Anglo Saxon Britain the Anglo Saxon Language

July 7, 2017 | Author: hannahofkentucky | Category: English Language, Linguistics, Languages, Semiotics, Linguistic Typology
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A DESCRIPTION of Anglo-Saxon Britain, howevel brief, would not be complete without some account of the English language in its earliest and purest form. But it would be impossible within reasonable limits to give anything more than a short general statement of the relation which the old English tongue bears to the kindred Teutonic dialects, and of the main differences which mark it off from our modern simplified and modified speech. All that can be attempted here is such a broad outline as may enable the general reader to grasp the true connexion between modern English and so-called Anglo-Saxon, on the one hand, as well as between Anglo-Saxon itself and the parent Teutonic language on the other. Any full investigation of grammatical or etymological details would be beyond the scope of this little volume. The tongue spoken by the English and Saxons at the period of their invasion of Britain was --an almost unmixed Low Dutch dialect. Originally derived, of course, from the primitive Aryan language, it had already undergone those changes which are summed up in what is known as Grimm's Law. The principal




cpnsonants In the old Aryan tongue had been regularly and slightly altered in certain directions; and these alterations have been carried still further in the allied High German language. Thus the original word for father, which closely resembled the Latin pater, becomes in early English or Anglo-Saxonjtrder, and in modern High German vater. So, again, among the numerals, our two, in early English twa, answers to Latin duo and modern High German zwei; while our tl/ree, in old English threo, answers to Latin tres, and modern High German dret'. So far as these permutations are concerned, Sanscrit, Greek, and Latin may be regarded as most nearly resembling the primitive Aryan speech, and with them the Celtic dialects mainly agree. From these, the English varies one degree, the High German two. The following table represents the nature of such changes approximately for these three groups of languages :Greek, Sanscrit, Latin, Celtic

------- ~1 ~ j_f·l_t. I ~~~~I ~I Gothic, English, Low Dutch ...


High German ... b.


p. ! b.

tho j t.

I 1--;:-I~ -;--:I



k. j g. i


~I:;:! --;'-I I


In practice, several modifications arise; for example, the law is only true for old High German, and that only approximately, but its general truth may be accepted as governing most individual cases. Judged by this standard, English forms a dialect of the Low Dutch branch of the Aryan language,


together with Frisian, modern Dutch, and the Scandinavian tongues. Within the group thus restricted its affinities are closest with Frisian and old Dutch, less close with Icelandic and Danish. While the English still lived on the shores of the Baltic, it is probable that their language was perfectly intelligible to the ancestors of the people who now inhabit Holland, and who then spoke very slightly different local dialects. In other words, a single Low Dutch speech then apparently prevailed from the mouth of the Elbe to that of the Scheidt, with small local variations; and from this speech the Anglo-Saxon and the modern English have developed in one direction, while the Dutch has developed in another, the Frisian dialect long remaining intermediate between them. Scandinavian ceased, perhaps, to be intelligible to Englishmen at an earlier date, the old Icelandic being already marked off from AngloSaxon by strong peculiarities, while modern Danish differs even more widely from the spoken English of the present day. The relation of Anglo-Saxon to modern English is that of direct parentage, it might almost be said of absolute identity. The language of Beowulf and of .tElfred is not, as many people still imagine, a .different language from our own; it is simply English in its earliest and most unmixed form. What we commonly call Anglo-Saxon, indeed, is more English than what we commonly call English at the present day. The first is truly English, not only in its structure and grammar, but also in the whole of it~



