The history of the English language – Modern English phonology

We’ve seen Old English. We’ve seen Middle English.

Our last installment of this little series is
Modern English phonology!

For ease of reference, let me remind you – in a slightly easier form than our previous tables – the Old and Middle English consonant inventories:

Old English
Middle English

There are quite a few changes, just between Old English and Middle English.

This is Modern English
 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmnŋ
Stopp bt d tʃ dʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs z ʃ ʒ(x)h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

There is a bit of a difference here – most noticeably, the addition of two consonants /ʒ/ and /w/, but the biggest difference between historical stages of the English language and the modern version is found in the vowels.

Let’s do a brief reminder.

So, in Old English, we have eight vowels: /i, e, æ, y, ø, ɑ, u, o/ and their long equivalents. In addition, we have three diphthongs: /iu̯, eo̯, æɑ̯/ and their long equivalents.

In Middle English, we still have eight short vowels: /i, e, a, y, ø, ə, u, o/ and their long equivalents (except for /ə/ which doesn’t have a long equivalent). However, in addition to these, we also find three new vowels that only exist as long vowels: /ɛː, œː, ɔː/. When it comes to diphthongs, Middle English had added another four by around the year 1400, giving a total of seven diphthongs: /ɛi, ɔi, ʊi, ɪu, ɛu, ɑu, ɔu/.

Okay, so there is a number of changes.

But what about Modern English?

Well….

In Modern English, we have fourteen vowels and eight diphthongs 1.

Goodness.

The Modern English vowels are: /ɪ, i:, e, e:, ɛ:, æ, ʊ, u:, ə, ʌ, ɜː, ɒ, ɔː, ɑː/. And its diphthongs are: /eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, ʊə/. Additionally, Modern English also has some so-called triphthongs. Although minor in comparison to the monophthongs (single vowels) and diphthongs, they do exist and are: /eɪə, aɪə, ɔɪə, aʊə, əʊə/.

Wow, that’s a lot of vowels.

And I think that might be enough for you for one blog post. If you are intrigued to learn how we got from Middle English to Modern English, though, check out my notes below!

If not (no judgment here), I hope this was enlightening for you. Check back next week, when we’ll once again back up and look at Old English syntax!

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Notes and references

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out our previous blog post on the Great (English) Vowel Shift.

Already know all that?

Alright. In that case, here is what I would suggest:

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for both Old and Middle English, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and is a great book to have a look at if you’re interested in the phonological development of English).

Philip Carr. 2013. English phonetics and phonology. (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. (A pretty standard textbook that works well as an introduction to modern English phonology)

Heinz J. Giegerich. 1992. English Phonology: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press (Another, very informative, phonology textbook)

Want to go more deeply into phonological theory and haven’t read The sound patterns of English (Chomsky & Halle, 1968) yet? Start there – it’s a classic (but not for someone to read for leisure as it gets reasonably complex rather quickly).

For this post, I’ll admit to having taken the overview photos from Wikipedia. This is simply because they provide a slightly more condensed view than my previous tables.

For Modern English, I have taken a look at Wiki‘s condensed info but also at this article.

The history of the English language – Middle English phonology

Another Thursday, a new blog post!

Today, we keep working on HEL – the History of the English Language – and we have reached my favourite time period: Middle English! Today, we’re looking closer at specifically Middle English phonology, so, although it is my favourite time period, it is not necessarily my favourite topic – I am not a phonologist after all.

However, something interesting about Middle English is its spelling (hold your horses, I know we’re talking about phonology here, we’ll get there!).

You see, unlike modern English, where its current spelling system has given rise to memes such as this one:

But…

That’s right! English didn’t use to be like that at all! However, you might find the alternative way rather disappointing (and confusing… and hair-pulling lie-awake-at-night frustrating). But, hey, that’s all in a day’s work!

So, during most of the Middle English period, words were generally spelled according to how the writer would have pronounced them – or how they sounded to the writer if someone else said them, perhaps.

This all changed, of course, once standardisation started.

Standardisation followed rather naturally after printing became a thing, though things had been moving in that direction for a while.

The problem?
The Great Vowel Shift.

You see, the phonology of Middle English was, like most things Middle English, in a transitional period. A lot changed during a reasonably short amount of time (you’ll find that historical linguists have a very odd idea of what is “short” or “recent” – for me, 600 years (as in this case) is a reasonably short time, while “recently” may be anything from yesterday to thirty years ago. When you study really old things, your perception gets a bit skewed.)

Anyway, things were changing. Generally speaking, the Middle English consonant sound inventory isn’t all that different from Old English (which we saw last week):

 LabialDentalAlveolarPostalveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmn(ŋ)
Stopp bt dt͡ʃ d͡ʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs zʃ(ç)(x) h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

There are some differences, of course, but generally speaking, they look quite similar, don’t they? Here is the Old English one for comparison:

 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

The vowels… that’s a different story.

To remind you, these are the Old English vowels:

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

And these… are the Middle English vowels.

 FrontCentralBack
UnroundedRoundedUnroundedRounded
Closei i:(y y:)u u:
Close-mide e:(ø øː)(ə)o o:
Open-midɛː(œː)ɔː
Opena a:

Quite a different set, wouldn’t you say? First, we have a new distinction in the mid-vowels. Where Old English only had the distinction mid, Middle English had yet another: close-mid and open-mid. Note, however, that this affected only the long vowels – not the short ones.

Additionally, we see the addition of several “new” vowels – such as /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ – and the loss of /æ/. So, it’s different.

So, what has this to do with spelling?

Well, when the Great Vowel Shift (which I talk more about in an earlier post) came along (technically, it likely started beforehand, but writing takes a long time to catch up to changing pronunciation), spelling had already started to standardise.

But, the spelling became standardise words as they sounded before the vowel shift. As a result of this “disconnect” between orthography and pronunciation, we have a rather odd spelling system in English.

And it would come to change even more in Modern English, but that is the topic for next week! Join me then, and in the meantime:

(Have you checked out Steve the vagabond and silly linguist on Facebook? If not, you really should – the page is great!)

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References

For this particular post, I’ve really just checked out Wikipedia, which I used to model the tables.

For the rest, I’ve picked up a few things over the years of studying Middle English, some of it from these resources (which I highly recommend and, as last week, come with a small comment from me):

J.A. Burrow. Thorlac Turville-Petre. 2013. A book of Middle English. (3rd ed.) (I keep returning to this book, it gives a very interesting account of Middle English)

R.D. Fulk. 2012. An introduction to Middle English. (An easy overview, which currently graces my shelf as it provides easy access to some basic information that one occasionally needs to remind oneself of).

Simon Horobin. Jeremy J. Smith. 2002. An introduction to Middle English. (A thin volume that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used. Really, it gives a very easily-read and understood introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the Middle English language)

Roger Lass. 1999. Phonology and morphology. In Roger Lass (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English language. Vol. III. 1476-1776. (This chapter gives an excellent overview of some of the more dramatic changes in phonology that occurred during the Middle English period. It is really worth a read if you want to get more information).

Fernand Mossé. 2000. Handbook of Middle English. (A tad bit more complex but, as all of these resources, one that I keep returning to).

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for Old English last week, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and gives just as a wonderful account of Middle English as it does for Old English)

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.)

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

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!

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.

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.

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).

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References

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 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/laeme2/laeme2.html]. 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 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/elalme/elalme.html]
(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 [http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/ihd/CoNE/CoNE.html]. 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!

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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).

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!

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

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*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?

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References

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)