The vocalic inventory of late Old Northumbrian – Elisa Ramírez Pérez

For an enlarged version, click on the poster or download the file:

Abstracts page

Bios Page

Questions and feedback:

Northumbrian orthography vs etymological vowel: how to interpret and classify vowels when they do not match what is etymologically expected? Eg: North. loesian ‘to perish’ for losian.  

Do irregular spellings have phonological implications? Could they represent dialectal or idiolectal variants?


  • Mashael Assaadi

    Hi Elisa, Interesting study. While I am reading your poster I asked myself your second question! “Do irregular spellings have phonological implications?”

  • Elisa Ramirez

    Dear Mashael,

    Thank you for your comment!

    I’m afraid I couldn’t be much more specific in my questions due to space constraints, but what I meant is that there is a lot of variation in terms of spelling in Old English. Whenever I am faced with a new spelling or orthographic representation for a particular vowel/vowel sound in the texts I’m analysing, I wonder whether these other orthographic representations imply a change in pronunciation. For example, the Old English word gearwian ‘to prepare’ is very often rendered with in the root (georwige ‘you prepare’) as opposed to . So, does this change in terms of the spelling of the word mean that the pronunciation was changing? Is it perhaps just an alternative way of rendering the sound in writing (as with allophones)? Or could it be a peculiarity of a particular dialect or even scribe (dialectal or idiolectal variety)?

    I believe these are big questions which require a systematic analysis of the Old English spelling system. In terms of my project, what I aim to do is record all the attested spellings for the Northumbrian texts I am analysing. Once I have all the possible spellings for these Northumbrian texts, I may be able to identify if there are any patterns or systematic repetitions which may be illustrative of either sound change or dialectal/idiolectal variation.

    This is how I intend to go about spelling irregularities in Old English. But any feedback and/or suggestion to address this issue differently is greatly appreciated!

    Thanks again for your question, Mashael.


  • Andy Buerki

    Dear Elisa,
    This is a really nice poster – well done. With regard to your second question, it certainly seems, reading your own answer, that you are on the right track in dealing with these difficult challenges.

  • Ellie Bristow

    Hi Elisa, really great poster! I don’t have any answers to your questions (sorry!), but I was just wondering more generally what affect do you think your interpretation/reclassification of the weak vowels in Northumbrian and outcomes of your study may have on our understanding of the development of Old English dialects? I realise this is a very broad question but I am interested in the hypothesis you’re working from/the outcomes you predict.

    Best of luck with the development with this research! Very interested to see more about what you continue to discover!

    Best wishes,

  • Elisa Ramirez

    Dear Andy and Ellie,

    Thank you for your kind comments!

    It is definitely a challenging issue, especially because there isn’t much literature available on the phonological peculiarities of Northumbria. In fact, Stenbrenden’s book which I reference focuses on changes to Middle English long vowels, bus she makes a series of sound hypotheses regarding the quality of vowels in the Northern dialects of Old English, without which vowels in Middle English would not have developed as they did.

    So, on the one hand, Ellie, to reply to your question, my project may be able to shed some light on the vocalic system of Northumbrian. To be honest, based on the data I have collected thus far, I do not think it will be very different from the system already posited by the historical linguists I reference on my poster (Hogg, Minkova, etc). But I am definitely seeing some divergences, particularly in terms of the vocalic digraphs, which may render interesting results.

    On the second hand, in terms of the development of the Old English dialects, I believe my project will have a more substantial impact. As you may already know, I am studying the morphology of weak verbs in Old Northumbrian because while I was working on my MPhil dissertation I noticed that these verbs seemed to be changing, i.e. they were losing some of their morphological characteristics which rendered them distinct classes. In addition to analysing the state of weak verbs in Northumbrian texts, I will also be comparing it to weak verbs from texts attesting other dialects. To this end, I have already collected data from one section of the Rushworth Gospels which is written in the Old Mercian dialect, generally considered to be a more conservative (or regular) dialect. Based on the preliminary results obtained during my MPhil investigation, as well as existing research I reviewed last year, I expect my project to reveal that there was indeed a dialectal split in terms of how the morphology of weak verbs developed and how it was recorded in writing. Specifically, I expect the Northumbrian texts to exhibit a more reduced or simplified verbal system than the Mercian texts.

    Thanks again for your comments and support!


