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Learn to Speak Old English

About Old English

Origins and the early period. 'Old English' is the term now normally used for the earliest period of the English language, as distinct from 'Anglo-Saxon', the older term, now used of the people, their history and archaeology. The origins of the language lie with the Germanic tribes living along the North Sea coast of the Continent, in modern terms from southern Denmark to Holland. Small groups from these tribes were employed by the Romans in defending the eastern and southern coasts of Britain during the last years of Roman rule in the province, but the main infiltrations were in the period following the departure of the Roman legions in he early 5th century

 

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The period between about 500 and 600 was one of gradual penetration of Britain by groups of Germanic settlers. There seems never to have been a large-scale invasion, rather groups of raiders and settlers, sometimes reaching far inland via the large rivers, like Thames and Trent, established settlements next to or in place of the local Celtic inhabitants. By the early 7th century there were what could be called Anglo-Saxon kingdoms side by side with Celtic ones, in the north, for example, the English Deira besides the Celtic Elmet. Wales and Cornwall and the more northerly parts of Scotland were not penetrated by the new settlers.

Celtic and the Germanic languages of the early settlers would have been mutually unintelligible. The diplomatic contact between neighbouring kingdoms was no doubt carried out through interpreters and it is difficult to see a general need for either group to learn the language of the other. There is no way of knowing what kind of everyday contact there was between the ordinary Germanic settlers and their Celtic neighbours but place-name evidence suggests that co-existence was at least as common as the fire and sword described by the early chroniclers. Early place-names with Walh meaning 'Briton' rather than 'slave', e.g. Walton, Walcot, and with Cumbre meaning 'British' (cf. Welsh Cymro 'Welshman', Cymru `Wales'), e.g. Cumberland, Comberbatch, suggest recognition by Germanic-speakers of continuing Celtic settlement, less certainly suggested by the purely Celtic topographical names, e.g. Thames, Severn, Calder, Avon. There are still very few certain Celtic borrowings into English of the period, but it is likely that on a local, and perhaps temporary, level there were far more.

Besides language, the other great difference between Celts and Anglo-Saxons lay in their beliefs. The Celts had been converted to Christianity whilst still under Roman rule and had an organized church. The Anglo-Saxons were still pagan. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons began in the 6th century and was largely complete (though not always lasting) by the end of the 8th century Scripts. Christianity meant not only a new religion but also a new language and access to a new means of recording events and ideas. The Anglo-Saxons, like their north Germanic neighbours, used *runes. What survives suggests, however, that both before and after the coming of Christianity runes were used for commemoration, to express ownership, empowering (of weapons, in particular) and, perhaps in all cases, decoration rather than communication. Though it is possible that messages cut in wood formed an everyday practical use for runes, no unequivocal evidence has survived from England. A very few, very brief inscriptions survive from the pagan Anglo-Saxon period, cut on bone or impressed on pottery, but the majority are later. Even these are not numerous or on the whole very long. The Ruthwell cross (Dumfriesshire) inscription, with 290 existing runes and at least a further 100 lost through the 17th- century breaking up of the cross, is the longest.

The frequency of writing Latin after the coming of Christianity and the relatively easy adaptation of its alphabet for the writing of English no doubt made it inevitable that Roman rather than runic letter forms would become the norm. Though primarily used for cutting in stone, bone or clay, and therefore straight-sided, runes could have been adapted, but with a highly developed series of alphabets derived from Roman capital and cursive already in existence there was little need to do so. The only additions to the Roman alphabet were the runic letters <D> (wynn) for [w] and <b> (thorn) for [0] or [8], and the adapted <d>, <8> (eth), used side by side with <b>. It should not be imagined that adoption was immediate and uniform. In the early stages experiments were clearly made. There are early examples of <th> rather than <k>, and <u> or <uu> is used sporadically throughout the period side by side with <1>.

