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Heritage - 2: Earliest English, Closer to Old Norse or Low Saxon?

Updated on May 28, 2019

Carried on the waves, they came in waves to lay bare the coffers on Lindisfarne - three ships' crews had set out from the fjords

9th Century Lindisfarne grave marker, known as the Viking gravestone - shows a file of armed warriors on the march
9th Century Lindisfarne grave marker, known as the Viking gravestone - shows a file of armed warriors on the march | Source

If English had been spoken in Roman times, how do you think it would have sounded?

Put another way, how would it have been written? Which mainland tongues might have been like it? Many linguists would not even bother to answer this, as the orthodox approach does not view 'English' as being native to Britain. It is seen as a direct heir to a continental Germanic culture. 'Anglo-Saxon', whatever that might be, is thought to have been shoe-horned onto the British cultural landscape when the next invaders came after the Romans left in AD 410.

English is seen by the 'experts' as a Western Germanic introduction, linked in the Low Germanic field with Flemish, Frisian and Nederlandse (Dutch), as opposed to the Old Norse tongues such as East Norse, spoken by the Danes and Swedes, and West Norse - spoken by Icelanders, Hebrideans, Faeroese, Orkneymen, Shetlanders and Norwegians. There are also the Old Norse tongues spoken by the Goths, Teutons, Vandals and Burgundians, their speakers having gone into history, absorbed or been absorbed by Latin Mediterranean cultures (Visigoths in Spain, Lombards or Langobards and Ostrogoths in Italy, Burgundians in France and Vandals in Roman North Africa).

The western Germanic language group became split around a thousand years ago or maybe slightly earlier. A new language group known as High German came about, with 'mainstream' Germans, Austrians and Swiss following the new route. The change emerged in the ancestor group of Old High German, vowel shifts introduced to distinguish it from its Low German cousin used in the Low Countries and coastal North-west Germany in Lower Saxony as well as Schleswig-Holstein (Angeln) before the Prussians invaded in 1864 to intervene in a succession dispute amongst the Danes.

The coastal features have been used to describe the population between Gaul and Denmark. The North Sea Germanic group has divers branches. Low German, or 'Platt-Deutsch' is spoken colloquially between Frisia in the Netherlands to Holstein in Germany. Equally no-one speaks the original Frankish tongue any more, but it was spoken before the Latinisation of the language in what is now northern France, Belgium and north-western Germany (heard of Franconia?). The Belgae, a Celtic tribe who gave Caesar so much trouble during his time in northern Gaul, were classified by Hans Kuhn as 'the folk between Celts and Germans'.

Frisian is the one coastal tongue most closely related to what was spoken by the migrant Saxons. Some think it should be Low Saxon - upper Saxon being hundreds of miles to the east - but this group is intermingled anyway. King Aelfred would have had no trouble understanding someone from, say, Utrecht or Bremen, in the same way as Bede would have understood someone from Flensburg or anywhere around Slesvig/Schleswig.

Old English is more similar to Old Norse as spoken in Jutland or Denmark, being derived more from the Anglian dialects of East Anglia and Eastern England after 1066. There had been vowel shifts in the spoken tongues of the Aengle and Frisians that separated the two some time after the Germanic invasions (perhaps a couple of centuries, no more), and by the time texts were set down another vowel change had been effected. There were differences between the Angles', the Jutes' and Saxons' spoken idiom that reflected in texts such as the Saxon Chronicles down the years. As already mentioned, after 1066 the 'Burh' (Peterborough) entries were written independently of those further south, like 'Cantuareburh' being written in some entries, and 'Cantuarebyrig' (Canterbury) in others. In the west Wintunceaster (Winchester) and Wigorceaster (Worcester) had long since ceased functioning as Chronicle contributors as Wessex and Mercia had been 'chopped up' by the Normans. Peterborough's entries continued until AD 1154, long after the reign of Henry I and the time of the 'Anarchy' (Matilda vs Stephen of Blois in mid-12th Century) to Stephen's death. Until 1066 the 'official' dialect was that of Wessex, after that English was in 'free-fall'. The 'official' language or dialect of Wessex was only ever a written form. No-one really paid much heed to it or spoke anything resembling it aside from court procedure by the king, the Witan or the Church. Norman French was used for officialdom after 1066, only the lower orders spoke English all the time. To communicate with their servants and other underlings the Norman, Breton and Frankish lords and ladies had to use the English of the shire they lived in. In the old Danelaw shires English became increasingly more Norse orientated, i.e., the tongue spoken in Eastern England and East Anglia, which was an 'amalgam' of Aenglish and Old Danish Norse. That form came down to us through Henry IV's establishment of King's College, Cambridge, known to us as 'King's English'. In other words the upper classes speak a form of English understandable in Denmark, with similar vowel inflections only different in the written form.

