The Black Country - Last Haven of the Mercian Tongue
Many readers will be familiar with the regional languages of Cornwall and Wales, yet there is one at the heart of England that is largely ignored. To the north and west of the city of Birmingham can be found the urban conurbation that is collectively known as The Black Country. Within this area are included the towns of Dudley, West Bromwich, Sandwell, Walsall, and Wolverhampton, as well as many smaller villages that were swallowed up by progress. It is widely thought that this region earned its name through the Industrial Revolution, where it became one of the most industrialised parts of Britain. Air pollution from iron foundries, forges, and steel mills caused buildings to become blackened with soot. The very ground itself appeared black, thanks to coal seams in the area.
The Black Country often seems to take a lot of stick from the rest of the British. Not only is the accent amusing to some, the area is to this day a vast industrial landscape. Unsightly structures from the 1960s urban development schemes stand awkwardly next to rows of Victorian terraces, built to house the work forces. Famous for dishes such as grey peas and bacon, battered chips, and groaty pudding, it has been brushed aside as an area of neglect and poverty. If you get to know the area more intimately, then it is full of hidden surprises. The accent itself points to a rather extraordinary preservation of a language spoken a thousand years ago. Worthy of note and preservation, the Black Country may be one of the last places in Britain where you will hear an Anglo Saxon dialect used amongst a modern population.
The Source of the Dialect
There are several languages and dialects spoken in the United Kingdom, which point to the history and culture of the people that speak them. In the strongholds of a particular culture, we see the "indigenous" languages and dialects still spoken.
A brief look through history shows us how respective migrations and invasions to the British Isles have shaped the English language.
Common Britonnic (Brythonic) languages were believed to have been developed from Proto-Celtic . The Romans introduced some Latin to English, with the next influence being brought to Britain by the Saxons. Along came the Norse, then the Normans with their French influence. Throw these all into the pot, give it a good mix, and you end up with modern English.
Overall, modern English is considered a Germanic language. In this article, we take a look at a region of England where 80% of the language derives from early Middle English and the West Anglian Mercian dialect.
The Saxon Impact on Language
The 5th Century brought the arrival of the Saxons, Jutes, and Angles into Britain. Arriving from the Jutland peninsula and area around the Baltic Sea, they soon settled in the fertile lands of England and made it their own. The north and midland areas of England were mostly settled by Angles. The Jutes settled in Kent, Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight, whilst the Saxons occupied the rest of the country. We would describe these people as being the Anglo-Saxons, but they would have described themselves with the names of their own tribes. Examples of these include Cantie for those of the Kingdom of Kent, Westseaxe meaning "West Saxons" who hailed from the Wessex area, Norþanhymbre for the people of the province north of the river Humber, and Mierce meaning "Border People" who we now describe as Mercians. Whilst local dialects were spoken by each of these tribes, there were common similarities in the language we know as Old English.
We are all familiar with the tale of 1066 and the disastrous end to the Anglo-Saxon rule of England when William the Conqueror (also known as William the Bastard) invaded England and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. After the shift in power, French became the language of the ruling classes, and steadily, the language changed to incorporate many new words. Some snobbery became evident with certain words being put aside for the commoners, and we see many of these appearing as swear words in modern language after they fell out of favour with the more powerful landowners and lords of the new Norman regime.
Slowly, Old English changed to Middle English. It is worth noting that at this point in history, being able to read and write was not a common skill, so the vast majority of commoners would still use local words and dialects.
Early Middle English leaves the greatest impression on the dialect of the Black Country. Used between 1100-1300, this vocabulary also saw Norse words used commonly in the north of England. For some reason, the Black Country did not seem to catch up with the rest of England during the period of change of the late 1400s, early 1500s when the "Chancery Standard" helped to shape modern English. The locals favoured Early Middle English with a strong Mercian dialect.
