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The history of the English language.doc
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What is Old English? It is the vernacular Germanic language, the language of daily life, in Anglo-Saxon England before about 1100. Why bother with it? Old English is where the English language - ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spake’, the tongue that many millions throughout the world now speak - began: the sentence His hand is strong and his word grim is spelt the same in both Old English and Modern English and carries the same message. Old English is where English prose and poetry began. To read English literature without some knowledge of, and feeling for, Old English is to cut oneself off from one of the main traditions which have nourished that literature.

Where did the English language come from? How did it get to what was later called Engla lond ‘land of the Angles, England’. Here we lack written records, unlike those interested in French, Italian, and the other Romance languages, who can go back to Latin. We therefore have to rely on the methods of comparative philology, which involve deducing (as far as possible) vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, of languages now lost from the evidence of languages which we know. Using these methods, scholars have been able to reconstruct in broad outline the story of the people who spoke the languages through which Old English can trace its descent. The narrative may go something like this.

Several thousands years BC, perhaps on the steppes of Southern Russia or on the forested plains of Central Europe, there existed a language of which we have no written records but which we now call Indo-European. It may have been spoken by a powerful group of travelling merchants who made it the lingua franca of great councils and of army of common defence. An alternative hypothesis is that the original speakers of Indo-European were peasant farmers in central Anatolia (now part of Turkey) and that their language gradually spread both west and east along with their farming economy.

Fig.1 “Migration of Germanic tribes in the 2nd-5th centuries”

History of Linguistic Analysis

Throughout history individuals have tried to describe their own languages in ways that make the workings of these languages appear more meaningful and orderly. Panini, a 5th-century BC Indian grammarian, described the sounds and construction of sentences of the Sanskrit language in great detail.

The ancient Greeks and Romans were also curious about their languages and wrote grammatical descriptions, frequently from a philosophical or literary point of view. The writings of two Greek grammarians, Dionysius Thrax in the 2nd century BC and Appollonius Dyscolus in the 2nd century AD, strongly influenced the Roman view of language. The works of Donatus, a 4th-century AD Roman, and the 6th-century Latin grammarian Priscian adapted Greek thinking to the Latin language. They had a profound influence on Western thought about language. Until recent times the grammar of Priscian in particular served as a model for the description of medieval and modern European languages, including English. Such concepts as parts of speech (nouns, verbs, and adverbs) and case (nominative, accusative, genitive) stem from Priscian's work.

In the late 18th century the English scholar Sir William Jones noticed similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. He suggested that the three languages might have developed from a common source. He also discovered that Gothic, Old High German, Old Norse, Old Persian, and Celtic showed similarities to the other three.

In the early 19th century the scholars Jacob Grimm, a German, and Rasmus Rask, a Dane, noted that a number of consistent sound correspondences existed between Gothic, Latin, and Greek in words with similar meanings. For example, where Gothic had a t sound (taihun, "ten"), Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit had a d sound in the same position (Greek deka, Latin decem, and Sanskrit dasa, all meaning "ten"). This technique of comparing words became known as the comparative method. It was used to show that certain languages are related, like siblings, and to help construct parent languages from which the modern languages could have evolved. Thus English, modern German, Dutch, and the Scandinavian languages were described as having developed from an ancestor called Old Germanic. Old Germanic in turn developed from an even older ancestor called Indo-European.

Many languages spoken today are descended from Indo-European. Eleven principal groups have been distinguished: Indian and Iranian (sometimes grouped as Indo-Iranian), Armenian, Hellenic, Albanian, Italic, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Anatolian, and Tocharian.

Fig.2 “Indo-European Group of Languages”

Figure 2 conveniently sets out these languages and their descendants in the form of a family tree. An examination of the vocabulary of the languages in these groups reveals certain common elements. One typical example is OE medu ‘mead, alcoholic liquor of fermented honey and water’, which appears as Sanskrit madhu ‘honey, sweet drink’, Lithuanian midus ‘mead’, Old Slavonic medu ‘honey, wine’, and Old Irish mid and Welsh medd ‘honey, wine’. From these forms, philologists reconstruct a hypothetical Indo-European word *medhu-. Another example is OE modor ‘mother’alongside Sanskrit matar, Latin mater, Tocharian macar, Old Slavonic mati, and Old Irish mathir. These forms are traced back to Indo-European mater.

