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Early Britain - Anglo-Saxon Britain
The Anglo-Saxon Language
by Allen, Grant (B.A.)


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 p. b. f. t. d. th. k. g. ch.
Gothic, English, Low Dutch f. p. b. th. t. d. ch. k. g.
High German b. f. p. d. th. t. g. ch. k.


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 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 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.
  Sing.   Plur.
(1.) Nom.stan (a stone). Nom.stanas.
Gen.stanes. Gen.stana.
Dat.stane. Dat.stanum.
Acc.stan. Acc.stanas.


This is the commonest declension for masculine nouns, and it has fixed the normal plural for the modern English.
  Sing.   Plur.
(2.) Nom.fot (a foot). Nom.fet.
Gen.fotes. Gen.fota.
Dat.fet. Dat.fotum.
Acc.fot. Acc.fet.


Hence our modified plurals, such as feet, teeth, and men.
  Sing.   Plur.
(3.) Nom.wudu (a wood). Nom.wuda.
Gen.wuda. Gen.wuda.
Dat.wuda. Dat.wudum.
Acc.wudu. Acc.wuda.


All these are for masculine nouns.

The commonest feminine declension is as follows:—
  Sing.   Plur.
(4.) Nom.gifu (a gift). Nom.gifa.
Gen.gife. Gen.gifena.
Dat.gife. Dat.gifum.
Acc.gife. Acc.gifa.


Less frequent is the modified form:
  Sing.   Plur.
(5.) Nom.boc (a book). Nom.bec.
Gen.bec. Gen.boca.
Dat.bec. Dat.bocum.
Acc.boc. Acc.bec.


Of neuters there are two principal declensions. The first has the plural in u; the second leaves it unchanged.
  Sing.   Plur.
(6.) Nom.scip (a ship). Nom.scipu.
Gen.scipes. Gen.scipa.
Dat.scipe. Dat.scipum.
Acc.scip. Acc.scipu.


 
  Sing.   Plur.
(7.) Nom.hus (a house). Nom.hus.
Gen.huses. Gen.husa.
Dat.huse. Dat.husum.
Acc.hus. Acc.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:—
  Sing.   Plur.
Nom.guma (a man). Nom.guman.
Gen.guman. Gen.gumena.
Dat.guman. Dat.guman.
Acc.guman. Acc.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.
Sing.
  Masc. Fem. Neut.
Nom.se,seo,thæt.
Gen.thæs,thære,thæs.
Dat.tham,thære,tham.
Acc.thone,tha,thæt.
Inst.thy,thære,thy.
Plur.
  Masc. Fem. Neut.
Nom.tha.
Gen.thara.
Dat.tham.
Acc.tha.
Inst.


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:—
    Ind. Subj.
Pres. sing.1.binde.binde.
  2.bindest.binde.
 3.bindeth.binde.
plur. 1, 2, 3.bindath.binden.
Pret. sing.1.band.bunde.
 2.bunde.bunde.
 3.band.bunde.
plur.1, 2, 3.bundonbunden.


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 fareth.


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 , 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; , 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 become analytic.

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.

Personae

Terms Defined

Referenced Works