Old English dialects and the role of Alfred the Great
There was no standardized Old English. Old English was rich in dialect forms. We can
distinguish four prevailing dialect forms of OE:
1: Kentish – most Jutish influence, spoken in Kent (in the far south-eastern part of the
2: West Saxon – most Saxon influence (kingdom of Wessex), spoken in the southwest
3: Mercian – most Anglian influence, spoken in the midlands
4: Northumbrian – Anglian with Viking influence, spoken north of the river Humber
Each of these was associated with an independent kingdom on the island.
Three other interesting facts:
1. The dominant dialect of Old English is West Saxon
2. Modern English probably derives from Mercian (that was the dialect of London)
3. The Northumbrian and Mercian dialects are so similar they are sometimes referred to as
one dialect and called Anglian.
After the process of unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 878 by Alfred the Great
(reigned 871-899), there is a marked decline in the importance of regional dialects. (This
is not because they stopped existing: regional dialects continued even after that time, as
evidenced both by the existence of Middle English dialects later on, and by common sense
- people don't spontaneously develop new accents when there is a sudden change of
Most of the surviving documents from the Anglo-Saxon period are written in the dialect
of Wessex, Alfred’s home kingdom, probably because it became necessary to standardize
the language of government to reduce the difficulty of administering the remoter areas of
kingdom. As a result, paperwork was written in West Saxon.
Alfred initiated an ambitious program to translate religious materials into his dialect and
the monks and priests engaged in it. Alfred himself seems to have translated books out of
Latin, e.g. Pope Gregory the Great's "Cura Pastoralis"
In other words, partly because of the political supremacy of Wessex and partly due to the
highly literate court of Alfred, the West Saxon dialect was the strongest English dialect at
the opening of the 10th century. Much of the Old English literature which survived, such
as, Caedmon’s Hymn (10th c.), Beowulf (originally probably in Northumbrian dialect,
later transformed into West Saxon) and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is in the West Saxon
dialect. Aelfric (955-1020) translated into West Saxon dialect Aurelius’s “Ars
Grammatica”, added his own preface and accompanied it with English examples.
Important are also his newly made English terms.
This trend (write in W-S dialect) continued until 1066 when Edward the Confessor died
childless and William, Duke of Normandy landed in England to claim the English
throne. After the Battle of Hastings, William (now the Conqueror), installed a new
Norman aristocracy, replacing, executing, or intermarrying the English nobility with the
French. Through the influence of Norman French, the OE period gradually ended