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Old English

The year is 410AD. The Romans have returned to protect their capital, abandoning Britannia after a four-hundred-year reign. Invaders from Europe can't believe their luck. After being hindered by Roman defences for so long, the island is there for the taking! Sailing swiftly in their longships, they cross the North Sea, claiming their new territory as 'Englaland', or 'Land of the Angles'. With them, they bring new ideas, new beliefs, and a new language that will change the course of the island's history forever.

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The year is 410AD. The Romans have returned to protect their capital, abandoning Britannia after a four-hundred-year reign. Invaders from Europe can't believe their luck. After being hindered by Roman defences for so long, the island is there for the taking! Sailing swiftly in their longships, they cross the North Sea, claiming their new territory as 'Englaland', or 'Land of the Angles'. With them, they bring new ideas, new beliefs, and a new language that will change the course of the island's history forever.

This is the story of the Anglo-Saxons and the foundations they laid for the English language. In this article, we'll talk about the history of the invasion, inspect the Old English language and its quirks, and explore the wealth of essential literature the Anglo-Saxons produced during their reign in England. Oh, and we'll be sure to teach you a few Old English words along the way! Let's begin by defining some basic terms and then get on to the exciting stuff!

Ancient English

What is Old English, and how do we decide where it begins and ends? Let's start with a simple definition:

Old English is the name of the first ever stage of the English Language. It lasted between approximately 450AD and 1066AD, with an impact lasting well into the twelfth century.

The Old English period began following the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxons were a cultural group comprised of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, three powerful Germanic tribes. Before invading England, they inhabited Scandinavia and northern Germany.

Old English, (450-1066) Anglo-Saxon migration, StudySmarterFig 1. The pattern of migration from northern Europe to parts of modern-day England.

The Anglo-Saxon invasion began following the Roman evacuation of England in AD410. All Roman soldiers were ordered back to Rome to help with the ongoing battles taking place there, leaving England undefended and ready to be conquered. By 450, the Anglo-Saxons had a strong foothold across all of England, and with it spread the earliest known version of the English language, a West Germanic language closely related to Old Frisian and Old Saxon.

Did you know? At the southern edge of the North Sea in Germany and the Netherlands, the Frisian language is still spoken today by approximately 500,000 people. It's also the living language most similar to modern English!

The rule of the Anglo-Saxons lasted for over 600 years, during which Old English underwent many drastic changes.

After the successful invasion of the Normans marked an end to the reign of the Anglo-Saxons in 1066, the Old English language transitioned into what we now know as Middle English. This new version of the English language was grammatically simpler than its predecessor and had a fixed word order that helped to standardise the language.

Remember that attributing specific dates to an extensive period is both a challenge and an oversimplification. Proposing 450 to be the year that Anglo-Saxon influence reached Britain and 1066 to be the year that Old English became Middle English can give a false impression that the developments were sudden. In contrast, social change is gradual, fiercely contested, and takes tens, if not hundreds, of years to take effect. An Anglo-Saxon invader could not introduce the Celtic-speaking population to a West Germanic language overnight, nor could the Norman invaders phase out the five-hundred-year history of Old English in a day. Dates in literature are there to guide our understanding but not to impede or confine it. We encourage everyone to view the history of the English language as an ever-morphing melting pot of cultural influences.

Let's look in more detail at the changes in the Old English language over time.

Old English: language

In the hundreds of years before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, much of England's population spoke either a variation of Celtic or some form of Latin introduced by the Roman Empire. After the evacuation of the Romans in 410AD, the stage was set for a new dominant language to be introduced.

During the invasion, native Britons were driven away to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This left the Anglo-Saxons to inhabit the region now known as England.

Old English dialects differed depending on geographic regions. The four main dialects at the time were Mercian, West Saxon, Kentish and Northumbrian. The Mercian and West Saxon dialects played an especially crucial role in the development of Old English and its evolution into Middle English.

This diagram shows the distribution of the four major dialects of England during the Anglo-Saxon reign.

Old English, (450-1066) Old English Dialects, StudySmarterFig 2. Old English dialects were split up into four regions: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon.

While Old English largely stemmed from the Germanic language of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, many other influences have contributed to our language over time. For example, in the over 400-year history of the Romans in Britain, Latin words undoubtedly made their way into the Celtic language. In turn, when the Anglo-Saxons invaded, a portion of these Latin words found their way into the Old English language. The English language has always been, and will always be, a diverse range of vocabulary from an eclectic mix of cultures.

Today, only 20-33% of modern English vocabulary is derived from Old English. Other languages like Latin and French have had more of a lasting impact on the words we use today.

Old English: characteristics

Compared with later variants of English, Old English is characterised by a large number of inflexions which alter the meaning of words. The language takes a unique approach to verbs, nouns, grammar and punctuation, to the extent that understanding it today without further study is impossible. Take a look at this line from the 'Lord's Prayer' first in Old English and then in Modern English:

Fæder ure şu şe eart on heofonum

Our father, which art in heaven,

Although the two examples hold many similarities (Fæder/father), (eart/art), translating Old English without research would be challenging.

Old English: literature

The first traceable examples of Old English literature date back only to the seventh century and coincide with the introduction of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxon people. In this sense, the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons is regularly portrayed as the most important event in Old English history and certainly one of immeasurable cultural significance.

Among other things, Christianity brought the idea of writing large manuscripts on parchment in Latin. In the 300 years of Anglo-Saxon rule before this, writing went no further than short messages inscribed in runic letters on stone and wood.

