This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century BC, three tribes settled in England: the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes. These three tribes came from Germany and Denmark, crossing the North Sea to settle in England. The Angles and the Saxons settled all along the northern coast of England whilst the Jutes arrived in the south and west. These tribes brought with them a miscellany of languages and dialects ranging from West Germanic (Dutch), North Germanic (Swedish, Norwegian), and East Germanic (Burgundian). Thus, from the fourth century, England or ‘Angle-land’, had an eclectic range of dialects emerging. Eventually, the Angles and the Saxons united to become the Anglo-Saxons, with the separate dialects combining into Old English. This was the earliest recorded form of the English Language. As the Anglo-Saxons predominantly resided in the north-east, traces of Old English are still recognisable today in the modern Geordie dialect, making it the oldest dialect in England. 

Three centuries later, another tribe crossed the North Sea. The Vikings were ancient warriors from Scandinavia, bringing another form of the Germanic dialect known as Old Norse. Settling mainly in the north of England, they began dominating areas over the Anglo-Saxons, establishing their capital as York or “Jorvik”. Thus, Yorkshire became Viking territory, and there was a transformation of Old English into Old Norse, creating an amalgamation of the two. Therefore, the Yorkshire dialect dates back to the Viking’s Old Norse, making it the second oldest dialect in England. The Vikings spread into Lancashire and eventually across the Irish Sea to Ireland. Thus, the Lancashire and Yorkshire dialects have similarities, but the main difference is that the Lancashire dialect is rhotic (where you can hear the “r” after a vowel sound) whereas Yorkshire is non-rhotic. This links the Lancashire dialect to Ireland as most major Irish dialects are rhotic. Given the proximity of Ireland and Lancashire between the Irish Sea, this would be a logical result. 

When William the Conqueror led the Norman Conquest in 1066, another language was introduced: French. The Normans established their stronghold in the south east of England, coming across the English Channel from France. As they introduced law schools and universities, French became the higher social classes’ spoken language, being the more desired form of speaking. The introduction of the feudal system further correlated language to social class; those who were educated learned French and Latin and were therefore of higher status. However, to receive the education you had to be in the south, not the north. Simultaneously, the East Midlands dialect began to develop around London, influenced by French taught in schools. Chaucer (heralded as the “Father of English Literature”) introduced words that shaped this dialect. A significant vowel shift happened between the 1400s to 1700s where the pronunciation became shorter: ‘swich’ became ‘such’, ‘meese’ became ‘mice’; words that are familiar to 21st-century readers. During the 15th century, the Chancery English standard was established in the southeast of England in all major institutions, including the church, government, and education. Chaucer’s variated English was deemed acceptable alongside French and Latin taught in schools. However, as the north did not have access to schools, their dialect remained unchanged for longer. 

The English language changed considerably between the 15th and 18th centuries but eventually found relative stability. It was during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century that another significant shift in dialect would happen. The increased growth in factories and technology meant mass migration into large cities to seek employment; with this came a coalescence of minor regional dialects combining into more prominent dialects. Birmingham is a good example of this transformation, with the city’s metal factories being a major source of employment, drawing local and national people to work. Thus, the West Midlands accent formed with northern and southern dialects converging.

The Industrial Revolution, coupled with the Great Potato Famine in 1845, also saw the mass migration of Irish people moving to England for better lives. The closest port across from Ireland was Liverpool which, during this time, saw 1.5 million Irish men, women, and children move to the city. Before this, most people in Liverpool spoke with a Lancashire dialect. However, with the introduction of the Irish accent, the Lancashire dialect modified into Scouse, making Scouse a relatively young dialect. 

Received pronunciation (RP) also dates back to the 19th century, used in boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow. Their speech pattern evolved from the East Midlands dialect and became associated with upper-class establishments. Later in 1922, the BBC adopted it, believing it to be the most understandable accent. However, this alienated regional accents as RP belonged to an elitist minority group. 

The second world war would radically alter accents again, this time with a global influence from the West Indies, America, India and many countries that aided Britain in the war. Thus, dialects continued to evolve and shift. In the 21st century, there is a vast array, with Eastern estuary, General Northern English, and even Mancunian, which is becoming more distinct from the Lancashire dialect. Thus, dialects in England are a mutable concept that have been constantly influenced by other places, linking to the times’ political, social and economic surroundings. The way we hear dialects is changing again, with more localised and regional dialects being celebrated rather than ironed out. Therefore, dialects are crucial in understanding our world and our origins to help shape our future.

By Amelia Hope