There are not written records of this language. The fact that languages can and do exist only in spoken form reminds us that language is primarily speech and that writing is only a conventional and inexact way of recording it. But even speech is not exact. Sounds are produced by the voluntary movement of the so-called ‘organs of speech’ and none of us regularly produces the various sounds in exactly the same way.

The reconstructed Indo-European language cannot have been an exception. But there is another possible complicating factor here. Whether it was originally spoken by a group of merchants or by a dominant race or by peasant farmers, this language was probably not used only by native speakers. It may also have been spoken by people of different races and languages whose pronunciation retained some of the characteristics of their native language.

The very great differences, the mutual incomprehensibility, between the languages descended from Indo-European, call for explanation. As long as the speakers of Indo-European were in touch with the original speakers, they would have to conform more or less to the standard; if they did not, they would not be understood. But once this contact was lost and each nomadic tribe went its own way by climbing and descending a mountain, by crossing a river, or by traversing a forest, the standard disappeared and all that mattered was that the members of each tribe could understand one another. In those tribes which did not consist of native speakers of Indo-European, the roots of change existed in an even greater degree because their members had learnt Indo-European as a foreign language and therefore did not pronounce its sounds in the same way as native speakers. The resulting variations, which differed from tribe to tribe under the influence of different original languages, were gradually exaggerated as the various tribes, some of them not using exactly the same pronunciation, went off in different directions: south-east to produce speakers of Indian and Iranian; along the nothern shores of the Mediterranean to produce speakers of Hellenic, Italic, or Celtic; west and north-west through the forests to produce speakers of Germanic or Balto-Slavic; and so on.

Indo-European Family of Languages

The family to which English belongs is the Indo-European family. It consists of many groups of languages. The Germanic, or Teutonic, group includes the Scandinavian languages--Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Icelandic. German is commonly divided into High German and Low German. High German includes the dialects of southern Germany, the dialects of Austria, and the German dialects of Switzerland. Dutch, Flemish (spoken in Belgium), and the dialects of northern Germany make up Low German. Afrikaans, an offshoot of Dutch, is spoken in South Africa. English, which is also a Germanic language, is closely related to Dutch. But even closer to English is Frisian, spoken mostly in the northern Netherlands. Yiddish, a language of the Jewish people, is for the most part a High German of the Middle Ages.

The Romance group descended from Latin. After the Roman Empire fell apart, the Latin dialects of the different regions grew farther and farther apart. Best known of the Romance languages are French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian. Provencal, a name for the dialects of southern France, is sometimes considered a separate language. Catalan is spoken mostly in eastern Spain. Romansh is spoken in Switzerland.

The Balto-Slavic group consists of the Baltic languages and the Slavic languages. Lithuanian and Latvian (or Lettish) are Baltic languages. The Slavic languages include Russian, spoken in Russia; Ukrainian, spoken in Ukraine; and Byelorussian (or White Russian), spoken in Belarus. Czech and Slovak, spoken in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are closely related. Indeed they might be called varieties of the same language. Serbo-Croatian is one language written in two alphabets--Croatian in Roman letters, Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is spoken chiefly in Serbia. Other well-known Slavic languages include Polish and Bulgarian. (See also Writing.)

The Celtic group of languages, once spoken over a large territory, today is used only in the British Isles and northwestern France. The number of speakers is small. Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic are Celtic languages. Welsh, spoken in Wales, and Breton, a language of Brittany in northwestern France, form another branch of Celtic.

