There were four dialects:
- Northumbrian (the Runic Texts)
- Mercian (Translation of the Psalter (9th century) and hymns)
- West-Saxon (king Alfred 849 – 900, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle 891, works of the abbot Ælfric 10 century)
- Kentish (Translation of Psalms L – LXX and old charters)
In the 5th century AD, when first Germanic colonists made landfall in England, there was no Old English. All tribes arriving in the British Isles, spoke their own dialects, similar to each other but still variable. By the end of the century, however, when tribes turned into kingdoms, tribal speech became dialects. Three main ethnic groups which arrived in England spoke three dialects which got names of the kingdoms which were established by them. They were West Saxon (in Wessex, Essex), Northumbrian (in East Angeland), and Kentish (in Kent). West Saxon also includes the Mersian variety which had several slight differences in morphology and syntax, and more loanwords from Celtic, as Mersia was situated next to Wales with its Celtic population.
Dialects existed in kingdoms until they were independent. The richest literature was written in Wessex, but there are samples of documents also from Northumbria, Kent and Mersia, including poetry. After Aelfred unified all lands in 878, the dialects slowly integrated into one common tongue. But still even in Middle English period dialects were preserved, though their areas were changed somehow. And the Northumbrian dialect became a separate language - Scots, speaking nowadays in Lowland Scotland.
The most interesting of the dialects of Old English was Northern (or Nothumbrian). First of all it reflected the ancient speech of Angles, which is still poorly studied (unlike the Old Saxon language). Another interesting moment is that Northumbrian collected a rather wide vocabulary of borrowed words, mainly from Old Scandinavian, which really influenced Northern English greatly, and from Celtic. Several words from Northumbrian have some origin which is still unknown - they can be relics of the ancient population of the British Isles.
The Northumbrian grammar peculiarities are also interesting for an English speaker and especially for those who are learning the Scots language. Here are the main characteristic features of the Northumbrian dialect.
1. Practically no long [æ'] sound, and Saxon wæ're equals Northern wéron, etc.
2. u in open syllables is often pronounced like [y] (like in German fu''hlen), so Saxon cuman is Northumbrian cyman
a) -n in case endings of the Weak declension nouns is dropped, and the forms end in -u, -o, -a, -e. So in fact weak nouns lose the declension in the singular, and for example steorra (a star) will sound steorra in all four cases, while in Saxon it is steorran in genitive, dative and accusative. The same with sunne (the sun).
b) Feminine ó-stem nouns take in the singular genitive the ending -es. In Saxon it is usually -e.
c) The infinitive often ends in -a (drinca - 'to drink'). This is the direct Old Norse influence, and even today's Norwegian has this infinitive ending.
d) the 1st person singular Present indicative ends in -u, -o (ic drincu - 'I drink') instead of West Germanic and Saxon -e.
e) the 2nd person singular Present indicative and the 2nd singular Past indicative of Weak verbs ends in -s (þu drinces - 'thou drinkest'), while in Saxon it is -est.
f) the 3rd person singular Present indicative ends in -s (hé drinces - 'he drinks'). This form was taken up by Middle English and therefore moved to the Modern English language.
g) the plural indicative present ends in -as (hia drincas - 'they drink').
h) the plural indicative past ends in -un (hia ségun - 'they saw')
i) the plural indicative present of the verb béon is beoþan (we, you, they are).
j) the plural of the personal pronouns is Nominative híá (they), Dative heom (them).
k) the 1st participle sometimes ends in -ande again due to the Scandinavian influence.
Some strong verbs became weak in Northumbrian: class I - stígan (ascend), grípan (catch); class II - réocan (smell) - past reohte, súpan (taste); class III - bindan (bind) - past binde, worpan (throw), fregnan (ask); class VI - hebban (lift) past hefde; class VII - sceadan (divide) - past sceadade.