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Dialect forms in Standard English


The history of standard English is not a direct line from the West Saxon of the late Old English period. First there was a swing around from a broadly southern form to largely east midland form in late Middle English, which was centred around London, the city which as the new capital was to represent in its more prestigious varieties the input to the later standard of English which arose in the early modern period.

But already in Old English we find marked dialect differences which, if not clearly localisable regionally, are at least recognisable in different texts from the period. Now bear in mind that the main divisions in historical English dialectology are 1) North, 2) Midland (east and west as of Middle English) and 3) Southern (with Kent in the extreme south-east as a special case).

These divisions are traditional and historical; with the rise of large urban centres in England, sociolects in the cities arose which do not necessarily show the same features as the dialects of the regions where they are located. In the following the term ‘standard’ is used in a broad sense of the written form of English which is used in Britain, leaving aside pronunciation differences.

NORTHERN FORMS IN STANDARD ENGLISH Like goes back to lic /li:k/ in the north of English whereas the lic /li:tʃ/ in the south was further reduced in its affixed form to /li:/ which gives us the modern adjectival ending -ly as in friendly. Note that the adjectives lively and lifelike actually contain the same elements but with a northern and a southern derived second element.

Uncouth is evidently from the north as it has not gone through the Great Vowel Shift. The present-day pronunciation /ʌnku:þ/ shows this, i.e. it is not /ʌnkauθ/ which is what one expect had it experienced the Great Vowel Shift.

SOUTHERN/KENTISH FORMS IN STANDARD ENGLISH One of the typical features of the south is the initial voicing of consonants. This can be seen in the standard is the words vat, vixen, vane which had an initial /f-/ in Old English but now show the voiced fricatives found in the southern dialects.

Kentish pronunciations are recognisable in merry, bury, evil. The /e(:)/ was typical of this area from Old English where West Saxon (the mid south) had /i:/ or /y:/. With the word evil the present-day pronunciation would be /aivḷ/ if the West Saxon form yfel had continued into the later standard.

ANGLIAN FORMS AS INPUT TO THE LATER STANDARD Recall that Anglian in Old English refers to the middle (Mercia) and the north (Northumbrian) of England. Here certain vowels were different from West Saxon and some modern forms are continuations of the Anglian rather than the West Saxon pronunciations, e.g. cold, old in present-day English come from cald and ald. The continuation of the Old English forms cæald and æald would be /tʃi:ld/ and /i:ld/ respectively.