As we begin this semester, working towards improving your own language use (spoken and written), it is important that we understand where our language comes from and its own history. Our first unit will focus on the history of the English language, and so we begin with ‘Old English’, and a focus on Anglo Saxon culture and texts.
In class we discussed the language of the Germanic tribes of the British Isle (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Picts and Celts) and looked at examples that still survive today in modern English, such as ‘daughter’, ‘strong’, ‘wry’, ‘fight’ and ‘wreak’. Many of the Old English words are mono-syllabic, and have a harsh, guttural sound with a strong emphasis at the beginning of the word.
Once Christianity began to spread to the Isles, so did Latin and with it new words and a new alphabet. More poly-syllabic words like ‘omnipotent’ and ‘exuberant’ and ‘tenacious’ were introduced, softening the sound of the language slightly.
Below you can see an example from Beowulf – written in Old English script, then in the modern alphabet, then in Modern English.
In our first poem we are examining some literary devices that are common to poems from this period – alliteration, kennings, assonance, personification and hyperbole. Additionally, we will be examining the presence of the comitatus pledge, and how an understanding of this cultural custom informs our understanding of the poem and changes its tone.
As we read these early Anglo Saxon poems and texts, remember the importance of the comitatus to not just the warrior and lord, but the families and communities that grew around these arrangements.
For an overview on the history of English during the Anglo Saxon period, please see the short, fun video below:
Also, if you would like to check and see what modern words you like would have sounded like in Old English, click here for an Old English Translator.
Image Source: https://www.omniglot.com/writing/oldenglish.htm