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old English





Old English (nglisc, Anglisc, Englisc) or Anglo-Saxon is the earliest historical
form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in
the early Middle Ages. It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers probably
in the mid 5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th
century. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, English was replaced, for a time, as the
language of the upper classes by Anglo-Norman, a relative of French, and Old English
developed into the next historical form of English, known as Middle English.
Old English developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic
dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons,
and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons became dominant in England, their language replaced the
languages of Roman Britain: Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, and Latin, brought to
Britain by Roman invasion. Old English had four main dialects, associated with
particular Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon. It
was West Saxon that formed the basis for the literary standard of the later Old English
period, although the dominant forms of Middle and Modern English would develop
mainly from Mercian. The speech of eastern and northern parts of England was subject to
strong Old Norse influence due to Scandinavian rule and settlement beginning in the 9th
Old English is one of the West Germanic languages, and its closest relatives
are Old Frisian and Old Saxon. Like other old Germanic languages, it is very different
from Modern English and difficult for Modern English speakers to understand without
study. Old English grammar is quite similar to that of modern German: nouns, adjectives,
pronouns, and verbs have many inflectional endings and forms, and word order is much
freer. The oldest Old English inscriptions were written using a runic system, but from
about the 9th century this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet.

Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of 700 years, from
the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century to the late 11th century, some
time after the Norman invasion. While indicating that the establishment of dates is an
arbitrary process, Albert Baugh dates Old English from 450 to 1150, a period of full
inflections, a synthetic language.[3] Perhaps around 85 per cent of Old English words are
no longer in use, but those that survived are basic elements of Modern
English vocabulary.
Old English is a West Germanic language, developing out of Ingvaeonic (also
known as North Sea Germanic) dialects from the 5th century. It came to be spoken over
most of the territory of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which became the Kingdom of
England. This included most of present-day England, as well as part of what is now
southeastern Scotland, which for several centuries belonged to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom
of Northumbria. Other parts of the island Wales and most of Scotland continued to
use Celtic languages, except in the areas of Scandinavian settlements where Old
Norse was spoken. Celtic speech also remained established in certain parts of
England: Medieval Cornish was spoken all over Cornwall and in adjacent parts of Devon,
while Cumbric survived perhaps to the 12th century in parts of Cumbria, and Welsh may
have been spoken on the English side of the Anglo-Welsh border. Norse was also widely
spoken in the parts of England which fell under Danish law.
Anglo-Saxon literacy developed after Christianisation in the late 7th century. The
oldest surviving text of Old English literature is Cdmon's Hymn, composed between
658 and 680.[3] There is a limited corpus of runic inscriptions from the 5th to 7th
centuries, but the oldest coherent runic texts (notably the Franks Casket) date to the 8th
century. The Old English Latin alphabet was introduced around the 9th century.
With the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (outside the Danelaw)
by Alfred the Great in the later 9th century, the language of government and literature
became standardised around the West Saxon dialect (Early West Saxon).
Alfred advocated education in English alongside Latin, and had many works translated
into the English language; some of them, such as Pope Gregory I's treatise Pastoral Care,
appear to have been translated by Alfred himself. In Old English, typical of the
development of literature, poetry arose before prose, but King Alfred the Great (871 to
901) chiefly inspired the growth of prose.
A later literary standard, dating from the later 10th century, arose under the
influence of Bishop thelwold of Winchester, and was followed by such writers as the
prolific lfric of Eynsham ("the Grammarian"). This form of the language is known as
the "Winchester standard", or more commonly as Late West Saxon. It is considered to
represent the "classical" form of Old English. It retained its position of prestige until the
time of the Norman Conquest, after which English ceased for a time to be of importance
as a literary language.
The history of Old English can be subdivided into:

Prehistoric Old English (c. 450 to 650); for this period, Old English is mostly
a reconstructed language as no literary witnesses survive (with the exception of
limited epigraphic evidence). This language, or bloc of languages, spoken by the
Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and pre-dating documented Old English or Anglo-Saxon,
has also been called Primitive Old English.

Early Old English (c. 650 to 900), the period of the oldest manuscript traditions,
with authors such as Cdmon, Bede, Cynewulf and Aldhelm.

Late Old English (c. 900 to 1066), the final stage of the language leading up to the
Norman conquest of England and the subsequent transition to Early Middle English.
The Old English period is followed by Middle English (12th to 15th century), Early
Modern English (c. 1480 to 1650) and finally Modern English (after 1650).

Old English should not be regarded as a single monolithic entity, just as Modern
English is also not monolithic. It emerged over time out of the many dialects and
languages of the colonising tribes, and it is perhaps only towards the later Anglo-Saxon
period that these can be considered to have constituted a single national language. Even
then, Old English continued to exhibit much local and regional variation, remnants of
which remain in Modern English dialects.
The four main dialectal forms of Old English
were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. Mercian and Northumbrian are
together referred to as Anglian. In terms of geography the Northumbrian region lay north
of the Humber River; the Mercian lay north of the Thames and South of the Humber
River; West Saxon lay south and southwest of the Thames; and the smallest, Kentish
region lay southeast of the Thames, a small corner of England. The Kentish region,
settled by the Jutes from Jutland, has the scantiest literary remains.
Each of these four dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the
island. Of these, Northumbria south of the Tyne, and most of Mercia, were overrun by the
Vikings during the 9th century. The portion of Mercia that was successfully defended,
and all of Kent, were then integrated into Wessex under Alfred the Great. From that time
on, the West Saxon dialect (then in the form now known as Early West Saxon) became
standardised as the language of government, and as the basis for the many works of
literature and religious materials produced or translated from Latin in that period.
The later literary standard known as Late West Saxon (see History, above),
although centred in the same region of the country, appears not to have been directly
descended from Alfred's Early West Saxon. For example, the
former diphthong /iy/ tended to become monophthongised to /i/ in EWS, but to /y/ in
Due to the centralisation of power and the Viking invasions, there is relatively
little written record of the non-Wessex dialects after Alfred's unification. Some Mercian
texts continued to be written, however, and the influence of Mercian is apparent in some
of the translations produced under Alfred's programme, many of which were produced by
Mercian scholars. Other dialects certainly continued to be spoken, as is evidenced by the
continued variation between their successors in Middle and Modern English. In fact, what
would become the standard forms of Middle English and of Modern English are
descended from Mercian rather than West Saxon, while Scots developed from the
Northumbrian dialect. It was once claimed that, owing to its position at the heart of the
Kingdom of Wessex, the relics of Anglo-Saxon accent, idiom and vocabulary were best
preserved in the dialect of Somerset.

