The Old English period

We have reached roughly the half-way mark of this module. In the earlier bits, we focused mainly on describing some of the changes that have occurred in the English language in terms of writing, pronunciation, lexis and grammar (the internal history of the language). It is possible to describe and account for change without making reference to the the speakers or the events that surround the speakers, but we feel that this will only provide only part of the picture. The rest of the module will take on a more sociolinguistic focus on the history of English (and refer more to the external history).


An American scholar, Salikoko Mufwene prefers to talk about the ecology of language evolution (that, in fact, is the title of his book, published by Cambridge University Press in 2001). The word ecology, normally used today in relation to biological studies is to do with the reciprocal relations between organisms and their environment.  When we talk about language ecology or linguistic ecology, therefore, we mean that we need to consider language not as an abstraction, but language as a living entity spoken by real users with real needs, living in particular cultural, economic, social, religious and other contexts. To understand why languages evolved – whether there has been language change (ie the same language has developed new lexis, structures, etc.) or whether there has been language shift  (ie a particular community changes the repertoire of language(s) being spoken) or whether there has been a functional shift between languages (ie in multilingual situations, different languages might be associated with different social contexts and situations, and the prestige of each variety of language might change) – we need to appreciate the outer context.


This is not as arcane as it might sound here. Many of the forces at work in the past are still at work here, and examining the history of English in this light might make us more aware of the forces at work today and appreciate how linguistic issues relate to a range of other issues.


At this point now, we are ready to discuss some aspects of the external history of English and we can relate some of it to the internal history. Please consult the time chart. Because we will discuss the external history, I will give a quick sketch of the salient events through a series of maps. Our main interest will be in the relationship between the external history and the language. As an alternative, go to the BBC Online website of the Radio 4 programme The Routes of English, which contains a section entitled ‘The World of English’: – this includes a timeline for the history of English and gives the points in a nutshell.

Phase 1. Pre-English Days (AD 1–450)

Map for Phase 1

Notice that there was no such thing as ‘English’ during this period. The inhabitants of Britain – the Britons – did not speak English, but various Celtic languages. Modern Welsh, Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic are Celtic languages and ‘survivors’ of the original languages in Britain. In Northern France, a Celtic language that continues to be spoken is Breton. Some of you might be aware of Celtic legends (eg King Arthur and the knights of the round table) or of the Asterix comics set in the Roman period.

Julius CaesarThis was also the time when the Roman Empire was dominant, and continued expanding until the second century. For much of this period, Britain was a Roman colony. The language of the Roman Empire was Latin. Some form of Latin would have been spoken by at least part of the local population in Britain and other Roman colonies. However, the dominant languages continued to be the Celtic languages. This is unlike Gaul (‘France’), another Roman province, where Latin to a large extent replaced the local Celtic languages. (Modern French is derived from the variety of Latin spoken in Gaul.)

(Please note that during this period, it is meaningless to talk about ‘England’. There was no such entity then. We can only refer to the whole island – Britain.)

Phase 2. Anglo-Saxon invasions and consolidation in Britain (449 onwards)
Map for Phase 2

The OE extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that the Romans faced many problems from attacks by various tribes, including the Huns. In 410, the last of the Roman legions left Britain, which meant that the island was left open for attack or occupation by various tribes. From about 449, these so-called Germanic tribes started attacking and migrating to Britain. (As a group, we can call them the Anglo-Saxons or the Germanics. There were four main groups, each with their own dialects: the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. They settled in different parts of the country and the accent and dialectal differences in Britain today can be traced back to the original dialects of the Germanics.) They were originally from around present-day Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands (Holland). The original Celtic tribes were chased off to the northern, western and south-western extremities, and it is therefore not surprising that it is in these places where some Celtic languages (Welsh, Scots Gaelic) survive. Those who remained in the central areas would probably have been overwhelmed by the Germanic tribes, and have merged in with them, and we can perhaps think of this as the centripetal force at work. It is interesting that there are in fact very few Celtic borrowings into the English language.

The tribes that set up their kingdoms in Britain are collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons. Bede, an 8th century historian, tells us these tribes included the Jutes and Angles (both from present-day Denmark), and Saxons (northern Germany and the Netherlands). A fourth tribe, the Frisians (from present-day Netherlands), also came to Britain. Their language existed in several dialects – generally each tribe (Angle, Saxon, Jute, Frisian) had its own associated dialect. Their language is often collectively known as Anglo-Saxon or Old English. Sometimes the term Saxon is used on its own because the ‘standard’ that developed was based on the West Saxon (or Wessex) dialect in south-west England.

