|A description of Anglo-Saxon Britain, however 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 consonants 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-Saxon fæder, 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 three, in old English threo, answers to Latin
tres, and modern High German drei. 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
|Gothic, English, Low Dutch
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 Scheldt,
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 Anglo-Saxon 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 Ælfred 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 its 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 Beowulf grows slowly into the English of
Ælfred, into the English of Chaucer, 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
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 England would have to
learn a number of unfamiliar 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 since the Norman Conquest has grafted many foreign words upon
the native stock; but 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; 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; 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, by, 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 Ælfred. The
pronunciation has already been briefly explained in the preface.
|(1.) Nom.||stan (a stone).
This is the commonest declension for masculine nouns, and it has fixed
the normal plural for the modern English.
|(2.) Nom.||fot (a foot).
Hence our modified plurals, such as feet, teeth, and men.
|(3.) Nom.||wudu (a wood).
All these are for masculine nouns.
The commonest feminine declension is as follows:—
|(4.) Nom.||gifu (a gift).
Less frequent is the modified form:
|(5.) Nom.||boc (a book).
Of neuters there are two principal declensions. The first has the plural
in u; the second leaves it unchanged.
|(6.) Nom.||scip (a ship).
|(7.) Nom.||hus (a house).
Hence our "collective" plurals, such as fish, deer, sheep, and
There is also a weak declension, much the same for all three genders, of
which the masculine form runs as follows:—
|Nom.||guma (a man).
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.
||Masc. Fem. Neut.
Verbs are conjugated about as fully as in Latin. There are two principal
forms: strong verbs, which form their preterite by vowel modification,
as binde, pret. band; and weak verbs, which form it by the addition
of ode or de to the root, as lufige, pret. lufode; hire, pret.
hirde. The present and preterite of the first form are as follows:—
||1, 2, 3.||bindath.||binden.
|plur.||1, 2, 3.||bundon||bunden.
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 Ælfred.
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 Ælfred'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 with the parallel slightly modernised version,
bearing in mind the inflexional terminations.
Ohthere sæde his hlaforde,
Ælfrede cyninge, thæt he
ealra Northmonna northmest
bude. He cwæth thæt he
bude on thæm lande northweardum
with tha West-sæ.
He sæde theah thæt thæt land
sie swithe lang north thonan;
ac hit is eall weste, buton on
feawum stowum styccemælum
wiciath Finnas, on huntothe
on wintra, and on sumera on
fiscathe be thære sæ. He
sæde thæt he æt sumum cirre
wolde fandian hu longe thæt
land northryhte læge, oththe
hwæther ænig monn be northan
thæm westenne bude. Tha
for he northryhte be thæm
lande: let him ealne weg
thæt weste land on thæt steorbord,
and tha wid-sæ on thæt
bæcbord thrie dagas. Tha
wæs he swa feor north swa tha
hwæl-huntan firrest farath.
Othhere said [to] his lord,
Ælfred king, that he of all
Northmen northmost abode.
He quoth that he abode
on the land northward against
the West Sea. He said,
though, that that land was
[or extended] much north
thence; eke it is all waste,
but [except that] on few stows
[in a few places] piecemeal
dwelleth 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 northright,
by the land: left all the
way that waste land on the
starboard 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
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
north. Others, though differences of spelling mask the likeness, are
practically the same, as sæ, sæde, cwæth, thæt, lang, for
which we now write sea, said, quoth, that, long. A few have
undergone contraction or alteration, as hlaford, now lord, cyning,
now king, and steorbord, now starboard. Stow, a place, is now
obsolete, except in local names; styccemælum, stickmeal, has been
Normanised into piecemeal. In other cases new terminations have been
substituted for old ones; huntath and fiscath are now replaced by
hunting and fishing; 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 bæcbord, port,
which still survives in French from Norman sources. Dæg, day, and
ænig, 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, Ælfrede, ealra, feawum, and fandian,
where we now say, to his 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|| ||bearn Ecgtheowes;
|Hwæt! we the thas sæ-lac|| ||sunu Healfdenes
|Leod Scyldinga|| ||lustum brohton,
|Tires to tacne,|| ||the thu her to-locast.
|Ic thæt un-softe|| ||ealdre gedigde
|Wigge under wætere,|| ||weore genethde
|Earfothlice;|| ||æt rihte wæs
|Guth getwæfed|| ||nymthe mec god scylde.
|Beowulf spake,|| ||the son of Ecgtheow:
|See! We to thee this sea-gift,|| ||son of Healfdene,
|Prince of the Scyldings,|| ||joyfully have brought,
|For a token of glory,|| ||that thou here lookest on.
|That I unsoftly,|| ||gloriously accomplished,
|In war under water:|| ||the work I dared,
|With much labour:|| ||rightly was
|The battle divided,|| ||but that a god shielded me.
