English and Its Historical Development, Part 10

(Old English Period)

A.D. 450-1150, Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Period

Old English or Anglo-Saxon Period, A.D. 450-1150.
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The dark fifth century was historically an interlude of crucial importance because it was then that the foundations of an English nation took place

In A.D. 450, receiving no aid from Rome to fight off the Picts and Irish, the British Celts appealed to the Jutes for help.

A British chieftain named Vortigern, hard-pressed by the marauding Irish and Picts, decided to adopt the hazardous Roman tactic of importing mercenaries.

Vortigern made an agreement with two chieftains of the jutes, Hengist and Horsa, offering land and pay in return for aid against his northern enemies.

The Jutes defeated the Picts and Irish and then helped themselves to British territory in the southeastern quarter which became The Kingdom of Kent (from the original Celtic place-name Cantion).

Can we know exactly when the English language started?

It is never easy to pinpoint exactly when a specific language began, but in the case of English we can at least say that there is little sense in speaking of the English language as a separate entity before the Anglo-Saxons went to Britain.

Little is known of this period with any certainty, but we do know that Germanic invaders arrived and settled in Britain from the north-western coastline of continental Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The invaders all spoke a language that was Germanic (related to what emerged as Dutch, Frisian, German and the Scandinavian languages, and to Gothic), but we will probably never know how different their speech was from that of their continental neighbors.

It is fairly certain that many of the settlers would have spoken in exactly the same way as some of their north European neighbors and that not all of the settlers would have spoken in the same way.

The reason that we know so little about the linguistic situation in this period is because we do not have much in the way of written records from any of the Germanic languages of north-western Europe until several centuries later.

When Old English writings began to appear in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries; there is a good deal of regional variation, but not substantially more than that found in later periods. This was the language that Alfred the Great referred to as "English" in the ninth century.

The Celts were already living in Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived, but there are few obvious traces of their language in English today.

Some scholars have suggested that the Celtic tongue might have had an underlying influence on the grammatical development of English, particularly in some parts of the country, but this is highly speculative.

The number of loanwords known for certain to have entered Old English from this source is very small. Those which survive in modern English include brock (badger), and coomb (a type of valley), plus many place names.

The invaders came from Jutland and southern Denmark

West Germanic invaders from Jutland and southern Denmark: the Angles (whose name is the source of the words England and English), Saxons, and Jutes, began populating the British Isles in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.

They spoke a mutually intelligible language, similar to modern Frisian; the language of northeastern region of the Netherlands, which is called "Old English".

Four major dialects of Old English emerged, Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the Midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the Southeast.

These invaders pushed the original, Celtic-speaking inhabitants out of what is now England into Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland; leaving behind a few Celtic words.

These Celtic languages survive today in Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland and in Welsh. Cornish, unfortunately, is now a dead language. The last known native Cornish speaker, Dolly Pentreath, died in 1777 in the town of Mousehole, Cornwall.

The majority of words in modern English come from foreign, not Old English roots. In fact, only about one sixth of the known Old English words have descendants surviving today; however, this is deceptive because Old English is much more important than these statistics would indicate.

About half of the most commonly used words in modern English have Old English roots. Words like be, water, and strong, for example, derive from Old English roots.

An Anglo-Saxon inscription dated between 450 and 480 AD is the oldest sample of the English language.

During the next few centuries four dialects of English developed:

  • Northumbrian in Northumbria, north of the Humber
  • Mercian in the Kingdom of Mercia
  • West Saxon in the Kingdom of Wessex
  • Kentish in Kent

During the 7th and 8th Centuries, Northumbria's culture and language dominated Britain. The Viking invasions of the 9th Century brought this domination to an end (along with the destruction of Mercia).

Only Wessex remained as an independent kingdom. By the 10th Century, the West Saxon dialect became the official language of Britain.

Written Old English is mainly known from this period. It was written in an alphabet called Runic, derived from the Scandinavian languages.

Proceed to Part 10A, Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy.

INDEX or Table of Contents, English and its historical development.

References: sources of information.