(There is a question mark over the status of the Jutes and whether they can be associated with the Jutland peninsula. There are theories of them being from south of the Saxons or from southern Sweden. We also know very little about the language they spoke.)

Latin texts of the time used the terms Angli and Anglia to describe the country, and local writers describe their language as Englisc (English). These terms derive from the name of the Angle tribe (in OE Engle). The people and the land, collectively, were known as Angel cynn (‘Angle-kin’), and it was not until around 1000 that the name Englaland (Angles’ land) was used.

By and large, they were well-known for their military prowess, and not for their sophisticated culture. They were concerned with ordinary day-to-day living, and there was a lot of in-fighting until they were united by King Alfred the Great (871–899). As a result of this a standard began to be developed based on the Wessex (‘West Saxon’) dialect. Writing was very, very limited (first text: around AD 700), and generally, only specially trained scribes (usually monks) could write. Writing was only used for special records. Therefore, whatever writing there was tended to have the feel of conversation – there are many paratactic structures in OE texts. Additionally, we can consider the down-to-earth vocabulary as reflecting the comparatively unsophisticated nature of the Anglo-Saxons.

Two important puzzles remain though.


(a) If the Germanics maintained their language in a new land, how is it that there isn’t more evidence of contact through borrowing from the original Celtic languages?


Loreto Todd in an article in English Today puzzles over this. (For copyright reasons, the article is not on the website, but is available to registered students from the Workbin in IVLE.)


(b) Why is it that the Germanics were able to maintain their language in Britain, whereas they were not able to in France (there was language shift)? Examine this extract from historian Norman Davies. [click to read] Filppula (2010) also suggests that the Celts were incorporated into the Anglo-Saxons through assimilation. [article in IVLE]


Phase 3. Scandinavian invasions (787 onwards)

Map for Phase 3

A Viking longboatThe Scandinavian attacks on Britain took place between 787 and 850. These people were commonly known as the Vikings and they were Germanic inhabitants in presently Denmark, Norway and Sweden. What is interesting therefore is that they were originally also neighbours of the Anglo-Saxons, and therefore spoke a closely related language (Old Norse) that they would have understood a lot of. We can call Old Norse and Old English cognate or related languages.

The Scandinavians raided towns and monasteries; they captured towns and cities and then proceeded to settle in these places. The army of Alfred the Great resisted them for seven years before taking refuge in the marshes of Somerset. However, fresh troops enabled him to attack the Scandinavians, under Guthrum, and defeat them convincingly. Alfred and Guthrum signed the Treaty of Wedmore in 878, and the Scandinavians (‘Danes’) agreed to settle on the east of the line, running roughly from Chester to London. This region would be subject to Danish law, and is therefore known as the Danelaw. The Danes also agreed to become Christians and Guthrum was baptised. This began the process of the fusion of these two peoples, coming to a head in the next period of history.

This, however, was not the end of the battles. There were more Scandinavian attacks later on, and in the new millennium, England was ruled by Canute (or Cnut), the Danish king.

After taking over the land, the Scandinavians often lived peaceably with the English, and there were many intermarriages. They adopted English customs, and the English accepted them. More important for our purposes, however, is the language contact situation resulting in the English language accepting Old Norse (ON) words and forms. For example, the personal pronouns they, them and their come from ON. So does the 3rd person inflexion for verbs –s. Words that are borrowed from ON include anger, cake, egg, loan, root, skirt, steak, take and window. There was no obvious centripetal or centrifugal force at work.

Many suggest that the contact between OE and ON might have led to the loss of many inflexions. Because the inflexions were different in OE and ON, they were often unhelpful in conversation between OE and ON speakers. They suggest that speakers might have deliberately not used the inflexions to facilitate communication. In situations of intermarriage, the children might grow up learning this ‘simplified’ version of English. Some would even say that the English language had undergone a process of pidginisation and creolisation.


When you’re ready to take the quiz based on this topic, go to the IVLE page and click on ‘Assessment’ on the left, and then on ‘Old English period’.


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