I came across this article the other day. At the bottom there's a family tree of English dialects, both extant and extinct ones. It makes it out that southern English dialects came from Wessax English, Standard English came from Mercian and Kentish English, etc.

I wonder how they came to this? Did they take a look at features of Standard English and conclude that "yes, such and such feature is obviously a Mercian innovation", or did they say "Received Pronunciation came from East Midlands; East Midlands was in Mercia; therefore, Received Pronunciation descended from medieval English of Mercia"?

What are some examples of Old English dialectal features that survived in modern English variants which allow people to make a family tree like that?

  • Dialects developed, and still do, as foreign masses of people, religions, and cultures permeated different regions. That is why I do not think it is possible to accurately trace the origin of dialects looking back solely into OE. Of course, it does have to do with present-day accents, but up to certain extent only. As the former seven kingdoms evolved, the dominant and "most refined" dialect was always that of the most powerful region.
    – M-b
    Jan 27, 2016 at 1:32

4 Answers 4


For people who came to this entry late, the table (not tree) of English dialects that [fix: user3109672] was talking about can be found here. Under the guise of a "merge" to the History of English article, an editor simply deleted the entirety of its content. (Zero edits were made to HoE at the time of the "merge".)

The editor wasn't entirely wrong: you could make a similar chart for some features of pronunciation (phonemic) and vocab (lexical similarities) but what [fix: user3109672] was looking at was entirely unsourced and seems to have simply been a very oversimplified table of links to different dialect articles based on time and geographic location.

tl;dr: The chart was unsourced original content and there's no meaningful answer to your question. Some wiki guys made it up mostly to organize links to their articles and anything accurate would have to be far more nuanced, since those dialects change and influence each other over time.

  • Aye, makes sense. I guess this will be the closest there is to a reasonable answer.
    – Einheri
    Apr 25, 2016 at 6:29
  • The person who asked the question is the OP i.e. user3109672, ab2 edited the post. So, you should correct that information. The OP (original poster) is the one who awarded your answer as being the most helpful.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 25, 2016 at 10:43

It’s the same way that languages are grouped and documented: by common features.

For example, if you look at all of the European languages and see that the word for “mother” in 80% of them has the same root word, you know that they all descended from the same parent language.

With the English dialects you are talking about, the books from that time show the year they were written and where they were written. If you look at all of the books from 1300 and only one book has a particular word in it, you know where that word came from. If you then look at the books from 1350 and all of them use that word, you can tell that word spread to other regions and dialects.

I know that sounds like a long time ago, but keep in mind that there are books that are thousands of years old.

  • 1
    But can you give an answer for a particular dialect, corresponding to a modern dialect?
    – Mitch
    Feb 19, 2016 at 12:40
  • 'You know that they all descended from the same parent language.' Nah: in any given instance it might be a loanword, and in your specific example something like 'mama' seems to occur sort of everywhere (explanations vary, but they centre on suckling). That aside, French still uses 'le weekend' even though (or perhaps because) the Academie tried to ban it. Mar 17, 2016 at 10:48

I would venture to say that the Geordie dialect from Northumberland/Tyne & Wear sounds VERY much like the Norwegian language to the English ear. That would indicate that it is heavily influenced by the sounds of the languages spoken by the invading Vikings in the AD 8-900's. It may have changed somewhat over the centuries, but bears a striking tonal similarity.


You also have to bear in mind that up until Shakespeare, many words had never actually been written down in English, so he had a huge effect in the written transposition of the spoken English language, and was not above making up weird and wonderful spellings! These may have led to specific pronunciations that varied from commonly spoken dialects and may have distorted them somewhat over time.


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