more attention to material culture and social practice.