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The Middle Ages
RP and its successors
The situation today
The British Isles have always been multilingual, despite a widespread belief to the contrary. The society which the Anglo-Saxons joined, in the fifth century, was linguistically highly varied. Our main source of information is Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written around 730, which opens with a statement recognizing the existence of a multi-ethnic and multilingual Britain.
"This island at present...contains five nations, the English, Britons, Scots, Picts, and Latins, each in its own peculiar dialect cultivating the sublime study of Divine truth."
So, in addition to English (as it would later be called) there was Latin, the Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Cumbrian, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic), and the intriguing Pictish, known only from a few names and inscriptions, which probably represents a European language from the days before the Indo-European invasions.
All these languages would have been spoken in different dialects, too. Latin existed in both classical and colloquial forms. And when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes arrived in England in 449, they brought with them a range of spoken varieties reflecting their origins in different parts of northern Europe.
Old English, as we have come to call the earliest stage of our language, evolved in a land which was full of migrants, raiders, mercenaries, temporary settlers, long-established families and people of mixed ethnic origins. Power bases were rapidly changing. The society was not numerically very large, but it was highly scattered, with people living in small communities, and groups continually on the move. These are ideal conditions for a proliferation of dialects.
Once in the country, mobility did not cease. Population growth within the Anglo-Saxon groups, plus continual pressure from new arrivals in the east, forced people to move inland. Although frequently halted by conflict with the British, the Anglo-Saxons rapidly spread throughout central, southern, and north-eastern England. By 600 they had reached the area of present-day Dorset, and occupied land north of the River Severn, across central England into Yorkshire, and north along the east coast towards the River Tyne.
The paths taken by the Anglians followed the major rivers. Some entered the country via the Wash, eventually moving north-west to form the kingdom of Lindsey. A major group moved south to form the kingdom of East Anglia. Some entered via the River Humber, taking the Trent tributary southwards towards central England: these came to be called Mercians (a name which meant 'marchmen' or 'borderers'). Some moved north from the Humber, along the Yorkshire River Ouse, forming the kingdom of Deira. Further north still, the kingdom of Bernicia was established.
Four of these Anglo-Saxon kingdoms gave us the names of the main Old English dialects: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian. They were the origins of the hundreds of accents and dialects known today.