One of the striking characteristics of Middle English is its great variety in the different parts of England. This variety was not confined to the forms of the spoken language, as it is to a great extent today, but appears equally in the written literature. In the absence of any recognized literary standard before the close of the period, writers naturally wrote in the dialect of that part of the country to which they belonged.
The Middle English Dialects
The language differed almost from county to county, and noticeable variations are sometimes observable between different parts of the same county. The features characteristic of a given dialect do not all cover the same territory; some extend into adjoining districts or may be characteristic also of another dialect. Consequently it is rather difficult to decide how many dialectal divisions should be recognized and to mark
off with any exactness their respective boundaries. In a rough way, however, it is customary to distinguish four principal dialects of Middle English:
Generally speaking, the Northern dialect extends as far south as the Humber; East Mid-land and West Midland together cover the area between the Humber and the Thames; and Southern occupies the district south of the Thames, together with Gloucestershire and parts of the counties of Worcester and Hereford, thus taking in the West Saxon and Kentish districts of Old English. Throughout the Middle English period and later, Kentish preserves individual features marking it off as a distinct variety of Southern English.
The peculiarities that distinguish these dialects are of such a character that their adequate enumeration would carry us beyond our present purpose. They are partly matters of pronunciation, partly of vocabulary, partly of inflection. A few illustrations will give some idea of the nature and extent of the differences. The feature most easily recognized is the ending of the plural, present indicative, of verbs. In Old English this form always ended in -th with some variation of the preceding vowel. In Middle English this ending was preserved as -eth in the Southern dialect. In the Midland district, however, it was replaced by -en, probably taken over from the corresponding forms of the subjunctive or from preterite-present verbs and the verb to be, while in the north it was altered to -es, an ending that makes its appearance in Old English times. Thus we have loves in the north, loven in the Midlands, and loveth in the south.
Another fairly distinctive form is the present participle before the spread of the ending -ing. In the north we have lovande, in the Midlands lovende, and in the south lovinde. In later Middle English the ending -ing appears in the Midlands and the south, thus obscuring the dialectal distinction. Dialectal differences are more noticeable between Northern and Southern; the Midland dialect often occupies an intermediate position, tending toward the one or the other in those districts lying nearer to the adjacent dialects. Thus the characteristic forms of the pronoun they in the south were hi, here (hire, hure), hem,
while in the north forms with th- (modern they, their, them) early became predominant.
In matters of pronunciation the Northern and Southern dialects sometimes presented notable differences. Thus OE ā, which developed into an south of the Humber, was retained in the north, giving us such characteristic forms as Southern stone and home, beside stane and hame in Scotland today. Initial f and s were often voiced in the south to v and z. In Southern Middle English we find vor, vrom, vox, vorzoþe instead of for, from, fox, forsope (forsooth).
This dialectal difference is preserved in Modern English fox and vixen, where the former represents the Northern and Midland pro- nunciation and the latter the Southern. Similarly ch in the south often orresponds to a k in the north: bench beside benk, or church beside kirk. Such variety was fortunately lessened toward the end of the Middle English period by the general adoption of a standard written (and later spoken) English.
Thus, we see that during the middle English period English language was divided into a number of dialects on the basis of grammar and pronunciation.
A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.