The Indo-Iranian group consists of Indic languages and Iranian languages. Persian (or Farsi) is an Iranian language. So are Pashto (or Pushtu), spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Kurdish, spoken in Kurdistan. Baluchi, spoken mostly in Pakistan and Iran, also is an Iranian language. Sanskrit is an Indic language. It is the oldest living Indo-European language, now used chiefly as the sacred language of Hinduism. Hindi, the leading language of northern India, and Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, are also Indic languages. Both Hindi and Urdu are varieties of the same language. But Urdu has more Persian and Arabic words and is written with a different alphabet. Other Indic languages include Bengali, Panjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Rajasthani, Bihari, Kashmiri, Oriya, Sindhi, Assamese, and Nepali. Sinhalese, spoken in Sri Lanka, is also an Indic language. And so is the language of the Gypsies, Romany.

Greek belongs in a separate group. The same is true of Armenian and of Albanian. An Indo-European language called Tocharian was once spoken in what is now Xinjiang, China. The language of the Hittites, a people of Anatolia mentioned in the Bible, was also Indo-European.

Grimm’s Law

The Germanic languages, to which our attention must now turn, are usually divided into three groups: East Germanic, one of which was spoken by the Gothic conquerors of Rome in the early fifth century but none of which now survives; North Germanic, including Swedish and Danish (East Scandinavian) and Norwegian and Icelandic (West Scandinavian); and West Germanic, to which Old English belongs. It would appear that the people whose descendants were to speak these languages did not pronounce certain consonants in the same way as most speakers of Indo-European, because all the Germanic languages are distinguished by certain consonant changes which were first formulated by the great German linguist and fairy-tales collector Jacob Ludwig Grimm. The earliest statement of the shift was given in Grimm’s work German Grammar, which was published in 1822 and is called Grimm’s Law. It is also known as the First or Proto-Germanic consonant shift.

Fig.3 “The First Consonant Shift (Grimm’s Law)”

As can be seen from the table, correspondences between Indo-European (non-Germanic) and Germanic consonants had three periods which Grimm called acts.

Act 1. Indo-European voiceless stops p, t, k correspond to Germanic voiceless fricatives f, p(0), h.

Act 2. Indo-European voiced stops b, d, g correspond to Germanic voiceless stops p, t, k.

Act 3. Indo-European voiced aspirated stops bh, dh, gh correspond to Germanic voiced stops without aspiration b, d, g.

It should be noted that not all correspondences stated in Grimm’s law are equally clear. In the first place, we cannot find fully convincing examples to illustrate the correspondence IE b - Gmc p. However, for some unknown reason, the consonant p is very rare in native Germanic words. The examples we give (Russ. слабый - Goth. slepan, E. sleep and Russ. болото - E. pool), though the meanings do not fully coincide, can be considered satisfactory.

Things are more difficult as concerns the last group of correspondences (IE voiced aspirated stops - Gmc. voiced stops). Voiced aspirated stops are actually only found in Sanskrit, whereas in the other Indo-European (non-Germanic) languages we find either voiceless fricatives (as in Latin and Greek) or unaspirated voiced stops (as in Russian). It is the custom to take Sanskrit as the representative of Indo-European languages, supposing that Sanskrit has preserved the original state of the consonant.

A special difficulty attaches to the very last item of the first consonant shift, namely the correspondence of IE gh and Gmc g. In this case we do not find the corresponding words in Sanskrit. A voiced aspirated stop gh is only reconstructed on the basis of the correspon-dence between Latin h (hostis) and Germanic g (Goth. gasts). As to the connection between the meanings ‘enemy’ and ‘guest’, it is very easily established on the ground of the original meaning ‘foreigner’, which developed in two different directions: (1) ‘hostile foreigner’ - ‘enemy’, (2) ‘friendly foreigner’ - ‘guest’.

The High German branch of the West Germanic Languages, from which Modern Standard German descends, is distingwished from those groups which include the ancestors of English and Frisian and of Dutch and Flemish by another consonant shift called the second. The results are seen in the differences between Old English (OE) and Old High German (OHG) set out here:




Modern German Correspondences











p/pf or f
















Verner’s Law

It was noted long ago that in some words of Germanic languages we find consonants which do not fit into Grimm’s law, as formulated above. In some cases it is voiced stops, rather than voiceless fricatives, that correspond in Germanic to IE voiceless stops. (Khaimovich p.20)

Let us compare the Latin words frater, mater, pater with their Old English equivalents bropor, modor, f der. By Grimm’s law the sound [t] in all the Latin words should have corresponded to the sound [0] (written p) in all the Old English words. As it was, only the word bropor showed the regular consonant shift [t > 0]. In the two other words we find the voiced stop [d].

