1902 Encyclopedia > English Language > Old English

English Language
(Part 2)

Old English

The OLD ENGLISH, or Anglo-Saxon tongue, as introduced into Britain, was highly inflexional, though its inflexions were not so full as those of the older Moeso-Gothic, and considerably less so than those of Greek and Latin during their classical periods. They corresponded on the whole to those of modern literary German, though both in nouns and verbs the forms were more distinct ; for example, the German guten answer to three Old English forms,—the German guten answer to three Old English forms,—gódne, gódum, gódan ; guter to two—gódre, gódra ; liebten to two,—lufodon and lufeden. Nouns had four cases, Nominative, Accusative (not always distinct), Genitive, Dative, the latter used also with preposition to express locative, instrumental, and most ablative relations ; of a distinct instrumental case only vestiges occur. There were several declensions of nouns, the main division being that known in Teutonic languages generally as strong and weak,—a distinction also extending to adjectives in such wise that every adjective assumed either inflexion as determined by associated pronouns possessed a dual ; the third person had a complete declension of the stem he, instead of being made up as now of the three seen in he, she, they. The verb distinguished the subjunctive from the indicative mood, but had only two inflected tenses, present and past,—the former also used for the future, the latter for all the shades of past time. The order of the sentence correspond generally to that of German. Thus from King Alfred’s additions to his translation of Orosius :--Donne ty ylcan daege hi hine to taem ade beran wylla_, _onne todaela&Mac189; hi his feoh. _aet _aer to lafe bi_ aefter taem gedrynce and taem plegan. on fif o__e syx. hwilum on ma. Swa taes feos andefn bi_. "Then the same day [that] they him to the pile bear will, then divide they his property that there to remainder is, after the drinking and the sports, into five or six, at times into more, according as of the property the values is."

The poetry was distinguished by alliteration, and the abundant use of figurative and metaphorical expressions, of bold compounds and archaic word never found in prose. Thus in the following lines from Beowulf :—

Stráet waes stán-fáh, stig wisode
Gumum aetgaedere. Gú_-byrne scán
Heard hond-locen. Hring-iren scir
Song in searwum, _a hie to sele fur_um
In hyra gry´ re-geatwum, gangan cwomon. [Footnote 392-1]

The street was stone-variegated, (it) pointed the path
To (the) men together ; the war-mailcoat shone,
"Hard hand-locked. The ring-iron sheer (bright ring-mail)
Sang in their cunning-trappings, as they to hall forth
In their horror-accoutrements to go came."

The Old English was a homogeneous language, having very few foreign elements in it, and forming its compounds and derivatives entirely from its own resources. A few Latin appellatives learned from the Romans in the German wars had been adopted into the common Teutonic tongue, and are found in English as in the allied dialects. Such were straete, street (via strata), camp, battle, cásere, Caesar, míl, mile, pín, punishment ; perhaps cyrice, church, biscop, bishop, laedon, Latin language, cése, cheese, butor, butter, pipor, pepper, olfend, camel (elephantus), pund, pound, ynce, inch (uncia), and a few other. The relations of the first invaders to the Britons were to a great extent those of destroyers ; and with the exception of the proper names of places and prominent natural features, which as is usual were retained by the population, few British words found their way into the Old English. Among these are named broc, a badger, brec, breeches, clut, clout, pul,, pool, and a few words relating to the employment of field or household menials. Still fewer words seem to have been adopted from the provincial Latin, almost the only certain one being castra, applied to the Roman towns, which appeared in English as ccestre, ceaster, now found in composition as -caster, -Chester, -cester. The introduction and gradual adoption of Christianity, brought a new series of Latin words connected with the offices of the church, the accompaniments of higher civilization, the foreign produc-tions either actually made known, or mentioned in the Scriptures and devotional books. Such were mynster (monasterium), celmesse (eleemosyna), candel (candela), turtle (turtur), fie (ficus), cedar (cedrus). These words, whose number increased from the 7th to the 10th century, are commonly called Latin of the second period,, the Latin of the first period including the Latin words brought by the English from Germany, as well as those picked up in Britain either from the provincials or the Welsh, which have not hitherto been separated from them. The Danish invasions of the 8th and 10th centuries resulted in the establishment of extensive Danish and Norwegian popula-tions, about the basin of the Humber and its tributaries, and above Morecambe Bay. Although these Scandinavian settlers must have greatly affected the language of their own localities, few traces of their influence are to be found in the literature of the Old English period. As with the greater part of the words adopted from the Celtic, it was not until after the dominion of the Norman had overlaid all preceding conquests, and the new English began to emerge from the ruins of the old, that Danish words in any number made their appearance in books, as equally native with the Anglo-Saxon.

