What is West Midlands Dialect?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

West Midlands dialect may refer to a type of Modern English spoken in England in the West Midlands area. This may also be called Birmingham dialect or a Black Country accent. Some features of the modern West Midlands dialect include a strong g pronunciation of words ending in ng, the substitution of the verb am for are, and a b beginning to the verb to be. Such as bain’t rather than ain’t. Linguist specialists are sometimes even more interested in how West Midlands dialect works in Middle English, the intermediary form of English between Anglo-Saxon and Early Modern English that was both spoken and written from about 1150-1300 CE.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in East Midlands dialect.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in East Midlands dialect.

There are several important works of English literature written in the West Midlands dialect that date from this period, and most of them were discovered in a single manuscript. These works include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, an extended allegorical poem. The works date to approximately the same time Chaucer was writing, and like Chaucer they represent a move away from composing things in either French or Latin to instead writing in the common language. Chaucer wrote in East Midlands dialect, and there are many more examples of this dialect in written form than there are West Midlands dialect works.

The West Midlands dialect is spoken in England in the West Midlands area, around Birmingham.
The West Midlands dialect is spoken in England in the West Midlands area, around Birmingham.

Therefore, the unknown poet who penned Sir Gawain and Pearl (and there’s dispute on whether this poet is the same person) made an exceptionally important contribution to English literature. He wrote in a language that has since faded. East Midlands dialect is the main contributing source for Early Modern English. This makes translation of these works considerably difficult, since there are words and expressions not common in the East Midlands form.

Nevertheless, many have offered us translations of Sir Gawain and Pearl. One of the most celebrated of these is J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations. With his keen interest in the history of language development, Tolkien assiduously studied West Midlands dialect in order to write translations that are some of the most popular. Modern linguists do point to some disagreements on translation, but it is Tolkien who can be credited most with bringing these works the attention they deserve.

As mentioned, a number of words are unique to West Midlands Dialect. Even if you’re fairly good at reading Chaucer’s Middle English, you’ll run into words in Pearl and Sir Gawain that make absolutely no sense. Be sure, if you plan to read the original text of these works, that you find a copy that has a good glossary. Some peculiar words in the dialect include:

    Burn— man, warrior
    Mo— more moot
    Nimian— to take
    Sely-- blessed, happy, good
    Yghe— eye

The above are only a few examples of odd words that the dialect contains. In reading Middle English of West Midlands Dialect you will recognize many of the words if you’re already a Middle English buff. But the original work to attempt to define some of these words was hard going for early students of Middle English, since the dialect represents such a departure from Chaucer’s more common East Midlands dialect.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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