The vocabulary of Old English and its Continental cousins, more than structural ancestry, is the greatest difference. Old Frisian has much more in common in its vocabulary with Old High German than with Old English. Our tongue diverges sharply from its German 'cousins'. Aside from the French input, the basic 'nuts and bolts' English seems to have little in common with that spoken in the Low Countries and North-west Germany. Whilst structured similarly to Old Frisian, East Norse floats to the surface chiefly in Eastern and Northern England, i.e., the old Danelaw shires and Yorkshire, less so in Lancashire and Northumberland. There is some cross-fertilisation in County Durham from the Tees northward and along the coast. Coastal communities like Whitby and Scarborough in Yorkshire again are slightly different, as their 'ethnic' makeup is West Norse.

In the south the Kentish Jutes spoke a tongue similar to their Anglian neighbours (reversed in England, i.e., Jutes in the south, Angles north), and the Angles' other neighbours, the Danes' vocabulary was similar to their own. When the Danes came over from the time of Aelfred there was a greater gulf of understanding between the Saxons and the Angles. Colloquially the tongues were moons apart, but the 'official' Wessex dialect was little nearer. Over the centuries some sort of cultural 'knitting' took place between Wessex and Mercia after Eastern Mercia was absorbed into the Danelaw, and the Angles of Bernicia were out on their own with only the Scots to cement alliances with. As I have hinted at in my Hub about the Vikings in Scotland, the Northumbrian Angles stretched out their claws into the central region of what we now call 'Scotland', and 'Aenglish' was spoken as far as Dumfries. The Angles of Deira, absorbed into the Viking kingdom of Jorvik absorbed Danish, and later also West Norse culture (under Eirik 'Blood-axe' Haraldsson). Its institutions were 'Danicised' as can be seen from an older map of Yorkshire with its 'Wapentakes' and 'Ridings' like Lincolnshire further south. Each of the Yorkshire ridings was further divided into shires after the Conquest, but the Wapentakes were reintroduced a long time after Norman rule was replaced by Angevin, then later Plantagenet rule. During Edward III's reign a merger or 'marrige' of Old English and Norman French came about with Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', and Middle English came into its own. Another shift changed English in Tudor times and again after the American Revolution. Standardisation of spelling brought not only the recognisable 'King's English' (after a Cambridge college, not the monarch, although it was a monarch who founded the college. King's English was effectively an Eastern Counties dialect adopted by the powers-that-be as their 'lingua franca' (language of common use), believe it or not a Danelaw dialect!.

To make a proper comparison between Old English and Old East Norse would take more room than I have on this Hub-page, and I have pointed out a few in my piece 'What is England... or even English...', like 'frihold' and 'freehold', 'husmand' and 'husband', and reflected in place names like 'Grimsby', 'Swinithwaite' or 'Husthwaite', 'Lowestoft', 'Thrintoft', and 'Westerdale' or 'Goathland' (try: Gotaland, formerly Danish and now Swedish).