The earliest specimens we have of English date to the end of the 7th century, and belong to the Anglian or northern dialect, which, under the political eminence of the early Northumbrian kings from Edwin to EcgfriS, aided perhaps by the learning of the scholars of Iona, first attained to literary distinction. Of this literature in its original form mere fragments exist, one of the most in-teresting of which consists of the verses uttered by Bseda on his deathbed, and preserved in a nearly contemporary MS. :—

Fore there neid-faerae . naenig uuiurthit
thone-snotturra . than him tharf sie,
to ymb-hycggamiEe . aer his hin-iongae,
huaet his gastae . godaes aeththa yflaes,
aefter deoth-daege . doemid uueorthae.

Before the inevitable journey no one becomes
More thought-prudent than he has need,
To ponder, ere his hence-going,
What, to his ghost, of good or of ill,
After death-day, deemed shall be.

But our chief acquaintance with Old English is in its West-Saxon form, the earliest literary remains of which date to the 9th century, when under the political supremacy of Wessex and the scholarship of King Alfred it became the literary language of the English nation, the classical "Anglo-Saxon." If our materials were more extensive, it would probably be necessary to divide the Old English into several periods ; as it is, Mr Sweet, who has laboured chiefly in this field, has pointed out considerable differences between the " early West-Saxon" of King Alfred and the later language of the 11th century, [Footnote 392-2] the earlier language having numerous inflexional and phonetic distinctions which are " levelled " in the later, showing that the tendency to pass from the synthetical to the analytical stage existed quite independently of the Norman Conquest. The northern dialect, whose literary career had been cut short in the 8th century by the Danish invasions, reappears in the 10th in the form of glosses to the Latin gospels and the Ritual of Durham, where we find that in the process of inflexion-levelling it has, owing to the confusion which had so long reigned in the north, advanced far beyond the sister dialect of the south, so as to be already almost Transition English, or "Semi-Saxon."

Among the literary remains of the Old English may be mentioned the epic poem of Beowulf, the original nucleus of which has been supposed to date to heathen and even Continental times, though we now possess it only in a latter form ; several works of Alfred, two of which, his translation of Orosius, and of the Pastoral Care of St Gregory, are contemporary specimens of his language ; the theological works of Aelfric (including translations of the Pentateuch and the gospels) and of Wulfstán ; the poetical works of Cynewulf ; those ascribed to Caedmon ; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ; and many works both in prose and verse of which the authors are unknown.

The earliest specimens, the inscriptions of the Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses, are in at Runic character ; but the letters used in the manuscripts generally are in British variety of the Roman alphabet which the Anglo-Saxons found in the island, and which was also used by the Welsh and Irish. [Footnote 393-1] Several of the letters had in Britain developed forms, and retained or acquired values, unlike those used on the Continent, in particular GREEK (d f g r s t). The letters k q z were not used, q being represented by cw ; u or v was only a vowel, the consonantal power of v being represented as in Welsh by f. The Runes called thorn and wén, for which the Roman alphabet had no character, were at first expressed by th, _ (a contraction for dd or dh), and v or u ; but at a later period the character _ and _ were revived from the old Runic alphabet. Contrary to Continental usage, the letters c and z (g) had only their hard or guttural powers, as in the neighbouring Celtic languages ; so that words which, when the Continental Roman alphabet came to be used for Germanic languages, had to be written with k, were in Old English written with c, as cirice=kirke. The key to the values of the letters, and thus to the pronunciation of Old English, is also to be found in the Celtic tongues whence the letters were taken.

