Daniel Defoe referred to “your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English,” thus encapsulating fifteen hundred years of linguistic history. The linguistic legacy of the Roman occupation of Britain appears largely in place names, such as names ending in “-chester,” the Old English borrowing of the Latin castra, military camp.
The last Roman legions left in 410 c.e. In 449, Angles, Jutes, and Saxons sailed across the North Sea from Denmark and Lower Saxony to England. Over the next 150 years these invaders drove the Celts into the island’s western mountains. The Celts were dispossessed linguistically as well as physically: Old English contains barely a dozen words from the Celtic. To compound the injury, the Germanic tribes named the Celts’ remaining strip of land “Wales,” from the Germanic word wealas, foreigners. (The Celts themselves call it Cymru, the land of “compatriots.”)
In 597 came a second Roman invasion, this one led by Augustine. This Catholic incursion, supplemented by missions from Ireland, reintroduced Latin to England. The Catholic newcomers established schools to impart literacy and monasteries to preserve, copy, and create texts in both Latin and the vernacular. The Venerable Bede, the second author in Gray’s anthology, was educated at one of these monasteries, at Jarrow. The first author in Gray’s collection, Caedmon, was illiterate, but dictated his poetry to seventh century clerics who wrote down his words.
Caedmon, Bede, and Cynewulf expressed Christian views in Anglo-Saxon. Beginning in 793, Defoe’s next language entered the melting pot that is English, as Vikings plundered and conquered much of the island. These Danes destroyed most of the centers of Anglo-Saxon learning, including Bede’s Jarrow, Caedmon’s Whitby, and Cynewulf’s Lindisfarne. Only the kingdom of Wessex remained a bastion of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. In 878 Alfred defeated the Danes at Edington, Wiltshire, thus preserving his kingdom and his language. To protect his kingdom against the Danes, Alfred created a ring of forts along his borders. Another defensive strategy involved the power of language. To unite his kingdom, Alfred reestablished schools and monasteries and set about translating key texts from Latin into the vernacular. He also began the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to remind the English of their history. By saving the English language and creating Old English prose, Alfred earned the title “the Great,” the only English monarch in the country’s long history to be so called.
However, even Alfred could not prevent the natural linguistic changes that occur when one language is exposed to another. Old English before the arrival of the Danes was highly inflected. Thus, eorthe is the Old English nominative form of “earth,” while eorthan is the accusative. Singular and plural forms of words also looked and sounded different. To facilitate communication between Danes and Anglo-Saxons, speakers abandoned these distinctions. The union of Danes and Anglo-Saxons also is reflected in the Old English epic Beowulf. The opening line of this poem, preserved in Alfred’s language, introduces his erstwhile enemies, the Gar-Dena, “Spear-Danes.” The Christianity of the poem remains a matter of debate, but according to the surviving text the monsters besetting the Swedish king are born of Cain. The reference reveals the influence of the Roman church, whether in the original composition or in the final transcribing of the poem.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that on September 28, 1066, William of Normandy landed at Pevensy. The Normans (that is, Northmen) were Vikings who had settled in France and had by the eleventh century exchanged their Germanic language for Latin-based French, which became the prestige dialect in England once William added “the Conqueror” to his name by defeating the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, at Hastings. The last entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclewas made at Peterborough in 1154, and Robert of Gloucester commented in the late thirteenth century, “For but a man know French[,] men count of him little./ But low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.” Old English survived as a spoken language but fared less well among the literate. Gray quotes a postconquest lament, rare for being written in the old tongue:
Now the lore is forgotten, our folk forlorn,
Now other language is laid on our folk
And most of the teachers are lost, the folk with them.
Even as Robert of Gloucester was writing, however, the linguistic tide was shifting. In 1325 William of Nassyngton observed that in England some knew Latin and some knew French, but all understood English. French was taught in Anglo-Norman schools, but it was taught as a foreign language. In 1362...
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