What and when was ‘Old English’?   Leave a comment

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Above: The Heptarchy, or seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Northumberland, given here, was more often known as Northumbria before the Norman Conquest.

We call the language of the Anglo-Saxon period up to about 1150, following the Norman Conquest, Old English (OE). Our knowledge of OE is based on a number of manuscripts that have survived from those times, from which the grammar and vocabulary have been reconstructed by scholars, working from the sixteenth century onwards, but especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   They have provided us with the dictionaries and grammars of OE, and the editions of OE texts on which we can rely.

Boundaries and Dialects:

The English were not a particularly unified nation until late OE times, from about the time of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century. The Anglo-Saxons came from different parts of Western Europe and spoke different dialects of West Germanic. Different tribes settled in different parts of Britain, but were able to communicate with each other in an increasingly common tongue, though retaining differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. The ‘country’ which existed during the seventh and eighth centuries is sometimes referred to as the heptarchy, the seven kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. There were frequent wars between these kingdoms, in which one tried to dominate the others, first Northumbria, then East Anglia, then Mercia and finally Wessex, until it was overthrown by the Danes under Cnut in 1016. The fact that there were seven kingdoms does not mean, however, that there were seven different dialects. The evidence from the manuscripts suggests that there were four: Northumbrian, Mercian and Anglian, in the North, East Anglia and Mercian, or Midland, from the West Germanic settlers, and a dialect which mixed Jutish with West Saxon across the south. It is usual to use the late West Saxon dialect of the tenth and eleventh centuries to describe OE in its written form, because Wessex was by then the dominant kingdom, and most of the legal manuscripts were written in it, although Mercian remained the most widely spoken dialect north of the Thames throughout the Middle Ages.

005 Above: A chart of runic symbols with their equivalent phonemes in modern English.

The writing system of the earliest English was based on the use of signs called runes, which were devised for carving in wood or stone. One of the few examples to survive in Britain is the eighteen-foot cross in the church in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. On it are some runic inscriptions in the Northumbrian dialect, part of a famous OE poem called The Dream of the Rood (from the OE for ‘cross’, relating the events of the Crucifixion). The Ruthwell Cross probably dates from the eighth century. Written English as we know it had to wait for the establishment of the Church and the building of monasteries, at which time the monks wrote in Latin. This began to happen in the seventh century when much of Northumbria and East Anglia was converted to Christianity by monks from Ireland, while Augustine had been sent by the Pope to convert the southern English, beginning in Kent. The monks adapted the Latin alphabet to write in English, which means that OE gives us a good idea of its pronunciation. The variations in spelling provide evidence of the different dialects which existed in English.

For example, the earliest known poem in English is Caedmon’s hymn, found in the OE translation of Bede’s History of the English Church and People, written in Latin and finished in 731. Bede’s history was translated into English in the late ninth century as part of the great revival of learning under King Alfred the Great of Wessex. The poem, a hymn to God the Creator, is all that survives of the devotional poet, Caedmon, who lived in Bede’s time. Here are the first lines from it in, first, the West Saxon and then the Northumbrian dialects, followed by a word-for-word translation into modern English:

 

Nu we sculan herian heofonrices Weard

Metodes mihte and his modgethonk

weorc Wulfdorfaeder; swa he wundra gehwaes

ece Dryhten, ord onstealde.

 

Nu scylan hergan hefaenricaes Uard

Metudaes maecti end his mogdidanc

uerc uuldurfadur; sue he uundra gihuaes

eci Dryctin, or aestelidae.

 

(Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian

Creator’s might and his mind-thought

work Glory-father’s; as he of-wonders each

evelasting Lord, beginning established.)

 

Runes and Early Writing:

 

In printing and writing Old English today, present day shapes of Roman letters are used, with three additional non-Roman letters, or phonic symbols, because there was no equivalent sound or letter in Latin. These are the short ‘ae’ vowel sound, known as ‘ash’ in runes, as in the modern word ‘cat’, and two symbols used interchangeably for the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’ sound in modern English. These runes are called ‘thorn’ and ‘eth’. A complete list of the vowels and consonants and their corresponding sounds in modern Received Pronunciation (RP) is given below:

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A small book called a Testimonie of Antiquietie was printed in 1567. Its purpose was to provide evidence in a contemporary religious controversy about the Church sacraments. It reproduced, with a translation, a sermon ‘in the Saxon tongue’ by Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury in 995. He was not only a famous preacher in English, but also a grammarian. The book is of interest to linguists because the translation provides an example of Early Modern English (EME) both in style and spelling and printing as well as a copy of the OE manuscript forms. The beginning of Aelfric’s sermon is given below, together with its sixteenth century translation and the list of the Saxon characters or letters that be moste straunge. The word-for-word translation of the OE in the facsimile is:

Aelfric abbot greets Sigeferth

friendily; to me is said that

thou saidest about me that I other

taught in English writings,

than your anchorite*

at home with you teaches,

because he clearly says that is

permitted, that mass priests

well may wive, and my

writings against speak this.

