Mercian dialect

Mercian was a dialect spoken in the Anglian kingdom of Mercia (roughly speaking the Midlands of England, an area in which four kingdoms had been united under one monarchy). Together with Northumbrian, it was one of the two Anglian dialects. The other two dialects of Old English were Kentish and West Saxon.[1] Each of those dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. Of these, all of Northumbria and most of Mercia were overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. Part of Mercia and all of Kent were successfully defended but were then integrated into the Kingdom of Wessex. Because of the centralisation of power and the Viking invasions, there is little to no salvaged written evidence for the development of non-Wessex dialects after Alfred the Great's unification, until the Middle English period.[2][3][4]


The Mercian dialect was spoken as far east as the border of East Anglia and as far west as Offa's Dyke, bordering Wales. It was spoken in an area that extended as far north as Staffordshire, bordering Northumbria, and as far south as South Oxfordshire/ Gloucestershire, where it bordered on the Kingdom of Wessex. The Old Norse language also filtered in on a few occasions after the foundation of the Danelaw. This describes the situation before the unification of Mercia.

The Old English Martyrology is a collection of over 230 hagiographies, probably compiled in Mercia, or by someone who wrote in the Mercian dialect of Old English, in the second half of the 9th century. Six Mercian hymns are included in the Anglo-Saxon glosses to the Vespasian Psalter; they include the Benedictus and the Magnificat.[5]

In later Anglo-Saxon England, the dialect would have remained in use in speech but hardly ever in written documents. Some time after the Norman conquest of England, Middle English dialects emerged and were later found in such works as the Ormulum and the writings of the Gawain poet. In the later Middle Ages, a Mercian or East Midland dialect seems to have predominated in the London area, producing such forms as are (from Mercian arun).

Mercian was used by the writer and philologist J. R. R. Tolkien to signify his fictional Rohirric language.[6]


The letters b, d, g, l, m, n, p, q, s, t, v, w, and z behave as in Modern English.

  • c is always pronounced hard, like cat, never soft like cell.
  • ċ is pronounced like ch in cheese.
  • h at the beginning of a word, hard as in hat. Before t and at the end of a syllable, it is pronounced like ch in loch or the German ich, e.g. niht (translates as night)
  • ġġ and cg are pronounced as dge as in wedge.
  • before a, o, and u, it has a guttural sound, like the Dutch g; before i, e, and y it sounds like the Modern English y.
  • r always rolled in Scottish style
  • and sc both give the 'sh' as in shoe,
  • f pronounced v as in very (as is found in Modern Welsh).
  • æ the short a as in bat
  • ā as in aah
  • a shortened as in barn
  • ē like the ay in bay
  • e like the e in bed
  • ī like the ee in creek
  • i as in bin
  • ō as in the o in the Scottish och
  • o as in caught
  • œ̄ like the ö in the German schön
  • œ shortened version of the above
  • ū like oo in moo
  • u like the ou in Doug
  • ȳ like the u in the French tu
  • y shortened version of the above

Mercian also uses the eth (Ð and ð) and thorn (Þ and þ) both give the English 'th' sound as in 'thin'


Mercian grammar has the same structure as other West Germanic dialects.


Nouns have three genders: masculine, feminine, neuter; and four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. These, in addition, all have singular and plural forms. They can also be strong or weak.


  • Strong masculine noun stān (stone)
    • nominative (singular, plural): stān, stānes
    • accusative: stān, stānes
    • dative: stāne, stānen
    • genitive: stānes, stāne
  • Weak masculine noun name (name)
    • nominative: name, namen
    • accusative: namen/name, namen
    • dative: namen/name, namen
    • genitive: namen/name. namene/namen


Personal pronouns (I/me, you, he, she, we, you (pl.) and they) come in all the above cases and come in three numbers: singular, dual ('you/we two'), plural.

Demonstrative pronouns vary in the same way described below for the indefinite article, based on 'ðes' only for this. That and Those are the same as the definite article.

Relative pronouns (who, which, that) are usually 'ðe' and 'ðet.'


The definite article is equally complex, with all genders changing in the singular in all cases, based on variations of 'ðe.' In the plural all genders take the same word. The indefinite article was often omitted in Mercian.


Adjectives are always declined, even with some verbs (which means they can double up as adverbs), e.g. I am cold. Having split into weak and strong declensions (depending on the strength of the noun), these split again into all four cases, both singular and plural.

Comparative adjectives (e.g. bigger) always add 're.' Example: Æðelen (noble), æðelenre (nobler).


Verbs can be conjugated from the infinitive into the present tense, the past singular, the past plural and the past participle. There exist strong and weak verbs in Mercian that too conjugate in their own ways. The future tense requires an auxiliary verb, like will (Mercian wyllen). There are three moods: indicative, subjunctive and imperative. Like most inflected languages, Mercian has a few irregular verbs (such as 'to be' bēon and 'have' habben). For basic understanding, the four principal parts must be known for each strong verb: weak verbs are easier and more numerous, they all form the past participle with -ed.


Mercian vocabulary is largely inherited from Proto-Germanic, with Latin loanwords coming via the use of Latin as the language of the Early Church, and Norse loanwords that arrived as part of the Norse incursions and foundation of the Danelaw which covered much of the midlands and north of England.

Some morphological differences between the Mercian and West Saxon include:

  • Change of West Saxon final -c to -h, presumably alluding to its ultimate loss in Modern English.
Ic (I) ↔ Ih
  • The preservation of -k in Proto-Germanic in some pronouns, like mec (me).

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Campbell, Alistair (1959). Old English Grammar. London: Oxford University Press. p. 4. ISBN 0-19-811943-7.
  2. ^ Skeat, W. W., English Dialects, from the Eighth Century to the Present Day. Cambridge, 1911.
  3. ^ Bennett, J. A. W. & Smithers, G. V., Early Middle English Verse and Prose. Oxford, 1968, etc.
  4. ^ Dickins, Bruce, & Wilson, R. M. Early Middle English Texts. Cambridge: Bowes & Bowes, 1951.
  5. ^ Sweet, H. (1946) Anglo-Saxon Reader; 10th ed. Clarendon Pr.; pp. 170-179
  6. ^ Shippey, Tom (2005) [1982]. The Road to Middle-Earth (Third ed.). Grafton (HarperCollins). pp. 131–133. ISBN 978-0261102750.
  • Biddulph, Joseph (2004) The Mercian Language: Introduction to the English Midlands Dialect of Late Anglo-Saxon and Early Middle English. 56 p. Pontypridd: Joseph Biddulph ISBN 1-897999-39-9 (Text in modern English, with examples in Old and Middle English)

Further readingEdit

  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Robinson, Fred C. (2001) A Guide to Old English (6th edition). Oxford: Blackwell ISBN 0-631-22636-2
  • Sweet, H., ed. (1885) The Oldest English Texts: glossaries, the Vespasian Psalter, and other works written before AD 900. London: for the Early English Text Society
    • The Vespasian Psalter facsimile of the MS.: Wright, David H. (ed.) (1967) The Vespasian Psalter. (Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile, #14) Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger OCLC 5009657, an interlinear gloss found in a manuscript of the Book of Psalms in the Cottonian Library (now British Library). The gloss was prepared around 850. This gloss is in the Mercian dialect.