All aspects of language—pronunciation, usage, word meanings, vocabulary, grammar—change through time. Word meanings and vocabulary are most sensitive to external social, cultural, and historic forces. Thus, the total lexicon of any language provides an interesting guide to the social history of the culture.
English belongs to a large language family known as Indo-European. At some time in the past, Indo-European broke into Eastern and Western branches. The Eastern branch later broke into: (1) Balto-Slavic and (2) Indo-Iranian. The Western branch eventually divided into: (1) Hellenic, (2) Italic, (3) Celtic, and (4) Germanic. English is a part of the Germanic group.
By about 600 CE, Germanic had evolved into three groups: (1) North Germanic, (2) East Germanic, and (3) West Germanic. English stems from West Germanic, a grouping which also includes Dutch, Flemish, Africaans, Low German, modern standard German, Yiddish, and Frisian.
The Germanic-speaking invasion of what is now England began about 449 CE when the Saxons conquered much of the area. The Saxons occupied an area between the Rhine River and modern Denmark. They crossed the seas between the continent and the island of Britain in longboats and engaged in a series of plundering raids which followed the river inland. The Jutes and Angles then followed the Saxon raiders to colonize and to establish farms.
Writing almost 300 years after the event, the Venerable Bede reported that the Angles and the Saxons at the request of King Vortigern:
“At the king’s request, they took up dwelling in the east part of the island, so that they should fight for their own territory. And they soon battled with their enemies that often before battled them from the north and overran them. And the Saxons won the victory by fighting. Then they sent home a messenger and told them to tell of the fertility of this land and of the Briton’s cowardice.”At one time it was assumed that the Jutes came from the area now known as Jutland; the Angles from the Western side of the Jutish peninsula and the east bank of the Elbe River; and the Saxons from the Elbe River to the mouth of the Rhine River. Archaeological data, however, suggests that the Angles came from farther southeast and that the Jutes came from the coastal area near the Frisian Islands off the coast of present-day Germany and the Netherlands. There are also some scholars who doubt that the Jutes really existed. Bede never mentioned the Jutes and it does not occur in any of the Kent place names.
Old English shared sound patterns with Frisian and Dutch, which differed from Highland German. Old English shared many grammatical characteristics with other Germanic languages. This includes strong and weak verbs, nouns with declensions, and full grammatical gender.
Strong verbs are verbs which signal a change in tense through a change in the root vowel of the verb. Examples would include: drink, drank, drunk; run, ran; think, thought. Weak verbs, on the other hand, do this with the –ed or –d suffix. Examples would include: walk, walked; love, loved; care, cared.
During the Old English period (450 to 1066) there were four dialect areas: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. The Northumbrian dialect became the standard of the great religious and literary culture of the eighth and ninth centuries. Bede, who completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church in 731 was a Northumbrian. The earliest written records in Old English are in Northumbrian.
West Saxon was an important dialect as it was the dialect of King Alfred who brought together many disparate groups into a single confederation. Many manuscripts of Old English were written in the West Saxon dialect because they were commissioned by people who lived in this area. When we read Old English in modern editions, we are generally reading texts in the West Saxon dialect.
Mercia was spoken in a small collection of settlements and kingdoms. Little survives today of the Mercia and Kentish dialects.
Politically, seven geographically overlapping spheres—generally known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy—also developed: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, and Kent.
The history of Old English is generally divided into three major time periods: Prehistoric Old English (450 to 650); Early Old English (650 to 900); and Late Old English (900 to 1066). Early Old English is the period of the oldest manuscript traditions with authors such as Caedmon, Bede, Cynewulf, and Aldhelm. Old English was influenced by Old Norse due to the Norse (sometimes called Viking) invasions and settlements in the Danelaw.
Old English was first written in runes, but shifted to the script of the Latin alphabet which was introduced by the Irish Christian missionaries sometime in the ninth century.
Modern English still retains a number of words from Old English, with modifications in spelling and pronunciation. Some of these words include: wif (wife), fod (food), stan (stone), god (good), hand (hand), grund (ground), land (land).
Some Old English words have vanished from modern English because of social and cultural changes. Some of these words include: dolgbot (compensation for wounding), peox (hunting spear), flytme (a blood-letting instrument), feohfang (the offence of bride-taking), and scora (a hairy garment).
Origins of English: