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Dialects in contact and the history of English

Due to the spread of English abroad it has come into contact with many other languages. This accounts for many of the features of extraterritorial forms of English. In addition there is the internal contact between one or more dialects of English. This is supposedly responsible for many mixed varieties of English (the result of linguistic accomodation), particularly in the British Isles and some of the colonies such as the United States and Australia.

Within England there has been considerable contact between the different dialects. Basically there are three dialect areas, the north, the midlands (east and west) and the south (south west and south east) which are already recognisable in the Old English period. The subdivisions have shifted somewhat but the tripartite division of England has remained.

NORTHERN FORMS In the Old English period the dialect of the mid south (West Saxon) was the dominant one and that used for writing English. But as later stages show it is often the case that northern forms survive rather than their southern equivalents. For instance are is a continuation of the northern verb forms rather than of the southern syndon/sindon.
A particular feature of northern English is that it did not normally undergo the Great Vowel Shift. The form uncouth /ʌnku:þ/ is a northern borrowing in the southern standard and has not undergone the Great Vowel Shift otherwise it would be /ʌnkauθ/.

WESTERN FORMS The number of western forms is quite limited and is best seen in the spelling of words with a short high vowel, e.g. busy. In Middle English the high front rounded vowel /y/ was longest preserved in the west midlands and in accordance with Anglo-Norman scribal practice it was written with a single u (the spelling ou as in house was used for /u:/). The sound which corresponded to the western /y/ was /ɪ/ in the east midlands and /e/ in Kent. Hence one has the pronunciation /bɪsi/ for busy and /bery/ for bury which again shows a western spelling but a Kentish pronunciation.

MIDLANDS AND NORTH In present-day dialectology one does not treat these two large areas as a single unit, but in Old English there is some justification for neglecting distinctions for all types of English approximately north of the Thames, this expanse being called Anglian. The reflexes of Anglian forms can still be seen today, for instance words like cold and old derive from the Anglian forms cald and ald. The West Saxon equivalents were cēald and ēald with /æ:ɑ/ which would normally have led to a pronunciation /i:/ in Modern English which is obviously not the case.

SOUTH-EAST The area of the south-east is that of the county Kent which already in the Old English period was linguistically distinct from other areas in England. One of the main features of this region is the presence of a mid front vowel where other areas have a high vowel. The case of bury has just been mentioned. The word evil shows the same phenomenon, this time with a long vowel. The West Saxon form of this word was yfel which would have developed regularly as follows:

yfel /y:vəl/ > /i:vəl/ (unrounding) > /aivəl/ (Great Vowel Shift)

However, the present-day form /i:vəl/ suggests (as does the orthography) that the Middle English pre-vowel shift form was /e:vəl/ which comes from Kent.

SOUTHERN A feature which is found in the south in general (including Kent) is the voicing of fricatives in initial position, i.e. /f, s, ʃ, θ/ appear here as /v, z, ž, ð/. This is a phenomenon which the south shares to some extent with the varieties of Germanic in the Low Countries, i.e. Flemish and Dutch, which suggests that it could be an areal feature of considerable age. Initial voicing, or softening, can be seen in a few words in standard English whose pronunciation was taken from southern varieties, e.g. vat, vixen (cf. fox with /f-/), vane.


Trudgill, Peter 1986. Dialects in contact. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fisiak, Jacek (ed.) 1995. Linguistic change under contact conditions. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kastovsky, Dieter and Arthur Mettinger (eds) 2001. Language contact in the history of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Thomason, Sarah G. 2001. Language Contact: An Introduction. Edinburgh: University Press.