Archive for December 9, 2009

Who were the Mercians?

December 9, 2009 8 comments

As we all know, dialects descending from Mercian eventually succeeded in driving all other Anglosaxon dialects in virtual extinction: including West Saxon, our most copious source of Old English writing, that must have been the southern neighbour of Mercian at the time of king Penda of Mercia. The dialects developed into Middle English and modern English. Kitson (1997):

Accidents of subsequent history […] caused the dialect of an area of the south-east midlands which for a while was in the Danelaw to become the most direct ancestor of modern standerd English. But these were not the areas of prime literary and cultural importance in either Old English or early Middle English. […] The most important for literature, and most standardized, of early Middle English dialects was the so called AB Language […], certainly of somewhere in north Herefordshire.

Important texts for the reconstruction of the evolution of Middle English out of Old English are the Ormulum, the Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group and Ayenbite of Inwyt. The language of the Ormulum (12th century) is an East Midlands dialect; the dialect of Ancrene Wisse and the Katherine Group is referred to as AB language: The term coined in 1929 by J.R.R. Tolkien who noted that the dialect of both manuscripts is highly standardized, pointing to “a ‘standard’ language based on one in use in the West Midlands in the 13th century.”; Ayenbite of Inwyt was written over a century later in a Kentish dialect (1340).
Chancery Standard, used from the late 14th century onward for administrative purposes, was largely based on the London and East Midland dialects, for those areas were the political and demographic centres of gravity.

These Mercian dialects happened to represent the Ingveonic developments on both sides of the Northsea, more than any other Anglosaxon dialect we know. Part of this shared development is documented in Anglo-Frisian runes. Looijenga:

“The early English and Frisian runic traditions used a fuþork of 26 letters, i.e. the common Germanic fuþark extended with two additional runes: [4] and [25]. The new graphemes were obviously needed to represent phonemes developed from the allophones of long and short as the results of Ingveonic soundchanges”

For all we know the changes were analogous in Anglosaxon and Frisian and a unique testimony of shared developments. The divide only started in Period II: “From the 7th century onwards, runic writing in England underwent a separate development”.
Hence, the end of the Anglo-Frisian tradition and the start of a distinct Anglo-saxon runic tradition are dated at about 700 AD.

D. Minkova (2003) admits the abundant use of alliteration in the Anglo-Saxon records is hardly illuminating for the proposed phenemic splits often hypothetized to explain certain “Frisian” linguistic features that only emerge in Middle English. In particular, this involved the transition of Old English ‘k’ into ‘ch’ /t$/. An example is the etymological changes of the word ‘church’, being ‘chirche’ in Middle English while still ‘cirice’in Old English. The Frisian equivalent is ‘tjerke’.

In the philological literature […] positing an early phonemicization of [k’] to /t$/ has seemed an analytical imperative because the need to keep the cinn ‘chin’ set of words distinct from the set of words containing secondarily palatized [k’-], as in cynn ‘kin’ […] The logic is that the phonemicization of [k’-] to /t$/ has to precede I-Umlaut, otherwise cinn and cynn would have fallen together.

[…] indiscriminate alliteration on ‘c-‘, irrespective of the etymology and quality of the following vowel, occurs throughout the entire Old English period, with examples from the earliest texts to [..] The Death of Edward (1065).

The assumption that alliteration in the Anglo-Saxon records is illuminating entails that the split of early Old English /k/ into [k] and [t$] did not occur until the end of the tenth century, or even somewhat later. Within English historical phonology, this is a bold hypothesis, adjusting the record by at least one, and as much as four, centuries, depending on which scholar’s work one believes in.

The development of /t$/ in Middle English is thus a well-understood typological process which various linguistic models can accomodate well. The phonetic and structural naturalness of the change of [k] to [t$], however, is independent of its dating.

Even if the development can be seen as contributing to the stability of the Middle English consonant system, for Old English this argument can be abandoned.

Minkova summarized the conflict between the evidence in Old English verse and the accepted linguistic reconstruction thus:

Early OE Late OE
Alliteration: ‘c-‘ and ‘c-‘ ‘c-‘ and ‘c-‘
Reconstruction: [k] and [k’] /k/ and /t$/

Obviously, nothing changed in the use of Old English alliteration that could backup the accepted linguistic reconstruction of k-affrication. To solve this problem of a credible transition between Old English and Middle English, Minkova proposes the following:

[…] [k’] should be split into two subtypes, [kj] and [k’]. Here is my proposal […]
Hogg (1979) was the first to point out that the chronological ordering of palatalization/affrication of [k’] to [t$] prior to I-Umlaut is not at all straightforward, nor, as I will show below, is it necessary.

500-700 AD: split between [kj] and [k]
700-800 AD: I-Mutation [k] => [k’] and [k]
1000 AD – ME: [kj] => [t$].