The explanation given by the Danish linguist Karl Verner is that the sound quality depended upon the position of the accent in the Indo-European word: after an unstressed vowel the voiceless spirants [f, 0, h] (< [p, t, k]) and [s] were voiced and became finally [b, d, g].

In Sanskrit, where the old Indo-European accent was fairly well preserved, the corresponding words are ‘bhratar, ma’tar, pi’tar. The word ‘bhratar shows that the Indo-European accent was on the vowel immediately preceding the sound [t], therefore the latter was not voiced after changing to [0] in the Germanic languages, while in the words corresponding to ma’tar and pi’tar the sound [t] following an unstressed vowel was voiced after changing to [0] and became first [d] and later [d].


Besides the voiceless fricative consonants resulting from the consonant shift, one more voiceless fricative consonant is affected by Verner’s law, namely, the consonant s. If the preceding vowel is unstressed, s in Germanic languages becomes voiced, i.e. changes into z. Eventually this z becomes r in Western Germanic and Nothern Germanic languages (but not in Gothic). This latter change z > r is termed rhotacism  (the term is derived from the name of the Greek letter p (rho).

The connection between the Germanic sounds and the position of the Indo-European accent, discovered by K.Verner, was of great importance for the study of the Germanic languages as it explained many seeming irregularities in their grammatical forms and drew the attention of linguists to word-stress.

Periodisation of the History of English.

I. OLD ENGLISH ......................................................................c.450 - 1066 1. Early OE (or Pre-written OE) c.450 - c.700 2. OE (or Written OE) c.700 - 1066

II. MIDDLE ENGLISH .............................................................1066 - 1475 1. Early ME 1066 - c.1350 2. Late ME (or Classical ME) c.1350 - 1475

III. MODERN ENGLISH ........................................................ 1476 - .... 1. Early MnE 1476 - c.1660 2. Neo-Classical period c.1660 - c.1800 3. Late MnE c.1800 - ...

I. OLD ENGLISH 1. The first - pre-written or pre-historical - subperiod, which may be termed Early Old English, lasts from the West Germanic invasion of Britain till the beginning of writing, that is from the 5th to the close of the 7th century. It is the stage of tribal dialects of the West Germanic invaders (Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians), which were gradually losing contacts with the related continental tongues. The tribal dialects were used for oral communication, there being no written form of English.

2. The second historical subperiod extends from the 8th c. till the end of the 11th. The English language of that time is referred to as Old English or Anglo-Saxon (we shall discuss these two names later on); it can also be called Written OE as compared with the pre-written Early OE period. The tribal dialects gradually changed into local or regional dialects. Towards the end of the period the differences between the dialects grew and their relative position altered. They were probably equal as medium of oral communication, while in the sphere of writing one of the dialects, West Saxon, had gained supremacy over the other dialects (Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian). The prevalence of West Saxon in writing is tied up with the rise of the kingdom of Wessex to political and cultural prominence.

OE was a typical OG language, with a purely Germanic vocabulury, and few foreign borrowings; it displayed specific phonetic peculiarities, owing to intensive changes which took place in Early English. As for grammar, OE was an inflected or “synthetic” language with a well-developed system of morphological categories, especially in the noun and adjective. Linguists call OE the “period of full endings” in comparison with later periods. This means (B.Ilyish p.36) that any vowel may be found in an unstressed ending. For example, the word sin an ‘sing’ has the vowel a in its unstressed ending, while the word sunu ‘son’ has the vowel u in a similar position.


1. The first subperiod, known as Early Middle English, starts after 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest, and covers the 12th, 13th and half of the 14th c. It was the stage of the greatest dialectal divergence caused by the feudal system and by foreign influences - Scandinavian and French. The dialectal division of present-day English owes its origin to this period of history.

