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(A Brief) History of the English Language 450-1100 AD

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Leslie Klein

on 18 July 2013

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Transcript of (A Brief) History of the English Language 450-1100 AD

History of the English Language
What is Old English?
Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the language that was spoken in Great Britain from the 5th to 11th centuries.

Its origins are Germanic, and it was developed as a result of immigrants from Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark who started to arrive around 450 AD (Shay, 2008, p. 83).

The name English is derived from the West Germanic dialect "Englisc" (Taylor, 2008).
Influences on Old English
The spread of Christianity (throughout the late sixth and early seventh century) was a major influence on Old English, and much of the surviving literature is rooted in the Church. This widespread conversion also brought the Roman alphabet to the Anglo-Saxons, and moved them from writing on bone and stone to parchment.

Some Latin words, often religious in nature, were also adopted into Old English, including cup, minister, school, and wine (Durkin, n.d.).
The Nords and Old English
A change in the wind...
Around 1000 AD, oral tradition began to give way to the written word, and Beowulf became the first epic to be copied down in Old English. It is believed that the story had been passed down over many generations before making its way onto the page (British Library, n.d.).
From 450 - 1100 AD
by Leslie Klein

The opening pages of the Beowulf manuscript
(Bodiam, 2013).
According to Shay (2008), there
were four dialects of Old
English, as highlighted in this
figure taken from his book,
"The History of English"
(pg 83).
Age creates confusion

There is some debate over publication aspects of this infamous epic. Historians believe it was composed between 521 AD and 1026 AD, by one or more authors in England. The manuscript itself was likely written after 1000 AD, a conclusion that is based on handwriting analysis completed on the piece (Slade, 2003).
Old English poetry
The poems composed in Old English that are still studied today show a very different poetic style than we are used to. These poems did not rhyme, and weren't based on syllables per line.

They were structured by halves (hemistichs), and each half had to have two stressed syllables. The first stressed syllable in the second half had to alliterate with the stressed syllables in the first half. (Try saying that five times quickly!) (Morris, 2001).
Other Old English literature
The oldest spoken poem in Old English (written down long after it was composed orally) is Caedmon's Hymn. The author of this work is also unknown, but it is a good representation of the importance of Christianity on literature at this time. It was likely composed between 658 and 680 AD (Schwartz, n.d.).

There are about 400 pieces of literature written in Old English that have survived to this day. Because there was no printing press, these are all found in manuscripts that have been hand copied (Shay, 2008, p. 88).
Before there were recorded pieces of literature, people were entertained through oral tradition.

These were stories about a person or event in history, told over generations in a community. These stories were often how a community tried to make sense of a memory, which often led to exaggerated accounts (White, n.d.).
Viking raids from 793-878 AD also had a major influence on Old English vocabulary. Some words we still use today are due to these pillages. They include:
...we get language!
(McPhillips, 2012)
(Martin, 2011)
Old English vs Modern English
What we consider Old English today did not officially emerge until sometime around the 10th century, after the West Saxon dialect became the official language of Britain.

This dialect was marked by phonetic spellings and a lack of silent letters. The spellings of many words look very different than their modern counterparts, due in large part to the vowel composition of Old English (Hurley, 2013).
Don't forget Alfred!
King Alfred ‘the Great,’ who ruled from 871-899, was a champion for English literacy.

He was responsible for the translation of several texts from Latin to Old English.

He also commissioned "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," a history of England that was completed in 1154 AD. (British Monarchy, n.d.)

There is some evidence to support the idea that King Alfred was also the first person to call our language "English" (Lefort, 2010).
King Alfred statue in Winchester
(Claire351, 2011).
How do we know all this?
Much of what we know about the Anglo-Saxons and Old English comes from a scholar named Bede ‘the Venerable’. Apart from being the most renowned scholar of his time, he also wrote the "Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum" or, "Ecclesiastical History of the English People."

This work, which was written in Latin and translated, was completed in 731, and provides narrative historical accounts of England in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. (Liuzza, 2005).
Where do we start?
The first recorded evidence of the written English language is from 475 AD. This is seen on the Undley Bracteate medallion, which was found in Lakenheath, Suffolk and includes a written inscription in Old English. (Lefort, 2010).

While Old English differs greatly from the dialect we read, write, and speak today, it is the origins of our language.
[Untitled photograph of the Undley Bracteate medallion]
So why is it important?
While Old English is really different from the language we speak today, without this evolution, we would still be speaking German or Nordic!

It's important that students understand how language changes over time. The research on Old English poetry is particularly interesting when compared with poetry from other eras (both past and present). This would make a fascinating unit on the flexibility of the English language.

This fluidity of language is also important for teachers to remember, as students' language evolves with slang and texting phrases. What we consider incorrect English today could soon become part of our lexicon.
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