Thus, Minkova proposes a phenemic split in Old Englsh that can’t be traced in Old English literature ‘for a reason’, but whose effects would only become current in the first attestations of Midland dialects, commonly attribued a huge influence on the development of Middle English and Modern English. How we can make sure this proposal really applies to the attested body of Wessex Old English literature? The split can’t be attested directly in Old English and moreover has to deal with a “conumdrum” of discrepancies, that one way or the other point to hybridization: of related languages like Norse – or of closely related dialects within the Anglosaxon hemisphere. Minkova was obliged to stress the importance of crossovers in the phenemic transition:

[…] crossovers which must be due to unrecoverable paradigmatic and external factors […] these are the leaky edges of a generally tight filter of constraints […] Some such pairs are care-chary, cold-chill, kettle-chettel (dial.), kirk-church, and, word-medially, the histories of milk – milch, muckle (dial.) – much, seek – beseech, -wick – -wich.

Minkova’s assessment of hypothetized intermediate stages in the process towards k-affrication is interesting

It is well established that the progressive coronalization of the velars and their affrication is a lenition process, and that lenition is positionally determined. The ninth-century data are therefore interpretable straightforwardly as the first step in the process which results in across-the-board phonemic contrast between the voiceless velars and the palatals in the eleventh century.
In comparison, the development of affricates in root-initial positions was slowed down due to the strength of the onset: identity is preserved longest in that position, especially if the onset belongs to a stressed syllable. It is this fundamental destribution privilege which allows all root-initial voiceless velars to continue to be identified as belonging to the same linguistic entity until much later

His assessment is backed up by amazingly few examples:

The earliest scribal evidence of affrication in Old English comes from spellings, as in ‘to fetch'< *fetjan
Hogg (1992) assumes that such spellings, common in late West Saxon, attest to affricated pronunciation, at least for the sequence dental stop + /j/, "by at the latest the beginning of the ninth century."
[note 81: …] but he cites no evidence supporting the assumption.

Unfortunately, this “feccan” example is hampered by the observation that “to fetch” finds cognates in O.Fris. fatia “to grasp, seize, contain,” Dutch vatten, German fassen, that firmly contradict any specific Old English soundchange.

Minkova’s hypothetic phenemic split, however, happened to concur with Looijenga’s Period I of runic inscriptions (until 700 AD) that attest shared developments of an Anglo-Frisian nature.
Indeed, such a shared development would hardly make sense after 715 AD, when Frisian hegemony was already destroyed by the Franks, and Frisian traders for sure didn’t play a major role in the Midlands. Reminiscent contact was bound to vanish altogether with the Vikings, well before the very first attestations of k-affrication in English literature. Additional induction towards this change at any later date is out of the question, and also Post-Conquest loans and formations […] do not go through the same process.

The question arises if earlier ‘Frisian’ northsea penetrations into Mercia thus wouldn’t supply a better explanation. This would have been contemporary to the Anglo-Frisian runic tradition along the English east coast and may have been still traceable in the Mercian history about the time of king Penda and his father Pybba.

Mercia has a remarkable history. It is considered Anglian and Northumbria claimed it as a province, though Penda and his successors spend their lives fighting wars with all of their neighbours. Mercia is thought to derive from an Old English equivalent of “Mark”, probably referring to the borderland between Anglia and Saxon territory, though the Mercians hardly see this as an implicit obligation to represent Northumbrian power and its expansion to the south: Mercia presents itself as more than a breakaway Anglian kingdom, with Penda it adopts an ambitious policy to subdue Britain and fights Northumbians as well as East Anglians and as a declared heathen probably was also dedicated to deal with the last vestiges of Frankish influence. Mercia was without doubt the most powerful kingdom during much of its existence, and still always remained an outsider: none of their powerful kings were ever recognized as Bretwalda.

So how could this political situation exist? Probably we need an assessment of who the Mercians really were. However, this question can’t be resolved without an assessment of the Anglosaxon identity.
According to Harris Bede’s Gens Anglorum is “not about the Angles, but about a tribe who shares constituative ethnic or socially binding characteristics connoted in the name “Angle.

In asking about the actual composition of Bede’s gens Anglorum, we ought to consider Wolfram’s caution, which comes in the shape of a definition too broad to be of any practical use. In his History of the Goths, he notes, “A gens is . . . a fraction of a tribe as much as a confederation of several ethnic units.” Considering, then, that Bede’s gens Anglorum might not actually refer to an ethnically homogenous group, we may conclude that ethnic or tribal identity, rather than being a material or physical quality, belongs instead to the realm of received or proffered myths and names.
Thus, it appears the name “Anglian” already achieved a political connotation at the time of Bede, that included the whole island as a nation rather than being a tribal entity. This whole circumstance puts the powerful Mercian outsider in a whole different context.

