O.E. Dialects

Early Feudalism in Britain. Christianity

The period from the 5th to the 11th centuries (OE in the history of the English language) constitutes the early stage of feudalism in the history of Britain, the transitional period when the feudal system emerged from the tribal and slave-owning systems.

Under feudalism each district of the country was a self-contained economic unit. There was hardly any social intercourse between the districts. The economic and social isolation of the people was reflected in their speech.

A most important role in the history of Britain and the English language was played by the introduction of Christianity. An attempt to convert heathen England to Christianity was made in A.D. 597 by a group of missionaries from Rome led by St. Augustine. The mission made Canterbury their centre. In less than a century practically all England was Christianized (6-7 c.c.). A number of monasteries with monastic schools attached to them were established in Britain. The famous monastery at Lindisfarne in Northumbria was the greatest centre of monastic learning. It was in the monasteries that OE writing was first developed and the first written records were made. Northumbrian culture was practically wiped out in the 9th century. In 787 Scandinavians, whom the English called the Danes, made their first raid on Britain. In 793the church at Lindisfarne was destroyed and this disaster put an end to the flourishing of Northumbrian culture. As a result, English culture was transferred to the South. The kingdom of Wessex stood at the head of the resistance, Winchester, its capital, became the centre of English culture during the reign of King Alfred (849 890); learning and literature made a great progress there. Towards the 11th century the tribal structure had broken up: the power of the landlords had grown, while the peasants had been turned into serfs. The transitional period had ended, and Britain was a feudal state.

The tribes who had settled in Britain spoke Old Germanic dialects belonging to the West Germanic (Teutonic) group of the IE family. The dialects were so closely related that we can say that they spoke substantially the same language. The dialectal differences were slight and the dialects were mutually intelligible.

Gradually, in the course of the OE period, the nature of the dialects changed: from tribal dialects employed by the people of a tribe or a clan, i.e. people tied through blood relationship, they changed into local dialects spoken by the people of a certain locality. There was little or no intercourse between the districts, hence the dialects did not blend together or develop into a uniform language. Therefore the term Old English is not the name of a language in the modern sense but is used to denote a group of homogeneous West Germanic dialects spoken in Britain from the 5th to the 11th centuries. The dialects were related through their common origin, joint separation from the Germanic languages and joint evolution in Britain. The following 4 dialects are distinguished in Old English:

1) Kentish spoken in Kent by the Jutes;

2) West-Saxon spoken in Wessex by the Saxons;

3) Mercian spoken in Mercia by the Angles;

4) Northumbrian spoken by the Angles in Northumbria.

Though none of these dialects became a standard in Britain in the OE period, their position was not equal: first Northumbrian and then West-Saxon was the written language of the time. (The Mercian dialect is represented by the glossesand interlinear translation of ecclesiastical texts). We shall confine ourselves to the consideration of West-Saxon to describe the OE language.


  1. The dialects of Old English

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