The Old English period is usually considered as terminating about the year 1100,—that is, with the death of the generation who saw the Norman Conquest. The Conquest established in England a foreign court, a foreign aristocracy, and a foreign hierarchy.[Footnote 393-2] The French language, in its Norman dialect, became the only polite medium of intercourse. The native tongue, despised not only as unknown but as the language of a subject race, was left to use of boors and serfs, and except in a few stray cases ceased to be written at all. [Footnote 393-3] The natural followed. When the educated generation that saw the arrival of the Norman died out, the language, ceasing to be read and written, lost all its literary words. The word of ordinary life whose preservation is independent of books lived on as vigorously as ever, but the literary terms, those that related to science, art, and higher culture, the bold artistic compounds, the figurative terms of poetry, were speedily forgotten. The practical vocabulary shrank to a fraction of its former extent. And when, generations later, English began to be used for general literature, the only terms at hand to express ideas above those of every day life were to be found in the French of the privileged classes, of whom alone art, science, law, and theology had been for generations that inheritance. Hence each successive literary effort of the reviving English tongue shows a larger adoption of French words to supply the place of the forgotten native, ones, till by the days of Chaucer they constituted a formidable part of the vocabulary. Now was it for the time being only that the French words affected the English vocabulary. The Norman French words introduced by the Conquest, as well as the Parisian French French words which followed under the early Plantagenets, were, the bulk of them, Latin words which had lived on among the people of Gaul, and, modified in the mouths of succeeding generations, had reached forms more or less remote from their originals. In being now adopted as English, they supplied precedents in accordance with which other Latin words without limit might be converted into English ones, whenever required ; and long before the Renaissance of classical learning, though in much greater numbers after that epoch, these precedents were eagerly followed.

While the eventual though distant result of the Norman Conquest was thus a large reconstruction of the English vocabulary, the grammar of the language was not directly affected by it. There was no reason why it should—we might almost add, no way by which it could. While the English used their own words, they could not forget their own way of using them, the inflexion and constructions by which alone the words expressed ideas,—in other words, their grammar ; when one French words were introduced into the sentence they became English by the very act of admission, were at once subjected to all the duties and liabilities of English words in the same position. This is of course precisely what we do at the present day : telegraph and telegram make participle telegraphing and plural telegrams, and "scrumptious," adverb "scrumptiously," precisely as if they had been in the language for ages.

But indirectly the grammar was affected very quickly. In languages in the inflected or synthetic stage the terminations must be pronounced with marked distinctness, as these contains the correlation of ideas ; it is all-important to hear whether a word is bonus or bonis or bonas or bonos. This implies a measured and careful pronunciation, against which the effort for ease and rapidity of utterance is continually struggling, while indolence and carelessness continually compromise it. There has been an increasing tendency in English, as in other languages, to give each word one main accent, at or near the beginning, and to suffer the concluding syllables to fall into obscurity. We are familiar with the cockney winder, sofer, holler, Sarer, Sunder, for window, sofa, holla, Sarah, Sunday, the various final works vowels sinking into an obscure neutral one conventionally spelt, er. Already before the Conquest, forms originally hatu, sello, tunga, appeared as hate, selle, tunge, with the terminations levelled to obscure e, but during the illiterate period of the language after the Conquest, this careless obscuring of terminal vowels became universal, all unaccented vowels in the final syllable (except I) sinking into e. During the 12th century, while this change was going on, we find a confusion of grammatical forms, the full inflexions of Old English standing side by side in the same sentences with the levellled ones of Middle English. It is to this state of the language that the names Transition and Period of Confusion (Dr Abbott's appellation) point ; its appearance, as that of Anglo-Saxon broken down in its endings, had previously given to it the suggestive if not strictly logical title of Semi-Saxon. By most writers the close of the period has been brought down to 1250; but very shortly after 1200 in the south, and considerably before it in the north, the levelling of inflexions was complete, and the language possessed of a tolerably settled systems of new grammatical forms, the use of which marks Middle English.

