Compared with the later state of English dialects the differences between the regional forms of Old English (OE) were small. Linguistically Mercian and Northumbrian share certain characteristics to such an extant that they are occasionally combined together under the general heading of Anglian. Nevertheless, given that Mercian speech is to a great extent the source of modern English, differences between the two dialects are worthy of examination.


A comparison of Mercian and Northumbrian

In the late 7th century, states Crystal (1995), Northumbria was powerful politically, which resulted in the North becoming a hub of culture and education.. The region also contained a number of monasteries. Consequently, the majority of Old English texts from the 7th century is written in Northumbrian. In contrast, Mercia, which reached its political zenith in the 8th century, leaves few texts in the Mercian dialect. Those that still exist consist of a few Latin glossaries and a number of charters. Crystal (1995) suggests that this lack of written material may be a legacy of "the destructive influence of the Vikings". Notwithstanding this, he states that Mercian was influential in the development of Standard English, the dialect being spoken in the London area during the Middle Ages, a period within which that city became politically influential (1995: 29).

Although different dialects, both Northumbrian and Mercian bore similarities to present-day German in that they were inflected according to gender, number and case. (There were five cases which were indicative of whether the noun was the actor or the recipient of the action.) For further information regarding inflections see loss of inflections. The following translations of the first line of the Lord’s Prayer (Crystal, 1995:29) illustrate the disparities between the two dialects.

Mercian.feder ure thu eart in heofenum
Northumbrian:fader ure thu art in heofnu(m)



Crystal, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pyles, T. and Algeo, J. (1993) The Origins and Development of the English Language, Fourth Edition, London: Harcourt Brace.