Dialects. As runic inscriptions and written vernacular texts make clear, there were a number of dialects in Anglo-Saxon England, possibly as a result of the differing regions of the Continent from which the early settlers came but as likely from differences which developed after settlement in widely separated areas of England. Broad differences existed between Anglian in the midlands and north, West Saxon in the south and Kentish in the south-east, but there are also variations within these areas, particularly Mercian and Northumbrian within Anglian. Since early records are few, most of the evidence for dialect variations, as for all linguistic features, comes from the 8th century and later. By the 10th century West Saxon, because of the political dominance of the West Saxon kings, had become widespread throughout England as an administrative language and had also achieved something of the status of a standardizing literary language into which earlier works were copied. Before that happened, however, the relative stability of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was to be broken.

Scandinavian and other influences. From the late 8th century onwards Scandinavian marauders subjected the east and south coasts of England to a series of raids culminating in the mid-9th century in larger-scale invasions. After a series of defeats the English eventually rallied under Alfred, king of the West Saxons, and a settlement was made dividing England into the Danelaw, under Scandinavian control, north and east of a line roughly drawn from London to Chester, and Wessex, under English control, to the south and west. There are two major differences between this settlement and the earlier Germanic one of Celtic Britain: first, the relationship between English and the Scandinavian languages was close as they were branches of earlier Germanic, and secondly, whereas the Celts gradually lost control of eastern, central and southern Britain, the Scandinavians for a time ruled the northern and eastern parts of England which they had overrun, and then later (11th c) gained control for a time of the whole of England. As with the earlier Germanic settlement, however, it was once again a matter of Christian inhabitants and pagan invaders. Little is known of the early linguistic interaction but the Scandinavian settlement left a varied and lasting residue of Scandinavian words and forms of every grammatical category, as well as influencing the forms and meanings of some English words. Largely due no doubt to the dominance of West Saxon in the 10th century, these words and forms do not appear in texts in any number until after the end of the Old English period. (Nouns: bracken (1300), keel (1398), law (1000), leg (1300), sky (1289), window (1225); adjectives: awkward (1425), flat (1330), ill (1200); verbs: call (1225), die (1175), drown (1325), get (1200), hit (1075), lift (1200), raise (1200), scrape (1225), take (1100), want (1200); prepositions: fro (1200), till (800); pronouns: they, them, their (1200). Dates given are of the earliest recorded uses according to MED or OED.)
The Scandinavian languages were not the only sources of new words. A number of Latin borrowings of a largely non-Christian kind existed early in the Germanic languages either brought from the Continent or taken over from Latin-speaking Celts in Britain. From the time of the arrival of the Christian missionaries with new concepts and a language carrying the prestige of the new religion, words were taken into English from Latin but, since the Germanic process of creating new words from within the language was still dominant at that time, new borrowings existed side by
side with numerous new creations, largely loan-formations or loan-translations, in the area of the new religion. Probably from contact while still on the Continent are: street (OE strcet), mile (OE mil), mint, from Lat. moneta 'coin' (OE mynet), silk (OE sioluc); from British–Latin contacts: strap (OE stropp), pad (OE pce3el), pot (OE potty, cat (OE catt(e)), cock (OE cocc); later borrowings and new creations: abbot (OE abbod), mass (OE mcesse), alms (OE celmesse); OE krowung = Lat. Passio 'Passion', OE (leornung-)cniht = Lat. discipulus `disciple', OE mildheortnesse = Lat. misericordia `mercy'; OE krynnes = Lat. Trinitas 'Trinity'.

By the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066 the process had already begun whereby English gradually lost almost all of the inflectional system which had marked distinctions between classes of nouns, verbs and adjectives as well as gender, case, tense and number. No doubt interaction between two distinct but similar Germanic languages had some effect through the stressing of stem rather than inflection, but the main cause is likely to have been the tendency of English stress to fall on the first syllable thereby leaving inflections weakly stressed or not stressed at all.
Old English literature. The Old English period traditionally ends with the Conquest though nothing like so sharp a break actually existed. At the time of the conquest, English possessed a flourishing literature – poetry: secular, heroic (e.g. Beowulf) and elegiac (e.g. The Wife's Lament, The Ruin), and religious (e.g. Dream of the Rood, Judith); prose: saints' lives (by, for example, IElfric), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, homilies (e.g. Blickling Homilies), scientific works (e.g. Byrhtferth's Enchiridion). Though Latin remained the primary language of learning and religion, English through translation and original composition had achieved a position of considerable prestige. It was also the common administrative language, used for law codes as well as charters, grants of land and wills.


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