Northumbrian Old English

Northumbrian was a dialect of Old English spoken in the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria. Together with Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon, it forms one of the sub-categories of Old English devised and employed by modern scholars.

The dialect was spoken from the Humber, now within England, to the Firth of Forth, now within Scotland. In the Danelaw after the Viking invasions, Northumbrian came under the influence of the invaders' Norse language.

The earliest surviving Old English texts were written in Northumbrian: these are Caedmon's Hymn (7th century) and Bede's Death Song (8th century). Other works, including the bulk of Caedmon's poetry, have been lost. Other examples of this dialect are the Runes on the Ruthwell Cross from the Dream of the Rood. Also in Northumbrian are the 9th-century Leiden Riddle and the mid-10th-century gloss of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Viking invasion forced a division of the dialect into two distinct subdialects. South of the River Tees, the southern Northumbrian version was heavily influenced by Norse, while northern Northumbrian retained many Old English words lost to the southern subdialect and influenced the development of English in northern England, especially the dialects of modern North East England (the modern Northumbrian dialect) and Scotland. In addition, Scots (including Ulster Scots) is descended from the Northumbrian dialect, as is modern Northumbrian and other dialects of Northern English.


Extent of Northumbria, c. 700 AD

Historians of languages recognise four distinct dialects of Old English: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon. The Northumbrian dialect (Old English: Norðanhymbrisċ) was spoken in the Kingdom of Northumbria (from the Humber on the east coast of northern England to the Firth of Forth in the Scottish Lowlands). Modern Scots, Northumbrian, Cumbrian and North Yorkshire dialects originate from Northumbrian. It was significantly different from the dialects spoken by other Kingdoms, especially that of West-Saxon (the primary dialect). Modern Standard English, on the other hand, has its origins in Mercian dialect.

The Angles brought their language (Englisc) to Northumbria in the 6th century AD, where it reached the modern-day Scottish Lowlands. This form of Northumbrian Old English was first recorded in poetic; e.g. Cædmon's Hymn c. 658-680), writings of the Venerable Bede (c. 700 AD) and the Leiden Riddle. The language is also attested in the Lindisfarne Gospels c. 900 AD, in modern Scotland as a carved runic text, the Dream of the Rood, and on the Ruthwell Cross, c. 750 AD. Old Northumbria was later conquered by the Danes (867–883 AD) and from this day forth the language became influenced with Old Norse.

The region of Lothian in the Lowlands, which was originally a part of the Kingdom of England, was invaded by Kenneth III of Scotland and became part of Scotland's sovereign territory. Despite the king being a Scottish Gaelic speaker, he allowed the region to keep its Northumbrian dialect, which was then still known as Inglis. However, the region became divided from Northumbria following the Battle of Carham (with the northern half of the territory under Scottish rule and the southern part under the English); the language north of the divide later became known as Scottis or Scots.

The anonymous author of the Northumbrian Cursor Mundi claimed southern English texts needed to be translated into northern dialects for people to fully understand what they were reading. Ralph Higden in 1364 described Northumbrian as incredibly difficult for southern natives to understand, believing the reason for this to be the "strange men an nations that speaketh stronglie" (i.e. the Scots) the region bordered. John of Trevisa spoke about nearby "strange men an aliens" in discussing northren English's alleged outlandishness, and in c. 1440 Osbern Bokenam wrote about Scots' influence on northern English in his Mappula Angliae.

By the 14th century, Lowland Scots became the main language of Scotland's Lowlands (excluding Galloway, which still spoke Gaelic). Despite this, Northumbrian began to lose its significance in England by the 16th century. Northumbrian dialectical terms, accents, and manners of speaking were considered incorrect and inelegant to those in power, who were seated in the south of England. As England began to centralise its power in London and the south of England, texts in the midland and southern dialects became the de facto standard. Although a great number of letters, poems and newspaper articles were written in the Northumbrian dialect throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the southern form became the standard of the accent. The modern Northumbrian dialect is currently promoted by the Northumbrian Language Society.

The Lord's Prayer

Some Scottish and Northumbrian folk still say /uːr ˈfeðər/ or /uːr ˈfɪðər/ "our father" and [ðuː eːrt] "thou art". The Lord's Prayer as rendered below dates from c. 650.

FADER USÆR ðu arð in heofnu
Sie gehalgad NOMA ÐIN.
Tocymeð RÍC ÐIN.
suæ is in heofne and in eorðo.
HLAF USERNE of'wistlic sel ús todæg,
and f'gef us SCYLDA USRA,
suæ uoe f'gefon SCYLDGUM USUM.
And ne inlæd usih in costunge,
ah gefrig usich from yfle.

Bede's Death Song

Fore thaem neidfaerae ‖ naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, ‖ than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae ‖ aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae ‖ godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege ‖ doemid uueorthae.

Cædmon's Hymn

Nū scylun hergan ‖ hefaenrīcaes Uard,
metudæs maecti ‖ end his mōdgidanc,
uerc Uuldurfadur, ‖ suē hē uundra gihwaes,
ēci dryctin ‖ ōr āstelidæ
hē ǣrist scōp ‖ aelda barnum
heben til hrōfe, ‖ hāleg scepen.
Thā middungeard ‖ moncynnæs Uard,
eci Dryctin, ‖ æfter tīadæ
firum foldu, ‖ Frēa allmectig.

The Leiden Riddle

Mec se uēta uong, uundrum frēorig,
ob his innaðae aerest cændæ.
Ni uaat ic mec biuorthæ uullan fliusum,
hērum ðerh hēhcraeft, hygiðonc....
Uundnae mē ni bīað ueflæ, ni ic uarp hafæ,
ni ðerih ðreatun giðraec ðrēt mē hlimmith,
ne mē hrūtendu hrīsil scelfath,
ni mec ōuana aam sceal cnyssa.
Uyrmas mec ni āuēfun uyrdi craeftum,
ðā ði geolu gōdueb geatum fraetuath.
Uil mec huethrae suae ðēh uīdæ ofaer eorðu
hātan mith hæliðum hyhtlic giuǣde;
ni anoegun ic mē aerigfaerae egsan brōgum,
ðēh ði n... ...n sīæ nīudlicae ob cocrum.

Ruthwell Cross inscription

Translation of Ruthwell Cross inscription

Krist wæs on rodi hwethræ ther fusæ fearran
kwomu æththilæ til anum ic thæt al bih[eald].
Mith strelum giwundad alegdun hiæ hinæ limwoerignæ
gistoddun him (æt his licæs heafdum).

Further reading

  • Sweet, H., ed. (1885) The Oldest English Texts: glossaries, the Vespasian Psalter, and other works written before A.D. 900. London: for the Early English Text Society
  • Sweet, H., ed. (1946) Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader; 10th ed., revised by C. T. Onions. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ("Northumbrian texts"—pp. 166–169)

Uses material from the Wikipedia article Northumbrian Old English, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.