Influence of other languages

The language of the Anglo-Saxon settlers appears not to have been significantly
affected by the native British Celtic languages which it largely displaced. The number of
Celtic loanwords introduced into the language is very small. However, various
suggestions have been made concerning possible influence that Celtic may have had on
developments in English syntax in the post-Old English period, such as the
regular progressive construction and analytic word order,[12] as well as the eventual
development of the periphrastic auxiliary verb "do."
Old English contained a certain number of loanwords from Latin, which was the
scholarly and diplomatic lingua franca of Western Europe. It is sometimes possible to
give approximate dates for the borrowing of individual Latin words based on which
patterns of sound change they have undergone. Some Latin words had already been
borrowed into the Germanic languages before the ancestral Angles and Saxons left
continental Europe for Britain. More entered the language when the Anglo-Saxons
were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests became influential. It was also
through Irish Christian missionaries that the Latin alphabet was introduced and adapted
for the writing of Old English, replacing the earlier runic system. Nonetheless, the largest
transfer of Latin-based (mainly Old French) words into English occurred after
the Norman Conquest of 1066, and thus in the Middle English rather than the Old English
Another source of loanwords was Old Norse, which came into contact with Old
English via the Scandinavian rulers and settlers in the Danelaw from the late 9th century,
and during the rule of Cnut and other Danish kings in the early 11th century. Many place-
names in eastern and northern England are of Scandinavian origin. Norse borrowings are
relatively rare in Old English literature, being mostly terms relating to government and
administration. The literary standard, however, was based on the West Saxon dialect,
away from the main area of Scandinavian influence; the impact of Norse may have been
greater in the eastern and northern dialects. Certainly in Middle English texts, which are
more often based on eastern dialects, a strong Norse influence becomes apparent. Modern
English contains a great many, often everyday, words that were borrowed from Old
Norse, and the grammatical simplification that occurred after the Old English period is
also often attributed to Norse influence.
The influence of Old Norse certainly helped move English from a synthetic
language along the continuum to a more analytic word order, and Old Norse most likely
made a greater impact on the English language than any other language. The eagerness
of Vikings in the Danelaw to communicate with their southern Anglo-Saxon neighbours
produced a friction that led to the erosion of the complicated inflectional word-
endings. Simeon Potter notes: No less far-reaching was the influence of Scandinavian
upon the inflexional endings of English in hastening that wearing away and leveling of
grammatical forms which gradually spread from north to south. It was, after all, a
salutary influence. The gain was greater than the loss. There was a gain in directness, in
clarity, and in strength.
The strength of the Viking influence on Old English appears from the fact that the
indispensable elements of the language - pronouns, modals, comparatives, pronominal
adverbs (like "hence" and "together"), conjunctions and prepositions - show the most
marked Danish influence; the best evidence of Scandinavian influence appears in the
extensive word borrowings for, as Jespersen indicates, no texts exist in either Scandinavia
or in Northern England from this time to give certain evidence of an influence on syntax.
The change to Old English from Old Norse was substantive, pervasive, and of a
democratic character. Old Norse and Old English resembled each other closely like
cousins and with some words in common, they roughly understood each other; in time
the inflections melted away and the analytic pattern emerged. It is most important to
recognize that in many words the English and Scandinavian language differed chiefly in
their inflectional elements. The body of the word was so nearly the same in the two
languages that only the endings would put obstacles in the way of mutual understanding.
In the mixed population which existed in the Danelaw these endings must have led to
much confusion, tending gradually to become obscured and finally lost. This blending of
peoples and languages resulted in simplifying English grammar.

OLD ENGLISH (C.500 C.1100)

Invasions of Germanic Tribes
More important than the Celts and the Romans for the development of the English
language, though, was the succession of invasions from continental Europe after the
Roman withdrawal. No longer protected by the Roman military against the constant
threat from the Picts and Scots of the North, the Celts felt themselves increasingly
vulnerable to attack. Around 430AD, the ambitious Celtic warlord Vortigern invited the
Jutish brothers Hengest and Horsa (from Jutland in modern-day Denmark), to settle on
the east coast of Britain to form a bulwark against sea raids by the Picts, in return for
which they were "allowed" to settle in the southern areas of Kent, Hampshire and the Isle
of Wight.
But the Jutes were not the only newcomers to Britain during this period. Other
Germanic tribes soon began to make the short journey across the North Sea. The Angles
(from a region called Angeln, the spur of land which connects modern Denmark with
Germany) gradually began to settle in increasing numbers on the east coast of Britain,
particularly in the north and East Anglia. The Frisian people, from the marshes and
islands of northern Holland and western Germany, also began to encroach on the British
mainland from about 450 AD onwards. Still later, from the 470s, the war-like Saxons
(from the Lower Saxony area of north-western Germany) made an increasing number of
incursions into the southern part of the British mainland. Over time, these Germanic
tribes began to establish permanent bases and to gradually displace the native Celts.

