Hello friends. As most of you know, I am an author. This basically means I am a full time literature nerd. So, obviously, I like to occasionally dive into learning about my language itself. (Note: I like the history, but please note this DOES NOT mean I have perfect grammar or mechanics in my posts. My books are only close to that level of mechanic perfection because my editor rocks. )
I’ve previously done a collosallialy nerdtastic series of posts on the history and birth of our language from Latin, French, German, and bits and bobs from other languages, as well as what “Old English” actually means. But today I was enjoying a video on YouTube about rare punctuation (it’s basically the book dragon’s version of rare Pepe memes) when tragedy struck and I realized the one letter in the alphabet I had yearned for my whole life had once existed before we abandoned it. Did you know we once had a letter to resent the “th” sound??? Did you realize we once had spellings that were a little less phonetically confusing? And to find out we lost this just because early German printing houses didn’t want to be bothered to install an additional letter on their presses. Imagine my outrage at this! It hit me even harder than Pluto being kicked out of the planet club.
We just wrapped up a little series breaking down the history of the English language. You can read the final post of that series here, and go back through the earlier posts.
Today we are going to do a more hands on exploration of this history. That’s right, we’re going to explore original historical texts.
Text Vs Screen
At this point I feel like you guys might think I think I’m some kind of English teacher, but I don’t. I’m just an author and book lover. I’m here for all things bookish, and I want to help you be too.
I think these books are actually interesting, and I think you will too. We just have to approach them in a fun way.
That’s why I’m pairing original English classics of each time period of the language with movies that help illustrate the story. I think pairing a visual movie with a textual book is a great way to approach older books you aren’t confident you can read on their own- that’s how I got started reading Pride and Prejudice and realized it’s actually an amazing book. (I watched it with the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley, and I prefer it infinitely over many more beloved and well known screen adaptations as it’s the best paced version I’ve seen so far.)
For the first installment in this sequel series, we are going to again go back to where English began.
Beowulf is an epic poem, and the earliest piece of English writing that has still survived. Back when the Anglo-Saxons, the three Germanic tribes that invaded the Celtic island we today call England, set up their new territory, a lot was going on in their lives. They were of the Germanic tribes- remembering of course that Germany was one of the last European countries to become a country and most of their history was a bunch of different tribal groups- but they also had roots with the Vikings and Danes and Dutch and a lot of different cultures that grew out of the earliest form of Germany.
Beowulf is an epic (epic=poem that tells a story and is often as long as a book) that details a great hero fighting to save his people. You can read a translation of the original book. You can find free copies of old classic books like this in Amazon, Nook, and Google Play; or you can check out a physical copy from most libraries. You can also read a side by side translation and interpretation by Seamus Heaney by clicking here.
I’d pair the classic with the move Beowulf and Grendel. It cuts out the magical elements of the original story and it makes it more of an action story than a grand fable, but it is one of the closest screen adaptations of the story that is also entertaining to watch.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles
Meant to be sort of like a summary of their history, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles was a seven volume series written to be mostly factual. Remember, just like today, “historically accurate” can change a little bit depending on who is retelling the story. That said it’s an interesting tale.
If you want to read this I definitely DO NOT recommend going through all seven books. Unless you are a historian and this is the time period of your specialty, you don’t need to go that far. Just read the abridged edition most other people have read and call it a day- rather than reading the whole thing in an entire month and being thoroughly sick of it by the end.
I’d pair this with the 2006 movie The Saxon Chronicles, which has a medium rating on IMDB. It’s an Indie film, so the trailer leaves a little to be desired, but the film itself is exactly what I want in a movie based on this time period- swords, battles, and solid plot to boot.
Bede aimed to write a book about the history of the early European Church, included his own involvement in it. A good amount of secular history is included to give us a better sense of setting as well. If you’d like to read the original you can download an ebook for free right now from the Gutenberg Project here. This edition also has some annotations- it is hard to find a very annotated version as many of them are connected to current political or religious commentary which is really not what I’m featuring this book for, so this is one of the best I could find.
You can watch this video lecture on the subject here. Unfortunately it’s a video, not a movie, but it’s still fairly interesting I think.
The period we call “Old English” lasted from 450-1100 AD. The first version of the English language started when three Germanic tribes invaded the land we today call England. All three tribes spoke a roughly similar language, and in very little time their languages merged into one.
You can read more about the overall history of the language here.
Today we are going to have fun with the language and play a game of I Spy. Normally Eye Spy (or sometimes I Spy) is a game- using specific I Spy series books or just using passing landmarks as a car trip game- and you look through many different objects to find a select few. It’s sort of like the kid’s game version of hunting through the cupboard to find the things you need to make dinner but you can’t find the parmesan because someone hid it in the cupboard even though you’ve always put it away in the refrigerator.
Today we’re going to look at different snippets of Old English and see if you can decipher any letters in it. Bonus points if you can figure out any whole words!
For practice I first included a rough alphabet of the letters. Keep in mind this alphabet was written in modern times for modern audiences to be an approximation of Old English letters and not clones of originals. Additionally, this was made into a typeface, while everything originally written in Old English was handwritten so there will be variations in handwriting and lettering styles. So, now that we have somewhere to start, let’s go!
This is a snippet from Beowulf. Can you figure out any of the letters in this?
My guess is that thesecond sentence starts with “Oft”, an old timey version of the word “often”.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is supposedly the longest piece of intact Old English writing we have- even longer than Beowulf- according to Wikipedia. Use your own judgement on the accuracy of that. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is basically an early encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon history, hence the name.
