Tony Crowley (1991:2) has noted significantly how the 'history' of the English language has generally been seen as a 'seamless narrative'; and one which, we may add, on the evidence of the many textbooks on the subject published, assumes this history to be that of standard English, especially after the Middle English period. Indeed, Burnley's explicit comment, odd though it is, on his own work underlines the traditional orthodoxy: that he 'sustains the consensus view of the development of the language through successive historical periods to the goal of present-day standard English' (Burnley 1992: x) (my italics). In this accepted version of history handed down from generation of students to generation, dialects of English, safely subsumed under the catch-all term 'non-standard' varieties (and labelled only in relation to the standard), are marginalised, ceasing to have any significance after the emergence of a written standard in London during the fifteenth century. It is as if they have no existence: yet even though dialect features were indeed submerged by the spread of the standard in formal and literary writings, popular dialect literature continued in both oral and written forms, and dialects flourished in spoken discourse, as today, albeit subject to hegemonic condescension and even ridicule. Of course, the 'silence' of dialects in public spheres means that evidence for their earlier history before an age of technical recording can be hard to retrieve. There is also the problem, which hinders dialect studies even today, that certain aspects of dialect study have been comparatively neglected, namely syntax, pragmatics and prosody (stress and intonation), and, until fairly recently, the study of urban speech.
These and other reasons may account for the fact that focused studies of the history of regional varieties are scarce: as far as I know, there is no detailed or extensive history of Northern English, for example. 1 Not that this history is completely ignored in traditional accounts, especially for the Late Old English and Middle English periods, although, strangely, Skeat (1911:24) dismisses this period of the dialect's history as 'with a few insignificant exceptions … a total blank'. For due weight has indeed to be given, for example, to the 'contributions' of Northern English, most probably under the impact of the Scandinavian settlements in the Danelaw area, to the