  • Kate Kavanagh

    Hi Elisa, I just wanted to say well done on producing this clear and well laid out poster. I’m afraid your questions are completely out of my sphere of knowledge, but I look forward to hearing how your interesting work progresses! I also wonder what size your data sets are likely to be for different words, as there must only be limited texts available to you in Old Northumbrian? Cheers :)

  • Gerard O'Grady

    Hi Eliza. Thanks for the poster and a clear explanation of a nice and novel project. One thing I was wondering is how rich is the dataset upon which you can base your reconstruction. Your work is also based on a region where despite the political domination of the Saxon incomers the majority of the population were probably Celtic and very possibly Celtic speaking. And therefore I wonder if it is worth considering whether there are any possible influences from Celtic in the phonology

  • Mel Pattison

    Hi Elisa,
    This is a really interesting poster. I wonder if you’ve considered what these vowels have evolved into when considering present day dialects (and if they are still evident in this area).
    It could be possible that irregular spellings represent dialectal differences but I think that spelling conventions would be fairly inconsistent in the absence of a standardised form.

  • Katharine Young

    Hi Elisa. This is a really interesting poster, thank you for sharing your research! I remember from your PGR presentation a few months back that you found glosses to be a potential indicator of orthographical variation existing between individual scribes, which I think relates to your second question… (correct me if I’m wrong!) Is there evidence from the other dialects from this period where orthographical variation can be observed in a similar way?

  • Elisa Ramirez

    Dear Kate and Gerard,

    Thank you very much for your encouraging comments and for the questions.

    Regarding my dataset, I’m afraid it won’t be very extensive, as you are both right in pointing out that there are very few Northumbrian texts. I am currently analysing late Old Northumbrian (9th-10th C.), and there are only three (religious) texts which attest this variety: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Rushworth Gospels (only partially), and the Durham Ritual. Another complication is that these texts are all translations into Old English from Latin… So, yes, my dataset will unfortunately not be very extensive. However, as far as I have been able to tell thus far, these three religious texts are quite repetitive in terms of the lexical items used to render certain Latin lemmas. So the fact that I’ve got quite a few words/verbs which are spelled in a variety of ways might allow me to work out patterns and correspondences. Although I am fully aware (acknowledging Mel’s comment above) that a further complication to my research is the fact that, in the absence of a (written) standard, spelling irregularities are much more harder to interpret and account for.

    In terms of Celtic phonology, Gerard, I will be honest in acknowledging that I had not thought about any possible linguistic ‘interferences’. But thank you so much for bringing it up because, after having read your comment, I remembered a paper which suggested that some of the peculiarities in Lindisfarne in terms of orthography (i.e. the use of double consonants to indicate a preceding short vowel; double vowels to indicate vowel length, etc), could have been the result of influence from Celtic scribes and their glossing practice. So phonological influence in Northumbria is perfectly plausible, too!

    Thanks again for your comments!


  • Elisa Ramirez

    Dear Mel and Katharine,

    Thanks for your kind words and comments.

    Mel, to reply to your question, I have only looked into Middle English phonology and orthography, particularly recent studies which have included Northern data in them. But I absolutely agree with you in that it’s important to look at later stages in the language to see how these vowels and their orthographic representation evolved (particularly when I have so very few Northumbrian texts to start with!). But, as you can tell, I hadn’t considered present day dialects, so thank you for your suggestion! It’s definitely an area I have to explore.

    Katharine, regarding your comment, I think you’re absolutely right regarding double and multiple glosses. As far as I can tell, they are often used to introduce alternants from a morphological perspective. My supervisor Sara Pons-Sanz also discovered that they are used in a similar way to introduce Norse loanwords, so it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that these glosses, perhaps, introduced phonological variants, too. It is undeniable that phonology and morphology go hand in hand, therefore one of my tasks is to become more aware of any potential phonological changes going on while I look at the morphology, which is the primary focus of my project.

    Finally, with regard to orthographical and glossing conventions in other Old English dialects, I’m afraid I don’ know much. Clearly another topic I have to look into! As part of my MPhil thesis, I did analyse briefly some Old Mercian. Because I intend to reanalyse this Old Mercian text for my PhD project, I will take you up on your suggestion to look at double and multiple glosses on this text not only from a morphological viewpoint, but also from a phonological one.

    Thanks again to everybody so far for all your helpful comments, questions and suggestions. As you can see, you’ve given me a lot to think about and work on, and I’m immensely grateful!


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