Harris: Wormald claims that the term gens Anglorum is an ecclesiastical designation, ultimately borrowed from Gregory the Great’s letters to Augustine: What this meant was that, from Theodore’s arrival at the latest, all Anglo-Saxons were exposed to a view of themselves as a single people before God a people who, though they lived in “Britannia” or “Saxonia” and though they called themselves Saxons as well as Angles, were known in Heaven as the “gens Anglorum.”

Whereas the tribes of the Jutes and the Saxons (and the Picts and the British Irish, for that matter) are divided between those Jutes and Saxons who make their homes in Britain and those who make their homes elsewhere, Bede notes that the Angles are whole, united, and integral.

The interpretation of Harris is that all invading tribes thus must have been “Angles” according to Bede. However, the opposite may be true as well: that none of the invading tribes were necessarily considered a constituent part of “gens Anglorum”, since Bede considered this an ecclesiastical designation. The heathen Mercian least of all.

The position of Mercians as heathen antagonists was confirmed by the presumably 7th century hoard found in Staffordshire, captured from their opponents. Religious strife was already attested at this early period by the inscription that was translated thus: “Rise up O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.” The question of who is who within the early Anglosaxon world, and what differences between germanic culture and the Roman heritage really entail, seems to be more complicated than thought.

Thus being distinct from other Anglosaxons, who were the Mercians?

Few if any archeological remains are available to give clarity on their precise ethnic affiliations. Nearby Birmingham seems to be founded by “Beorsma’s people”, that probably belonged to the same group. Beorsma, it is funny that anybody in the Netherlands would associate such a name directly to typical Frisian surnames: Boersma, Bouma, Beetsma to name just a few. Would it be fruitful to link Mercia to the Anglo-Frisian North-Sea runic tradition, and investigate the feasability of Frisians sailing up the Trent to become the forebears of Mercians?

It is noteworthy that, despite the formulaic claim to descent from Woden, some suggest that none of the names of Penda, his father Pybba and his son Peada have very convincing Anglo-Saxon etymologies.

Is there any relation to the Frisian-Frankish tradition to employ simplified nicknames? Pibe is a Frisian name and strongly reminds to Pipin, the name of several important Frankish dukes including the father of Charlemagne (also derived from a nickname). I wonder if employing such kind of nicknames (compare also nicknames like Pacho in Spanish ~Francisco) could be classified as English at all.

In the northeast the midland dialects follow the dividing line of unexploited wetlands in the Humber valley. The dialects of Kesteven and Holland belong to the Midland dialect group whereas north Lincolnshire belongs to the North England group. Even though from there the road to Mercia followed the only route through dry land, wetlands were exploited in the Midlands. Like southern Lincolnshire and East Anglia, the Midlands has brooks and worths and probably terp-like structures along the rivers as well. How likely it would be that Tamworth just refers to the Old English meaning of “enclosure” when it was build along the river Tame that is susceptible to spectacular flooding at the village of Hopwas between Tamworth and Lichfield during periods of heavy autumnal rain? Etymologically, the worth enclosure derives from woven wood. According to De Vries, Old English “wer” was also dam in a river made of woven branches reinforced with earth. Compare the “wet” connotation in Old Norse “ver”, a place for fishing along the coast. The name Tamworth thus is consistent to the view that people talking a dialect similar to Frisian found their way from the wetlands of Holland (England) and the surroundings of Loveden Hill to the early centers of power in Mercia.

The Humber estuary and Trent river happen to be close to the source of the earliest runes that attest Friso-Anglian soundshift in a new rune (‘ac“). Looijenga: “In England the oldest attestation of ac may be Loveden Hill hlaw, 5th or 6th c.”. They come from a pot that is linked directly to the continent, though some features also point to affinities with Kent and a “Jutish connection”.

Would there have been a “Frisian” route to Mercian Tamworth/Birmingham that passed through Loveden Hill? This location is at Hough-on-the-Hill (north of Grantham), within 2 kilometers of Frieston. Between Grantham and Tamworth, where the core of the Tomsaetan settled and once capital of Mercia, you’ll find Frisby-on-the-Wreake just before Leicester, that by the way is just west of another Frisby. It may be true that the Frisians left few topononyms, though here the concentration is remarkable high. On the other hand, Hough-on-the-Hill and nearby Hougham may suggest the involvement of their Chauci neighbours as well. The first terps already turn up in Holland e.g. in Pinchbeck, about 20 miles away from Loveden Hill, or even closer in Gosberton and Quadring.

