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The Impact of ‘Old Norse’ and Norman French on English.   Leave a comment

One of the important results of Danish and Norwegian settlements was its effect on the English language, though archaeological evidence suggests that, apart from the obvious variations in place-names, this may have been exaggerated, especially given the relatively short periods of Danish hegemony, even in northern England. There are a large number of proper names, including place-names, of Scandinavian origin in both OE and Middle English (ME) documents. Also, English and Norse speakers lived in communities which were close enough for exchanges in transactional language to take place, and sometimes they lived in the same settlements, albeit, as in York or ‘Jorvik’, in distinct districts.

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Above: A tenth-century Anglian helmet found in Jorvik (York) during the Coppergate excavations.

In these trading centres, inter-marriage took place, as in Ireland, but the distinctive patterns of English and Viking villages suggest that rural farming and family life was not widely integrated. In time, some of these communities merged, but English dialects emerged as the dominant forms of everyday speech, with some modifications in pronunciation, vocabulary and, to a lesser extent, in grammar. The earliest written evidence, however, does not appear until the Middle English period, as most written forms of late OE are in the Wessex dialect, which had become the standard form under the ruling House in England from the mid-tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of Norse are still present in the modern-day dialects of East Anglia, the Midlands, northern England and lowland Scotland, the latter in the Scots dialect based on Northumbrian English.

Unlike the English, the Danes and Norwegians did not develop a system of writing other than in runes, so no contemporary evidence of the Norse spoken in the Danelaw is available. Norse must have been spoken throughout the territory, and would have continued in large Viking settlements like York throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries, but in most areas it must have become assimilated into English. Some physical evidence of this can be seen in a small church in Kirkdale, North Yorkshire, St Gregory’s Minster. In the porch, a sundial dating from about 1055 has been preserved, with the following inscription carved in stone (given here in translation):

ORM GAMALSON BOUGHT ST GREGORY’S MINSTER WHEN IT WAS ALL BROKEN (AND) FALLEN DOWN… HE CAUSED IT TO BE MADE ANEW FROM THE GROUND TO CHRIST AND ST GREGORY IN KING EDWARD’S DAYS… IN TOSTI’S DAYS… HAWARTH (AND) BRAND PRIESTS MADE ME.

 

Tostig was Earl of Northumberland and brother of Harold Godwison, who became King Harold in 1066, on the death of Edward the Confessor. Orm and Gamal were Norse names, but the languages of the inscription are Old English and Latin. ‘Orm Gamalsuna’ (in the original) meant Orm, son of Gamal, and this way of creating personal names by adding a ‘patronymic suffix’ (a name derived from the father) was a Scandinavian custom, just as the Welsh custom was to add the prefix ‘ap’. This custom must have been adopted throughout the Danelaw, if not other parts of England, hence its prevalence in modern surnames such as Davidson, Jackson, Johnson, etc. The fact that even the Saxon Earl Godwin’s sons were christened in this way is testimony to its widespread use in England, probably from the time of the Danish King Cnut, possibly a means by which they could demonstrate their loyalty to the foreign ruler, who was, by the end of his reign, keen to represent himself as a naturalised King of the English as well as the Danes.

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West Saxon, Latin and Old English:

The Saxon suffix was –ing, shown in the naming of the young Edgar, son of Edward the Exile, as the Aetheling, the rightful heir of King Aethelred and the Kings of Wessex, and therefore a rival to the throne of both Harold and William I. Henry I’s unfortunate son was also known as ‘Edward Aetheling’. The names with the ‘ing’ suffix were also incorporated into place names such as Walsingham, Billingham, Birmingham, Kidlington, but the ‘ing’ was also used in a more general way as well, so that it must not always be taken to mean son of the family of… The suffixes that indicate place-names in OE included –hyrst (copse, wood), -ham (dwelling, fold), -wic(k)(village), -tun (settlement) and –stede (place), as in Wadhurst, Newnham, Norwich, Ipswich, Heslington and Maplestead. The detailed study of these place-names provides much of the historical evidence for the serttlement of Danes and Norwegians in England.

Some words of Latin origin in OE had already been adopted by the West Germanic languages brought over by the Angles and Saxons. The Germanic peoples had long been in contact with the Romans. However, since there are no written records from this period, the evidence for the early adoption of Latin words lies in the analysis of known sound changes. Although Latin words were spoken in Britain during the fifth century by educated Britons, and transferred into Brythonic and Old Welsh, hardly any words were passed on to the Anglo-Saxon invaders. One exception were the –caster/-chester suffixes in names like Doncaster, Cirencester and Manchester meaning camp, and the –car prefixes in name like Carshalton and Carstairs, meaning fort. Other Latin words were adopted into OE in later periods in the Anglo-Saxon settlements, mainly through the conversion of the kingdoms to Christianity and the gradual establishment of the Roman Catholic Church from the seventh century onwards. The only available version of the Bible was in Latin, the Vulgate, and church services, learning and scholarship all took place solely through the same medium.

 

In Old English, the order of words in a clause was more variable than that of Modern English, and there were many more inflections (prefixes and suffixes) on nouns, adjectives and verbs. So, one of the main differences between OE and MnE is that the latter has lost many of inflections of OE. We can observe the beginnings of this loss of suffixation from the evidence of the surviving manuscripts, in which spelling irregularities become frequent. Therefore, although in late OE times the West Saxon dialect had become the standard written form of OE, and therefore did not reflect differences of pronunciation, scribes sometimes ‘mis-spelt’ because changes in pronunciation were not matched by changes in spelling.

