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How the Anglo-Saxons Created the English Language We Know Today

The English language, words and how they came into common usage fascinate me. Some words are much older than we think.

Created by Eadfrith of Lindesfarne circa 700A.D.

Created by Eadfrith of Lindesfarne circa 700A.D.

England's English Before the Anglo-Saxon Invasion

Around 6000 B.C., the land mass we now call Great Britain was cast adrift from the rest of the European mainland and the English Channel was formed. As Indo-Europeans migrated across the continent and discovered the island lying to the west, their words provided the foundations for several languages, detectable by their similar phonetics. For example, the English mother and father are mutter and vater in German, and three in English bears more than a passing resemblance to the French and Latin word for three, tres. The Ancient Greeks adopted tris to denote the number.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes hailed from todays Northern Germany and Denmark.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes hailed from todays Northern Germany and Denmark.

Roman Britannia Invaded by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons

By 500 B.C., the Celts were present across Europe including on the island of Albion (Britain).

Fast forward to circa 55-50 B.C., and a succession of Roman invasions saw the Celts or Britons displaced. The country fell under Roman rule from 43 A.D. for approximately 400 years.

When the Roman Empire crumbled, the Romans of Britannia, their name for Albion, withdrew over time. The Romans were steadily replaced by the North Germanic and Jutland-based Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded and conquered the Celtic and Briton people—who were either slaughtered or driven into the neighbouring territories that we now know as Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which the Romans had been unable to bring under their rule.

The Angles, Saxons and Jutes brought their vocabularies with them on their warships, and countless west and north Germanic words were absorbed into the Celtic-Briton vocabulary. The three tribes were later better known as the Anglo-Saxons.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Circa 800A.D.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Circa 800A.D.

English as Englisc Formed

The 5th century cultural shift from Roman to Anglo-Saxon words interspersed with surviving Celtic and Latin terms resulted in the conceptual English language. It was called Englisc, a term derived from the Anglo-Saxon name for England, Engla-land or Angleland, "the land of the Angles" from Angeln in the present day Northern Germany.

The cleric and writer Bede wrote that the Saxons were dominant in the south of England, the Angles placed themselves in East Anglia and the Jutes took control of Kent. He was largely correct. In the seven kingdoms in the Heptarchy of Anglo-Saxon England, the Angles settled in East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria, the Saxons reigned in Essex, Wessex and Sussex and the Jutes had Kent.

Four dialects emerged: Northumbrian, West Saxon, Mercian and Kentish. Latin was only used by courtiers, aristocrats and the church at this point in time.

The Anglo-Saxon's Used a Runic Alphabet.

The Anglo-Saxon's Used a Runic Alphabet.

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An English Alphabet Change

Celts and Anglo-Saxons utilised an alphabet of runes comprised of characters, normally angular, that could easily be etched in wood or stone.

As Christianity reached Angleland, there was a widespread adoption of the Roman (Latin) alphabet, similar to today’s English one but consisting of only 21 characters. Bede, however, chose to write in Latin.

How to Identify an Anglo-Saxon Place Name

The Roman name for the northern England city of Manchester was Mamucium, but the Anglo-Saxons renamed it in 1086 as Mameceaster (ceaster meaning camp) and this word evolved over the centuries into Manchester.

Londonium, the Roman London became Londein(iu) in the Latin language and in Anglo-Saxon was Lunden (sometimes Lundenwic), which later became London.

The most common clues for Anglo-Saxon place names are the following suffixes:

  • -holt, meaning a forest
  • -dun, a hill
  • -bury, a fortification
  • -ham, a farm
  • -stead, a site
  • -ton or -tun, a village or settlement
  • -ing, meaning “the people of . . .”
  • -ford, a river crossing
  • -stoc or stoke, a wood or small settlement
  • -wich or wick, a farm or enclosed space
  • -ley, a wood
Spot the Anglo-Saxon place names.

Spot the Anglo-Saxon place names.

We Use Anglo-Saxon Words Today

Thousands of Anglo-Saxon words have survived the centuries, and modern terms can be derived from their vocabulary, including the following common words:

  • Always
  • Child
  • Friend
  • Kiss
  • Lay
  • Meal
  • Needle
  • Orchard
  • Say
  • Shadow
  • Tall
  • Thimble
  • Want
  • Word
  • Yard
  • Yes

From the Anglo-Saxon Old English came the Late Old English and Early Middle English languages. By 1100, the Early Middle English was being adapted via laws of grammar, anglicisation and the construction of sentences that made sense to others.

The English language grew richer with the addition of Viking and French-Norman words and less unruly. New words are always being added to our dictionaries, but it's nice to know that some of our most common words are old friends.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

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