Settlement routes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes

The influx of Germanic people was more of a gradual encroachment over several
generations than an invasion proper, but these tribes between them gradually colonized
most of the island, with the exception of the more remote areas, which remained
strongholds of the original Celtic people of Britain. Originally sea-farers, they began to
settle down as farmers, exploiting the rich English farmland. The rather primitive
newcomers were if anything less cultured and civilized than the local Celts, who had held
onto at least some parts of Roman culture. No
love was lost between the two peoples, and
there was little integration between them: the
Celts referred to the European invaders as
barbarians (as they had previously been
labelled themselves); the invaders referred to
the Celts as weales (slaves or foreigners), the
origin of the name Wales.
Despite continued resistance (the
legends and folklore of King Arthur and the
Knights of the Round Table date from this
time), the Celts were pushed further and
further back by the invaders into the wilds of
Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland,
although some chose to flee to the Brittany
region of northern France (where they
maintained a thriving culture for several Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Heptarchy) c.
centuries) and even further into mainland Europe. The Celtic language survives today
only in the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland, the Welsh of Wales, and the Breton
language of Brittany (the last native speaker of the Cornish language died in 1777, and
the last native speaker of Manx, a Celtic language spoken on the tiny Isle of Man, died as
recently as the 1960s, and these are now dead languages).
The Germanic tribes settled in seven smaller kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy:
the Saxons in Essex, Wessex and Sussex; the Angles in East Anglia, Mercia and
Northumbria; and the Jutes in Kent. Evidence of the extent of their settlement can be
found in the number of place names throughout England ending with the Anglo-Saxon -
ing meaning people of (e.g. Worthing, Reading, Hastings), -ton meaning enclosure or
village (e.g. Taunton, Burton, Luton), -ford meaning a river crossing
(e.g. Ashford, Bradford, Watford) -ham meaning farm
(e.g. Nottingham, Birmingham, Grantham) and -stead meaning a site (e.g. Hampstead).
Although the various different kingdoms waxed and waned in their power and
influence over time, it was the war-like and pagan Saxons that gradually became the
dominant group. The new Anglo-Saxon nation, once known in antiquity as Albion and
then Britannia under the Romans, nevertheless became known
as Anglaland or Englaland (the Land of the Angles), later shortened to England, and its
emerging language as Englisc (now referred to as Old English or Anglo-Saxon, or
sometimes Anglo-Frisian). It is impossible to say just when English became a separate
language, rather than just a German dialect, although it seems that the language began to
develop its own distinctive features in isolation from the continental Germanic languages,
by around 600AD. Over time, four major dialects of Old English gradually emerged:
Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the midlands, West Saxon in the south
and west, and Kentish in the southeast.

The Coming of Christianity and Literacy

Although many of the Romano-Celts in the north of England had already been
Christianized, St. Augustine and his 40 missionaries from Rome brought Christianity to
the pagan Anglo-Saxons of the rest of England in 597 AD. After the conversion of the
influential King Ethelbert of Kent, it spread rapidly through the land, carrying literacy
and European culture in it wake. Augustine was made Archbishop of Canterbury in
601 AD and several great monasteries and centres of learning were established
particularly in Northumbria (e.g. Jarrow, Lindisfarne).
The Celts and the early Anglo-Saxons used an alphabet of runes, angular
characters originally developed for scratching onto wood or stone. The first known
written English sentence, which reads "This she-wolf is a reward to my kinsman", is an
Anglo-Saxon runic inscription on a gold medallion found in Suffolk, and has been dated
to about 450-480 AD. The early Christian missionaries introduced the more rounded
Roman alphabet (much as we use today), which was easier to read and more suited for
writing on vellum or parchment. The Anglo-Saxons quite rapidly adopted the new Roman
alphabet, but with the addition of letters such as ("wynn"), (thorn), (edh or
eth) and 3 (yogh) from the old runic alphabet for certain sounds not used in Latin.
later became "uu" and, still later, "w"; and were used more or less interchangeably to
represent the sounds now spelled with th; and 3 was used for "y", "j" or "g" sounds. In
addition, the diphthong (ash) was also used; "v" was usually written with an "f"; and
the letters "q", "x" and "z" were rarely used at all.
The Latin language the missionaries brought was still only used by the educated
ruling classes and Church functionaries, and Latin was only a minor influence on the
English language at this time, being largely restricted to the naming of Church dignitaries
and ceremonies
(priest, vicar, altar, mass, church, bishop, pope, nun, angel, verse, baptism, monk, euchari
st, candle, temple and presbyter came into the language this way). However, other more
domestic words(such
as fork, spade, chest, spider, school, tower, plant, rose, lily, circle, paper, sock, mat, cook,
etc) also came into English from Latin during this time, albeit substantially altered and
adapted for the Anglo-Saxon ear and tongue. More ecclesiastical Latin loanwords
continued to be introduced, even as late as the 11th Century,
including chorus, cleric, creed, cross, demon, disciple, hymn, paradise, prior, sabbath, etc.