Also genetically a strong Frisian connection to the Mercian Midlands could possibly make more sense:

[…] Y chromosome haplotypes in a sample of 313 males from seven towns located along an east-west transect from East Anglia to North Wales. The Central English towns were genetically very similar, whereas the two North Welsh towns differed significantly both from each other and from the Central English towns. When we compared our data with an additional 177 samples collected in Friesland and Norway, we found that the Central English and Frisian samples were statistically indistinguishable. (Weale et al, 2002)

More recently, a new subclade of R1b-U106 was found defined by mutation L257, whose members – five presumably geographic clusters have so far been identified – have the tendency to pop up in regions that may tell a specific Frisian story. Without being deluded by the scanty evidence, paper trails show that L257 most probably was already firmly rooted in Scotland (1000 AD), the Netherlands (1500) and Switzerland (1400). It is too early to decide this mutation may be typical as well to regions without some sort of Frisian tradition.

One possibility is the Scottish cluster of L257 is reminiscent of the Roman-Frisian presence along the Hadrian Wall, as archeologically attested by Housesteads Ware finds. This pottery has a strong relationship to contemporary pottery found in the northern part of the Netherlands. Jobey (1979) published about its relationship to “Frisian pottery” in Frisia, Groningen and Zuid Holland. New finds in Noord Holland can be added: Schagen, Uitgeest, Assendelver Polders, possibly the island of Texel. It has been dated between the first and fourth century AD, sometimes identified by the name Tritsum pottery that is a subdivision of what in Dutch is known as “Streepband-aardewerk” (something like “stripe strip pottery”), that by this name has been found all over along the Dutch coastal areas. The “oldest” Swiss/Dutch cluster of L257 (defined by U106*-like DYS464X=cccg) was found in the neighborhood of Aargau, northern Swiss. A peculiar Swiss tradition has it that Swiss was populated in the Migration Period by a considerable contigent of Frisians:

[…] in a chronicle written by one John Pfintiner of Uri, about 1414. In the Waldstetten the ethnographical legend of that chronicle
(which has perished) found, of course, ready credence and great favour. It was soon improved by Johann Friind, State Secretary of Schwyz, who composed an enlarged and embellished version of it. This official annalist gave most liberal details of the emigration of the Waldstetten people from Sweden and Frisia, and derives the name of Swiz, subsequently changed into Schwyz, from one of their leaders called Swyterus. (Buchheim 1871, p.xlvii)

A third cluster is also present in the Netherlands (where we could expect a presumably Frisian SNP), while the fourth has an undefined distribution in England. The fifth cluster, however, is specifically linked to one surname, Waters, that originates in Shropshire, Mercian territory.

Any Frisian legacy in Mercia may be against the “gut feelings” of those searching for the same trivial ethnical “family-traits” that may be so much easier to discern in other apparent Frisian relatives: just think about the unfamous Dutch/Swiss/Scottish “thriftiness”, Calvinism or other typical attitudes of the kind. However, in Mercia the hypothetized impact of this ethnic component, at the onset and in the aftermatch of the Migration Period, would appear rather attenuated. Notwithstanding the genetic results of Weale et al. (2002), Celtic influence on English was recently found to be greater than previously thought:

Although Laker’s investigation did reveal that Celtic influence on English was stronger than expected, such influence was not found in all regions of Britain. Very little influence was identified in dialects of southern England, namely in those varieties that were most influential to the formation of southern standard English pronunciations. By far most Celtic influence was identified in traditional northern English dialects (Universiteit Leiden News, 2010)

Major groupings in between include East Anglian English and Midlands English. The genetic cline east-to-west may be indicative of another Celtic substrate maximum in the western Midlands in particular, potentially able to supercede the importance of reminiscent continental influences.


  • Dennis Freeborn – From Old English to Standard English: a course book in language variation, 1998, link
  • Donka Minkova – Alliteration and sound change in early English, 2003, link
  • Steven Bassett – Anglo-Saxon Birmingham, 2000, link
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. (1929), “Ancrene Wisse and Hali Meiðhad”, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association 14: 104–126
  • Robert van de Noort – Where are Yorkshire’s ‘Terps’? Wetland exploitation in the early medieval period, 2000, University of Exeter, link
  • J.H. Looijenga – Runes around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150-700; Texts & Contents, 1997, University of Groningen, link
  • Stephen J. Harris – Bede, Social Practice, and the Problem with Foreigners, Essays in Medieval Studies 13 (1998), 97-107, link
  • Peter R. Kitson – When did Middle English begin? Later than you think! – Studies in Middle English linguistics/edited by Jacek Fisiak (1997), link
  • Michael E. Weale et al. – Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration, 2002, link
  • L257, A North Sea Tribe – Y-DNA Profiles
  • C.A Buchheim – German Classics: Lessing, Goethe, Schiller. Volume II – Wilhelm Tell, a Drama by Schiller, 1871, link
  • Stephen Laker – British Celtic influence on English phonology, 2010, link