Under Norman rule the official language in England was French, or rather its variety called Anglo-French or Anglo-Norman; it was also the dominant language of literature. The local dialects were mainly used for oral communication and were but little employed in writing.

Early ME was a time of great changes at all the levels of the language, especially in lexis and grammar. English absorbed two layers of lexical borrowings: the Scandinavian element in the North-Eastern area (due to the Scandinavian invasions since the 8th c.) and the French element in the speech of townspeople in the South-East, especially in the higher social strata (due to the Norman Conquest). Phonetic and grammatical changes proceeded at a high rate, unrestricted by written tradition. Grammatical alterations were so drastic that by the end of the period they had transformed English from a highly inflected language into a mainly analytical one. Accordingly, the role of syntactical means of word connection grew.

2. The second subperiod - from the later 14th c. till the the end of the 15th - embraces the age of Chaucer, the greatest English medieval writer and forerunner of the English Renaissance. We may call it Late or Classical Middle English. It was the time of restoration of English to the position of the state and literary language and the time of literary flourishing. The main dialect used in writing and literature was the mixed dialect of London. (The London dialect was originally derived from the Southern dialectal group, but during the 14th c. the southern traits were largely replaced by East Midland traits.)

In periods of literary efflorescence, like the age of Chaucer, the pattern set by great authors becomes a more or less fixed form of language. Chaucer’s language was a recognised literary form, imitated throughout the 15th c.

The written records of the late 14th and 15th c. testify to the growth of the English vocabulary and to the increasing proportion of French loan-words in English. The phonetic and grammatical structure had incorporated and perpetuated the fundamental changes of the preceding period. Most of the inflections in the nominal system - in nouns, adjectives, pronouns - had fallen together. Linguists call Middle English the period of “levelled endings”. This means (B.Ilyish p.36) that vowels of unstressed endings have been levelled under a neutral vowel (something like [ ]) represented by the letter e. Thus, Old English sin an yields Middle English singen, Old English sunu yields Middle English sune (also spelt sone). The verbal system was expanding, as numerous new analitical forms and verbal phrases on the way to becoming analytical forms were used alongside old simple forms.


1. The first subperiod - Early Modern English - lasted from the introduction of printing to the age of Shakespeare, that is from 1475 to c. 1660. The first printed book in English was published by William Caxton in 1475. This period is a sort of transition between two outstanding epochs of literary efflorescence: the age of Chaucer and the age of Shakespeare (also known as the Literary Renaissance).

It was a time of great historical consequence: under the growing capital system the country became economically and politically unified; the changes in the political and social structure, the progress of culture, education, and literature favoured linguistic unity. The growth of the English nation was accompanied by the formation of the national English language.

Caxton’s English of the printed books was a sort of bridge between the London literary English of the ME period and the language of the Literary Renaissance. The London dialect had risen to prominence as a compromise between the various types of speech prevailing in the country and formed the basis of the growing national literary language.

The Early MnE period was a time of sweeping changes at all levels, in the first place lexical and phonetic. The growth of the vocabulary was a natural reflection of the progress of culture in the new, bourgeois society. New words from internal and external sources enriched the vocabulary. Extensive phonetic changes were transforming the vowel system, which resulted, among other things, in the growing gap between the written and the spoken forms of the word (that is, between pronunciation and spelling). The loss of most inflectional endings in the 15th c. justifies the definition “period of lost endings” given to the MnE period. This means (B.Ilyish p.36) that the ending is lost altogether. Thus Middle English singen became Modern English sing. Middle English sone became Modern English son. The grammatical forms and syntactical constructions were almost the same as in MnE but their use was different.

2. The second subperiod extends from the mid-17th c. to the close of the 18th c. In the history of the language it is often called “the age of normalisation and correctness”, in the history of literature - the “neo-classical” age. This age witnessed the establishments of “norms”, which can be defined as received standards recognised as correct usage in the numerous dictionaries and grammar-books published at the time and were spread through education and writing.

It is essential that during the 18th c. literary English differentiated into distinct styles, which is the property of a mature literary language. It is also important to note that during this period the English language extended its area far beyond the borders of the British Isles, first of all to North America.

Unlike the age of Shakespeare, the neo-classical period discouraged variety and free choice in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. The 18th c. has been called the period of “fixing the pronunciation”. The great sound shifts were over and pronunciation was being stabilised. Word usage and grammatical construction were subjected to restriction and normalisation. The morphological system, particularly the verb system, acquired a more strict symmetrical pattern. The formation of new verbal grammatical categories was completed. Syntactical structures were perfected and standardised.

3. The English language of the 19th and 20th c. represents the last subperiod in the history of English - Late Modern English. By the 19th c. English had achieved the relative stability and recognised standards. The classical language of literature was strictly distinguished from the local dialects and dialects of lower social ranks. The 20th c. witnessed considerable intermixture of dialects. The “best” form of English, the Received Standard, and also regional modified standards are being spread through new channels: the press, radio, cinema and television.

The short survey of the history of English presented as three periods with several subperiods may serve as an introduction to the detailed description of the historical development of English we are going to have now.

Old English. Historical Background

The history of the English language begins with the invasion of the British Isles by Germanic tribes in the 5th c. of our era. Before description of these events it is essential to recall a few preceding facts of history relevant to the development of English.

Prior to the Germanic invasion the British Isles must have been inhabited for at least fifty thousand years by Celtic tribes: the Picts and the Scots in the North and the Britons in the South.

In the first century BC the Romans under Julius Caesar made two raids on Britain, in 55 and 54 BC. Caesar attacked Britain for economic reasons - to obtain tin, pearls and corn, - and also for strategic reasons, since rebels and refugees from Gaul found support among their British kinsmen. But this stay was a short one.

Only in AD 43 Britain was again invaded by Roman legions under Emperor Claudius, and towards the end of the century was made a province of the Roman Empire. Roman civilization - paved roads, powerful walls of military camps - completely transformed the country. The Latin language superseded the Celtic dialects in townships and countryside in the south-east. In the 4th century, when Christianity was introduced in the Roman empire, it also began spreading among the Britons.

The Romans ruled Britain for almost four hundred years, up to the early 5th century. In 410 Roman legions were recalled from Britain to defend Italy from the advancing Goths; so the Britons had to rely on their own forces in the coming struggle with Germanic tribes. The only permanent linguistic sign of their presence proved to be the place names of some of their major settlements - such as the towns now ending in -chester (derived from the Latin word for ‘camp’, castra), and a small number of loan words, such as str t (‘street, road’, from strata), weal (‘wall’, from vallum), pipor (‘pepper’, from piper), win (‘wine’, from vinum).(Ilyish p. 62)

It was about mid-5th century that Britain was conquered by Germanic tribes. There is an account in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation reporting the invasion of Britain in AD 449 by warlike tribes from north-west Europe - the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes, who lived in the regions now known as the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. Bede’s account was written in Latin in about AD 731. (D.Crystal p.146)

The invaders were first called ‘Saxons’, but Latin writers later began to refer to them as ‘Angles’ (Angli), regardless of which tribe they belonged to. Until around AD 1000, the nation was called Angelcynn (nation of the Angles), and then Englalond (land of the Angles). The language was always referred to as Englisc (the sc spelling was used for the sound sh), and this has led to the modern name.

Fig. 4 “England in the Old English period”

The conquerors settled in Britain in the following way. (B.Ilyish) The Angles occupied most of the territory north of the Thames up to the Firth of Forth; the Saxons, the territory south of the Thames and some stretches north of it; the Jutes settled in Kent and in the Isle of Wight.

Its original territory was England (in the strict sense) except Cornwall, Wales, and Strathclyde (a region in the north-west). These western regions the Britons succeeded in holding, and they were conquered much later: Cornwall in the 9th, Strathclyde in the 11th, and Wales in the 13th century.