Change and Continuity: The Conquest and Middle English:

In 1066, when Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold at Hastings and went on to become William I, there were profound effects of the subsequent ‘Conquest’ of England on every level of society, but especially in every sphere of the language – spelling, vocabulary and grammar, but it was Anglo-Saxon, in the form of Middle English, which remained the dominant written and spoken language of the new Norman territory, not Norman French. However, this was no longer the standardised West Saxon of the House of Wessex and its scribes.

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Above: The Anglo-Saxon (Peterborough) Chronicle for 1066, written in the West Saxon standard OE  

We call the linguistic period from 1150 to 1450 Middle English (ME), because from the Modern point of view in time it comes between the periods of Old English and Early Modern forms of English. The evidence for change and continuity from in Middle English comes from before the setting up of the printing press by William Caxton in 1476, and therefore comes in the form of manuscripts, just as with OE. Every copy of every book had to be written out by hand, as well as copies of letters, wills and charters, but only a few of the existing manuscripts in ME are originals, in the hand of their author. On the other hand, some works are known through a single surviving original copy.

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As a result of the social and political upheaval caused by the Norman Conquest, the standard West Saxon system of spelling and punctuation gradually went out of use. Writers used spellings that matched the pronunciation of their spoken dialect. After several copies, therefore, the writing might contain a mixture of different dialectal forms. As a result, there is plenty of evidence for the survival of different OE dialects into ME. After the Conquest of England, from 1066 to 1086, Norman French replaced the West Saxon standard English as the language of the ruling classes and their servants, because nearly all of the former Saxon greater nobility were dispossessed of their lands. The chronicler Robert Mannyng, writing in the NE Midlands dialect in 1338, referred to this takeover of estates by Franks, Normans, Flemmings and Picards who came over with the Conqueror. Another short account of the Conquest, written anonymously in the fourteenth century, in the dialect of the South West Midlands, and in metrical ‘verse’, reveals continuing Saxon hostility towards Norman domination of England:

After reigned a good man

Harold Godwin’s son

He was called Harefoot

For he was runner good

But he ne-reigned here

But nine months of a year

When William bastard of Normandy

Him disposed that were a villainy

Harold lies at Waltham

And William bastard that this land won

He reigned here

One and twenty years

Then he died at (the) home

In Normandy in Caen

 

(Word-for-word translation).

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William’s policy of dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon nobility from their tenures held even more firmly in the Church. The invasion had begun as a ‘crusade’, undertaken with the blessing of the Pope who had been angered by the ‘independence’ of the English church in making appointments. French-speaking bishops and abbots were appointed to the principal offices, and many French monks entered the monasteries. Latin remained the principal language of both Church and State in official documents, while French became the ‘pestige’ language of courtly life and communication with and between the King’s tenants-in-chief. This situation was described by a Plantagenet chronicler, writing in about 1300, given again in word-for-word translation:

…thus lo the English folk, for nought to ground came*…

…for a false king that ne-had no right, to the kingdom…

…came to a new lord… that more in right was…

…but their neither (of them) as one may see… in pure right was.

…thus was in norman’s hand… that land brought certainty …

 

…thus came to England, into Normandy’s hand…

…the Normans ne-could speak then, but their own speech…

…spoke French as they did at home… their children did also teach

…so that high-men of this land… that of their blood come…

…hold all the same speech… that they from them took…

…for but a man knows French… one counts of him little…

…but low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

…i believe there ne-are in the world countries none…

…that ne-hold to their own speech… but England alone…

…but well one knows for to know… both well it is…

…for the more that a man knows… the more worthy he is…

…this noble duke William… him(self) caused to crown king…

…at London on mid-winter’s day… nobly through all things…

…by the archbishop of york, aldred was his name…

…there ne-was prince in all the world of so noble fame.

(* = were beaten)

The manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was written at Peterborough Abbey is important for both historical and linguistic reasons. Firstly, it is the only copy of the chronicle which describes events up until the middle of the twelfth century, the end of the Norman period and the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, in 1154. Secondly, it gives us the first direct evidence for the language change taking place in the 1150s. We know that the monastery’s library was destroyed by fire in 1116, including its original copy of the chronicle. It had to be re-written using a borrowed copy. This copy is the one that has survived to this day and is called the Peterborough Chronicle. The entries for the years up to 1121 are all in the same hand, copied in ‘classical’ West Saxon OE. But there are also two ‘continuation’ volumes of the annals, one recording events from 1122 to 1131 and the other continuing from 1132 to 1154, where the chronicle ends.

The language of these later volumes is not classical West Saxon but is markedly different, providing good evidence of the English usage of the Fenland area at that time. The Peterborough scribes were probably local to that area, speaking the (East) Mercian dialect. Since it was also within the Danelaw, there is some evidence of ON influence as well. As the annals were probably written from dictation, the scribes tended to spell the English as they heard it and spoke it themselves. As the monks were also trained in the writing of French by this time, some of these spelling conventions also influenced their record. These detectable differences in the later annals are what mark the boundary between the Old English of the House of Wessex and their scribes and the Middle English of the next three centuries before the advent of printing to Britain.

Main published source:

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

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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