Is Geordie “the closest dialect to Anglo-Saxon”?

May 20, 2015 by

middle_english_dialect_mapTo continue with the Geordie theme, I was asked today whether Geordie is indeed “the closest dialect to Anglo-Saxon”—and the answers is “both yes and no”. I will use this forum to explain. Since Anglo-Saxon is the ancestral form of English, spoken roughly up to the Norman invasion of 1066, the question is really whether Geordie is the most conservative English dialect in the British Isles. As it turns out, in some ways it is and in some ways it is not. The same can be said of other dialects and accents in northern England, which together with the ancestor of Geordie formed a dialectal area already in the Middle English period (which lasted, roughly, from the Norman invasion till the 15th century). The map on the left (from Encyclopedia Britannica) shows it as the Northern Middle English dialect area. Already in the Middle English period, this group of dialects exhibited different degrees of conservatism vs. innovation in different parts of language: these dialects were (and still are) more conservative in pronunciation than those found in southern England, but more innovative in lexicon and grammar.

Let’s consider pronunciation first. As mentioned in my earlier post, Geordie and many other northern English dialects have not undergone the Great Vowel Shift in the same way as did dialects in the south (but see also John Cowan’s comment to the Geordie post). For example, in the south—particularly, in East Midland and Kentish Middle English dialect areas—the word stone is pronounced with a mid rounded vowel [o:], whereas in the north it is pronounced with a low unrounded vowel [a:]. Another innovation that started in the East Midland and Kentish Middle English dialect areas is the palatalization of /k/ into /tʃ/, which gave us church in the south, compared to the retention of kirk in the north, which features prominently in many place names such as Kirkbridge and Ormskirk. The older /k/ is likewise retained in place names ending in –wick meaning ‘creek, bay’ (e.g. Keswick), compared to its southern form with a /tʃ/ (e.g. Greenwich). But in some ways, some of the southern dialects were even more conservative than those of northern England. For example, the West Midland dialect of Middle English retained front rounded vowels that were unrounded elsewhere already in Old English period.

But although northern Middle English was generally more conservative in pronunciation, it was more innovative in the lexicon and the grammar. The vocabulary of northern English dialects has been enriched by many more words of Scandinavian origin than made it into Standard Southern British English (based on southern dialects). In Northern English we still find such words as fell ‘hill, mountain’ from Old Norse fjall ‘mountain’, kenning ‘knowledge’ from Old Norse kenning ‘knowledge, recognition’, lait ‘seek’ from Old Norse leita ‘seek, search’, and scall ‘scabby disease of the skin’ from Old Norse skalli ‘naturally bald head’. The word bairn ‘child’ in Geordie is another example of a Norse loanword. Some of the Norse-derived words or word forms that started in the north eventually spread further south, as illustrated by the following excerpt from William Caxton’s Prologue to “Eneydos”, dating from 1490. At the time, the Norse-origin form eggys (which gives us the modern English eggs) was found only in northern England, and in the south it was called eyren:

And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certain marchaũtes were in a ship in tamyse for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande / and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond. and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete; and specyaly he axyd after eggys. And the goode wyf answered, that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaũt was angry, for he also coude speke no frenshe, but wolde haue hadde egges, and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. / Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte. egges or eyren / certaynly it is harde to playse euery man / bycause of dyuersite & chaũge of langage.

In addition to the lexical innovations, the Viking influence meant that northern English dialects were at the forefront of grammatical changes that would made Middle English distinct from Old English so much so that St. Bede and Chaucer would not be able to understand each other, as well as changes that distinguished Middle English from Early Modern English (to the extent that Chaucer and Shakespeare would not be able to understand each other either, even though they have been separated from each other by much less time that separates us from Shakespeare). For example, Northern Middle English dialects had more sharply reduced case and verbal inflection systems and the most innovative syntax; eventually those changes spread from the north into southern English dialects as well. This point can be illustrated with the distribution of the 3rd person plural pronouns: in the Kentish dialectal zone it was hi, hir, hem—completely unrecognizable to us today because they were eventually replaced by Norse-derived forms they, their, them. In the Middle English period, all three innovative forms were found only in Northern dialects, whereas in East Midlands one would hear the Norse-derived nominative they, alongside the Anglo-Saxon genitive hir and accusative/dative hem.