The Anglo-Saxon or Old English Language

About 400 Anglo-Saxon texts survive from this era, including many beautiful
poems, telling tales of wild battles and heroic journeys. The oldest surviving text of Old
English literature is Cdmon's Hymn, which was composed between 658 and 680, and
the longest was the ongoing Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But by far the best known is the
long epic poem Beowulf.
Beowulf may have been written any time between the 8th and the early 11th
Century by an unknown author or authors, or, most likely, it was written in the 8th
Century and then revised in the 10th or 11th Century. It was probably originally written in
Northumbria, although the single manuscript that has come down to us (which dates from
around 1000) contains a bewildering mix of Northumbrian, West Saxon and Anglian
dialects. The 3,182 lines of the work shows that Old English was already a fully
developed poetic language by this time, with a particular emphasis on alliteration and
percussive effects. Even at this early stage (before the subsequent waves of lexical
enrichment), the variety and depth of English vocabulary, as well as its predilection for
synonyms and subtleties of meanings, is evident. For example, the poem uses 36 different
words for hero, 20 for man, 12 for battle and 11 for ship. There are also many interesting
"kennings" or allusive compound words, such as hronrad (literally, whale-road, meaning
the sea), banhus (bone-house, meaning body) and beadoleoma (battle-light, meaning
sword). Of the 903 compound nouns in Beowulf, 578 are used once only, and 518 of
them are known only from this one poem.
Old English was a very complex language, at least in comparison with modern
English. Nouns had three genders (male, female and neuter) and could be inflected for up
to five cases. There were seven classes of strong verbs and three of weak verbs, and
their endings changed for number, tense, mood and person. Adjectives could have up to
eleven forms. Even definite articles had three genders and five case forms as a singular
and four as a plural. Word order was much freer than today, the sense being carried by the
inflections (and only later by the use of propositions). Although it looked quite different
from modern English on paper, once the pronunciation and spelling rules are understood,
many of its words become quite familiar to modern ears.
Many of the most basic and common words in use in English today have their
roots in Old English, including words
like water, earth, house, food, drink, sleep, sing, night, strong, the, a, be, of, he, she, you,
no, not, etc. Interestingly, many of our common swear words are also of Anglo-Saxon
origin (including tits, fart, shit, turd, arse and, probably, piss), and most of the others were
of early medieval provenance. Care should be taken, though, with what are sometimes
called "false friends", words that appear to be similar in Old English and modern English,
but whose meanings have changed, words such as wif (wife, which originally meant any
woman, married or not), fugol (fowl, which meant any bird, not just a farmyard
one), sona (soon, which meant immediately, not just in a while), won (wan, which meant
dark, not pale) and fst (fast, which meant fixed or firm, not rapidly)
During the 6th Century, for reasons which are still unclear, the Anglo-Saxon
consonant cluster "sk" changed to "sh", so that skield became shield. This change affected
all "sk" words in the language at that time, whether recent borrowings from Latin
(e.g. disk became dish) or ancient aboriginal borrowings (e.g. skip became ship). Any
modern English words which make use of the "sk" cluster came into the language after
the 6th Century (i.e. after the sound change had ceased to operate), mainly, as we will see
below, from Scandinavia.
Then, around the 7th Century, a vowel shift took place in Old English
pronunciation (analogous to the Great Vowel Shift during the Early Modern period) in
which vowels began to be pronouced more to the front of the mouth. The main sound
affected was "i", hence its common description as "i-mutation" or "i-umlaut" (umlaut is a
German term meaning sound alteration). As part of this process, the plurals of several
nouns also started to be represented by changed vowel pronunciations rather than changes
in inflection. These changes were sometimes, but not always, reflected in revised
spellings, resulting in inconsistent modern words pairings such
as foot/feet, goose/geese, man/men, mouse/mice, as well
as blood/bleed, foul/filth, broad/breadth, long/length, old/elder, whole/hale/heal/health,
It is estimated that about 85% of the 30,000 or so Anglo-Saxon words gradually
died out under the cultural onslaught of the Vikings and the Normans who would come
after them, leaving a total of only around 4,500. This represents less than 1% of modern
English vocabulary, but it includes some of the most fundamental and important words
(e.g. man, wife, child, son, daughter, brother, friend, live, fight, make, use, love, like, look
, drink, food, eat, sleep, sing, sun, moon, earth, ground, wood, field, house, home, people,
family, horse, fish, farm, water, time, eyes, ears, mouth, nose, strong, work, come, go, be,
find, see, look, laughter, night, day, sun, first, many, one, two, other, some, what, when, w
hich, where, word, etc), as well as the most important function words
(e.g. to, for, but, and, at, in, on, from, etc). Because of this, up to a half of everyday
modern English will typically be made up of Old English words, and, by some estimates,
ALL of the hundred most commonly-used words in modern English are of Anglo-Saxon
origin (although pronunciations and spellings may have changed significantly over time).