vocabulary: the second, though also truly English in its structure and grammar, contains a large number. of Latin, Greek, and Romance elements in its vocabulary. Nevertheless, no break separates us from the original Low Dutch tongue spoken in the marsh lands of Sleswick. The English of Beol1lltlj grows slowly into the English of JElfred, into the English of Ehaucer, into the English of Shakespeare and Milton, and into the English of Macaulay and Tennyson. Old words drop out from time to time, old grammatical forms die away or become obliterated, new names and verbs are borrowed, first from the Norman-French at the Conquest, then from the classical Greek and Latin at the Renaissance; but the continuity of the language remains unbroken, and its substance is still essentially the same as at the beginning. The Cornish, the Irish, and to some extent the Welsh, have left off speaking their native tongues, and adopted the language of the dominant Teuton; but there never was a time when Englishmen left off speaking Anglo-Saxon and took to English, Norman-French, or any other form of speech whatsoever. An illustration may serve to render clearer this fundamental and important distinction. If at the present day a body of Englishmen were to settle in China, they might learn and use the Chinese names for many native plants, animals, and manufactured articles; but however many of such words they adopted into their vocabulary, their language would still remain essentially English. A visitor from K



England would have to learn a number of unfamilia.r words, but he would not have to learn a new language. If, on the other hand, a body of Frenchmen were to settle in a neighbouring Chinese province, and to adopt exactly the same Chinese words, their language would still remain essentially French. The dialects of the two settlements would contain many words in common, but neither of them would be a Chinese dialect on that account. Just so, English SillCl~ the Norman Conquest has grafted many foreign words upon the native stock j bnt it still remains at bottom the same language as in the days of Eadgar. Nevertheless, Anglo-Saxon differs so far in externals from modern English, that it is now necessary to learn it systematically with grammar and dictionary, in somewhat the same manner as one would learn a foreign tongue, Most of the words, indeed, are more or less familiar, at least so far as their roots are concerned j but the inflexions of the nouns and verbs are far more complicated than those now in use: and many obsolete forms occur even in the vocabulary. On the other hand the idioms closely resemble those still in use j and even where a root has now dropped out of use, its meaning is often immediately suggested by the cognate High German word, or by some archaic form preserved for us in Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton, as well as by occasional survival in the Lowland Scotch and other local dialects. English in its early form was an inflexional language; that is to say, the mutual relations of nouns



. and of verbs were chiefly expressed, not by means of particles, such as of, to, b)l, and so forth, but by means of modifications either in the termination or in the body of the root itself. The nouns were declined much as in Greek and" Latin; the verbs were conjugated in somewhat the same way as in modern French. Every noun had gender expressed in its form. The following examples will give a sufficient idea of the commoner forms of declension in the classical West Saxon of the time of iElfred. The pronunciation has already been briefly explained in the preface I'LUR.


(1. \

NOIil. stan (a slone).

Gm. slanes. Dat. slane. Ace.

',[om. stanas. Gelt. slana. Dat. stanum. Ace. stanas.

This is the commonest declension for masculine nouns, and it has fixed the normal plural for the modern English. PLUR.



Nom. fet. Gen. fola. Da/. fotum. Ace. fet.

Nom. fot (afoot). Gm. fotes. Dat. fel. Ace. fot.

Hence our modified plurals, such as fiet, teeth, and me1l. PLUR.



wudu (a wood). Gen. wuda. Dat. wuda. Ace. wudu.


Nom. wuda. Gen. wuda. Dat. wudum. Ace. wuda.

All these are for masculine nouns. N 2



The- commonest feminine declension is as follows:SING.


Nom. Gen. Dat. Ace.

gifu(agift}. gife. gife. gife.


Nom. Gen. Dat. Ace.

gifa. gifena. gifum. gifa.

Less frequent is the modified form: SrXG.


Nom. Gen. Dat. Ace.

boc (a book).' bee. bee. boe.


.Vom. Gen. Dat. Ace.

bee. boca. bocum. bee.

Of neuters there are two principal declensions. The first has the plural in u j the second leaves it unchanged. SING.


Nom. scip (a ship), Gm. sci pes. D{lt. seipe. Ace. seip.

(7· )

NOIll. hus (a house). Gm. huses. Dat. huse. Ace. hus.



Nom. seipu. Gm. sci pa. Dat. scipum. Ace. scipu. PLUR,

Nom. hus. Gm, husa. Dat. husum, Ace. hus.