Or, 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,
mathelian, to address an assembly (concionari); lac, a gift;
wig, war; guth, battle; and leod, a prince. Ge-digde,
ge-nethde, and ge-twæfed 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; sæ, sea; tacen, a token; wæter, water; and
weorc, work, still survive: as do the verbs to bring, to look, and
to shield. Lust, pleasure, whence lustum, joyfully, has now
restricted its meaning in modern English, but retains its original sense
in High German.
A few lines from the "Chronicle" under the year 1137, 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 gære for the King
Stephan ofer sæ to Normandi;
and ther wes under
fangen, forthi thæt hi wenden
thæt he sculde ben alsuic alse
the eom wæs, 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
æt Oxeneford, and thar he
nam the biscop Roger of
Sereberi, and Alexander
biscop of Lincoln, and the
Canceler Roger, hise neves,
and dide ælle in prisun, til
hi iafen up hire castles.
||This year fared the King
Stephen over sea to Normandy;
and there he was
accepted [received as duke]
because that they weened
that he should be just as his
uncle was, and because he
had got his treasure: but he
to-dealt [distributed] and
scattered it sot-like [foolishly].
Muckle had King
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 bishop
Roger of Salisbury, and Alexander,
bishop 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 Ælfric'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 with;
while with itself still bears only the meaning of against:—
"Æfter tham the Augustinus to Englalande becom, wæs sum æthele cyning,
Oswold ge-haten [hight or called], on North-hymbra-lande, ge-lyfed
swithe on God. Se ferde [went] on his iugothe [youth] fram his freondum
and magum [relations] to Scotlande on sæ, and thær sona wearth ge-fullod
[baptised], and his ge-feran [companions] samod the mid him sithedon
[journeyed]. Betwux tham wearth of-slagen [off-slain] Eadwine his eam
[uncle], North-hymbra cyning, on Crist ge-lyfed, fram Brytta cyninge,
Ceadwalla ge-ciged [called, named], and twegen his æfter-gengan binnan
twam gearum [years]; and se Ceadwalla sloh and to sceame tucode tha
North-hymbran leode [people] æfter heora hlafordes fylle, oth thæt
[until] Oswold se eadiga his yfelnysse adwæscte [extinguished]. Oswold
him com to, and him cenlice [boldly] with feaht mid lytlum werode
[troop], ac his geleafa [belief] hine ge-trymde [encouraged], and Crist
him ge-fylste [helped] to his feonda [fiends, enemies] slege."
It will be noticed in every case that the syntactical arrangement of the
words in the sentences follows as a whole the rule that the governed
word precedes the governing, as in Latin or High German, not vice
versa, as in modern English.
A brief list will show the principal modifications undergone by nouns in
the process of modernisation. Stan, stone; snaw, snow; ban, bone.
Cræft, craft; stæf, staff; bæc, back. Weg, way; dæg, day;
nægel, nail; fugol, fowl. Gear, year; geong, young. Finger,
finger; winter, winter; ford, ford. Æfen, even; morgen, morn.
Monath, month; heofon, heaven; heafod, head. Fot, foot; toth,
tooth; boc, book; freond, friend. Modor, mother; fæder, father;
dohtor, daughter. Sunu, son; wudu, wood; caru, care; denu,
dene (valley). Scip, ship; cild, child; ceorl, churl; cynn, kin;
ceald, cold. Wherever a word has not become wholly obsolete, or
assumed a new termination, (e.g., gifu, gift; morgen, morn-ing),
it usually follows one or other of these analogies.
The changes which the English language, as a whole, has undergone in
passing from its earlier to its later form, may best be considered under
the two heads of form and matter.
As regards form or structure, the language has been simplified in three
separate ways. First, the nouns and adjectives have for the most part
lost their inflexions, at least so far as the cases are concerned.
Secondly, the nouns have also lost their gender. And thirdly, the verbs
have been simplified in conjugation, weak preterites being often
substituted for strong ones, and differential terminations largely lost.