My best guess is that the first word looks like “Brittene”, which I would guess means Britain, but keep in mind I am new to this particular game of Eye-Spy and I have very untrained eyes for it so who knows if I’m right.
Bede’s Ecclesiastes recorded snippets of the Synod of Hatfield in year 679 many years after the fact. If you want to read one theory as to why he limited his work to only some portions of that meeting I found an interesting post from Proffesor Miranda Wilcox at the blog for the Medieval Studies division of York University.
I included this post as the last one because, to me, it is the hardest to decipher. I have no clue what it says, and I can only pick out a handful of letters like the distinctive “l” and “p” and all of the larger illuminated letters on the left side.
I thought it would be interesting to talk about one of the main tools of my trade today- the English language. It’s especially cool to me because it’s not something that we really touched on in American English classes so it’s a lot of new material for me- please forgive me if you were taught this and are sick and tired of the subject though!
The history of the English language really started with the arrival of three Germanic tribes who invaded Britain during the 5th century AD. These tribes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes, crossed the North Sea from what today is Denmark and northern Germany. At that time the inhabitants of Britain were Celts who spoke their own language. These Celts were pushed off of their lands into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland (this part is before the invaders became the kingdom of England which eventually pushed into those last bastions of the Celts and conquered them, too.) The Angles came from a home country they called “Englaland” and their language was called “Englisc” – which is how our language came to be named English.
Germanic invaders entered Britain on the east and south coasts in the 5th century
Old English (450-1100 AD)
The Germanic tribes spoke and wrote in similar languages, and as the different tribes interacted with each other they soon became one unified language that became known as Old English. Old English is very different from English today, and is almost impossible for any modern speakers to read unless they are specifically trained in deciphering it. The worst part of reading it is how different the letters look, though. If you read a passage that has been typed out in modern typefaces, a diehard literature nerd might have a chance of figuring out what a few of the words are, though it still would not be easy reading. We still use some of the words today, like be, strong and water. Old English was spoken until around 1100.
Middle English (1100-1500)
In 1066 England got invaded… again. This time the French did it. The Duke of Normandy, which is apparently somewhere in France, invaded England. This made for a few messy years of English politics because this brand new monarchy was also really closely related to the French monarchy, and that monarchy kind of wanted to take power once Britain became a bit of a big deal, but obviously the fresh line of rulers didn’t want to give up their new power. This led to a few wars because, frankly, it was a mess.
The language was a mess too. The new French overlords were trying to give commands to their new serfs- because they just took people who were already serfs and reassigned ownership of them since their former Saxon lords were either killed in battle or hugely demoted by the new rulers anyways- but their underlings only spoke Old English. It was messy. Eventually overtime both the ruler’s and their people’s languages collided into something that was a combination of both. It was sort of like Spanglish, but instead it was Frenglish. It was a weird time linguistically speaking. Plus this language combination took forever to happen because it took awhile before the new rulers finally realized that insisting on only speaking their own language was all well and good but it’s a bit hard to make your subjects do stuff for you when they have no clue what you are saying.
Some English speakers of today can still understand the language. Mainly uber literature nerds. I consider myself a member of that category, but I’ll admit this stuff is a little difficult for me.
Early Modern English (1500-1800)
With the rise of the Renaissance Europe became more connected than it had been since the splintering of the Roman Empire. During the height of the Middle Ages there was a rise in a Middle Class- butchers and goldsmiths and the like having their own businesses and being able to keep their own profits- and by the beginning of the Renaissance a significant chunk of the population was in this new Middle Class and had some free spending money to do things like travel or send mail. With this freedom came an increase in business, and suddenly English vowels were shorter and shorter.
Additionally the Renaissance saw the creation of the first universities where students of upper and middle classes were taught standardized spelling and grammatical forms of the language. The invention of the printing press also made books and education more accessible to the masses, and further increased the standardization of the language. The printing press also led to the first published dictionary in 1604 to further that trend.
Late Modern English (1800-Present)
Late Modern English is what we speak today. There are a lot of new words, and a lot of old words have been forgotten- any native English speaker who had to read Shakespeare at some point in High School English class can attest that there’s a huge difference between Early and Late Modern English. A lot of the difference in vocabulary comes from globalization and influences from immigrants and imported cultures and customs, like the word “kebob” or “sushi” or “ranch”. Plus Industrialization happened, so we got new machinery themed words like “car” or “computer”.
Dialects of English
The English language has been conquered by other languages over time. Think about it: just like England has been conquered many times, they have also conquered quite a few places themselves. This can have a big affect on a language.
The most well known example of this is American English vs British English. With the creation of the dictionary in the American colonies, many words of the time were kept and continue to be kept today, while British English continued to evolve and use new words- words such as trash, and Fall, were once used by all English speakers, though today they are known as American English because British speakers have since introduced new words to replace these historical relics, like rubbish and Autumn. Languages from new waves of immigrants influenced American English as well so the modern dialect is filled with words and borrowed grammar from Spanish, West African languages, Chinese, Creole, and many more, so the New World English became even more distant from the British variety.
Beyond American English each country that had been invaded by the British Empire at some point has developed their own dialect of English, like Canadian and New Zealand English, and all of these many dialects are influenced by their own inhabitants, cultures, native peoples, and immigrants to become unique in their own way.
Many countries that have once been colonized by these New World countries- like former American colonies- also have their own brand of English. Some of our former colonies, like Panama, do not speak English as their national language, but instead have adopted many of its words and grammar into their own language to create a new dialect of their main language which is uniquely their own (If you’ve ever been to Panama you’ll realize that much of what is spoken there is not the same as the Spanish you learned from your South American Spanish teacher in High School and can be difficult to decipher.)