 

* = religious hermit

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The Incursions and Immigrations of the Norsemen:

 

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records an event in 787 which proved to be an ominous portent of things to come (in word-for-word translation):

Here took breohtric king offa’s daughter eadburh… in his days came first three ships of-northmen from hortha land… and then the reeve thereto rode… he wished drive to the king’s manor because he knew-not what they were… him one slew there. That were the first ships danish men’s that Angle-people’s land sought.

 

By the end of the eighth century the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had finally occupied almost the whole of what we know of England today, as well as modern-day Scotland as far as the Firth of Forth. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to record battles for supremacy between the kings of the seven kingdoms, as in the following example of the annal dated 827:

In this year there was an eclipse of the moon on Christmas morning. And the same year Egbert conquered Mercia, and all that was south of the Humber, and he was the eighth king to be ‘Ruler of Britain’: the first to rule so great a kingdom was Aelle, king of Sussex; the second was Caewlin, king of Wessex; the third was Aethelbert, king of Kent; the fourth was Raedwald, king of East Anglia; the fifth was Edwin, king of Northumbria; the sixth was Oswald who reigned after him; the seventh was Oswy, Oswald’s brother; the eighth was Egbert, king of Wessex.

 

But by this time the three ships that the king’s reeve had ridden to meet forty years earlier had been followed by greater numbers of ships and Norsemen, making annual raids for plunder along the coasts and up the rivers of northern France and England. The Peterborough Chronicle annal for 793 records the first Norwegian Viking attack on the monasteries of Lindisfarne and Jarrow:

793, and a little after that in the same year on 8th January* God’s church on the island of Lindisfarne was miserably plundered and destroyed by the heathen, with great slaughter.

 

(*794 in the Gregorian calendar)

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The Norwegian Vikings soon began to raid around the northern and western coasts and islands of Scotland, the north-west coasts of Cumbria, Northumbria, Mercia, Wales and the north of Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Danes began raiding the eastern coasts of the Anglian and Saxon kingdoms in 835, and by the mid-ninth century larger raiding parties regularly ravaged the hinterlands and began to occupy and settle major tracts of these. The most famous of the Saxon kings, Alfred, King of Wessex, after years of continual defeat, negotiated treaties with the Danes. By the time of his death in 899, only Wessex remained intact and independent. The rest of Engaland, north and east of the old Roman road called Watling Street, from London to Chester, was in the hands of the Danish settlers and became known as the Danelaw. The Scandinavian attacks and incursions continued throughout the first half of the tenth century. One of them, dated 937 in the annal, is celebrated in poetry as the Battle of Brunanburh in modern-day Scotland (the exact site is unknown), where Aethelstan, King of Wessex, defeated the Norwegian Vikings attacking from Ireland.

 001Above: The Battle of Brunanburh, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Parker) for AD 937.

(In OE manuscripts, poetry was set out like prose, not in separate lines. Lines and half-lines were often clearly marked with a dot like a full-stop.)

 

A period of twenty-five years of peace after 955 was once again broken when more attacks by Norsemen began in the 980’s. Some came from Normandy across the Channel, where they had also settled, as well as from Denmark and Norway. In 1017, the Danish king, Cnut, became ‘King of All England’; Danish rule was not ended until 1042, when the Edward the Confessor became the King of England.

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The settlement of the Danelaw had important effects on the English Language. Old Norse (ON) is the name now given to the language spoken by the Danish and Norwegian Vikings. It was ‘cognate’ with Old English (OE); that is, they both came from the same antecedent West Germanic group of languages. It seems that the two languages were similar enough in vocabulary for OE-speakers to understand common ON words and phrases, and vice-versa, so that the English and the Norsemen could communicate. Many OE words therefore have a cognate ON word, and we cannot always be sure whether a Modern English reflex is derived from OE, ON or from both. An Icelandic saga says of the eleventh century that there was at that time the same tongue in England as in Norway and Denmark, but speakers of their own tongue simplified it when making transactions with the other, so that OE dialects in the Danelaw became modified in ways which were different from the west Mercian, East Anglian and Wessex dialects. These variations are detectable in present-day northern and East Anglian dialects, which reveal ON features, especially in vocabulary.

Main Published Source:

Dennis Freeborn (1992), From Old English to Standard English, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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