Friday, September 08, 2006

The Impact of King Alfred and Later Old English (AD 850 to 1100)

Last week’s article mentioned King Alfred a great deal, and just before we move on to see how English developed under the Vikings and the Norsemen, let’s stay with the wily Anglo-Saxon leader a while. Please forgive me this indulgence, but as an English teacher I have a good reason for wanting to keep him on the page. In fact, he has been considered by some people to have been the very first teacher of English, and perhaps if it wasn’t for his efforts our language would not be quite what it is, or even where it is, today.

However, let’s keep everything in perspective and not exaggerate his achievements. The first thing to bear in mind is that our dear King Alfred was only a part-time teacher (as presumably full-time contracts were hard to find even in the ninth century!). He spent most of his time feuding with the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fighting off Norse invaders, so it was only in his later years that he got round to developing a system of education in which Old English, as opposed to Latin, played an important role.

As we noticed last week, King Alfred himself made a personal commission of many translations from Latin to his version of Old English. But perhaps more importantly he also had books written in Old English, and set up schools for the children of all those he depended on for his power and security. So the families of noblemen and his sheriffs and bailiffs attended, as did those high-ranking statesmen themselves who were illiterate. Moreover, it wasn’t just a voluntary thing: truancy was frowned upon, and those who failed to take part in his educational plans faced losing their official duties and privileges. So, in fact, Alfred was perhaps one of the first to perceive both the political and the enlightening power of education. Moreover, he was also the first to coin the use of the word ‘Englisc’ to indicate both the language and the people under his authority.

Legend tells us that Alfred’s mother helped him learn to read in his native West-Saxon dialect of Old English, and this might well have been a novelty in the predominantly oral Anglo-Saxon culture of the times. Most Anglo-Saxons were fond of performing highly alliterative poems and songs, but Alfred actually learned to read them as well. In fact, the story goes that he was once awarded a book of poems by his teachers for his eloquence in reading aloud to his Mother.

Whether the above legend is true or not, it does serve to illustrate that King Alfred helped to drag a predominantly oral language into a written form. However, although his written version of Old English came to be used in other northern kingdoms, the pronunciation of the words remained quite local. This queer paradox survives even to this day, as many of our words are currently written in a way that hardly reflects their modern pronunciation. Examples such as ‘through’, ‘borough’ and ‘Leicester’ spring to mind.

Anyway, what about these Vikings and Norsemen that we glimpsed towards the end of last week’s piece? In fact the first invasion of Scandinavian scallywags came as early as AD787, and by the end of the ninth century the Danes had won control of most of Eastern England. However, King Alfred (yes, it’s him again) managed to hold them back for 100 years or so by means of a treaty, in which the Danes agreed to settle in only the eastern part of the country. This area was actually quite large, stretching from the Thames estuary in what is now London to North Wales. Everything to the east of the line was under Danish sovereignty, and everything to the west was Anglo-Saxon territory.

But this truce lasted only 100 years or so, and in AD991 a further invasion of Scandinavian warriors brought complete victory to the Danish armies. Poor King Aethelred, the Anglo-Saxon king of the time (and whom history has cursed with the handle ‘Aethelred the Unready’), was forced to abandon his throne and flee into exile. Old King Alfred probably turned in his grave at this spectacle, as Danish kings by the names of Harald Bluetooth and King Cnut (careful with that spelling, please) lorded it over the once proud Anglo-Saxons.

Well, so much for the history lesson, but what has this got to do with the development of our English language? Quite a lot, really. Firstly, many place-names survive from that era, and reflect the former Viking ‘occupiers’. The Danes were predominantly settled in the north-eastern part of England, while Norwegians dwelt in the north-west of the country plus southern Scotland. So we still have modern place-names such as Grimsby, Rugby, etc, in which the ending ‘-by’, originally meant farm or town. The ending ‘-thorp’ indicated a village (Althorp, Linthorp) and both ‘-thwaite’ (isolated area) and ‘-toft’ (piece of ground) can still be seen in Braithwaite and Lowestoft.

But perhaps their most important contribution to English is the fact that there are a lot of very common words still in use that owe their provenance to the Danes and the Norsemen: simple everyday verbs such as ‘to get’, ‘to give’, and ‘to take’. Could you imagine life today without those three little tinkers?

Moreover, linguistic historians believe that a fusion of the two languages took place, which is evident in a word such as ‘heaven’, for example. Its existence apparently came about due to an amalgamation of two earlier words, the Anglo-Saxon ‘heefon’, and Scandinavian ‘himinn’.

Actually, this last point is the one that the know-all linguists dispute most, purely because the Norsemen’s culture was, like the Anglo-Saxons’, predominantly oral. Therefore few records were left. However, the two tongues were, after all, related branches from the Germanic tree of languages, so it would not be an entirely wild speculation to suggest that the two languages fused after a period of time. Moreover, logic might inform us that two ‘nations’ living in such proximity to each other on a small island and speaking similar tongues would eventually come to ‘simplify’ their speech in order to understand each other better. Wouldn’t they?

However, whether present-day Geordies and Cockneys can understand each other is another matter. Maybe complete fusion is still yet to take place?

Next week: as promised last week! 1066 and all that.