The Vikings
By the late 8th Century, the Vikings (or
Norsemen) began to make sporadic raids on the east
cost of Britain. They came from Denmark, Norway
and Sweden, although it was the Danes who came
with the greatest force. Notorious for their ferocity,
ruthlessness and callousness, the Vikings pillaged
and plundered the towns and monasteries of
northern England - in 793, they sacked and looted
the wealthy monastery at Lindisfarne in
Northumbria - before turning their attentions further
south. By about 850, the raiders had started to over-
winter in southern England and, in 865, there
followed a full-scale invasion and on-going battles
for the possession of the country.
Viking expansion was finally checked by
Alfred the Great and, in 878, a treaty between the
Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings established the Area of the Viking-ruled Danelaw
(from Paradox Place)
Danelaw, splitting the country along a line roughly
from London to Chester, giving the Norsemen control over the north and east and the
Anglo-Saxons the south and west. Although the Danelaw lasted less than a century, its
influence can be seen today in the number of place names of Norse origin in northern
England (over 1,500), including many place names ending in -by, -gate, -stoke, -
kirk, -thorpe, -thwaite, -toft and other suffixes
(e.g. Whitby, Grimsby, Ormskirk, Scunthorpe, Stoke Newington, Huthwaite, Lowestoft,
etc), as well as the -son ending on family names
(e.g. Johnson, Harrison, Gibson, Stevenson, etc) as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon
equivalent -ing (e.g. Manning, Harding, etc).
The Vikings spoke Old Norse, an early North Germanic language not that
dissimilar to Anglo-Saxon and roughly similar to modern Icelandic (the
word viking actually means a pirate raid in Old Norse). Accents and pronunciations in
northern England even today are heavily influenced by Old Norse, to the extent that they
are largely intelligible in Iceland.
Over time, Old Norse was gradually merged into the English language, and many
Scandinavian terms were introduced. In actual fact, only around 150 Norse words appear
in Old English manuscripts of the period, but many more became assimilated into the
language and gradually began to appear in texts over the next few centuries. In all, up to
1,000 Norse words were permanently added to the English lexicon, among them, some of
the most common and fundamental in the language,
including skull, skin, leg, neck, freckle, sister, husband, fellow, wing, bull, score, seat, roo
t, bloom, bag, gap, knife, dirt, kid, link, gate, sky, egg, cake, skirt, band, bank, birth, scrap
, skill, thrift, window, gasp, gap, law, anger, trust, silver, clasp, call, crawl, dazzle, scream
, screech, race, lift, get, give, are, take, mistake, rid, seem, want, thrust, hit, guess, kick, ki
ll, rake, raise, smile, hug, call, cast, clip, die, flat, meek, rotten, tight, odd, rugged, ugly, il
l, sly, wrong, loose, happy, awkward, weak, worse, low, both, same, together, again, until,
Old Norse often provided direct alternatives or synonyms for Anglo-Saxon words,
both of which have been carried on (e.g. Anglo-Saxon craft and
Norse skill, wish and want, dike and ditch, sick and ill, whole and hale, raise and rear, wr
ath and anger, hide and skin, etc). Unusually for language development, English also
adopted some Norse grammatical forms, such as the pronouns they, them and their,
although these words did not enter the dialects of London and southern England until as
late as the 15th Century. Under the influence of the Danes, Anglo-Saxon word endings
and inflections started to fall away during the time of the Danelaw, and prepositions
like to, with, by, etc became more important to make meanings clear, although many
inflections continued into Middle English, particularly in the south and west (the areas
furthest from Viking influence).
Old English after the Vikings
By the time Alfred the Great came to the throne in 871, most of the great
monasteries of Northumbria and Mercia lay in ruins and only Wessex remained as an
independent kingdom. But Alfred, from his capital town of Winchester, set about
rebuilding and fostering the revival of learning, law and religion. Crucially, he believed in
educating the people in the vernacular English language, not Latin, and he himself made
several translations of important works into English, include Bedes Ecclesiastical
History of the English People. He also began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which
recounted the history of England from the time of Caesar's invasion, and which continued
until 1154.
He is revered by many as having single-handedly saved English from the
destruction of the Vikings, and by the time of his death in 899 he had raised the prestige
and scope of English to a level higher than that of any other vernacular language in
Europe. The West Saxon dialect of Wessex became the standard English of the day
(although the other dialects continued nontheless), and for this reason the great bulk of
the surviving documents from the Anglo-Saxon period are written in the dialect of
The following paragraph from Aelfrichs 10th Century Homily on St. Gregory the
Great gives an idea of what Old English of the time looked like (even if not how it
Eft he axode, hu re eode nama wre e hi of comon. Him ws
geandwyrd, t hi Angle genemnode wron. a cw he, "Rihtlice hi sind Angle
gehatene, for an e hi engla wlite habba, and swilcum gedafena t hi on heofonum
engla geferan beon."
A few words stand out immediately as being identical to their modern equivalents
(he, of, him, for, and, on) and a few more may be reasonably easily guessed
(nama became the
modern name, comon became come, wre became were, ws became was). But several
more have survived in altered form,
including axode (asked), hu (how), rihtlice (rightly), engla (angels), habba (have), swilc
um (such), heofonum (heaven), and beon (be), and many more have disappeared
completely from the language, including eft (again), eode (people, nation), cw (said,
spoke), gehatene (called, named), wlite (appearance, beauty) and geferan (companions),
as have special characters like (thorn) and (edh or eth) which served in Old
English to represent the sounds now spelled with th.
Among the literary works representative of this later period of Old English may be
listed the Battle of Maldon, an Old English poem relating the events of the Battle of
Maldon of 991 (the poem is thought to have been written not long after) and the Old
English Hexateuch, a richly illustrated Old English translation of the first six books of
the Bible, probably compiled in Canterbury in the second quarter of the 11th Century.
lfric of Eynsham, who wrote in the late 10th and early 11th Century and is best known
for his Colloquy, was the greatest and most prolific writer of Anglo-Saxon sermons,
many of which were copied and adapted for use well into the 13th Century. A number of
other Christian, heroic and elegiac poems, secular and Christian prose, as well as riddles,
short verses, gnomes and mnemonic poems for remembering long lists of names, have
also come down to us more or less intact.


The English language, and indeed most European languages, traces it original roots back
to a Neolithic (late Stone Age) people known as the Indo-Europeans or Proto-Indo-Europeans,
who lived in Eastern Europe and Central Asia from some time after 5000 BC (different
hypotheses suggest various different dates anywhere between the 7th and the 3rd
millennium BC).
We do not know exactly what the original Indo-European
language was like, as no writings exist from that time (the very earliest
examples of writing can be traced to Sumeria in around 3000 BC), so
our knowledge of it is necessarily based on conjecture, hypothesis and
reconstruction. Using the comparative method, though, modern
linguists have been able to partially reconstruct the original language
from common elements in its daughter languages. It is thought by
many scholars that modern Lithuanian may be the closest to (i.e. the
least changed from) the ancient Indo-European language, and it is
thought to retain many features of Proto-Indo-European now lost in
other Indo-European languages.
Indo-European is just one of the language families, or proto-
languages, from which the world's modern languages are descended, Indo-European migrations
and there are many other families including Sino-Tibetan, North (from Indo European Languages)
Caucasian, Afro-Asiatic, Altaic, Niger-Congo, Dravidian, Uralic,
Amerindian, etc. However, it is by far the largest family, accounting for the languages of almost
half of the modern worlds population, including those of most of Europe, North and South
America, Australasia, the Iranian plateau and much of South Asia. Within Europe, only Basque,
Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish, and a few of the smaller Russian languages are not
descended from the Indo-European family.

