Extracts from Outlines of English and American LiteratureOur English speech has changed so much in the
course of centuries that it is now impossible to read our earliest records
without special study; but that Anglo-Saxon is our own and not a foreign
tongue may appear from the following examples. The first is a stanza from
"Widsith," the chant of a wandering gleeman or minstrel; and for comparison
we place beside it Andrew Lang's modern version. Nobody knows how old
"Widsith" is; it may have been sung to the accompaniment of a harp that was
broken fourteen hundred years ago. The second, much easier to read, is from
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was prepared by King Alfred from an older
record in the ninth century:
geond grunda fela;
Simle, suth oththe north
So wandering on
the world about,
Gleemen do roam
through many lands;
They say their needs,
they speak their thanks,
Sure, south or north
someone to meet,
Of songs to judge
and gifts not grudge.
Her Hengest and Aesc, his sunu, gefuhton wid Bryttas on thaere
stowe the is gecweden Creccanford, and thaer ofslogon feower
thusenda wera. And tha Bryttas tha forleton Cent-lond, and mid
myclum ege flugon to Lundenbyrig.
At this time Hengist and Esk, his son, fought with the Britons at
the place that is called Crayford, and there slew four thousand
men. And the Britons then forsook Kentland, and with much fear fled
to London town.
Specimens of the Language
A glance at the following selections will show
how Anglo-Saxon was slowly approaching our English speech of to-day. The
first is from a religious book called Ancren Riwle (Rule of the
Anchoresses, cir. 1225). The second, written about a century later,
is from the riming chronicle, or verse history, of Robert Manning or Robert
of Brunne. In it we note the appearance of rime, a new thing in English
poetry, borrowed from the French, and also a few words, such as "solace,"
which are of foreign origin:
"Hwoso hevide iseid to Eve, theo heo werp hire eien therone, 'A!
wend te awei; thu worpest eien o thi death!' hwat heved heo
ionswered? 'Me leove sire, ther havest wouh. Hwarof kalenges tu me?
The eppel that ich loke on is forbode me to etene, and nout forto
"Whoso had said (or, if anyone had said) to Eve when she cast her
eye theron (i.e. on the apple) 'Ah! turn thou away; thou castest
eyes on thy death!' what would she have answered? 'My dear sir,
thou art wrong. Of what blamest thou me? The apple which I look
upon is forbidden me to eat, not to behold.'"
Lordynges that be now here,
If ye wille listene and lere 
All the story of Inglande,
Als Robert Mannyng wryten it fand,
And on Inglysch has it schewed,
Not for the lered  but for the lewed, 
For tho that on this land wonn 
That ne Latin ne Frankys conn, 
For to hauf solace and gamen
In felauschip when they sitt samen; 
And it is wisdom for to wytten 
The state of the land, and haf it wryten.
[Footnote 1: learn]
[Footnote 2: learned]
[Footnote 3: simple or ignorant]
[Footnote 4: those that dwell]
[Footnote 5: That neither Latin nor French know]
[Footnote 6: together]
[Footnote 7: know]
Specimens of the Language
Our first selection, from Piers Plowman
(cir. 1362), is the satire of Belling the Cat. The language is that
of the common people, and the verse is in the old Saxon manner, with accent
and alliteration. The scene is a council of rats and mice (common people)
called to consider how best to deal with the cat (court), and it satirizes
the popular agitators who declaim against the government. The speaker is a
rat, "a raton of renon, most renable of tonge":
"I have y-seen segges," quod he,
"in the cite of London
Beren beighes ful brighte
abouten here nekkes....
Were there a belle on here beighe,
certes, as me thynketh,
Men myghte wite where thei went,
and awei renne!
And right so," quod this raton,
"reson me sheweth
To bugge a belle of brasse
or of brighte sylver,
And knitten on a colere
for owre comune profit,
And hangen it upon the cattes hals;
than hear we mowen
Where he ritt or rest
or renneth to playe." ...
Alle this route of ratones
to this reson thei assented;
Ac tho the belle was y-bought
and on the beighe hanged,
Ther ne was ratoun in alle the route,
for alle the rewme of Fraunce,
That dorst have y-bounden the belle
aboute the cattis nekke.
"I have seen creatures" (dogs), quoth he,
"in the city of London
Bearing collars full bright
around their necks....
Were there a bell on those collars,
assuredly, in my opinion,
One might know where the dogs go,
and run away from them!
And right so," quoth this rat,
"reason suggests to me
To buy a bell of brass
or of bright silver,
And tie it on a collar
for our common profit,
And hang it on the cat's neck;
in order that we may hear
Where he rides or rests
or runneth to play." ...
All this rout (crowd) of rats
to this reasoning assented;
But when the bell was bought
and hanged on the collar,
There was not a rat in the crowd
that, for all the realm of France
Would have dared to bind the bell
about the cat's neck.
The second selection is from Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" (cir.
1375). It was written "in the French manner" with rime and meter, for the
upper classes, and shows the difference between literary English and the
speech of the common people:
In th' olde dayės of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The elf-queene with hir joly companye
Dauncėd ful ofte in many a grene mede;
This was the olde opinion, as I rede.
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago;
But now kan no man see none elves mo.
The next two selections (written cir. 1450) show how rapidly the
language was approaching modern English. The prose, from Malory's Morte
d' Arthur, is the selection that Tennyson closely followed in his
"Passing of Arthur." The poetry, from the ballad of "Robin Hood and the
Monk," is probably a fifteenth-century version of a much older English
"'Therefore,' sayd Arthur unto Syr Bedwere, 'take thou Excalybur my
good swerde, and goo with it, to yonder water syde, and whan thou
comest there I charge the throwe my swerde in that water, and come
ageyn and telle me what thou there seest.'
"'My lord,' sayd Bedwere, 'your commaundement shal be doon, and
lyghtly brynge you worde ageyn.'
"So Syr Bedwere departed; and by the waye he behelde that noble
swerde, that the pomel and the hafte was al of precyous stones; and
thenne he sayd to hym self, 'Yf I throwe this ryche swerde in the
water, thereof shal never come good, but harme and losse.' And
thenne Syr Bedwere hydde Excalybur under a tree."
In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,
And leves be large and long,
Hit is full mery in feyr foreste
To here the foulys song:
To se the dere draw to the dale,
And leve the hillės hee,
And shadow hem in the levės grene,
Under the grene-wode tre.
Contributed by Long, William J.