"Sir Gawain and The Green Knight". A linguistic analysis including noticable features of the Northwestern medieval dialect

Essay, 2015

6 Pages, Grade: 8/10



The purpose of this essay is to present an analysis of the Middle English Romance, Sir

Gawain and The Green Knight, focusing on phonological, orthographical, morphological and etymological features that appear in this extract. As Sir Gawain and The Green Knight was written in the Northwest Midlands, some of the features typical of West Midland and Northern dialect are bound to be found in the text.


As a Middle English text, it is written in the Latin alphabet. Yet, it retains the runic character thorn (þ), which represents a fricative sound (both voiced and unvoiced), it would be later on replaced by the digraph -th. Another runic character tended to appear in OE texts, this is the letter Wynn (Ƿ ƿ), Wynn or rather ' ƿ' represents the sound /w/ and is the equivalent letter to Middle English and Modern English letter -w. Unlike thorn, Wynn is indeed substituted for its equivalent Latin character (-w). In fact, in the text we will find words like 'watz' or wyl' written with -w instead of Wynn.

Similarly, we find the medieval letter yogh (Ȝ), which is equivalent to a g- velar sound. It it would eventually be substituted by letter -g.

With regard to the long vowel -a (when the sound was equivalent to /a:/), in some dialects of Middle English (such as in London, East Midland or West Midland) becomes -o. An example that can be found in the text is the spelt of "mony" instead of "many", although this latter spelling can be found as a feature in northern dialects' texts.

There are a few alternate spellings of a same word. This reflects the fact that there was actually no official or standard written form of the English language in the medieval period. For example, the word 'erde' (27th line) can be also found as erthe (4th line) or 'wyth' (15th line) as with (32th line).

Some linking words containing -wh in Present-Day English, such as when or while, adopted the orthographic feature of -qu as a result of the Norman-French influence. Thus, in the text we can find 'quile' instead of 'while' or 'quen' instead of 'when'. But, it is important to emphasise that this characteristic does not enclose all the Present-Day linking words that appear in a Middle-English form in this fragment, what I mean is that the word 'where' (in line 16th) is not found as 'quere' in the text.


Middle English still preserves some inflections, yet not as many as in Old English. This might be because Middle English is a language that can be described as a boundary between synthetic and analytic languages.

To begin with ME (Middle English) vowels in inflectional endings shifted to what it is known as "indeterminate vowel", which came to be written as -e. This feature is found in the text. For example in adjectives like 'wele' (Moderm English well), nouns like 'worlde' (Modern English world) or determinants like alle (Modern English all) boþe (Modern English both).

Secondly, the verbal present participle had originally the suffix '-ende'/'-inde' but later, it became -ing (spelt as -yng in the text).


Sir Gawain and The Green Knight phonological features corresponds to those of the Cheshire dialect, a county located in the Northwestern Midlands.

According to a study done by the California State University, the vowel 'a' corresponded to the sound /a/. In fact, some words from the extract containing this sound are: hat (4th line), watz (26th line) or age (54th line). Secondly, 'e' was pronounced as a /ə/ in unstressed syllables whilst -e placed in final position tended to be silent (such as in highe, line 5th), but it was occasionally pronounced for rhythmic reasons. Furthermore, the vowel 'i' might have been pronounced as /ɪ/ in words like 'riche' or 'swithe' except for some cases where equate to /aɪ/ such as in 'I' (line 26th). It is important to remark that the sound /ɪ/ could be spelt as -i or -y, since phonologically both letters were interchangeable as it has been previously mentioned (compare: 'wyth' and 'with'). Besides, the vowel 'o' was pronounced as a short 'o' like in the Modern English word 'hot', and these words (found in the extract) are: 'flod' (line 13th) or 'bot' (line 30th) , another pronunciation pattern attributed to 'o' is similar to the stressed syllable of 'stone' in Present-Day English, some examples of this are: “boþe” or “þo”. Moreover, 'o' could be pronounced as in the vowel of Modern English 'look', an example of this feature is 'worlde'. Just like the former example, the letter 'u' was also pronounced as Modern English “look”.

Regarding the consonantal sounds, The letter yogh can be often found in the extract and refers to several sounds. For example, it could be pronounced as -z/-s (especially in final position), also as /j/ (especially at the beginning of words) and as /x/ and /ç/ when it appears before -t or at the end of word after -a, -o, -u (such as in borȜt).

The letters 'þ' and 'th' , used interchangeably, make reference to the sound /θ/ or /ð/. The sound of 'wh' (in words like 'where') is aspirated, this is, it is pronounced as -hw. Apart of -wh or -hw sound is also spelt 'w' and 'qu' in the poem. The diagraph -sch (as in 'schal') represents the sound /ʃ/.


To begin with the present participle suffix, it adopts the -ing (spelt as -yng) instead of -ande

(Northern early Middle English present participle suffix) or -ende (West Midland early Middle English present participle suffix). This shift from -ande/-ende means that the date of composition was in the Late Middle Ages.

Another noticeable feature with reference to participles is that the past participle loses its -ge preffix. For instance: Compare Old English: 'gemæte' with Middle English 'mete'.

Next, plurals are formed by adding -s or -es (homes, trammes, ferlyes) such as to the root of the word. In comparison to Old English plural suffixes, Middle English adopts a more regular system of word formation, possibly, as a result of the Norman-French invasion.

Apart from this, some cases of inflectional endings are retained, such as the genitive, adopting - ez/-z in the extract. An example is: 'An outtrage awenture of Arthurez' (line 29th). The -ez of Arthurez is a genitive inflectional suffix that retained in Late Middle English.