Spread of Indo-European Languages

Sometime between 3500 BC and 2500 BC, the

Indo-Europeans began to fan out across Europe and
Asia, in search of new pastures and hunting grounds,
and their languages developed - and diverged - in
isolation. By around 1000 BC, the original Indo-
European language had split into a dozen or more
major language groups or families, the main groups




Celtic The Indo-European language family tree

(from, originally from Scientific
American, March 1990)




In addition, several more groups (including Anatolian, Tocharian, Phrygian,

Thracian, Illyrian, etc) have since died out completely, and yet others may have existed
which have not even left a trace.

These broad language groups in turn divided over time into scores of new
languages, from Swedish to Portuguese to Hindi to Latin to Frisian. So, it is astounding
but true that languages as diverse as Gaelic, Greek, Farsi and Sinhalese all ultimately
derive from the same origin. The common ancestry of these diverse languages can
sometimes be seen quite clearly in the existence of cognates (similar words in different
languages), and the recognition of this common ancestry of Indo-European languages is
usually attributed to the amateur linguist Sir William Jones in 1786. Examples are:
father in English, Vater in German, pater in Latin and Greek, fadir in Old Norse
and pitr in ancient Vedic Sanskrit.

brother in English, broeer in Dutch, Brder in German, braithair in

Gaelic, brr in Old Norse and bhratar in Sanskrit.

three in English, tres in Latin, tris in Greek, drei in German, drie in Dutch, tr in

is in English, is in Dutch, est in Latin, esti in Greek, ist in Gothic, asti in Sanskrit.

me in English, mich or mir in German, mij in Dutch, mik or mis in Gothic, me in

Latin, eme in Greek, mam in Sanskrit.

mouse in English, Maus in German, muis in Dutch, mus in Latin, mus in Sanskrit.

The branch of Indo-European we are most
interested in is Germanic (although the Hellenic-Greek
branch and Italic-Latin branch, which gave rise to the
Romance languages, also became important later). The
Germanic, or Proto-Germanic, language group can be
traced back to the region between the Elbe river in
modern Germany and southern Sweden some 3,000
years ago.
Jacob Grimm (of fairy tales fame, but also a Distribution of Germanic languages
well-respected early philologist) pointed out that, over (from Wikipedia)
time, certain consonants in the Germanic family of
languages have shifted somewhat from the Indo-European base. Thus, Germanic words
like the English foot, West Frisian foet, Danish fod, Swedish fot, etc, are in fact related to
the Latin ped, Lithuanian peda, Sanskrit pada, etc, due to the shifting of the p to f and
the d to t. Several other consonants have also shifted (d to t, k to h, t to
th, etc), disguising to some extent the common ancestry of many of the daughter
languages of Indo-European. This process explains many apparent root differences in
English words of Germanic and Latinate origin
(e.g. father and paternal, ten and decimal, horn and cornucopia, three and triple, etc).
The early Germanic languages themselves borrowed some words from the
aboriginal (non-Indo-European) tribes which preceded them, particularly words for the
natural environment (e.g. sea, land, strand, seal, herring); for technologies connected with
sea travel (e.g. ship, keel, sail, oar); for new social practices (e.g. wife, bride, groom); and
for farming or animal husbandry practices
(e.g. oats, mare, ram, lamb, sheep, kid, bitch, hound, dung).
The Germanic group itself also split over time as the people migrated into other
parts of continental Europe:
North Germanic, which evolved into Old Norse and then into the various
Scandinavian languages, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic (but not Finnish or
Estonian, which are Uralic and not Indo-European languages);
East Germanic, spoken by peoples who migrated back to eastern and southeastern
Europe, and whose three component language branches, Burgundian, Vandalic and
Gothic (a language spoken throughout much of eastern, central and western Europe early
in the first millennium AD), all died out over time; and
West Germanic, the ancestor of Old High German, Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old
Low Franconian and others which in turn gave rise to modern German, Dutch, Flemish,
Low German, Frisian, Yiddish and, ultimately, English.
Thus, we can say that English belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-
European family of languages.

The Celts
Little or nothing is known about the original
hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the British Isles before
they were cut off from the rest of Europe by the
English Channel (around 5000-6000 BC). Indeed,
little is know of the so-called Beaker People and
others who moved into the British Isles from Europe
around 2500 BC, and were probably responsible for
monuments like Stonehenge around this time.

Distribution of Celtic peoples

The earliest inhabitants of Britain about which anything is known are the Celts
(the name from the Greek keltoi meaning "barbarian"), also known as Britons, who
probably started to move into the area sometime after 800 BC. By around 300 BC, the
Celts had become the most widespread branch of Indo-Europeans in Iron Age Europe,
inhabiting much of modern-day Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, the Balkans,
Eastern Europe and also Britain.
Parts of Scotland were also inhabited from an early time by the Picts, whose
Pictish language was completely separate from Celtic and probably not an Indo-European
language at all. The Pictish language and culture was completely wiped out during the
Viking raids of the 9th Century AD, and the remaining Picts merged with the Scots.
Further waves of Celtic immigration into Britain, particularly between 500 BC and
400 BC but continuing at least until the Roman occupation, greatly increased the Celtic
population in Britain, and established a vibrant Celtic culture throughout the land.
But the Celts themselves were later marginalized and displaced, as we will see in
the next section, and Celtic was not the basis for what is now the English language.
Despite their dominance in Britain at an early formative stage of its development, the
Celts have actually had very little impact on the English language, leaving only a few
little-used words such as brock (an old word for a badger), and a handful of geographical
terms like coombe (a word for a valley) and crag and tor (both words for a rocky peak).
Having said that, many British place names have Celtic origins,
including Kent, York, London, Dover, Thames, Avon, Trent, Severn, Cornwall and many
more. There is some speculation that Celtic had some influence over the grammatical
development of English, though, such as the use of the continuous tense (e.g. is
walking rather than walks), which is not used in other Germanic languages. The Celtic
language survives today only in the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland, the Welsh
of Wales, and the Breton language of Brittany.

