Archive for the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ Tag

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.

How the English Language came to Britain   Leave a comment

English in the early twenty-first century is an international language, spoken as a mother tongue by over 400 million people in the nations of the British Isles, Canada, the United States, the Caribbean islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It is also a second language in some of those nations and states, as it is in many others, including those of the Indian subcontinent, and some other African states, where it is also used as an official language of government and education. There are a great many varieties of spoken English in and between these countries, but there is one main variety, ‘Standard English’ which is used both in writing and in educated speech.

It is codified in dictionaries, grammars and guides to usage, and is taught in the school system at all levels and is almost exclusively the language of printed and online materials in English, implicitly sanctioned by all forms of modern media. Yet a little over four hundred years ago, English was spoken exclusively in England, and by minorities (mostly bilinguals) in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. A young Hungarian visitor to London and Canterbury had some difficulty communicating because he had little English and could find few people, other than clergy, who had any command of Latin. Only in Dover did he find a multilingual official with Dutch and German. This had probably been the case since at least the Reformation, if not from the time that Caxton set up his English printing press in the century before. Before that, English had been the common tongue of most of lowland Britain for a thousand years, since it had first become established at the beginning of the seventh century, having arrived in the form of the related Germanic dialects of the Anglo-Saxons over the course of the previous two centuries following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britannia.

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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records how and why these languages arrived in Britain in the fifth century, forming into one common speech, recognisable in its written form as Engelische. It has survived in several manuscripts, the most frequently quoted of which are the Peterborough Chronicle and the Parker Chronicle, which provide interesting examples of language change. The former was copied in the twelfth century from an earlier copy first written in the ninth century. The entry for 443 reads:

…Her sendon brytwalas ofer sae to rome… heom fultomes baedon wid peohtas. ac hi paer nefdon naenne. forpan pe hi feordodan wid aetlan huna cininge… pa sendon hi to anglum… angel cynnes aedelingas des ilcan baedon.

 

In word-for-word translation:

…Here sent Britons over sea to rome… them troops asked against picts, but there they had not one, because they fought against Attila huns king… then sent they to angles… angle peoples princes the same asked.

 

In modern translation:

…In this year the Britons sent overseas to Rome and asked the Romans for forces against the Picts, but they had none there because they were at war with Attila, king of the Huns. Then the Britons sent to the Angles and made the same request to princes of the Angles.

 

By this time, in the middle of the fifth century, Britain had been part of the Roman Empire for just over four hundred years, and was governed from Rome. The official language of government was Latin, not only spoken by the Roman civil officials, military officers and Roman settler families, but also by those Britons who served the Romans or traded with them in their settlements, like at Caerleon in modern-day Monmouthshire. The term Romano-British is used to describe these Britons, though the degree to which they became ‘Romanised’ is debatable. Their native language was Brythonic or ‘British’, a family of Celtic languages which mutated into Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the language of those who migrated across the Channel in the sixth century to escape the Anglo-Saxon incursions. Irish and Scottish Gaelic are also related, but have no Latin influence, since their peoples were never conquered by the Romans. None of these languages resemble any of the West Germanic antecedents of English.

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The Angles and Saxons had been raiding along the east coast of Britannia since the early third century, and a military commander had been appointed to organise its defence. He was called, in Latin, Comes litoris Saxonici, the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’, but as Roman power declined throughout the fourth century, larger scale Saxon raids were taking place by the end of that century. By 443, the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, so when Hengest and Horsa were invited by Vortigern, ruler of the Canti, to help defend their coast from Pictish pirates, they found Britain undefended, ready for incursion and settlement. Though this may have begun by agreements between British and Anglo-Saxon leaders, with grants of land, it soon turned into full-scale invasion, at least according to Bede, in his eighth-century Latin text, History of the English Church and People:

 

It was not long before such hordes of these alien peoples crowded into the island that the natives who had invited them began to live in terror… They began by demanding a greater supply of provisions: then, seeking to provoke a quarrel, threatened that unless larger supplies were forthcoming, they would terminate the treaty and ravage the whole island…

These heathen conquerors devastated the surrounding cities and countryside, extended the conflagration from the eastern to the western shores without opposition, and established a stranglehold over nearly all the doomed island. A few wretched survivors captured in the hills were butchered wholesale, and others, desperate with hunger, came out and surrendered to the enemy for food, although they were doomed to lifelong slavery even if they escaped instant massacre. Some fled overseas in their misery; others, clinging to their homeland, eked out a wretched and fearful existence among the mountains, forests and crags, ever on the alert for danger.

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When reading Bede, we need to be aware that, although he never referred to himself as British, this is indeed British propaganda, but that it was also written at a time when the then Anglo-Saxon Christian rulers of the ’Heptarchy’ were facing further raids and incursions from other ’heathens’, Danes and Norwegians, for which they seemed similarly unprepared. Bede was concerned to send them a clear message which would resonate with the oral traditions from their own pre-Christian days. The same is true of Gildas, an earlier British monk writing of The Ruin of Britain, at a time when the Anglo-Saxons had not yet converted, in the mid-sixth century. Nennius, a Welsh monk writing in the early ninth century, wrote in a similar vein to Bede, more like an Old Testament prophet, calling the Anglo-British to defend the newly established Christian order from the ravaging Norsemen.

The complete ’conquest’ of lowland Britain by the Germanic tribes took two centuries, but it was as much a conquest made by trade as by fire and blood. The recent archeological evidence from the grave burials in East Anglia, especially at Sutton Hoo, suggest that the Britons were highly regarded for their artwork, and even the illuminated texts and carvings of the Hiberno-Northumbrian monks indicate a fusion of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon forms. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxon dialects became the practical language of exchange between peoples, but the survival of large numbers of Celtic words and place-names in connection with rivers, woods, hills and valleys throughout the lowlands, suggests that the British farmers did not simply abandon their homesteads, and that they may well have continued to farm quite large estates alongside the Saxon settlers as equals rather than serfs.

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Certainly, their dynastic leaders and warriors may well have been driven into the upland western corners of the island. Both Gildas and Nennius referenced tales of a Romano-British chieftain called Arthur who led successful resistance from the 470’s to 515, winning twelve battles, recorded in Welsh heroic legends. He was probably a Romano-British noble, possibly a cavalry commander who had fought in the Roman Army. Nennius dates the last of these battles, at Mount Badon, to 515. However, there is no reference to Arthur’s in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although it details a number of battles from the period, including one in 519 in which ’Cerdic and Cynric’ established the West Saxon dynasty after beating the Britons at Cerdic’s Ford. Nevertheless, we know that, in terms of dynastic control, much of western Britain remained under Romano-British rule for much of the following period into the seventh century, until the rise of the Northumbrian and then Mercian Saxon kingdoms. By the eighth century, they had been driven as a fighting force from what was becoming known as Engaland and continued to be known as Wealas or Walas and Cornwalas, meaning ’foreigners’. They called themselves Cymry, meaning ‘compatriots’, giving us the modern-day ‘Cumbria’. The Peterborough Chronicle for 614 refers to a battle in which Cynegils, King of Wessex for 31 years, slew two thousand and sixty-five Welsh. The Parker Chronicle for 755 tells of Cynewulf, King of Wessex, who often fought great battles against the Welsh. It also mentions in passing how a Welsh hostage was the only survivor, badly wounded, of a battle against Cyneheard, Prince of Wessex. These entries are clear evidence of continued British resistance.

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

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