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Lesson 7

Old English. Historical Background


The history of British language begins with the invasion of the British isles by Germanic tribes in the 5th c. A.D. Before the Germanic invasion the British Isles must have been inhabited for at least fifty thousand years.
The first millenium B.C. was the period of Celtic migrations. Traces of their civilisation are still found all over Europe. Celtic languages were spoken over large part of Europe. The Gaelic branch has survived as Irish in Ireland, as Scotch in Scotland, as Manx on the Isle of Man. The Britonnic branch is represented by Welsh in Wales, by Breton spoken in modern France (where Celts came in 5th c. from Britain), and by Cornish in Cornwall.
In the first c. B.C. Gaul was conquered by the Romans, Julius Caesar made two raids ton Britain, in 55 and 54B.C. but failed to capture it. In A.D. 43 Britain was again invaded by Roman legions under Emperor Claudius, and was finally made a province of the Roman Empire, guarded by about 40,000 soldiers.
Two fortified walls ran across the country( Hadreans Wall 122-128A.D.), paved roads (Lat. strata via >OE stræt>NE street) connected the military camps (Lat. castra >modern English city-names: Chester, Manchester, Lancaster). London became one of the most important trading centers of Roman Britain. The Roman occupation lasted nearly 400 years. In A.D. 410 Roman troops were withdrawn to Rome for the Empire was breaking up. After the departure of the Roman legions the civilised part of the country was destroyed.

Germanic settlement

The 5th c. was the age of increased Germanic migration. The Britons who after departure of Romans fought with Picts and Scots couldnt offer a prolonged resistance to the enemies. According to Bede (673-735), a monastic scholar who wrote the fisrt history of England, the invaders came to Britain in A.D. 449. They came in families and clans and settled in the occupied territories. The newcomers were of the strongest races of Germany: the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. The invaders called themselves Angelcyn (English people), hence England, and the language they spoke, (Englisc after the name of the tribe), gave the beginning to the English language.

Jutes occupied Kent an the Isle of Wight. Saxons occupied southern, western and eastern parts of the country (the traces of their tribe-name we can find in geographical names: Essex, Wessex) . Angles settled in the central part. The invaders founded 7 kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Kent, which later united into four: Northumbria, Mercia, Wessex and Kent, forming four dialects Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish. The relative weight of the Old English kingdoms and their interinfluence was different in different times. Northumbria and Mercia had superiority during Early Old English period, and Wessex all through the period of written OE.

Old English Written Records

The earliest written records of English are inscriptions made in a special runic alphabet. The two best known runic texts are the inscription on the Franks Casket and the short passage on the Ruthwell Cross, which was also found in the later manuscripts. Our knowledge of the OE language comes from manuscripts written in Latin letters. Latin in England was the language of the church, writing and education, and the monks were the only literate people.
The first written English words were the place names and personal names inserted into the Latin texts. Then there appeared Gospels and other religious texts with word-to-word interlinear translations (as in Lindisfarne Gospels).
The pieces of Old English poetry also appeared inserted in the Latin texts. All in all we have 30,000 lines of OE verse from many poets of some three centuries. The names of these poets are unknown except Caedmon and Cunewulf (both Northumbrians).

OE is restricted to three subjects:

  • heroic
  • religious
  • lyrical
. Many OE poems were passed orally from generation to generation before they were first written down in Northumbrian dialect. But they have survived only in West Saxon copies made much later in 10th-11th c.



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