The dialects in Old English
As we have already said, the onset of invasion by the members of the four principal Germanic tribes: Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians – began about the middle of the fourth century and their conquest of Britain was completed within the next century and a half. By about AD 600 they established their separate kingdoms, the principal among them being:
- Those formed by the Angles: Northumbria (north of the river Humber), Mercia (in the center of England) and east Anglia – central eastern part of England;
- Those formed by the Saxons – mainly to the south of the river Thames: Wessex, Sussex and Essex;
- The one formed by the Jutes – Kent.
Only the Frisians did not form a separate kingdom, but intermarried with the population belonging to different tribes.
The prevailing importance of these seven kingdoms gave to the next two centuries the title Heptarchy. Gradually three of the seven – Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria – began to establish some sort of domination over their smaller neighbors. It was an important step towards the achieving the eventual unity of England. Another vital factor contributing to the unity was the introduction of Christianity in England in 597 AD, and afterwards the spread of Christianity and changes of the supremacy of this or that kingdom follows almost the same course.
The Old English dialects are generally named after the names of kingdoms on the territory of which the given dialect was spoken – the Northumbrian dialect, the Mercian dialect, the Wessex dialect, the Sussex dialect, the Kentish dialect.
Though the differences between the three types were later to assume considerable importance, they were at first slight, and records of the 8th and 9th centuries reveal that Englisc, as it was collectively called, had by that time emerged as an independent language. The virtually complete geographical separation of England from the Continent was a factor favoring the further development of those characteristic features that already distinguished English from its parent Germanic languages.
Among the principal Old English dialects the most important for us is the Wessex dialect, as the majority of Old English written records that we have can be traced back to that dialect. But the prominence of the Wessex dialect is also based on other extra linguistic criteria.
As it is known, efforts to unite England failed for a very long period of time, because as soon as one kingdom became great it was in the interest of the rest to pull it down. Some historians say that the reason for that was the lack of the strongest possible motive towards any union, namely, the presence of a foreign foe. Such enemy appeared in the second half of the 8th century, when the Northmen, particularly the Danes, began their devastating raids on the isles. At the beginning of the 9th century, when the Danish invaders destroyed in turn the dynasties of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, Wessex was left as the sole survivor, and its leaders became the leaders of the emerging nation.
The most famous of all English kings, Alfred of Wessex, who would later come to be called Alfred the Great, came to the throne in 871 and is reputed to have been one of the best kings ever to rule mankind. He successfully fought with the Danes who by that time conquered most of eastern England and were moving southwards towards Wessex. Alfred managed to stop the Danes, although temporally, and in 878 signed a treaty with the Danish king dividing England between them.
But Alfred’s true greatness lay not in his military, but peaceful activity. He set aside a half of the revenue to be spent on educational needs, established schools where the sons of the nobility could be taught to read and write, brought in foreign scholars and craftsmen, restored monasteries and convents, published a collection of laws and enforced them. He also mastered Latin and translated many books into Anglo-Saxon and ordered the compilation of the first history book, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was continued for more than two centuries after his death. All this allows saying that even had Alfred never fought a battle, he would still deserve a place among the greatest rulers of history.
However, after the death of Alfred the Great in 901 the supremacy of Wessex gradually began to decline, and for a time, from 1017 till 1042, the throne was occupied by Danish kings.
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