The Romans
The Romans first entered Britain in
55 BC under Julius Caesar, although they did not
begin a permanent occupation until 43 AD, when
Emperor Claudius sent a much better prepared
force to subjugate the fierce British Celts.
Despite a series of uprisings by the natives
(including that of Queen Boudicca, or Boadicea
in 61 AD), Britain remained part of the Roman
Empire for almost 400 years, and there was a

The Roman Empire at its height under

Emperor Trajan
substantial amount of interbreeding between the two peoples, although the Romans never
succeeded in penetrating into the mountainous regions of Wales and Scotland.
Although this first invasion had a profound effect on the culture, religion,
geography, architecture and social behaviour of Britain, the linguistic legacy of the
Romans time in Britain was, like that of the Celts, surprisingly limited. This legacy takes
the form of less than 200 loanwords coined by Roman merchants and soldiers, such
as win (wine), butere (butter), caese (cheese), piper (pepper), candel (candle), cetel (kettle
), disc (dish), cycene (kitchen), ancor (anchor), belt (belt), sacc (sack), catte (cat), plante (
plant), rosa (rose), cest (chest), pund (pound), munt (mountain), straet (street), wic (villag
e), mil (mile), port (harbour), weall (wall), etc. However, Latin would, at a later time (see
the sections on The Coming of Christianity and Literacy and The English Renaissance),
come to have a substantial influence on the language.
Latin did not replace the Celtic language in Britain as it had done in Gaul, and the
use of Latin by native Britons during the peiod of Roman rule was probably confined to
members of the upper classes and the inhabitants of the cities and towns. The Romans,
under attack at home from Visigoths, Ostrogoths and Vandals, abandoned Britain to the
Celts in 410 AD, completing their withdrawal by 436 AD. Within a remarkably short
time after this withdrawal, the Roman influence on Britain, in language as in many other
walks of life, was all but lost, as Britain settled in to the so-called Dark Ages.

MIDDLE ENGLISH (C.1100 C.1500)

French (Anglo-Norman) Influence
The Normans bequeathed over 10,000 words to
English (about three-quarters of which are still in use
today), including a huge number of abstract nouns
ending in the suffixes -age, -ance/-ence, -ant/-ent,
-ment, -ity and -tion, or starting with the prefixes
con-, de-, ex-, trans- and pre-. Perhaps
Henry II, King of England
predictably, many of them related to matters of crown
from 1154-1189
and nobility
(e.g. crown, castle, prince, count, duke, viscount, baron,
noble, sovereign, heraldry); of government and administration
(e.g. parliament, government, governor, city); of court and law
(e.g. court, judge, justice, accuse, arrest, sentence, appeal, condemn, plaintiff, bailiff, jury,
felony, verdict, traitor, contract, damage, prison); of war and combat
(e.g. army, armour, archer, battle, soldier, guard, courage, peace, enemy, destroy); of
authority and control
(e.g. authority, obedience, servant, peasant, vassal, serf, labourer, charity); of fashion and
high living
(e.g. mansion, money, gown, boot, beauty, mirror, jewel, appetite, banquet, herb, spice, sa
uce, roast, biscuit); and of art
andliterature(e.g. art, colour, language, literature, poet, chapter, question). Curiously,
though, the Anglo Saxon
words cyning (king), cwene (queen), erl (earl), cniht (knight), ladi (lady)
and lord persisted. While humble trades retained their Anglo-Saxon names
(e.g. baker, miller, shoemaker, etc), the more skilled trades adopted French names
(e.g. mason, painter, tailor, merchant, etc). While the animals in the field generally kept
their English names (e.g. sheep, cow, ox, calf, swine, deer), once cooked and served their
names often became French (e.g. beef, mutton, pork, bacon, veal, venison, etc).
Sometimes a French word completely replaced an Old English word
(e.g. crime replaced firen, place replaced stow, people replaced leod, beautiful replaced w
litig, uncle replaced eam, etc). Sometimes French and Old English components combined
to form a new word, such as the French gentle and the Germanic man combined to
formed gentleman. Sometimes, both English and French words survived, but with
significantly different senses (e.g. the Old English doom and
French judgement, hearty and cordial, house and mansion, etc).
But, often, different words with roughly the same meaning survived, and a whole
host of new, French-based synonyms entered the English language (e.g. the
French maternity in addition to the Old
English motherhood, infant to child, amity to friendship, battle to fight, liberty to freedom
, labour to work, desire to wish, commence to start, conceal to hide, divide to cleave, clos
e to shut, demand to ask, chamber to room, forest to wood, power to might, annual to yea
rly, odour to smell, pardon to forgive, aid to help, etc). Over time, many near synonyms
acquired subtle differences in meaning (with the French alternative often suggesting a
higher level of refinement than the Old English), adding to the precision and flexibility of
the English language. Even today, phrases combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French
doublets are still in common use
(e.g. law and order, lord and master, love and cherish, ways and means, etc). Bilingual
word lists were being compiled as early as the 13th Century.

