West Saxon dialect

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West Saxon was one of four distinct dialects of Old English. The three others were Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian (the latter two were very similar and are known as the Anglian dialects).

There were two varieties of the West Saxon dialect: Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon.

Early West Saxon was the language employed by King Alfred (849–899). It is probably best thought of as Anglo-Saxon, since it seems to have been a mixture of Anglian, Kentish and West Saxon. It is often referred to as Alfredian or Alfredian Old English. By the eleventh century, the Alfredian language had been replaced by Late West Saxon.[1] following the Athewoldian language reform set in train by Bishop Athelwold of Winchester. The name most associated with that reform is that of Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham, Aelfric the Grammarian.

Late West Saxon was the dialect that became the first standardised written "English" ("Winchester standard"). This dialect was spoken mostly in the south and west around the important monastery at Winchester, which was also the capital city of the Saxon kings. However, while other Old English dialects were still spoken in other parts of the country, it seems that all scribes wrote and copied manuscripts in this prestigious written form. Well-known poems recorded in this language include Beowulf and Judith. However, both these poems appear to have been written originally in other Old English dialects, but later translated into the standard Late West Saxon literary language when they were copied by scribes.

Confusingly, although Late West Saxon is usually referred to as Old English, modern English is descended from the East Midland dialect which is Anglian; not West Saxon.

In the Wessex Gospels from around 990, the text of Matthew 6:9–13, the Lord's Prayer, is as follows:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
si þin nama gehalgod.
To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa,
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
and forgyf us ure gyltas,
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge,
ac alys us of yfele.

The "Winchester standard" gradually fell out of use after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Monasteries did not keep the standard going because English bishops were soon replaced by Norman bishops who brought their own Latin textbooks and scribal conventions, and there was less need to copy or write in Old English. Latin soon became the "language for all serious writing", with Anglo-Norman as the language of the aristocracy, and any standard written English became a distant memory by the mid-twelfth century as the last scribes trained as boys before the conquest in West Saxon, died as old men.

Low Late West Saxon is the distant ancestor of the West Country dialects.


  1. ^ Old English Plus. "Appendix 1."
  2. ^ The Anglo-Saxon Version of the Holy Gospels, Benjamin Thorpe, 1848, p.11.