Without Christianity, it's possible that our understanding of Anglo-Saxon life and literature would be incomplete. Nearly all remaining manuscripts from the Old English period are religious and derive from the Church. Without the Latin literary culture that Christianity brought, it's likely that many surviving manuscripts would never have been written.

Poetry

The earliest work of English Poetry that still survives, 'Cædmon's Hymn', was composed between 658 and 680 but wasn't written down until the eighth century. Cædmon (flourished 658AD–680AD) legitimised Old English verse by using it to write about Christian themes. He is now recognised as the earliest known English poet.

Even though 'Cædmon's Hymn' is the first work of written poetry, that doesn't mean that Anglo-Saxons weren't reciting poetic verses and stories for hundreds of years beforehand. Like many ancient cultures, oral storytelling was a significant part of Anglo-Saxon culture, and many stories were passed down and recited for generations!

Many poets from the Old English period are anonymous. Only four named poets: Bede (672/3AD-735AD), Cædmon, Alfred (848AD-899AD) and Cynewulf (flourished 9th century AD), have any work that survives today. Let's look in more detail at some defining examples from the period.

Beowulf

Undoubtedly the most famous example of Old English literature is the epic 3182-line poem Beowulf, believed to be composed between 700 and 750AD and committed to writing sometime in the eleventh century. The poem was originally passed down and performed as part of an oral storytelling tradition but was eventually preserved by two scribes. Despite the poem's pagan origins, Christian themes were added to the poem by the scribes, reiterating the prevalence of religion within all the period's written texts.

The poem tells the story of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who vanquishes Grendel, a dark monster descended from Cain. He also defeats Grendel's mother and, later in his life, a dragon. The narrative deals with themes like family, fame, pride, Christianity and warriors.

The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book (c.960-80) is a large codex containing a wide range of Old English poems. It is believed to have been collated in the 10th century AD, though many of the poems were likely passed down orally for generations. In recent times it has been recognised as one of the foundational volumes of English Literature and is seen as one of the world's most important cultural artefacts. It contains some of the most famous anonymous Old English poems, including 'The Wanderer', 'The Seafarer' and 'The Wife's Lament'. These poems are known as early examples of elegies:

In this context, an elegy refers to a serious poem designed for reflection and meditation.

For example, In 'The Wanderer', a man meditates on the meaning of life now that he has lost everything important to him. He is journeying to find a new life while reminiscing on past memories. The speaker reminds himself that God is the only solution to his problems, reemphasising the Christian themes present in many traditional Germanic narratives.

Prose

The number of surviving prose documents is far greater than that of poetry. This is partly due to the administrative nature of much of Old English prose writing. Charters, wills, medical documents, translations and religious scriptures were all commonly written to uphold legislation and thus were an important part of daily life.

Scholars put in a huge amount of work to translate Latin texts into Old English, both for religious and educational purposes. Other works chronicled key events, important laws and historical information. Let's look in more detail at the most important surviving example of historical prose in Anglo-Saxon history.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was compiled in 890 in an effort to document Anglo-Saxon history. It was created during the reign of King Alfred the Great (971-899). and is the first significant effort to chronicle English history year by year, making it invaluable to scholars studying the period. Especially enlightening are its recounts of Danish invasions and opinions regarding the reigns of specific kings.

Old English: words

Many common words that we use every day derive directly from Old English! For a bit of fun, let's look at some modern words, compare them to their old English counterparts, and detail where the Old English word originates.

You may notice that some words have multiple spellings (piper/pipor). This is because spelling in Old English wasn't standardised, meaning that different people may have written the same word differently.

Modern English wordOld English WordOrigin
whathwætGermanic
ifgifGermanic
butterbutereWest Germanic
cupcuppaLatin
schoolscholē Greek via Latin
mintminteWest Germanic
pepperpiper, piporWest Germanic
herringhæringWest Germanic
priestprēostGermanic
worldweoruld, woruldGermanic

Old English (450-1066) - Key takeaways

  • Old English is the name of the first ever stage of the English Language. It lasted approximately between 450AD and 1066AD, with an impact lasting well into the twelfth century.
  • Old English was brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons and slowly changed into Middle English after the invasion of the Normans.
  • The most famous Old English work is 'Beowulf' an epic 3182-line poem composed between 700 and 750AD.
  • Some other important Old English works of literature are The Exeter Book, Cædmon's Hymn and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  • When compared with later variants of English, Old English is characterised by a large number of inflexions which alter the meaning of words. To a modern English speaker, Old English is incomprehensible without study.

References

  1. Fig 1. Anglo Saxon Homelands and Settlements (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anglo-Saxon_Homelands_and_Settlements.svg) by Mbartelsm licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons
  2. Fig 2. Old English Dialects (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/33/Old_English_Dialects.png) by CelticBrain (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:CelticBrain) licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about Old English

Old English is the name of the first ever stage of the English Language. It lasted between approximately 450AD and 1066AD.

Some of the most important Old English works of literature are BeowulfThe Exeter Book, 'Cædmon's Hymn' and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

There are many ways to say 'hello' in Old English. One of the more popular sayings is 'Ƿes hāl!' meaning 'hello' or 'goodbye' (to one person).

Old English is very different to English today, and would require careful study to learn! It is filled with grammar, punctuation and spellings that are completely alien to speakers of the modern English language.

Here are the days of the week in Old English:

Monandæg - Monday

Tiwesdæg -Tuesday 

Wodnesdæg -Wednesday

Ðunresdæg - Thursday

Frigedæg - Friday

Sæternesdæg - Saturday 

Sunnandæg - Sunday

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What is the earliest work of English poetry?

In what century did the Christianisation of England occur?

Which historical text was created in 890 in an attempt to document Anglo-Saxon history?

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