Early years

The early kingdoms in what would become 'England' by the end of the 10th century
The early kingdoms in what would become 'England' by the end of the 10th century | Source
The runic alphabet shared by the Angles and Saxons in the early days of pre-Christian Germanic Britain
The runic alphabet shared by the Angles and Saxons in the early days of pre-Christian Germanic Britain | Source
The peoples of Central Britain - English midlands-southern Scotland, central-north Wales
The peoples of Central Britain - English midlands-southern Scotland, central-north Wales | Source
Bede concludes the translation of St John by dictation to a young scribe (painting by J D Penrose)
Bede concludes the translation of St John by dictation to a young scribe (painting by J D Penrose) | Source
Introduction to the 'Beowulf' saga, a modified version of the original oral tradition set down by a Christian scribe in the 10th Century Danelaw region of England
Introduction to the 'Beowulf' saga, a modified version of the original oral tradition set down by a Christian scribe in the 10th Century Danelaw region of England | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Let Bruce Robinson and Fred Mitchell be your guides to Old English. The grammar and pronunciation might look forbidding but there are still similarities with modern English, it's just the way it was written that seems strange. Take a walk through time and get to understand how our forefathers might have spoken and thought

This land we live in,won from the sea whence our forefathers came ...

The early kingdoms from the East Angles, Mercia and Northumbria to  Wessex, This map shows the physical aspect of the part of Britain that would become England, as well as its nearest Celtic neighbours
The early kingdoms from the East Angles, Mercia and Northumbria to Wessex, This map shows the physical aspect of the part of Britain that would become England, as well as its nearest Celtic neighbours

If you ever go to the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium or the Netherlands, North Germany - or further north to Jutland

Travel north along the coast of Continental Europe from Ostend you notice the difference in the way Flemish, then Nederlandse (Dutch), North German and Jutland Danish is spoken. You'd only notice the marked difference if you went straight from Ostend to Aarhus, but on the ground the speech is 'graded' amongst the local population in the same way as travelling north in England between, say London and Berwick-upon-Tweed, or Exeter and Carlisle, likewise in any country.

You have regional differences within language groups as you have differences within the same language. Between Jylland and Sjaelland (Jutland and Sjaelland) in Denmark there are differences in the way Danish is spoken, although the distance covered is more over water than land and a lot less than between London and Berwick-upon-Tweed. There are differences between the Scandinavian languages on paper, but again 'graded' on the ground as you cross between Denmark and Sweden, Sweden to Norway. Icelandic and Faeroese is closer to Old Norse and markedly different to Norwegian, although in the early days of migration they would have spoken the same language..

)Peterborough Chronicle (E)

Peterborough Chronicle (E) the last of the chronicles to cease being written around the time of King Stephen's death in AD 1154. The only one written in the vernacular  - of East Anglia (Anglo-Danish)
Peterborough Chronicle (E) the last of the chronicles to cease being written around the time of King Stephen's death in AD 1154. The only one written in the vernacular - of East Anglia (Anglo-Danish) | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Read the different accounts from each part of what became Aengla Land (England) per year in modern English, then check against the reprinted original. As they go down through the decades there are notable changes. By the later 11th Century the only account still being written was the Peterborough Chronicle (E), and as it went on that was increasingly being written in the vernacular. East Anglian English was an amalgam of Old English and Danelaw Danish. Look through and see for yourself...

© 2012 Alan R Lancaster

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      During the reign of Edward III, Edward of Woodstock (the 'Black Prince') struck up a friendship with Geoffrey Chaucer. Around this time nobles with kin in Normandy who went visiting were rebuffed there for their use of archaic Norman French. The language had moved on, after all. So sooner than go through having to update their knowledge of French, those at court began to 'adapt' the English court French with a smattering of English as spoken by the lower orders.

      Take a look at the later entries in the original Peterborough Chronicle (E) before going on to Chaucer's English, then Shakespeare's use, Jonathan Swift's (17th C) and Emily Bronte's Regency style before homing in on modern English and see the changes.

      On a different level, the English spoken by common folk through those years would have changed only gradually between 1066 and the late 19th Century (aside from those who were given bursaries to go to school, or a teacher paid at 'Dame School' by an employer as in James Cook's case) when the Education Act ensured all children went to school to learn the basics - reading, writing and arithmetic. That largely spelled the end of regional dialect.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      Yes, and the use of French in the Court. Fascinating stuff, this language lark!

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Sorry to say, the Romans left nothing but a lot of villas etc for Time Team to dig up. It was the Normans who institutionalised the use of Latin in legal documents, where they'd been written in OE until October 1066. The Normans adopted a lot of Frankish habits after they shook off their Viking past at the time of William's namesake grandfather (Emma's father), and the use of Latin was one of these 'adoptions'.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      Trouble is, the Romans left much of their language behind, though I don't really begrudge them that!

