Some people master another language for travel, work, relationships, education, networking and culture; others even go to the effort of learning fictional languages from their favourite books, movies and TV shows. But it is not often that people turn to ancient linguistics in search of discovering new forms of communication.
Old English is a language which the Anglo-Saxons spoke from the 5th century. It is part of the Germanic dialect family and is the ancestor of Modern English. The official use of Old English simultaneously came to an end with the Anglo-Saxon rule of England after the Norman conquest in 1066. Its use among the native populace started to dwindle by 1150. Its purpose now is for academic and historical exercise, but could its use be more prevalent in modern society?
Well, to learn any language requires a certain amount of passion and discipline. It also requires a community and environment where people can practice and converse using day-to-day vernacular. Having a platform in place is imperative for the preservation of any language, especially as future opportunities to use Old English in a Kentish alehouse or at a Mercian market are unrealistic, unfortunately.
Language has always been a popular subject and past-time for students and hobbyists around the world. For budding linguists who use English as their mother-tongue, a recurring question tends to be: “What language is the easiest to learn for native English speakers?” Well, though it is not widely spoken, Frisian (or West Frisian) is the most straightforward to learn. Another rival contender for this title is Norwegian. Here are some quick demonstrations of Frisian and Norweigan:
(Frisian) Myn namme is…
(Norweigan) Mitt navn er…
If you haven’t already deciphered, both phrases mean ‘My name is…’ (the Frisian version is a big giveaway!). Like English, Frisian and Norweigan are Germanic in origin; however, English and Frisian are categorised as West Germanic, whereas Norweigan is North Germanic. To understand the diachrony of how they became to be so similar, we must go back to the formative years of English history. Approximately in AD 450, Germanic tribes invaded Britain from Northern Germany, Southern Scandinavia and Friesland (modern-day Netherlands). These tribes, which later amalgamated into the Anglo-Saxon people, would conquer and expel the native Celtic Britons (or, as they are also known: Romano-Britons). Thus, Germanic dialects spoken by the now Anglo-Saxon ruling elite would replace the native Brittonic (or Brythonic) language. The Brittonic influence on Old English is still a debate which causes a fervent divide between historians and philologians. The linguistic impact of the Britons is widely considered to be too speculative and minor to have had a profound effect on Old English etymology, toponymy and grammatical structure.
As the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain, they would create separate kingdoms—most notably East Anglia, Essex (East Saxons), Kent, Northumbria, Mercia, Sussex (South Saxons) and Wessex (West Saxons). Old English would flourish in the form of dialects within these kingdoms (i.e. Kentish, Northumbrian, Mercian and West Saxon). Old English is a synthetic language like German, Greek and Russian. Synthetic languages use grammatical inflexions and agglutinations to categorise and morph word tenses, moods, persons, numbers, cases, and genders. Consequently, due to the Germanic core of Old English, a present-day English speaker would likely have a hard time trying to communicate with a pre-12th-century Anglo-Saxon. In contrast, a present-day German speaker would be able to recognise some similarities in phonetics and lexical flow. Here are some examples of Old English grammar using the noun Rodor, which translates as sky or heavens.
~beorht (bright, clear-sighted, clear-sounded, magnificent) – Rodorbeorht (heavenly, bright).
~cyning (king) – Rodorcyning (king of heaven, Christ).
~lihting (shining, illumination, light) – Rodorlihting – (dawn).
~stōl (stool, chair, throne) – Rodorstōl (celestial throne).
~torht (bright, beautiful, illustrious) – Rodortorht (heavenly bright).
~tungol (heavenly body, star, constellation) – Rodortungol (star of heaven).
The propagation of Christianity would then sweep the Anglo-Saxon world at the beginning of the 7th century. This new religion would bring its Latin scripture replacing the Germanic Runic alphabet. Naturally, some words were exsorbed into Old English:
Altaris (Latin) – Altar (Old English and Modern English)
Apostolo (Latin) – Apostel (Old English) – Apostle (Modern English)
Missa (Latin) – Messe (Old English) – Mass (Modern English)
Monachus (Latin) – Munuc (Old English) – Monk (Modern English)
The Viking invasion of England during the 9th century brought about further changes and near extinction to Old English. During this period, Anglo-Saxon England was made up of four dominant kingdoms: East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex. Three of these dominions had fallen victim to the Danish and Norse occupation; only Wessex still stood firm. In 878 at the Battle of Edington, history would be made on a knife-edge as Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, would make his last stand and obtain victory against the Vikings. Alfred’s success at Edington would help to secure the survival of England’s future and its language. It also turned the West Saxon dialect into the main form of Old English.
The Scandinavian influence didn’t end there, after the Battle of Edington the country was diagonally split in two. The Anglo-Saxons would take the South and South West, and the Danish Vikings would take the North and North East—a region which would be known as the Danelaw. Alfred implicated a treaty that would not allow Danes or West Saxons to cross the border unless for trade. During this time of peace and commerce, the Viking tongue called Old Norse/Old Danish would intermingle with Old English leaving an indelible imprint. Some examples of evolving cognates:
Deyja (Old Norse) – Dīeġan (Old English) – Die (Modern English)
Grænn (Old Norse) – Grene (Old English) – Green (Modern English)
Jarl (Old Norse) – Eorl (Old English) – Earl (Modern English)
Knífr (Old Norse) – Cnīf (Old English) – Knife (Modern English)
Plógr (Old Norse) – Plōh (Old English) – Plough (Modern English), although, the Old English form refers to a size of land used for ploughing.