Clues to a Culture
Travelling through the region, it is notable that almost all of the names of the towns and districts around the area are derived from Anglo-Saxon words. Here, we have a list of the original spellings and translations with their modern alternatives:
Halh's Owen (halh meaning "nook" or "valley", Owen from being gifted by King Henry II at a later date to Welsh Prince, David Owen) = Halesowen
Willa's Halh (Willa may be translated as "willow", or may be the name of a the leader of that particular settlement) = Willenhall
Walh Halh (meaning "valley" of the "Welsh speakers") = Walsall
Wednes Burgh (Wednes meaning "Woden's", Burgh meaning "hill", "barrow", or "fortification") = Wednesbury
Woden's Feld (meaning "Woden's Field", believed to be land sacred to and possibly the site of a ritual enclosure or vé dedicated to Woden) = Wednesfield
Wulfruna's Heantown (The town is believed to have been founded by Lady Wulfrun in 985, Heantown meaning "principle enclosure") = Wolverhampton
Duddan Leah (Leah meaning "clearing", Duddan thought to be the town's founder) = Dudley
From this small sample of place names, we already see some indication of the history, religion, and culture of this area. Women could be seated in places of power, the Brythonic speaking Welsh were further east than today, and areas were set aside to the Germanic god Woden. Characteristics of place names being derived from such a language are not limited to the Black Country; most towns in the areas where the Anglo-Saxons dwelt are also named in this older tongue.
But how does this legacy show its presence in the modern Black Country region?
This area covers most of the places incorporated in The Black Country
A Living Language
Black Country dialect has an almost "sing-songy" noise to it, in a similar manner to modern Norwegian. Words are pronounced in a rather unexpected manner, and you can hear the Germanic influence in the pronunciations.
The "ea" in peas and tea is replaced by an "ay" sound, resulting in these words being pronounced as pays and tay. The verb "a" is pronounced in some instances as an "o" with words such as man, hammer, rat, and laugh becoming mon, 'ommer, rot, and loff. Where words start with an "h", the first letter is not pronounced, so home, head, and hungry become 'ome, 'ed, and 'ungry.
Ed Conduit, writing for the BBC Black Country  explains how this replacement of "a" with "o" is a relic from Old English, where the main dialect spoken was West Saxon. It was the Mercians that are believed to have used this quirk in their own local dialect. The Great Vowel Shift occurred between the times of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and over several generations the vowels in the English language changed. The Mercian descendants of this particular region kept their vowel sounds, resisting the change for a reason unknown. It is thought by some that Chaucer himself would have spoken with this accent.
The grammar seems also to have resisted change. Verbs used in Black Country Dialect display characteristics that are rather unique and show features from early Middle English, particularly when it comes to past tense. Instead of changing the word itself, "ed" was added directly. So we have past tenses appearing as si'd instead of saw, cotch'd instead of caught, and gi'd instead of gave.
Most interestingly of all, around 80% of words used by speakers of Black Country Dialect are Germanic, compared to supposedly 26% for the rest of modern English.
"Am Yow Ready?"
So now, onto the fun bit. The video below is a recording of the Black Country comedienne, Dolly Allen. It gives the reader an excellent indication of how the modern Black Country Dialect sounds. Is it possible that the Mercians of the 11th Century also sounded a bit like this? The language structure and words used are certainly very similar.
For those of you wishing to study the dialect further, the Ancient Manor of Sedgley provides a fine dictionary of words and phrases [3 & 4]. It is not just the Black Country that uses Middle-English, some rural parts of Worcestershire do too. But that, dear reader, is for another article to come.
 An Atlas for Celtic Studies, Koch, John T (2007)
 Black Country Dialect, Conduit, Ed (2008) http://www.bbc.co.uk/blackcountry/content/articles/2006/11/29/black_country_dialect_academic_feature.shtml
 "Ow We Spake" http://www.sedgleymanor.com/dictionaries/dialect.html
 Black Country Sayings http://www.sedgleymanor.com/dictionaries/sayings.html
© 2014 Pollyanna Jones