On the other hand, the plural of nouns is still distinguished from the
singular by its termination in s, which is derived from the first
declension of Anglo-Saxon nouns, not as is often asserted, from the
Norman-French usage. In other words, all plurals have been assimilated
to this the commonest model; just as in French they have been
assimilated to the final s of the third declension in Latin. A few
plurals of the other types still survive, such as men, geese,
mice, sheep, deer, oxen, children and (dialectically)
peasen. To make up for this loss of inflexions, the language now
employs a larger number of particles, and to some extent, of
auxiliaries. Instead of wines, we now say of a friend; instead of
wine, we now say to a friend; and instead of winum, we now say to
friends. English, in short, has almost ceased to be inflexional and has
As regards matter or vocabulary, the language has lost in certain
directions, and gained in others. It has lost many old Teutonic roots,
such as wig, war; rice, kingdom; tungol, light; with their
derivatives, wigend, warrior; rixian, to rule; tungol-witega,
astrologer; and so forth. The relative number of such losses to the
survivals may be roughly gauged from the passages quoted above. On the
other hand, the language has gained by the incorporation of many Romance
words, shortly after the Norman Conquest, such as place, voice,
judge, war, and royal. Some of these have entirely superseded
native old English words. Thus the Norman-French uncle, aunt,
cousin, nephew, and niece, have wholly ousted their Anglo-Saxon
equivalents. In other instances the Romance words have enriched the
language with symbols for really new ideas. This is still more
strikingly the case with the direct importations from the classical
Greek and Latin which began at the period of the Renaissance. Such words
usually refer either to abstract conceptions for which the English
language had no suitable expression, or to the accurate terminology of
the advanced sciences. In every-day conversation our vocabulary is
almost entirely English; in speaking or writing upon philosophical or
scientific subjects it is largely intermixed with Romance and
Græco-Latin elements. On the whole, though it is to be regretted that
many strong, vigorous or poetical old Teutonic roots should have been
allowed to fall into disuse, it may safely be asserted that our gains
have far more than outbalanced our losses in this respect.
It must never be forgotten, however, that the whole framework of our
language still remains, in every case, purely English—that is to say,
Anglo-Saxon or Low Dutch—however many foreign elements may happen to
enter into its vocabulary. We can frame many sentences without using one
word of Romance or classical origin: we cannot frame a single sentence
without using words of English origin. The Authorised Version of the
Bible, "The Pilgrim's Progress," and such poems as Tennyson's "Dora,"
consist almost entirely of Teutonic elements. Even when the vocabulary
is largely classical, as in Johnson's "Rasselas" and some parts of
"Paradise Lost," the grammatical structure, the prepositions, the
pronouns, the auxiliary verbs, and the connecting particles, are all
necessarily and purely English. Two examples will suffice to make this
principle perfectly clear. In the first, which is the most familiar
quotation from Shakespeare, all the words of foreign origin have been
printed in italics:—
To be, or not to be,—that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and, by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep! perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?
Here, out of 167 words, we find only 28 of foreign origin; and even
these are Englished in their terminations or adjuncts. Noble is
Norman-French; but the comparative nobler stamps it with the Teutonic
mark. Oppose is Latin; but the participle opposing is true English.
Devout is naturalised by the native adverbial termination, devoutly.
Oppressor's and despised take English inflexions. The formative
elements, or, not, that, the, in, and, by, we, and the
rest, are all English. The only complete sentence which we could frame
of wholly Latin words would be an imperative standing alone, as,
"Observe," and even this would be English in form.
On the other hand, we may take the following passage from Mr. Herbert
Spencer as a specimen of the largely Latinised vocabulary needed for
expressing the exact ideas of science or philosophy. Here also borrowed
words are printed in italics:—
"The constitution which we assign to this etherial medium,
however, like the constitution we assign to solid substance, is
necessarily an abstract of the impressions received from
tangible bodies. The opposition to pressure which a tangible
body offers to us is not shown in one direction only, but in all
directions; and so likewise is its tenacity. Suppose countless
lines radiating from its centre on every side, and it resists along
each of these lines and coheres along each of these lines. Hence
the constitution of those ultimate units through the
instrumentality of which phenomena are interpreted. Be they
atoms of ponderable matter or molecules of ether, the
properties we conceive them to possess are nothing else than these
perceptible properties idealised."
In this case, out of 122 words we find no less than 46 are of foreign
origin. Though this large proportion sufficiently shows the amount of
our indebtedness to the classical languages for our abstract or
specialised scientific terms, the absolutely indisputable nature of the
English substratum remains clearly evident. The tongue which we use
to-day is enriched by valuable loan words from many separate sources;
but it is still as it has always been, English and nothing else. It is
the self-same speech with the tongue of the Sleswick pirates and the
West Saxon over-lords.