Old English History

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The language of the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain drifted away from continental Germanic languages during the centuries from the 400s through the 800s. Just as the continental Romance languages were diverging from one another across the former range of Latin, the Germanic languages diverged in the absence of any written standard, institutional connection, or political cohesion.

The greatest single factor leading to the divergence of English from other West Germanic languages like Frisian and Dutch was quite simply that Britain is an island. Cut off naturally from nearby related dialects, English drifted in a different course.

The first Anglo-Saxon invaders were "pagans," non-Christian. During the centuries from 450 to 700 there were several conversions, apostasies, and re-conversions of the English to Christianity. Nominally, such conversions kept England within the communion of the Catholic Church and loyal to the Pope. In fact, as in Ireland to the west, England's church, as isolated as its language, moved in "insular" directions and developed strong internal traditions.

For our purposes, the most important religious tradition was that of a sacred literature in English. While continental churches in the Romance countries developed their literature largely in Latin, English churchmen spent a lot of time, in several cultural "waves," translating the Bible, sacred literature, homilies, doctrine, and eventually some secular literature of interest as well into English from Latin – as well as composing a good deal of original material in English.

The oldest attested Old English poem is traditionally Caedmon's Hymn, from about the year 660 CE. Here's an Old English version of a text by the historian Bede (c. 672-735). Bede wrote a history of the English church in Latin; the translation into English was made in the late 800s or early 900s. Bede tells how Caedmon came to compose his hymn:

Wæs he se mon in weoruldhade geseted oð þa tide þe he wæs gelyfdre ylde, ond he næfre nænig leoð geleornade. Ond he for þon oft in gebeorscipe, þonne þær wæs blisse intinga gedemed, þæt heo ealle sceoldon þurh endbyrdnesse be hearpan singan, þonne he geseah þa hearpan him nealecan, þonne aras he for scome from þæm symble ond ham eode to his huse. Þa he þæt þa sumre time dyde, þæt he forlet þæt hus þæs gebeorscipes, ond ut wæs gongende to neata scipene, þara heord him wæs þære neahte beboden, þa he ða þær in gelimplice tide his leomu on reste gesette ond onslepte, þa stod him sum mon æt þurh swefn ond hine halette ond grette ond hine be his noman nemnde: 'Cedmon, sing me hwæthwugu.' Þa ondswarede he ond cwæð: 'Ne con ic noht singan; ond ic for þon of þeossum gebeorscipe ut eode, ond hider gewat, for þon ic naht singan ne cuðe.' Eft he cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: 'Hwæþre þu me aht singan.' Þa cwæþ he: 'Hwæt sceal ic singan?' Cwæð he: 'Sing me frumsceaft.' Þa he ða þas andsware onfeng, þa ongon he sona singan in herenesse Godes Scyppendes þa fers ond þa word þe he næfre gehyrde, þære endebyrdnesse þis is:

– click here to see what Caedmon sung. Or try this version of Caedmon – the difference being dialect. The first link takes you to a West Saxon version of the Hymn, in the dialect usually taught as "standard" Old English; the second leads to a Northumbrian version, which is probably earlier.

Both Bede and Cædmon were Northumbrian – Bede is associated with Jarrow, Cædmon with Whitby. The great monastic tradition that produced their writings flourished in the far north of the English world, very far from the London area we think of as the center of modern English literary culture. The early Old English period (450-800) saw several loosely-connected kingdoms flourishing in different parts of the island. Without a strong central cultural authority, Old English itself drifted into different dialects: Northumbrian in the north, Mercian in the center, East Anglian in the east, West Saxon in the west, Kentish in the far southeast. Possibly too, these dialects reflect slightly different continental dialects among the settling Anglo-Saxon populations. These dialects are precursors of regional dialects and "accents" that persist to this day.

The most significant long-term foreign impact on English during the Old English period was made by the invasions of Norsemen, starting in the 800s. These Norsemen, variously also called Danes or Vikings, established long-lasting kingdoms in the northeast of England. The population in the northeast continued to speak English, but it was an English heavily inflected by Norse vocabulary and pronunciation. Words in Modern English that come from Old Norse include window and they, them, their and also forms like egg (ey), kirk (church), dike (ditch), skirt (shirt), sister (OE sweostor, ME suster) and the words leg, neck (this explains some of the variance English shows against German Hals and Bein), take (nim), sky (welkin), skin (hide), anger (wrath), die (as verb; the OE is steorfan, starve), ill (sick), ugly (foul), law, loose, low, odd, wrong, dirt, and husband (man). Why these words entered standard English is anybody's guess. Unlike many later imports from French, they are truly everyday words. Many of them have doublets in Middle or Modern English (or both) that are also common: the common Old English words for some of these same ideas are given above in bold after the Norse words. In some cases, like "skirt" and "shirt," we have what looks like an original difference merely in accent that has come to be a difference in meaning – as if American "schedule" and English "shedule" were to develop different meanings and then both be adopted back into a standard dialect.

Most of the Norse component of the Modern English vocabulary comes with the adoption, sooner or later, into southern and western dialects of the northeastern dialect forms. A few of the words above, like kirk, have remained Northern (specifically Scots) forms, but most were adopted by various routes into Southern, and therefore Standard, English. More Norse words survive today in local speech in Scotland, Northumberland, and Yorkshire than have made it into standard English.