Rót (Old Norse) – Rōt (Old English) – Root (Modern English)
Taka (Old Norse) – Tacan (Old English) – Take (Modern English)
The Norman conquest of England during the 11th century brought a further influx of Latinate words from French, resulting in Old English starting to evolve into Middle English. Middle English was a type of dialect which was widely spoken until the late 1400s, and it combined Old English cognates with Romance influences from French and Latin. It was relatively more coherent for a Modern English speaker in terms of spelling and grammar, but still shared some vowel pronunciations similar to Old English:
Segen (Old English) – Seyde (Middle English) – Said (Modern English)
Ne (Old English) – Nat (Middle English) – Not (Modern English)
Fram (Old English) – Fro (Middle English) – From (Modern English)
Genóh (Old English) – Ynogh (Middle English) – Enough (Modern English)
|Select Homilies of Ælfric by Henry Sweet 1885. Private collection
Between the 15th and 18th century Middle English would develop into early Modern English. The outcome of this change would create the Great Vowel Shift, which significantly altered the pronunciation of words. The jump from Old English to Modern English would make the vocabulary rise from roughly 50,000 to 170,000. Moreover, it developed a much simpler syntax structure. It went from being a synthetic language that was predominately Germanic, to an analytical language with added Romance vocabulary; hence why English has a Germanic-Latinate mix which is both weird and wonderful!
So, is Old English a dead language? Yes and no. Many of its words still exist but in a different form:
Old English: Blōd
Modern English: Blood
Old English: Consul
Modern English: Consul
Old English: Flyht
Modern English: Flight
Old English: Hunta
Modern English: Hunter
Old English: Panne
Modern English: Pan
Old English: Wæter
Modern English: Water
A fair comparison can be made with Classical Latin, as it shares similar circumstances. Both Latin and Old English never really died, they respectfully evolved into the modern Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian) and Modern English. There are educational courses available to study both subjects, but status similarities differ when you consider the use of Latin is habitual for 100 fluent speakers. Sadly, Old English does not share this status.
There are three key points as to why the Anglo-Saxon language is worth learning:
- Maintaining its survival: Some contemporaries today might see it as being unfashionable or irrelevant, but this outlook could be different for future generations. Solely keeping Old English in the confines of books and lecture rooms does not guarantee its preservation; nor does it broadly attract potential learners. If a language is to survive, it must first thrive in some capacity.
- Expanding historical knowledge: The people of the past have left an imprint on the world through their everyday speech. Researching Old English can not only assist us in understanding Anglo-Saxon idiosyncrasies 1000 years ago, but it can also provide us with an insight into the present synchronic form and future direction of Modern English. Reading ancient texts—as it was initially intended to be written—can supply new historical interpretations of historical figures and events.
- Improving language proficiency: Studying Old English does not only help to comprehend the roots of Modern English, but it can also build the foundations needed for acquiring and understanding other languages and cultures. When you learn a new language, you obtain a new way of thinking which can enhance your communication methods. Such methods of acquisition can open doors to learning additional styles of conversing, especially when studying another Germanic language. “Eall on muðe þæt on mode” is an apt Anglo-Saxon proverb which translates as: “All in the mouth that’s in the mind”.
“Remember what punishments befell us in this world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men.”
~ King Alfred the Great
Alfred’s foreboding quote referred to the sackings inflected by Viking raids on monasteries like Iona, Lindisfarne and Monkwearmouth–Jarrow. As a result of these incursions, the Vikings would slay many learned clergies while burning libraries and purloining artefacts. Clerical residents would oversee places of religious worship which were held as hubs for knowledge and learning. In Europe during the medieval period, Latin was the universal language for religion, law, academia, governance and literature; but, it was not a vernacular the ordinary people understood. The type of Anglo-Saxons who were primarily literate in Latin tended to be high ranking members of the Church and realm. With the former starting to dwindle in numbers due to Viking attacks, Latin documents of governance and education were unable to be proficiently translated. This outcome risked the mistranslation and disregard of sacred oaths and laws relating to religion or state.
Thanks to the efforts of Alfred the Great, Old English would be one of the first native languages in Europe to have notable scriptures translated from Latin. By advocating the production of these translations, Alfred was creating a text which was no longer exclusive to clerical intellectuals and other privileged members of society. He believed in bettering the living standards of his people by providing them with the freedom of knowledge. As a devout Christian, Alfred felt that morality and enlightenment could only prevail through education. Even today, we collectively try to celebrate and preserve these esteemed ideals.
“No language is justly studied merely as an aid to other purposes. It will in fact better serve other purposes, philological or historical, when it is studied for love, for itself.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien
Though Tolkien was a respected professor and philologian at Oxford University, he is better known for being the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. As an expert of Old English literature, he appreciated its poetical beauty, and would notably be inspired by such works as Beowulf when writing his renowned books. Because of these influences, Tolkien’s creative works revolutionised the fantasy genre for many avid readers and budding writers for generations. As well as making a universal impact on the literary sphere, Old English has acted as a progenitor for the most widely spoken language in the world. The widespread use of English has undeniably shaped modern western civilisation and global pop culture, and it has been a journey which all started with its Anglo-Saxon forebear.
We only to have to look to our Celtic neighbours to see the cultural benefits gained from revived languages like Breton, Cornish, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. Many of these languages had previously been small unofficial dialects or had become nearly extinct through low status. Now, Celtic linguistics is making a resurgence and bringing communities closer together through local governance, education, business and the arts. Although commendable, it is not essential to teach Old English in schools, nor is it necessary to have it written across signs and billboards. Nonetheless, it would be a great shame to overlook something which has contributed so much to our history and culture. Old English does not solely belong to the Anglo-Saxons; it belongs to all English speakers of today and tomorrow onwards.
Author: Thomas Davies
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