Although the written remains of the TRANSITION OLD ENGLISH are few, sufficient exist to enable us to trace the course of linguistic change. Within two generations after the Conquest, faithful pens at work transliterating the old homilies of Aelfric, and other lights of the Anglo-Saxon Church, into the neglected idiom of their posterity. Twice during the period, in the reigns of Stephen and Henry II., Aelfric’s gospels were similarly modernized so as to be "understanded of the people." And shortly after 1100 appeared the great work of the age, the vesified Chronicle of Layaman, or Lawëman, a priest of Ernely, on the Savern, who, using as has basis the French Brut of Wace, expanded it by additions of his own to more than twice the extent; is work of 32,250 lines is a mine of illustrations for the language of the period. While these southern remains carry on in unbroken sequence the history of the Old English is an entire blank from the 11th to the 13th century. The stubborn resistance of the north, and the terrible retaliation inflicted by William, apparently effaced northern English culture of centuries. If anything was written in the vernacular in the kingdom of Scotland during the same period, it probably perished during the calamities to which that country was subjected during the half century of struggle for independence. In reality, however, the northern English had entered its Transition or "Semi-Saxon" stage two centuries earlier ; the glosses of the 10th century show that the Danish inroads had there anticipated the results hastened by the Norman Conquest in the south. Meanwhile a dialect was making its appearance in another quarter of England destined to overshadow the old literary dialects of north and south alike, and become the English of the future. The Mercian kingdom, which, as its name imports, lay along the marches of the earlier states, and was really a congeries of the outlying members of many tribes, must have presented from the beginning a linguistic mixture and transition ; and it is probable that more than one intermediate form of speech arose within its confines, between Lancashire and the Thames. But the only specimen of such we can with some degree of certainty produce comes towards the close of the Old English period, in the gloss of the Rushworth Gospels, which, so far as concerns St Matthew, and a few verses of St John xviii, is probably in a Mercian dialect. At least it presents a phase of the language which in inflexional decay stands about midway between the West-Saxon and the Northumbrian glosses, to which it is yet posterior in time. But soon after the Conquet we find a undoubted midland dialect in the Transition stage from Old to Middle English, in the south-eastern part of ancient Mercia, in a district bounded on the south and south-east by the Saxon Middlesex and Essex, and on the east and north by the east Anglian Norfolk and Suffolk and the Danish settlements on the Trent and Humber. In this district, and in the monastery of Peterborough, one of the copies of the Old English Chronicle, transcribed about 1120, was written up by two succeeding hands to the death of Stephen in 1154. The section from 1122 to as in Layamon between Old English forms and those of a still simpler Middle English, impatient to rid itself of the inflexional trammels which were still, though in weakened forms, s tightly hugged south of the Thames. And in the concluding section written in 1154 we find Middle Englis fairly started on its career. A specimen of this new tongue will best show the change that had taken place.

1140 A.D.—And to eorl of Angaeu waerd ded, and his sune Henri toc to td rice. And te cuen of France to-daelde fra te king, and scae com to _e iunge eorl Henri, and he toc hire to wiue, and al Peitou mid hire. _a ferde he mid micel faerd into Engleland and wan castles—and te king ferde agenes him mid micel mare fer. te iunge eorl Henri, and he toc hire to wiue, and al Peituo mid hire. ta ferde he mid micel faerd into Engleland and wan castles and—te king ferde agenes him mid micel mare ferd. to_waethere fuhtten hi noht. oc ferden _e aerocebiscop and te wise men betwux heom, and makede that sahte that te king sculde ben lauerd and king wile he liuede. And aefter has daei ware Henri king. And he helde him for fader, and he him for sune, and sib and saehte sculde ben betwyx heom, and on al Engleland. [Footnote 394-1]

With this may be contrasted a specimen of southern English, at least 25 years later (Hatton Gospels, Luke i. 46). [Footnote 394-2]

_a cwae_ Maria: Min saule mersed drihten, and min gast ge-blissode on gode minen haelende. For _am _e he geseah his _inene eadmodnysse. So_lice henen-for_ me eadige segge_ alle cneornesse ; for _am _e me mychele _ing dyde se _e mihtyg ys ; and his name is halig. And his mildeheortnysse of cneornisse on cneornesse hine ondraedende. He worhte maegne on hys earme ; he to-daelde _a ofermode, on moda heora heortan. He wardp _a rice of settle, and _a endmode, he up-an-hof. Hyngriende he mid gode ge-felde, and _a ofermode ydele for-let. He afeng israel his cniht, and gemynde his mildheortnysse ; Swa he spraec to ure faederen Abrahame, and hs saede on a weorlde.


302-1 Thorpe’s Beowulf, l. 645.

392-2 See Mr Sweet’s preface to his edition of King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Early English Text Society, 1871-2.

393-1 See on this Rhys, Lectures on Welsh Philology, v.

393-2 For a discriminating view of the effects of the Norman Conquest on the English Language, see Freeman, Norman Conquest, ch. xxv.

393-3 There is not the least reason to suppose that any attempt was made to proscribe or suppress the native tongue, which was indeed used in some official documents addressed to Englishmen by the Conqueror himself. Its social degradation seemed even on the point o coming to an end, when it was confirmed and prolonged for two centuries more by the accession of the Angevin dynasty, under whom everything French received a new impetus.

394-1 Earle, Two of the Saxon Chronicles parallel, 1865, p. 265.

394-2 Skeat , Anglo-Saxon and Northumbrian Gospels, 1874.

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