If you are an Anglophile you probably know about King Ælfred the Great (born 849, ruled 871 till his death in 899). King of the West Saxons, Ælfred became famous as a Dane-killer. He resisted the well-established power of the Danish kings from the northeast, who were attempting to extend their power across Britain. In 878 Ælfred made himself enough of a pain in the neck to the Danish kings that a famous power-sharing agreement was reached, as noted in the great historical sourcebook, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the "7" here is an early form of the ampersand [&]):


Her hiene bestæl se here on midne winter ofer tuelftan niht to Cippanhamme, 7 geridon Wesseaxna lond 7 gesæton 7 micel þæs folces ofer sæ adræfdon, 7 þæs oþres þone mæstan dæl hie geridon, 7 him to gecirdon buton þam cyninge Ælfrede. 7 he lytle werede unieþelice æfter wudum for, 7 on morfæstenum; 7 þæs ilcan wintra wæs Inwæres broþur 7 Healfdenes on Westseaxum on Defenascire mid .xxiii. scipum, 7 hiene mon þær ofslog, 7 .dccc. monna mid him. 7 .xl. monna his heres; 7 þæs on Eastron worhte ælfred cyning lytle werede geweorc æt Æþelingaeigge, 7 of þam geweorce was winnende wiþ þone here, 7 Sumursætna se dæl, se þær niehst wæs; Þa on þære seofoðan wiecan ofer Eastron he gerad to Ecgbryhtes stane be eastan Sealwyda, 7 him to comon þær ongen Sumorsæte alle, 7 Wilsætan, 7 Hamtunscir se dæl, se hiere behinon sæ was, 7 his gefægene wærun; 7 he for ymb ane niht of þam wicum to Iglea, 7 þæs ymb ane to Eþandune, 7 þær gefeaht wiþ alne þone here, 7 hiene gefliemde, 7 him æfter rad oþ þæt geweorc, 7 þær sæt .xiiii. niht; 7 þa salde se here him foregislas 7 micle aþas þæt hie of his rice uuoldon 7 him eac geheton þæt kyning fulwihte onfon wolde 7 hie þæt elæston swa, 7 þæs ymb .iii. wiecan com se cyning to him Godrum þritiga sum þara monna þe in þam here weorþuste wæron æt Alre, 7 þæt is wiþ Æþelinggaeige; 7 his se cyning þær onfeng æt fulwihte, 7 his crismlising was æt Weþmor, 7 he was .xii. niht mid þam cyninge, 7 he hine miclum 7 his geferan mid feo weorðude.

The rest of Ælfred's reign, after the peace that formally divided England between Danes and West Saxons, was spent consolidating his power as much culturally as politically. Ælfred promoted both religious and secular writing in English, so successfully that we now tend to think of his dialect of West Saxon as Old English par excellence. (Standard Modern English, however, does not descend directly from West Saxon, but from London and "Home Counties" dialects that were not particularly prominent in the Old English literary world.)

Various translations of Latin classics are attributed to Ælfred: Boethius's "Consolation of Philosophy," Orosius's "History of the World," Bede's ecclesiastical history, and the works of St. Gregory the Great. Whether Ælfred himself did a whole lot of literary work is less the point than that he used his court to promote and patronize writers and scholars. As much as for his ability to hand Danes their rear ends, Ælfred is the only English king nicknamed "the Great" because of this achievement: the use of the court to promote a national literary and linguistic culture.

West Saxon writing flourished for 150 years after Ælfred's death, despite more inroads by newer sets of Vikings, despite political events that drew England more and more into continental circles and the dynastic ambitions of the Normans (a particularly energetic bunch of Vikings who settled in the north of France and went native there, but continued to branch out into such places as Ireland, Sicily, and the Middle East). Bible translation flourished in England (but not on the Continent); the independence of the English church means that we have a rich record of Biblical texts in 900s and 1000s West Saxon. Ælfric (c955-1020), an abbot active in Winchester, Dorsetshire, and Oxfordshire, wrote homilies that had a wide influence on how English people saw the Bible and Christian doctrine.

The period 900-1050 is also, most likely, the time of the great secular and sacred poetry in Old English – again, the greatest examples all coming from the West Saxon dialect. How do we know about Old English poetry? Remember first of all that there were no printed books in England (or anywhere else in Europe) during the early Middle Ages. So all the evidence for Old English comes down to us in the form of manuscripts. The rarest books are those of more or less "secular" poetry. Manuscripts like The Exeter Book for example, are relatively unglamorous, but still very fine examples of the art of book making. The Exeter book survives in only one copy, in the cathedral library at Exeter in England, but it contains many of the most impressive short secular poems in Old English. The Vercelli Book, even stranger, is a single manuscript housed in the cathedral library in Vercelli in Italy. No-one knows how or when it got there.

The most famous Old English manuscript is the Beowulf manuscript, Cotton Vitellius A.xv. Like the Vercelli and Exeter books, the Beowulf ms. is unique, surviving in one copy now in the British Library. The Junius Manuscript, another unique manuscript of Old English poetry, includes the sacred poems Genesis and Exodus and others. The Junius ms. is now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Because of the attraction of unique and rare things, and because of the secularization of modern culture, the surviving poetic texts in Old English are the most heavily studied. We draw a disproportionate amount of our knowledge of the language from these texts, which would not have been as familiar to English people a thousand years ago as they are to students of Old English today.

Old English poetry is based on principles quite unlike that of modern English poetry. Old English poets did not use rhyme; they did not count the number of syllables in a line. But they did not write "free verse" either.

Old English poems are based on alliteration. Each line of poetry is divided into two halves or "hemistichs." Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. The first stress in the second hemistich must alliterate with one or both of the stresses in the first hemistich. (The second stress in the second hemistich does not alliterate.) It doesn't matter how many unstressed syllables there are.

The effect is a bit like hip-hop, except that hip-hop rhymes and carries its rhyme across more than one line.

Old English Spelling and Phonology

Academics read Old English texts according to conventions which approximate what we think the language might have sounded like, just as with Middle English. To do this, follow some simple rules: a few more than in pronouncing Middle English, but even a few can result in a pretty fair "schoolroom" Anglo-Saxon accent:

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