The Anglo-Saxons



    In comparison with the Celts, who have been in the British Isles for some 3,000 years, the Anglo-Saxons are newcomers--their residence in Britain is only about half that length. Even so, the Anglo-Saxon invasion, traditionally dated to 449 AD, changed the linguistic make-up of Britain more drastically than any other invasion before or after. The newcomers brought with them a dialect called Englisc, which soon came to be spoken in the part of Britain subsequently named Englaland (i.e., land of the Angles).


Much of the history of the early Anglo-Saxons remains murky, but it clear that their settlement in Britain was often not peaceful. Taking advantage of a power vacuum created by the departure of the Romans, the Angles, Saxons, and other Germanic tribes came into conflict with the Celts, whom they called wealhas (foreigners or slaves), with the name being the source of the words Welsh and Wales. However much the Anglo-Saxons despised the inhabitants of the territory they invaded, they met some very fierce resistance. The name of one apparent leader of the Celts has become a part of world culture: Arthur, King of the Britons. On the other hand, not all Brtions stayed and fought; the area of northwestern France known today as Brittany was settled by Celtic refugees, and the Breton language has clear affinities with Welsh. The survival of many Celtic river names in the West of England suggests that not all the Celts fled; even so, Anglo-Saxon place names predominate in most parts of England. For example, the counties Sussex (South Saxons) and Essex (East Saxons) clearly indicate who settled where.

    The earliest Anglo-Saxons were generally pagan, and over a century passed before many converted to Christianity. Even with their conversion, traces of the past lingered in words such as Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as in customs such as the Christmas tree. By the 7th century, however, Anglo-Saxon kings were often Christian, some converted by missionaries from Europe and others by Irish clerics, and with royal patronage the new religion spread quickly in Britain. One archeological site known as Sutton Hoo suggests a complex merging of the old and new ways.

    Around the time of their converstion to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxons had more or less reached the limits of their conquests. The barrier known as Offa's Dyke seems to reflect a deliberate attempt to fix the border between England and Wales. Some of the hostility between Celts and Saxons continued, but there was also a fruitful interchange in the arts, as some of the Sutton Hoo treasure shows.


By the time of Alfred the Great, who was King of Wessex from 871 to 899, the Anglo-Saxons were a civilized people with international contacts and with a tradition of literacy. Indeed, Alfred himself did much to encourage learning and was apparently the translator of some works from Latin into English. Along with Alfred, other Anglo-Saxon kings encouraged literacy, and it is no accident that West Saxon, Mercian, and Northumbrian, the chief dialects of Old English, are identified with the territories of three kingdoms. In fact, these dialect areas continue, more or less, to be distinctive up to our own time.

Much in the grammar of Old English differs from Modern English: for example, word order was much more flexible. The pronunciation and writing systems also diverged, and some of the spellings in Modern English reflect consonants that have been lost over time, as with the gh combination in words such as daughter and sought, which represents a sound in Old English similar to the middle consonant in the German word lachen (laugh). Such differences make the language hard for modern students, but the greatest source of difficulty lies in vocabulary contrasts. By the year 1600 words from Latin, French, and other Romance languages had replaced many Old English ones: in the writing of Shakespeare, over half of the words he used were not in Old English, with the majority being words from the Romance languages. On the other hand, most of the Anglo-Saxon words in Modern English (including Shakespeare's work) are highly frequent: kinship terms such as mother and father, common verbs such as come and go, everyday adjectives such as good and bright, as well as most pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions--thus much of the grammatical "machinery" of the language. The similarity of this lexical core with the vocabulary of German, Dutch, and other languages is one of the key reasons that English is classified as a Germanic language.

Vocabulary survivals in some regional and nonstandard dialects have been greater. For example, the Scots words bairn (child), byre (cow shed), and redd (advise) all have Old English counterparts: bearn, byre, and raedan. On the other hand, virtually all the dialects of the Anglo-Saxons shared certain changes, such as the influx of Greek and Latin words that accompanied the conversion to Christianity. For instance, the southern form devil and the northern form deil go back to the same Latin word, diabolus, which was in turn a loanword from Greek. Moreover, northern and southern dialects alike were eventually subject to the influences of still another language as a new wave of invasions swept over Britain: the Vikings.