Lastly, it should highlighted additionally the -st mark for forming superlatives, this feature has been retained up to Modern English. Words containing this suffix in the text are: Comlokest (line 52th) or lovelokkest (line 53th)


The vast majority of the words from the extract are of Germanic origin (Anglo-Saxon). All these evolved directly from Old English up to Middle English.. These are: borȜ (OE 'burg'), brittened (OE 'brytnian'), brondez (OE 'brond'), trewest (OE 'trew'), athel (OE æthele), kynde (OE '([ge]- kinde'), bicome (OE 'becuman'), erthe (OE 'eard'), welneȜe (OE 'welneah/welnēh' ME 'nearly), of (OE 'of'), wele (OE 'wela') etc. Yet, we can find some words of Anglo-Saxon origin affected by French orthography such as: quile (instead of while) or quen (instead of when).

Concerning the lexical borrowings found in Middle English, terms of Old Norse and NormanFrench origin are the most numerous. Nevertheless, we can find a minority of words of Latin origin and those make reference to mythological/historical characters or places.

The lexical borrowings from Old Norse are: brent (ON 'brenna'), askez (ON 'aska'), fro (ON frá), gret (from ON, cp OI 'grjot'), biges (Uncertain Scandinavian origin), neven/nevenes (ON 'nefna'), bonkkes (from ON 'banki'), boþe (ON 'bádir', cp. ODan. 'bód'), blunder (ON 'blunda'), skete (Unknown Old Norse origin, cp. OI 'skjotr'), skyfted (Unknown Old Norse origin, cp. OI 'skifta'), bigged (past particple of bigges, ON 'byggva'), ferlyes (ON 'ferligr'), bult (Uncertain Scandinavian origin, cp. Swedish 'bulta'), tit (ON 'titt'), attle (ON 'ætla'), stad (ON 'staddr'), tulkes (ON 'tulkr'), kayred (ON 'keyra'), glaum (ON 'glaumr'), hap (ON 'happ'), þay (ON 'þeir'), wylle (ON 'villr') ) and lyftes (from ON 'lypta'). Whilst, lexical borrowings from French are: segge (OF 'sege'), assaut (OF 'assaut'), trammes (OF 'traime'), tresoun (OF 'traison'), tricherie (OF 'tricherie'), depreced (OF 'depresser'), provinces (OF 'province'), patrounes (OF 'patron'), iles (Old French 'îles'), riche (Although its early procedence was Germanic, this word was re- introduced by the French influence 'riche'), bobbaunce (from Old French), aune (OF 'aune'), Lumbardie (from OF), Langaverde (from OF), Tuskan (OF 'Tuscane'), werre (OF 'werre'), Bretayn (OF 'Bretaigne') baret (OF 'barat),aunter/awenture (OF 'aventure'), laye (OF 'lai'), outtrage (OF 'outrage'), stori (Anglo-French, estorie, from OF 'estoire'), lel (OF 'lëal'/lëel'), lettere (OF 'letre'/'lettre', cognate to Latin 'litera'), best (OF 'beste'), rounde (OF 'rëont'), table (OF 'table', from Latin 'tabula'), revel (OF 'revel'), tournayed (OF 'tourneier'/'torneier'), justed (OF 'juster'), jolile (OF 'jolif'), gentyle (OF 'gentil'), court (OF 'curt'/'cort'), caroles (OF 'carole'/'charole'), avyse (OF 'avyser'), daunsyng (OF 'dancer'/'danser'), chambrez (OF 'chamber'/'chaumber'), Krystes (OF 'Christ', though its origin is greek), age (OF 'aage'/'eage'), nye (OF 'nid'), hardy (OF 'hardi').

Words of Latin origin are Romulus and Rome, Ticius and, Felix Brutus since they make a

reference to Roman mythology. Bretayn (from Latin Britannia), Arthurez (latin name) and Troye. In the text we can find as well, words of Greek etymology such as nome (from Clasical Greek 'νόμος' nomos).


In sum, Sir Gawain and The Green Knight was written in the late Middle Ages and thus, we can observe certain changes that started to occur at that time. Additionally, it had been originally composed in the Northwestern dialect. This is why we can notice some characteristics that diverge in phonology, grammar or orthography with respect to other varieties of Middle English. For example: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in the English spoken in London at that time, presents different features that are said to be easier to comprehend for speakers of Modern English than the ones found in the text we have analysed.


Unknown author. Middle English word list: West Midland dialect. [PDF Document]. Retrieved from: https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/ME_Wordlist-Midlands.pdf

Erthe (n.d). In Wiktionary online. Retrieved from: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/erthe

Welneghe (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/structure.html

Burrow, J. A., & Turveille-Petre, Thorlac. (2005). Glossary: In Blackwell Publishing Ltd (Ed.), A book of Middle English (363-419). Maiden, MA: Blackwell publishing Ltd

Skete (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED40656

Skyfted (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED40672

Bretayn/Britaine (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED6078

Lel (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED25084

Rounde (n.d) In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED37977

Table (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED44346

Tulkes (n.d). In Middle English dictionary. Retrieved from: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED47337


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"Sir Gawain and The Green Knight". A linguistic analysis including noticable features of the Northwestern medieval dialect
University of Castile-La Mancha  (Faculty of Letters)
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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Inglés Antiguo, Inglés Medieval, Historia de la lengua Inglesa, Lingüística Inglesa, Lingüística Histórica
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Angela Camara Rojo (Author), 2015, "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight". A linguistic analysis including noticable features of the Northwestern medieval dialect, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/419619


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