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.


Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: