English essentially began with the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain constituted part of the wider Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire. The Anglo-Saxons, after the departure of the Roman Legions, overwhelmed Roman Britain and drove the Romanized Celts into the remote west. Thus the Anglo-Saxon Germanic tongue became the foundation for the English language. The Anglo-Saxon language is generally referred to as Old English and was widely spoken once the Romanized Britons had been defeated and driven into the west during the 6th century. The first English literature comes from this period. The most important work from this time is the epic poem, Beowulf, based on a Germanic legend that goes back several centuries and was transmitted orally long before it was written down. Writings of the preacher Wulfstan also survive. Old English is not understandable to the modern reader. One author describes it as sounding dark and brusque. [Lerer] Old English words are not easily recognizable, but the influence on modern English can sometimes be seen. The word for throne was "gifstol" (literally “gift seat” or “gift stool”) because it was from his regal seat or throne that a king dispensed tokens (gifts) to his retainers. Many words are totally lost, such as "uht," which meant something close to “dawn.” Latin was also an important contributor to Old English during destinct periods.
English essentially began with the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain constituted part of the wider Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire. There was not one common Old Germanic language. There were variations from tribe to tribe. And further differences because of varying contact with Rome. The tribes participating in the invasion were the northern tribes, although not the far northern tribes in modern Norway and Sweden. The Saxons had the greatest contact with Rome. The Angles had muh more limited contact. And the Jutes were virtually unknown to the Romans.
The Anglo-Saxons, after the departure of the Roman Legions, overwhelmed Romanized Britons and drove them into the remote west. Many historic accounts focus on the Goths and other Germanuc tribes over running the Wesern Empire. A more limited, but historically important Germanic invasion took place in the north, the invasion of Roman Britain. The invasions took place after the last Roman garison withdrew from Britain (407 AD) abd was largely accomplished by the time St Augustine arrived (end of the 6th century). The Germaniv invasions significantly changed the democraphic and ethnic pattern of Britain, especially what we now call England. The make up of the population, language, political structure, and other institutions were fundamentally changed. The Germanic invaders replaced the Romanized Celts who might be called the British. Historians have differed over the interactions between Germanic invaders and British. The disappearance of Latin and Celtic suggested that the Germanic invaders did not absorbe the Celts, but rather conducted a war of extinction. Modern DNA studies tends to confirm this. Not only did Germanic dialects (which evolved into Old English) replace Latin and Celtic, but loose knit and often feuding hereditary kingships replaced the more centrally governed system of provinces left by the Romans. [Myres] Urban life desintegrated and the Roman cities were largely abandoned. The problem for historians is that the victors were the Germanic tribes or Anglo-Saxons who were not literate at the time and thus there are no surviving contemprary written accounts.
Thus the Anglo-Saxon Germanic tongue became the foundation for the English language. The Anglo-Saxon language is generally referred to as Old English and was widely spoken once the Romanized Britons had been defeated and driven into the west during the 6th century. Old English would be an amalgum of the labguage spoken by the tribes participating in the invasions (Angles, Jutes, and Saxons and probaly the Frisians), which were similar to begin with. Old English is not an easy language. The declensions of nouns have five classes three genders and four cases--and that is just the nouns. [Gopnik]
There is not many literary works that eerged from Anglo-Saxon England. Few people at the time were literate, even among the nobility. Literacy was largely the province of the Church. And here was a conflict becuse the oral Anglo-Saxon literature were not enthusiastically embraced by churchmen. It is from these kingdoms, however, that the first English literature appears. The most important work is the epic poem, Beowulf, based on a Germanic legend that goes back several centuries and was transmitted orally long before it was ever written down. Scholars believe that it was first set down in writing in Mercia or Northumbria (9th century). As a result, Christian images had entered this essentially pagan epic. The origins seem Scandinavian and the evets take place in Denmark or Sweden. (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes are associated with norhern Germany in or near the Jutland Peninsula.) Beowulf is the hero of the epic and in the first part of the work, he fights with and kills Grendel the water minster and then its mother. Beowulf leads and honorable life and at the end he kills a dragon and is given a hero's funeral. Unfortunately it is very difficult for modern readers to get a feel for "Beowulf" and other Aglo-Saxon works. Old English is not understandable to the modern reader. One author describes it as sounding dark and brusque. [Lerer] A journalist who studied the poem describes the "bare-bones enchantment" and overwealming "strangness". The epic offers a "dark nd troubled" vision. [Gopnik] Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate. "Beowulf is written in strongly accented alliterative verse. Even the best translations can not replicate the poetic cadences. Another important Anglo-Saxon work is the writings of the preacher Wulfstan.
Old English words are not easily recognizable, but the influence on modern English can sometimes be seen. The word for throne was "gifstol" (literally “gift seat” or “gift stool”) because it was from his regal seat or throne that a king dispensed tokens (gifts) to his retainers. Many words are totally lost, such as "uht," which meant something close to “dawn.”
Celtic was the language of a large part of the Brirish people before the Roman conquest (1st century AD). It is not altogether clear to what extent Latin was adopted during the Roman period (1st-5th century). It seems likely that Latin was essentially an urban language and that Celtic survived in the countryside. This is suggest by the fact that the language of the Britons driven west by the Anglo-Saxons was Celtic (5th-6th century). It appears that the Romanized urban populatioins were wiped out and it was the rural Celtic population that survived, albeit in the remote corners of the west. The Welsh and Cornish lanugages are Celtic languages. The Celtic influence on Old English is relatively limited. The Celtic and Germanic tribes were in contact with each other on the Continent before the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain. There were word borrowings during this period. The words involved seem to be primarily related to the military, reflecting the fact that Celtic armies could be hired. Very few Celtic words entered Old English during the Anglo-Saxon conquest (5th-6th centuries). The sole exceoption here appeas to be plzce names, places conquered by the Anglo-Saxons. [Lovis] The reason for the lack of borrowings seems to reflect the nature of the Anglo-Saxon conquest. The Anglo-Saxons did not integrate with the Britons. The conducted a war of extermination. Thus the Britons were forced to die or flee into thre remopte west. This probably explains the lack of Celtic words entering Old English. There were some Celtic words that entered Old English after the conquest. This was the influence of Irish monks that participated in the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons. The important word "cross" from the Celtic-Gaelic "crois", was used alongside the Old Engkidsh "rood" for several centuries before it eventually became an English word. And then according to one scholar, "... the efficiency of the Norman conquest created a linguistic hierarchy with Celtic languages entrenched firmly at the bottom." [Lovis] The limited borrowings from Celtic include bucket, car, crockery, noggin, gob, slogan and flannel, truant and gaol, but these words entered Middle English during the Norman period. [Lovis] The remanents of Celtic in Britain have two branches. Goidelic (Gaelic) consists of Irish, Highland Scottish and Manx. Brythonic (British) consists of Welsh, Cornish and Breton. All have largely disappered, although preservationists and nationalists are striving to keep the languages alive.
Latin was also an important contributor to Old English during destinct periods. Scolars divide the influence of Latin on Old English into three time period, before, during, and after the Anglo-Saxon invasins of Britain. No other language other than the Germanic root languages affected Old English to the extent of Latin. Of course the Latin influence did not end with the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Latin continued to influnce English after the Norman invasion, but through the vehicle of French. Scholars in assessing language influences look at the alphabet, syntax, and word borrowings. The German tribes used Runic letters in the limited surviving texts. With Christianization the Anglo-Saxon influenced by Irish monk scribes adopted the Latin Alphsabet with some Germanic touches. Syntax is much more difficult to assess because of the limited number of surviving texts. There is, however, some information available onworld borrowing. Scholars estimate that about 450 Old English words had Latin origins, almost all of which were nouns. [Baugh, 106] Most appear to have been adopted before and after rather than during the conquest. Latin clearly influence Old English, but consuidering the richness and soohitication of Latin and the rudinmntary development of Old English, some scholars are surprised how impervious Old English was to Latin influences.
After Caesar's victories in Gaul, Rome came in increasing contact with the Germanic tribes. The Battle of the Tutoberg Forrest (9 AD) made the Rhine an important dividing line between Rome and the Germsnic tribes. While Rome did not conquer the Germanic tribes, there were diplomatic and economic contacts between them, especially the western tribes. Some of thectrines were allowed to cross the Rhine and Germans served in the Roman military. As a result, Latin had some influence on the language of the German tribes before the invaion of the Empire, inclusing the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England in the 5th centutry. Scholars believe that about 170 Latin words were adopted during the continental period period before the invasion. [Hogg, 302]. They mostly all nouns describing practical, useful items: plants, household items, clothing, and building materials. These are words that would have been picked up in conversations rather than written exchanges. This did not begin to change until the final or post-Christinization period.
The Anglo-Saxon tribes again came in contact with Latin when they invaded Britain. The Romnized Britains spoke Latin, at least the urban population. This period can be defined as from the departure of the Legions to the Chritianization of the Anglo-Saxons. Scholars are less sure as to the extent of word borrowings during the second or conquest period. It is not entirely sure why this was. It could reflect the shorter time-period involved. You might think that the greater contact would expose borrowing, but this also a period of belgerency. The words involve continue to be mostly practical nouns, but some words also appear related to religion and klearning. [Hogg, 302-03.]
Latin continued to influence Old English from the time that the Anglo-Saxons became Chritinized to the Norman invasion (1066). With Chritization the Anglo-Saxon influenced by Irish monk scribes adopted the Latin Alphsabet with some Germanic touches. The number of Latin borrowings increased during the final ohase as well as the nature of the borrowings. Many of these words seem to reflect the process of Christianization and learning. Here the Church was clearly playing an important role and their appear to be literary as well as just spoken borrowings. Here there are not only Latin words borrowed, but Old English words appear to tale on Latin meanings. The Old English word "cnhit" meant boy or servant. In this period in takes on the mening of he Latin word "disciplus" or disciple.
Modern readers can not read Old English texts. It appears more like a foreign language, which it essentially is--Old German. Many modern English words, however, have Old English roots. Must of this is readily notable in the number and importance of the Old English root words. Many of the most commonly used words and the basic components of the language are Old English root words. Some are vaguely recognziable. Some less so. Some words were acquired from Latin. The Norman invasion injected many new words into the language. Some old English words were replaced. In many others instances, both the Old English word and the Norman French word entered the language. This meant that English speakers had a choice of words, often with slight variation in meaning. Often English readers do not give much thought to this. But the choice of Old English, French, or Latin root words can have great impact on the meanng or power of the words on the English speaking ear. There are many examples of this in written and spoken English.
Baugh, Albert C. A History of the English Language 2nd ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1957).
Gopnik, Blake. "'Beowulf' movie magic can't conjure the poem's bare-bones enchantment, Washibgton Post (November 22, 2007), pp. c1, C7.
Hogg, Richard M., ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language Vol. 1. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
Lerer, Seth. Inventing English: A Portable History of the English Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 305p.
Lovis, Claire. Celtic Influence on the English Language (2006).
McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English (Viking: New York, 1986), 384p.
Myres, J.N.L. The English Settlements, The Oxford History of England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986).
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