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  • Paul

    Hi, I found your blog today and it is really interesting, especially for me who intend to be a linguist too! I’d also like to point out there are many similarities between dialects of Northern Germany (particularly in what’s called the lower german language area) and Anglo-Saxon. For instance those people don’t say Gabel or Messer but “fork” and “Kneif” (pronounced k+n with the same “i” than in “knife”), and it remains true some German words haven’t undergone a palatalization (cheese Käse). Germanic languages are quite peculiar. Speakers of different Romance languages can understand each other if they speak slowly, same for speakers of different Slavic languages, but it simply can’t be done for an Englishman, a German and a Norvegian, given the directions those languages took.
    Cheers Mrs Pereltsvaig (BTW are you a native English speaker ? Your name sounds Scandinavian)

    • Glad you’ve found the blog (interesting), Paul! I hope you enjoy reading it.

      Indeed, Anglo-Saxon is closer to Low German than High German.

      I am not sure however that the inter-intelligibility of Germanic is less than of Romance. I don’t think speakers of Spanish or Italian understand those of French or Romanian with any more ease than speakers of Dutch understand German etc.

      I am not a native speaker of English, but of Russian. My last name is Yiddish in origin (the original spelling would be Perlzweig, I think). And by the way, it’s Ms. or Dr. Pereltsvaig — it’s not my husband’s name.

      • Paul

        Thank you for your answer Dr. Pereltsvaig, sorry for the “Mrs”, I should have added I’m not a native English speaker myself and sometimes I get confused with the “Ms” and “Mrs”. Sorry about that.

        As a French I can tell you that Romance speakers can understand each other with relative ease, although it is less true for French since we oddly have a lot of nasals (“an”, “on”, “en” you name it) and there are much more silent vowels than in Spanish or Portuguese. Still you can hear in Portuguese feminine words that the final “-a” is almost silent, so in the end, “bela/belle” are not very different!

        Russian is both a nice-sounding and linguistically interesting language. All the declinations, the slavonic palatalization… are a real challenge to the commonly accepted theory of “languages tend to get simplified with time”. And we can’t honestly say Russia remained as isolated like Iceland – BTW I find it to be a huge synchronicity to read that from you, I actually visited the small village of Сарепта на Волге where a lot of German-Jewish people settled. It always amazes me to stumble upon now-archaic German words that entered the Russian language, like бутерброт (from Butterbrot) 😉
        Yes the original spelling must be Perlzweig, there are many people of Jewish descent with that name is the German speaking world.

        Have a nice day,

        • No problem, Paul.

          I don’t think that “language tend to get simplified with time” is a “commonly accepted theory”, as much as a prejudice among lay people who don’t know much about language and how it changes. I get asked a lot if that’s true and it simply isn’t. So “commonly accepted” yes, “theory” no.

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            Yes indeed. “Common sense” and “general knowledge” are often unscientific 🙂

          • Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

        • Hael

          I am a native English speaker and I still get the Mrs. and Ms. stuff confused all the time.

          And fascinating post.

      • Diogo Belart

        I’m brazilian and spanish is definitely intelligible for us, if spoken slow.

  • Carlos Decourcy Lascoutx

    stone=tone=Tonatiuh(sun stone)=town(shtetl=tetl=stein)=tun(Maya)=360day yr,=town=ton(E/sfx).
    stan=tlan(N)=locative of tlalli/earth..
    shire=xilé(Nauatl)=sillín(Sp)=little seat/birthing stool=toloa(N).

  • Dave

    Hi, really interesting blog post! However, I noticed a few things:

    1. I always thought “church” rather than “kirk” was common to all English and Frisian dialects, which is what separates them from the rest of West Germanic, and that “ormskirk” (‘worm’s church”) was a Norse loan?

    2. some other sources give the words “ken” and “bairn” a native English etymology (from OE cennan and bearn, respectively). How do we know for sure, especially when the English and Norse forms were so much alike?

    • Thank you for your great questions, Dave!

      I’d have to check some sources that I don’t have handy at the moment to respond to 1.

      As for 2, I wonder if the Old English etymologies are themselves Norse loanwords (after all, most of the Norse borrowings occurred in the Old English period). This needs further investigation also, I am afraid.

      Thanks again for great questions!

    • Florian Blaschke

      Yep, I think you’re right about both points. I’m pretty sure Asya got the palatalisation business wrong – it’s a common Old English change (but absent in Norse loans) – and another one: the Southern English rounding of long a as in “stan” to “stone” already happened in the 11th century and is not counted as part of the Great Vowel Shift (which is after all famous because the standard English spelling generally does not reflect it, while it does reflect the rounding), in fact, the effect of the Great Vowel Shift was to push long a as in “name” not into the direction of [o] but of [e]!

      • Thanks for the correction, Florian. That point about stan/stone was badly phrased, it’s not an example of the Great Vowel Shift. There are other GVS phenomena that didn’t apply in Geordie though…