Hence our "collective" plurals, such as fish, deer, sheep, and trout. There is also a weak declension, much the same for all three genders, of which the masculine form runs as follows :-




Nom. gum a (a mall). Gm. guman. Dal. guman. Ace. guman.

Jllom. guman. Gm. gumena Dal. gum an. Aee_ guman.

Adjectives are declined throughout, as in Latin, through all the cases (including an instrumental), numbers, and genders. The demonstrative pronoun or definite article se (the) may stand as an example. l\Iasc.

11'0"'. Gm.

Dal. Ace.


S I NG. Fem.

se, thres, tham, thone, thy,


seo, threre, threre, tha, threre,

thret. tlues. tham. thret. thy.


Masc. Fern. Neut.


tha. thara. tham. tha.


Dat. Ace. Ills!.

Verbs are conjugated about as fully as in Latin. There are two principal forms: strong verbs, which form their preterite by vowel modification, as bindt, pret. band; and weak verbs, which form it by the addition of ode or de to the root, as lufige, pret lu/ode; hire, pret. lzirde. The present and preterit, of the first form are as follows :IND.

Pru. sing.

l. 2.

binde. bindest. bindeth.


bin de. binde. binde.



t lIlT •

I, 2,

Pret. sing".






band. bunde. band. bundon.

bunde. bunde. bunde. bunden.


3· flu,..

I, 2,

Both the grammatical forms and still more the orthography vary much from time to time, from place to place, and even from writer to writer. The forms used in this work are for the most part those employed by West Saxons in the age of LElfred. A few examples of the language as written at three periods will enable the reader to form some idea of its relation to the existing type. The first passage cited is from King LElfred's translation of Orosius ; but it consists of the opening lines of a paragraph inserted by the king himself from his own materials, and so affords an excellent illustration of his style in original English prose. The reader is recommended to compare it word for word witli 'the parallel slightly modernised version, bearing in mind the inflexional terminations. Ohthere srede his hlaforde, .iElfrede cyninge, thret he ealra N orthmonna norlhmest bude. He cwreth thret he bude on threm nde north· weardum with tlla West-sre. He srede theah thret thret land sie swithe lang north thonan ; ac hit is eall weste, buton on fea wum stOWUll1 styccemrelum wiciath Finnas on huntothe

Othhere said to his lord, JElfred king, that he of all Northmen northmost abode. He quoth that he abode on the land north ward against the West Sea. He said, though, that that land was [or extended] much north thence; eke it is all waste, bnt [el(cept that] on few stows [in a few places] piecemed


wintra, and on sumera on He 6scathe be threre sre. .;:-ecie thret he ret sumum cine walde fand ian hu lange thret land northryhte lregc, oththe hwrether renig mann be northan threm westenne bude. Tha for he northryhte be threm lande: let him ealne weg thret weste land on threl steorbard, and tha wid-sre on thret Tha brecbord thrie dagas. wres he swa fear north swa tba hwrel-huntan firrest farath. 011



d welleth Finns,. on hunting on winter, and on summer" on fishing by the sea. He said that he at some time [on one occasion] would seek how long that land lay northright [due north], or whether any man by north of the waste abode. Then fore [fared] he northrigbt, by lhe land: left all the way that waste land on the starhoard of him, and the wide sea on the backboard [port, French babord] three days. Then was he so far north as the whale - hunters furthest faretb.

In this passage it is easy to see that the variations which make it into modern English are for the most part of a very simple kind. Some of the words are absolutely identical, as his, on, he, and, land, or llOrtlt. Others, though differences of spelling mask the likeness, are practically the same, as sa, sade, cwath, tllat, lang, for which we now write sea, said, quoth, that, long. A few have undergone contraction or alteration, as hlaftrd, now lord, cyning, now ki1lg, and steorbord, now starboard. Stow, a place, is now obsolete, except in local names; styccemalum, stickIn meal, has been N ormanised into piecemeal. other cases new terminations have been substituted for old ones; hlmtalh and jiscatlt are now replaced by hunting and jislling; while hunta has been superseded by hunter. Only six words in the passage have


