Shapers of the Language 1: The Early Adopters (450-1066)

The island of Britain was invaded in the fifth century by tribes from north-west Europe who came to be known as Anglo-Saxons. They brought with them a collection of dialects that coalesced into what we now know as Old English, and which developed into the English that we use today. No invasions, no English language.

Old English is now so distant from us that it has to be learnt as a foreign language. Unlike modern English, it was highly inflected. That is, the function of a word in a clause was shown by its endings, like Latin or German. However, as Bruce Mitchell points out in ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’, the greatest obstacle to understanding Old English is not the grammar. ‘I have come to the conclusion,’ he writes, ‘that the factor which above all makes Old English seem a foreign language to those trying to read it today is neither its inflections nor its word-order nor its syntax but its vocabulary.’

This is apparent in the first three lines of ‘Beowulf’:

Hwæt. We Gardena in gear-dagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

In a twentieth century translation this comes out as:

Lo! We have heard of the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of yore – how those princes did valorous deeds.

Because it was inflected, Old English allowed a different word-order from that of modern English. The order of the original is:

Lo! We of the Spear-Danes in days of yore of the kings of the people of the glory have heard – how those princes valorous deeds did.

While that’s a little strange, we can make out the meaning because we know the words. But put the Old English words in modern order and we remain lost:

Hwæt. We gefrunon þrym þeodcyninga Gardena in gear-dagum, hu ða æþelingas fremedon ellen.

Much was to happen to the language during the following thousand years or so, but without these beginnings, however alien they appear to us now, we should be speaking a quite different language. As so often, language was shaped by non-linguistic events. In a further instance, the Viking invaders of the ninth century brought Old Norse with them and that introduced changes to the language which remain with us. To the Vikings we owe some two thousand words which include such everyday words as anger, cake, scare, and smile. Old Norse also influenced the grammar of English, by replacing the earlier third person plural pronouns with they, them and their, influencing our verb be by introducing are in place of Old English sindon and spreading the use of the 3rd person singular –s verbal ending.

Three individuals from this period deserve special mention.

Caedmon was the first known English poet. The story, told by Bede, and which used to appear in books for the children of aspirational parents, was that he was a farm labourer working at Whitby Abbey. In the evenings, the monks would sit together and perform various party pieces. The untutored Caedmon felt left out, and rather than suffer the embarrassment of having to admit his lack of competence in literary and musical composition, he mostly had an early night. But one night he had a dream in which he was instructed by person or persons unknown to write a poem in praise of creation, (rather as, considerably later, Sir Philip Sidney’s Muse told him to ‘look in thy heart and write’). Caedmon obliged. Next morning he produced his poem. At a mere nine lines, it doesn’t exactly stand alongside ‘Paradise Lost’, but it showed relatively early on that English could be used for a literary purpose.

Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. Much of his energy was spent protecting his kingdom from the Danish invaders, but he managed to translate a number of works from Latin into English. He did so because he thought that knowledge of Latin had declined, and that English translations would be more widely read. He could see the way the linguistic wind of was blowing, and his translations set English on the road to becoming a language which could be used for serious purposes.

In the following century, a Benedictine abbot, Aelfric, produced English versions of texts on Christian themes ‘þæm mannan to rædennne þe þat Leden ne cunnon’ (for those men to read who know not Latin). He later translated the book of Genesis from Latin into English translation, the first translation of any part of the Bible into the vernacular. One of his Latin works was the Colloquy, a sample lesson in which the teacher asks his pupils questions about their lives and work. Someone else subsequently wrote an English translation between the lines of Latin. It reads a little like a dialogue from a phrase book:

Teacher: Hwæt sægest þu, yrþlingc? Hu begæst þu weorc þin? (What do you have to say, ploughman? How do you go about your work?)

Pupil: Eala, leof hlaford, þearle ic deorfe.Ic ga ut on dægræd þywende oxan to felda, ond iguie hie to syl. (Well, sir, I work very hard. I go out at dawn to drive the oxen into the field, and yoke them to the plough.)

As they used to say of the BBC radio series ‘The Archers’, it tells an everyday story of country folk, and, as such, gives us an insight into how the forebears of many us who call these islands home used to live and talk.

Aelfric died just 56 years before an event that was to have the most profound influence on the development of English since its beginnings.

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