      Thanks for all the fascinating stuff, Alan.

      Ann

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again Ann.

      The only Latin link we have is through medical (and legal in the years from William I up to Edward III) references as well as French (cookery and building terms) around the same time. Most of William's supporters were 'Vikings' who'd taken a bit of culture on board. The Saxons who came here were from around the Lower Rhine to Hamburg and some of their Frisian neighbours. The Angles 'next door' were sandwiched south of the Jutes and then we had a double dose of Norse mostly from Norway and Denmark. The last 'Latins' got off the bus in the 5th Century, although they left some behind who mixed with the Celts.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      3 years ago from SW England

      Fascinating and very complicated! I always thought we had more in common with Scandinavia than the Latin countries, not just in language either; our temperament and attitudes seem to be much more attuned.

      This is another I have to return to a few times!

      Ann

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      The 'German grip' as such only goes back to George I - HOWEVER, even he had some of Harold's blood, one line coming down from Eastern Europe along the way, and marriage into the Danish royal family long before his generation.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      You might not believe it, but there's some of King Harold's blood on the Queen's side - it goes back to Harold's daughter Gunnhild being married to Jaroslav of Novgorod, a son named Msistislav Harold and marriage through the Danish royal family (twice over! 1. by marriage to James VI of Scotland, [James I of England], and 2. through Alexandra to Edward VII). It's reckoned she's got a bit of every dynasty in her from Plantagenet onwards. Matthew Pinsent the rower found his blood line went back to Edward I ('Malleus Scotus'), so they might be related.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Interesting. The German grip on Britain continues with our monarchy :)

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      The Picts, Cornishmen and Welsh are related, the Gaels entered the territory we know as Scotland in the 6th Century but were not in overall control until well after. The first Scots' king was Kenneth McAlpin, but only over a patchwork quilt of territories. There were three or four kingdoms north of 'the border', and the Angles joined in the empire building excercise. 'English' has been spoken in Scotland since about the 7th Century. Coastal settlement from Scarborough northward was West Norse (modern Norwegian), and across country from Cumbria eastward after the 'Harrying of the North' in 1069. Inland settlement and southward from Scarborough after the 9th Century in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the eastern counties was East Norse (Danish). Local dialect varies from riding to riding, being a mix of Anglian, Celtic and Norse. There was the Celtic 'kingdom' of Elmet (Sherburn and north of Rotherham) in what became the West Thirding (Riding) in the Danish kingdom of Jorvik. Go to Leeds and Sheffield and listen to dialect and the way they talk, it sounds pretty much like Danish even if the words are different. There is a lot of Danish in the English language, but as I've already mentioned, I haven't the space here.

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Nell reminded me that, when we were in the Scottish Hebrides, the accent sounded almost scandinavian to us.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi alan, really interesting, I remember seeing a tv programme years ago that showed somewhere up north, can't remember exactly where, that the language was so much like norwegian, and if you listen to it, they still have the accent even though we call it northern, we are such a mixture, I think thats why we get confused by how and why English appeared, its like when people say Scotland Ireland and Wales is Celtic, no they aren't any more than England, in fact Celtic was more prevalent in southern england, or am I wrong? you are the best one to ask! lol! your knowledge on this is fascinating, thanks nell

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Thanks!

      I might even have those amongst my collection!

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Trish, Nice to hear from you again. My sources are varied, however looking through unlikely references might help, such as "The Origins of the British' by Stephen Oppenheimer, pub. Constable & Robinson, ISBN 978-1-84529-482-3. You might also try "Teach Yourself Old English" by Mark Atherton, ISBN 978-0-340-91504-2. Good hunting!

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Another very interesting and enjoyable article :)

    • Trish_M profile image

      Tricia Mason 

      7 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi :)

      This is a fascinating subject ~ to me, anyway :)

      I have noticed that different dialects and accents seem to keep alive some of the old languages.

      I just wish that I knew more about the subject, because language really interests me.

      Do you mind me asking what references you use, please?

      Thanks :)

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