died out wholly: buan, to abide (bude) ; swithe, very; wician, to dwell; cirr, an occasion; fandian, to enquire (connected with find) ; and bacbord, port, which still survives in French from Norman sources. Dag, day, and anig, any, show how existing English has softened the final g into a y. But the main difference which separates the modern passage from its ancient prototype is the consistent dropping of the grammatical inflexions in hlaforde, Ailjrede, ealra, feawum, and fandian, where we· now say, to Ius lord, of all, in few, and to enquire. The next passage, from the old English epic of Beowulf, shows the language in another aspect. Here, as in all poetry, archaic forms abound, and the syntax is intentionally involved. It is written in the old alliterative rhythm, described in the next chapter;Beowulf mathelode H wret ! we the thas sre·lac Leod Scyldinga Tires to tacne, Ic thret un-softe \Vigge under wretere, Earfothliee ; Guth getwrefed

beain Eegtheowes ; sunu Healfdenes lustum brohton, the thu her to-loeast. ealdre gedigde weare genethde ret rihte wres nymthe mec god scylde.

Beowulf spake, See ! We to thee this sea -gift, l'rince of the Scyldings, For a token of glory, That I un softly, In war under water: With much labour: The battle divided,

the son of Ecgtheow : son of Healfdene, joyfully have brought, that thou here lookest on. gloriously accomplished, the work I dared, rightly was but that a god shielded me.·



. Gr, to translate more prosaically : "Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, addressed the meeting. See, son of Healfdene, Prince of the Scyldings; we have joyfully brought thee this gift from the Sea which thou beholdest, for a proof of our valour. I obtained it with difficulty, gloriously, fighting beneath the waves: I dared the task with great toil. Evenly was the battle decreed, but that a god afforded me his protection." . In this short passage, many of the words are now obsolete: for example, mathe/ian, to address an assembly (collciollari) __ lac, a gift; 1vig, war; guth, battle; and leod, a prince. Ge-digde, ge-nethde, a~d ge-Iweejed have the now obsolete particle ge-, which bears much the same sense as in High German. On the other hand, bearn, a bairn; sunu, a son; see, sea; tacm, a token; weeter, water; and weorc, work, still survive: as do the verbs to bring, to look, and to sllield. Lust, pleasure, whence lustu11l, joyfully, has now restricted its meaning in modern English, but retains its originai sense in High German. A few lines from the "Chronicle" under the year I 137, during the reign of Stephen, will give an example of Anglo-Saxon in its later and corrupt form, caught in the act of passing into Chaucerian English : This grere for the King Stephan ofer sre to N orm:mdi; and ther wes under fangen, forthi tbret hi wenden thret he sculde ben alsuic alse

This year fared the King Stephen over sea to N ormandy,-; and there he was accepted [received as dUke] because that they weened



the eom Wref>, and for he hadde get his tresor; ac he todeld it and scatered sotlice. Micel hadde Henri king gadered gold and sylver, and na god ne dide men for his saule tharof. Tha the King Stephan to Englaland com, tha macod he his gadering ret Oxen~ord, and thar he nam the biscop Roger of Sereberi, and Alexander biscop of Lincoln, and the Canceler Roger, hise neves, and dide relle in prisun, til hi iafen up hire castles.

that he should be just as his uncle wa" and because he had got hi. treasure: but hI! to-dealt [distributed] and scattered it sot-like [foolishly]. Muckle had Kir.g Henry gathered of gold and silver; and man did no good for his soul thereof. When that King Stephan was come to England, then maked he his gathering at Oxford, and there he took the hishop Roger of Salisbury, and Alex. ander, hishop of Lincoln, and the Chancellor Roger, his nephew, and did them all in prison [put them in prison] till they gave up their castles.

The following passage from A!:lfric's Life of King Oswold, in the best period of early English prose, may perhaps be intelligible to modern readers by the aid of a few explanatory notes only. Mid means witll; while with itself still bears only the meaning of against : " }Efter tham the Augustinus to Englalande becom, wres sum
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