Middle English After the Normans

During these Norman-ruled centuries in which English as a language had no
official status and no regulation, English had become the third language in its own
country. It was largely a spoken rather than written language, and effectively sank to the
level of a patois or creole. The main dialect regions during this time are usually referred
to as Northern, Midlands, Southern and Kentish, although they were really just natural
developments from the Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish dialects of Old
English. Within these, though, a myriad distinct regional usages and dialects grew up, and
indeed the proliferation of regional dialects during this time was so extreme that people in
one part of England could not even understand people from another part just 50 miles
The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were founded in 1167 and 1209
respectively, and general literacy continued to increase over the succeeding centuries,
although books were still copied by hand and therefore very expensive. Over time, the
commercial and political influence of the East Midlands and London ensured that these
dialects prevailed (London had been the largest city for some time, and became the
Norman capital at the beginning of the 12th Century), and the other regional varieties
came to be stigmatized as lacking social prestige and indicating a lack of education. The
14th Century London dialect of Chaucer, although admittedly difficult, is at least
recognizable to us moderns as a form of English, whereas text in the Kentish dialect from
the same period looks like a completely foreign language.
It was also during this period when English was the language mainly of the
uneducated peasantry that many of the grammatical complexities and inflections of Old
English gradually disappeared. By the 14th Century, noun genders had almost completely
died out, and adjectives, which once had up to 11 different inflections, were reduced to
just two (for singular and plural) and often in practice just one, as in modern English. The
pronounced stress, which in Old English was usually on the lexical root of a word,
generally shifted towards the beginning of words, which further encouraged the gradual
loss of suffixes that had begun after the Viking invasions, and many vowels developed
into the common English unstressed schwa (like the e in taken, or the i in pencil).
As inflectons disappeared, word order became more important and, by the time of
Chaucer, the modern English subject-verb-object word order had gradually become the
norm, and as had the use of prepositions instead of verb inflections.
The Ormulum, a 19,000 line biblical text written by a monk called Orm from
northern Lincolnshire in the late 12th Century, is an important resource in this regard.
Concerned at the way people were starting to mispronounce English, Orm spelled his
words exactly as they were pronounced. For instance, he used double consonants to
indicate a short preceding vowel (much as modern English does in words like diner and
dinner, later and latter, etc); he used three separate symbols to differentiate the different
sounds of the Old English letter yogh; and he used the more modern wh for the old-
style hw and sh for sc. This unusual phonetic spelling system has given
philologists an invaluable snap-shot of they way Middle English was pronounced in the
Midlands in the second half of the 12th Century.
Resurgence of English
It is estimated that up to 85% of Anglo-
Saxon words were lost as a result of the Viking and
particularly the Norman invasions, and at one point
the very existence of the English language looked to
be in dire peril. In 1154, even the venerable Anglo-
Saxon Chronicle, which for centuries had recorded
the history of the English people, recorded its last
entry. But, despite the shake-up the Normans had
given English, it showed its resilience once again,
and, two hundred years after the Norman Conquest, it
was English not French that emerged as the
language of England.
There were a number of contributing factors.
The English, of necessity, had become Spread of the Black Death
Normanized, but, over time, the Normans also (from, originally
became Anglicized, particularly after 1204 when from Encyclopaedia Britannica,
King Johns ineptness lost the French part of 1994)
Normandy to the King of France and the Norman
nobles were forced to look more to their English properties. Increasingly out of touch
with their properties in France and with the French court and culture in general, they soon
began to look on themselves as English. Norman French began gradually to degenerate
and atrophy. While some in England spoke French and some spoke Latin (and a few
spoke both), everyone, from the highest to the lowest, spoke English, and it gradually
became the lingua franca of the nation once again.
The Hundred Year War against France (1337 - 1453) had the effect of branding
French as the language of the enemy and the status of English rose as a consequence. The
Black Death of 1349 - 1350 killed about a third of the English population (which was
around 4 million at that time), including a disproportionate number of the Latin-speaking
clergy. After the plague, the English-speaking labouring and merchant classes grew in
economic and social importance and, within the short period of a decade, the linguistic
division between the nobility and the commoners was largely over. The Statute of
Pleading, which made English the official language of the courts and Parliament
(although, paradoxically, it was written in French), was adopted in 1362, and in that same
year Edward III became the first king to address Parliament in English, a crucial
psychological turning point. By 1385, English had become the language of instruction in
Chaucer and the Birth of English Literature
Texts in Middle English (as
opposed to French or Latin) begin as a
trickle in the 13th Century, with works
such as the debate poem The Owl and
the Nightingale (probably composed
around 1200) and the long historical
poem known as Layamon's Brut (from
around the same period). Most of
Middle English literature, at least up Beginning of The Knight's Tale from
until the flurry of literary activity in the Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
latter part of the 14th Century, is of
unknown authorship.
Geoffrey Chaucer began writing his famous Canterbury Tales in the early 1380s,
and crucially he chose to write it in English. Other important works were written in
English around the same time, if not earlier, including William Langlands Piers
Plowman and the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But the Canterbury
Tales is usually considered the first great works of English literature, and the first
demonstration of the artistic legitimacy of vernacular Middle English, as opposed to
French or Latin.
In the 858 lines of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, almost 500 different
French loanwards occur, and by some estimates, some 20-25% of Chaucers vocabulary
is French in origin. However, the overall sense of his work is very much of a re-formed
English, a complete, flexible and confident language, more than adequate to produce
great literature. Chaucer introduced many new words into the language, up to 2,000 by
some counts - these were almost certainly words in everyday use in 14th Century
London, but first attested in Chaucer's written works. Words
like paramour, difficulty, significance, dishonesty, edifice, ignorant, etc, are all from
French roots, but when he wanted to portray the earthy working man of England (e.g. the
Miller), he consciously used much more Old English vocabulary, and he also
reintroduced many old words that had fallen out of favour, such
as churlish, farting, friendly, learning, loving, restless, wifely, willingly, etc. The list of
words first found in Chaucer's works goes
on: absent, accident, add, agree, bagpipe, border, box, cinnamon, desk, desperate, discom
fit, digestion, examination, finally, flute, funeral, galaxy, horizon, infect, ingot, latitude, la
xative, miscarry, nod, obscure, observe, outrageous, perpendicular, princess, resolve, rum
our, scissors, session, snort, superstitious, theatre, trench, universe, utility, vacation, Valen
tine, village, vulgar, wallet, wildness, etc, etc.