Anglo Saxon Language

Book 2, Chapter 6, The End of the Ninth Century – Anglo Saxon Language

By the end of the ninth century, the Anglo Saxon language had assumed form and fixedness, and amidst all the mutations of subsequent centuries, it has remained, essentially, the basis of the English tongue. At the same time it must not be overlooked that that tongue has been enriched and widened by the introduction of many words for which the Saxon language contains no equivalents, and has thus attained marvellous copiousness and beauty. Sir J. Macintosh has the following discriminating observations, (Hist. i. 81.) “From the Anglo Saxons we derive the names of the most ancient officers among us, of the greater part of the divisions of the kingdom, and of almost all our towns and villages. From these also we derive our language, of which the structure, and a majority of its words, much greater than those who have not thought on the subject would at first easily believe, is Saxon.

Of sixty nine words which make up the Lord’s Prayer, there are only five not Saxon, the best example of the natural bent of our language, and of the words apt to be chosen by these who speak and write it without design. Of eighty-one words in the soliloquy of Hamlet, thirteen only are of Latin origin. Even in a passage of ninety words in Milton, whose diction is more learned than that of any other poet, there are only sixteen Latin words. In four verses of the authorized version of Genesis, which contain about a hundred and thirty words, there are no more than five Latin. In seventy nine words of Addison, whose perfect taste preserved him from a pedantic or constrained preference for any portion of the language, we find only fifteen Latin.

In later times the language has rebelled against the bad taste of those otherwise vigorous writers, who, instead of ennobling their style like Milton, by the position and combination of words, have tried to raise it by unusual and farfetched expressions. Dr. Johnson himself, from whose corruptions English style is only recovering, in eighty-seven words of his fine parallel between Dryden and Pope, has found means to introduce twenty one of Latin derivation. The language of familiar intercourse, the terms of jest and pleasantry, and those of necessary business, the idioms or peculiar phrases, into which words naturally run, the pro-verbs, which are the condensed and pointed sense of the people, the particles, on which our syntax depends, and which are of perpetual recurrence,  all these foundations of a language are more decisive proofs of the Saxon origin of ours, than even the great majority of Saxon words in writing, and the still greater majority, in speaking.

In all cases where we have preserved a whole family of words, the superior significance of a Saxon over a Latin term is most remarkable. “Well being arises from well doing,” is a Saxon phrase which may be thus rendered into the Latin part of the language: ” Felicity attends virtue:” but how inferior in force is the latter! In the Saxon phrase the parts or roots of words being significant in our language, and familiar to our eyes and ears, throw their whole meaning into the compounds and derivations, while the Latin words of the same import, having their roots and elements in a foreign language, carry only a cold and conventional signification to an English ear.”

Earl’s Barton Tower, Lincolnshire

The Saxon language is originally derived from the Gothic, and was brought into England by those adventurers who came over in the fifth century. Out of it were formed the English, Scotch, Low Dutch, and Frisic, and, as it was anciently spoken in Britain, it is divided into three periods. The first of these is called British-Saxon, and extends from the Saxon invasion in A.D. 449, to that of the Danes under Inar, in 867, the second, or Danish-Saxon, began at that period, and lasted till the entry of the Normans in 1066: when it was followed by the Norman-Saxon, which was very rude and irregular, and continued until nearly the close of the twelfth century, after which the French tongue prevailed in England.

Of the pure Saxon of the first period, only one specimen is extant, which is in King Alfred’s version of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. It has been supposed, that when the Saxons landed in Britain, they possessed no letters, but adopted the barbarized Greek and Roman characters which they found in the island. Some maintain, however, that the Saxon alphabet was derived from the Gothic, and that, before their invasion of Britain, this people used the Runic letters of Odin, which they engraved upon stone or wood, the word “hoc” or book signifying a beech-tree, from which their earliest books were probably taken. But as the Runic characters were connected with many idolatrous superstitions, and were of Pagan origin, on the conversion of the northern nations to Christianity, they were discouraged by the Roman Ecclesiastics, and soon after ceased to be used.

The Anglo-Saxon alphabet was then formed from the Roman, being finally composed of twenty four letters, with some double ones. It is supposed that writing was very little practised in England before the mission of St. Augustine in A.D. 595, but after that time many Saxon MSS., chiefly on religious subjects, were executed on parchment, stained with rich colours, written in golden characters, and decorated with gilding and illuminations. Saxon writing was of the five following kinds:

 (1) Roman Saxon, which prevailed from the coming in of St. Augustine to the eighth century. The MSS. in this character are frequently written in uncial or initial letters, interspersed with smaller.

 (2) Set Saxon, which was used from about the middle of the eighth century, until the same time in the ninth, though it was not wholly disused until the commencement of the tenth, and in manuscripts of this class, the square or cornered capitals are used in the titles of books, and the first letters are often converted into the shapes of men and animals.

Towards the latter end of the ninth century, as learning became diffused in England under King Alfred, and as many more books were consequently written, an expeditious or free character, called

(3) Running-hand Saxon came into general use, which had before appeared only in a few charters of the close of the eighth century, and in manuscripts of this class there are numerous contractions, which render them difficult to be read.

 In the ninth, tenth, and beginning of the next century, many volumes were written in what is called

(4) Mixed-Saxon, or partly Roman, partly Lombardic, and partly Saxon characters.

 Early in the tenth century, the

 (5) Elegant Saxon was first used, which was more beautiful than the contemporary writing of France, Italy, or Germany, it lasted until the Norman invasion, and was not entirely disused until the twelfth century.

One of the greatest discouragements which ancient literature has had to contend with was the want of materials for writing upon, which gave rise to the destructive practice of erasing one work to transcribe another, which is frequent in the manuscripts of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Ingulphus mentions, that in England, for want of parchment to draw a deed upon, great estates were frequently conveyed by delivering a turf and a stone before witnesses, without any written agreement, and other grants and conveyances were made by the gift of a sword, a drinking horn, a bow, a spear, or some other trifling article.

Chapter 6, Ancient Towns and Highways

Domestic life of the Anglo-Saxons



Bells and Churches

Ancient Towns


Chapter 6, Internal Fittings of Houses



Chapter 6, Anglo-Saxon Furniture

Anglo-Saxon Furniture

Food and Drink


Furniture and Beds

Household Economy

Treatment of Slaves

The Toilette

Costume and Ornaments

Chapter 6, Anglo Saxon Hunting and Travelling


Travelling and Inns


The Calendar

Chapter 6, Anglo-Saxon Language

Anglo-Saxon Language

Local and District Courts of Justice


Categories: Book 2

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