The Scottish Highlands, where neither Romans nor Teutons had penetrated, were inhabited by Picts and Scots. The Scots language, belonging to the Celtic group, has survived in the Highlands up to our own days. Ireland also remained Celtic: the first attempts at conquering it were made in the 12th century.

Now a few words as to significance of the invasion. When the Angles, Saxons and Jutes settled on the island of Great Britain, they were seperated from all their kinsmen, which resulted in the differentiation of their speech. The slight difference between their dialects and those of the other Germanic tribes, no longer levelled by communication, had a tendency to grow, and in the course of time it brought about the development of a separate language - the English language.

On the other hand, the fact that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes came to live together on the same island and fought the same enemy contributed much to their being gradually united into one people - the English people.

Therefore the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Great Britain is usually considered the beginning of the history of the English people and the history of the English language.

As a result of the invasion seven Germanic kingdoms were formed in Britain. The Angles formed three kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. The Saxons also founded three kingdoms: Wessex, Essex, Sussex. The Jutes founded one kingdom - Kent.

Fig. 5 “Anglo-Saxon England”

Fig. 6 “The Main Dialects of Old English”

The main dialect divisions (see map) reflect the settlements of the invading tribes, with their different linguistic backgrounds, and these divisions are still apparent in the country today. The area occupied by the Angles produced two main dialects: Mercian was spoken in the Midlands, roughly between the River Thames and the River Humber, and as far west as the boundary with present-day Wales; Northumbrian was spoken to the north of Mercian, extending into the eastern lowlands of present-day Scotland, where it confronted the Celtic language of the Britons of Strathclyde. Kentish, spoken by the Jutes, was used mainly in the area of present-day Kent and the Isle of Wight. The rest of England, south of the Thames and west as far as Cornwall (where Celtic was also spoken), was settled by Saxons, the dialect being known as West Saxon. Most of the Old English manuscripts are written in West Saxon, because it was the kingdom of Wessex, under King Alfred, which became the leading political and cultural force at the end of the 9th century. However, modern standard English is descended not from West Saxon, but from Mercian, as this was the dialect spoken in the area around London, when that city became powerful in the Middle Ages.

The history of English is one of repeated invasions, with newcomers to the islands bringing their own language with them, and leaving a fair amount of its vocabulary behind when they left or were assimilated. In the Anglo-Saxon period, there were two major influences of this kind.

First we must mention the introduction of Christianity in the 7th century. The Christian missionaries not only introduced literacy. They also brought a huge Latin vocabulary, some of which was taken over into Old English. The missionary influence resulted in around 450 new words coming into the language, mainly to do with the church abd its services, but including many domestic and biological words. The vast majority have survived in modern times. Some of them are: abbot, altar, angel, cancer, candle, cucumber, elephant, fever, grammatical, history, idol, lobster, marshmallow, master, noon, nun, offer, paper, place, plant, pope, purple, radish, rule, school, scorpion, sock, temple, tiger, title.

Another result of this influence was the substitution of the Latin alphabet, called Runic, used before that.

The second big linguistic invasion came as a result of the Danish (Viking) raids on Britain, which began in AD 787 and continued at intervals until the beginning of the eleventh century. Within a century, the Danes controlled most of eastern England. Only the kingdom of Wessex remained independent. In the year 878 Alfred, king of Wessex gained an overwhelming victory over the Scan-dinavians and made them sign the treaty in which the Danes agreed to settle only in the north-east third of the country - east of a line running roughly from Chester to London - an area that was subject to Danish law, and which thus became known as the Danelaw. Within the Danlaw the Scandinavians lived side by side with the Anglo-Saxons and a constant process of assimilation was going on for centuries, which had a marked influence on both languages. In 991 a further invasion brought a series of victories for the Danish army, and resulted in the English king, Ethelred, being forced into exile, and the Danes seizing the throne. For the next 25 years England was ruled by Danish kings.

Fig. 7 “Scandinavian place names in England”

The result of this prolonged period of contact was a large number of Danish settlements with Scandinavian names. There are over 1500 place-names of Scandinavian origin in England, especially in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Over 600 places end in -by, the Danish word for ‘farm’ or ‘town’ - Derby, Grimsby, Rugby, etc. Many end in -thorp (‘village’), as in Althorp and Linthorpe. Many Scandinavian personal names (e.g. surnames ending in -son, such as Davidson and Henderson) are also found in these areas.

