As an English company, we often consider the complexities of our language. Where did they come from? And what’s made it what it is today? To answer that question, we thought we’d take a journey back in time and have a look at the language that we used to call our own – Old English/Anglo-Saxon.
Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest noted form of the English language. Brought to the UK by Germanic settlers back in the 5th century, it was originally spoken by tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
Anglo-Saxon/Old English has 4 main dialects – Merican, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon, and as you can probably gather, these dialects were named after the area they were spoken in. It was, however, West Saxon that provided the literary standard for Old English, although the English we know today is mainly descended from Mercian. In addition, for good measure, you can see that Old Norse had a major impact on the history of Old English, thanks to Scandinavian rule and settlement back in the 9th century. The oldest Old English inscriptions were written using a runic system, but from about the 9th century this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet.
While today it might seem like Old English was spoken long ago, it was actually used for well over 700 years, right up until just after the Norman invasion in the 11th century. It was also so predominant that it was responsible for displacing the Celtic languages that used to be spoken around the UK. That’s why you won’t find many Celtic loanwords in Old English, however, if you take a deeper look into the language, you can see that Anglo-Saxon grammar does bear some resemblance to that of a Celtic language. The greatest number of loanwords are from Latin, which was seen as a very scholarly language at the time, and Old Norse. Moreover, it was Old Norse that helped transform Old English into a synthetic language with a logical word order.
Learning English isn’t easy, but after taking a look at Old English grammar, we definitely have it easier today than if we were learning the corresponding language of the Middle Ages! Old English had 3 genders and five cases. In terms of word order, Anglo-Saxon was very similar to the English we speak today, apart from the fact that verbs tended to follow a more Germanic pattern, with verbs coming last in subordinate clauses.
Ending with an example
Just like ourselves when we started writing this article, we’re pretty sure you’d like to see Old English in action. Not to disappoint, here’s the opening to the poem Beowolf, one of the most celebrated literary works of the Middle Ages. Can you understand any of it? Let us know your thoughts!
ƿæt! ƿē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum,
|What! We of Gare-Danes (lit. Spear-Danes) in yore-days,|
þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon,
of thede (nation/people)-kings, did thrum (glory) frayne (learn about by asking),
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
how those athelings (noblemen) did ellen (fortitude/courage/zeal) freme (promote).
Oft Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
Oft did Scyld Scefing of scather threats (troops),
monegum mǣġþum, meodosetla oftēah,
of many maegths (clans; cf. Irish cognate Mac-), of mead-settees atee (deprive),
egsode eorlas. Syððan ǣrest ƿearð
[and] ugg (induce loathing in, terrify; related to “ugly”) earls. Sith (since, as of when) erst (first) [he] worthed (became)
fēasceaft funden, hē þæs frōfre ġebād,
[in] fewship (destitute) found, he of this frover (comfort) abode,
ƿēox under ƿolcnum, ƿeorðmyndum þāh,
[and] waxed under welkin (firmament/clouds), [and amid] worthmint (honour/worship) threed (throve/prospered)
oðþæt him ǣġhƿylc þāra ymbsittendra
oth that (until that) him each of those umsitters (those “sitting” or dwelling roundabout)
ofer hronrāde hȳran scolde,
over whale-road (kenning for “sea”) hear should,
gomban gyldan. Þæt ƿæs gōd cyning!
[and] yeme (heed/obedience; related to “gormless”) yield. That was [a] good king!