Old English (History)

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

Old English is the first phase in the history of the English language. It is also called Anglo-Saxon, but this term is ambiguous to some specialists in the history of languages. (For an explanation of why this should be, see Anglo-Saxon.)

The first phase of Old English was created as a result of the tribal movements across the North Sea from the western edge of Europe, the areas that are now the countries of Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes first arrived in Roman Britain as traders and as mercenaries. In the two centuries following the Roman departure c.410 CE, the southern part of Britain became dominated by the newcomers. They spoke a west Germanic language that is now called Old English, or, less accurately, Anglo-Saxon. One particular tribe, the Angles, gave their name to the language - and to the country of England, the 'land of the Angles'. (For a joke about it, see Angel - angle.) Old English developed through the rest of the millennium and beyond, and in that time there were many changes. During the 7th and 8th centuries, there was a fluid political division of the country, such that it is sometimes (not wholly accurately) called the Heptarchy (~ 'Seven Kingdoms'). This is linked to the many varieties in dialect. In seven hundred years or so of Old English, there were also of course enormous developments.

The most important of these, for a quick general overview of the history of the English language, was the strong influence on its development in the north and east parts of England from a North Germanic language spoken, in various varieties, by the Vikings who raided - and traded with - the British Isles in the 9th and 10th centuries and beyond. This was Old Norse. The people who came were natives of Scandinavia and Jutland: they were usually called 'Danes' or 'North[or Norse]men': OED says that "older usage [of the word Dane] includ[ed] all the Northmen who invaded England from the 9th to the 11th c." Some of the relatives of these 'men from the North' raided and settled in the part of modern France which is called Normandy after them. When Duke William of Normandy defeated the English king Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the rulers of the country became predominantly French-speaking. This, more than anything else, signalled the end of Old English and the start of the Middle English phase of our language.

Before the arrival of the Germanic invaders, the country now called 'England' was a Roman province, called Britannia, more commonly in current English Roman Britain. It was inhabited, apart from the governing elite, by Celtic people who spoke an early form of the Celtic language that became modern Welsh. It was then usually called 'British'.