The closeness of the contact between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danish settlers during this period of 250 years is clearly shown by the extensive borroings. In the long term, over 1800 words of definite or probable Scandinavian origin entered the language, and are still found in present-day standard English. Several thousands more continued to be used in regional dialects, especially those of the north-east.

Some of the commonest words in English came into the language at the time, such as both, same, get, give, and take. Three of the Old English personal pronouns were replaced by Scandinavian forms (they, them, their). And - the most remarcable invasion of all - the invading language even took over a form of the verb to be , the most widely used English verb. Are is of Scandinavian origin.

Old English Written Records

Old English was first written using the runic alphabet. This alphabet was used in northern Europe, in Scandinavia, present-day Germany, and the British Isles, and has been preserved in about 4000 inscription and a few manuscripts. It dates from around the third century AD. No one knows exactly where the alphabet came from. It is a development of one of the alphabets of southern Europe, probably the Roman, which runes resemble closely. The modifications which Latin letters underwent in the runic alphabet are accounted for by the technique of writing used by Germanic tribes in those early times. Namely, writing at the time did not mean putting a colour or paint on some surface: it meant cutting letters into wood or engraving them on stone or bone. So the letters are angular; straight lines are preferred. Horisontal lines were not made as the knife used to cut it merely separated fibres of the wood, and eventually, when the knife was removed, the fibres of the wood joined again, and no trace of a line remained visible. So horisontal lines were tilted upwards or downwards. Curves were replaced by broken lines. And one more peculiaruty of the runic alphabet not satisfactorily explained yet: tilted lines stretching from top to bottom were avoided: they were shortened in one way or another.

Fig. 8 “The runic alphabet”

The common runic alphabet used throughout the area consisted of twenty four letters. It is written both from left to right and from right to left. Each letter had a name, and the alphabet as a whole is called the ‘futhorc’ (in Britain), from the names of its first six letters (in a similar way to our name ‘alphabet’, derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta). The version found in Britain used extra letters to cope with the range of sounds found in Old English, and at its most developed form, in ninth century Northumbria, consisted of thirty-one letters.

Neither on the mainland nor in Britain were the runes ever used for everyday writing or for putting down poetry and prose works. When runes came to used in manuscripts, they were commonly used to convey ‘secret’ information ( the very name ‘runes’ means ‘secret’). In one manuscript, a collection of riddles contains items in which runes are used to provide clues to the solution. In another, an author’s name is hidden - written in runic letters interspersed throughout a text. Over the centuries, the sympolic power of runes (perhaps arising from the way each symbol had a name, and represented a concept) has often been recognized. Runes continued to be used in Scandinavia until as late as the ninteenth century. Even in the 20th century, they can be found in tales of mystery and imagination (such as the work of J.R.R.Tolkein).

The most famous runic inscriptions in Britain appear on Ruthwell Cross, near Dumfries, a stone monument some 5 metres tall, and around the sides of a small bone box known as the Franks Casket (named after the British archeologist A.W.Franks who discovered it in th 19th c. and presented to the British Museum). The earliest evidence of Old English is a runic inscription on a gold medallion (or bracteate) found at Undley in Suffolk in 1982, which has been dated AD 450-80.

Fig. 9 “The Ruthwell Cross”

Fig. 10 “Franks Casket”

Fig. 11 “The Undley Bracteate”

The Ruthwell Cross has the part of the Old English poem “The Dream of the Rood”. The poem takes the form of a monologue within a monologue - a dreamer tells of a vision in which he hears Christ’s Cross speak.

The Franks Casket consists of five carved panels one of which (the lid) is incomplete. The four complete sides bear inscriptions, three in Old English carved in runes and one in Latin in mixed runes and insular script. The longest among them, in alliterative verse, tells the story of the whale bone, of which the Casket is made.

Old English Spelling and Pronunciation

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