The Social and Political Contexts of Language Change in Anglo-Saxon England
THOMAS E. TOON
Everyone who has stopped to consider the fact realizes that written English is very different from spoken English. Probably few, however, have considered in depth the ways in which writing English is different from speaking English or have thought much about the consequences of those apparently simple facts. On first examination the important difference seems to be simply one of medium or form--on the one hand, sounds; on the other hand, letters that are written, printed, or have more recently become images on computer or video screens. Further reflection reveals major differences in function as well: We use the spoken language and the written language for different things. In the last decade, a number of literary critics, linguists, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists have begun to examine the ways in which the forms and functions of written and spoken language interact. Such studies of orality and literacy examine how individuals and societies use these two different forms of languages.
This essay examines the period in which the parent of Modern English became a separate language, distinct from other continental Germanic languages. That process began around A.D. 450, when Germanic tribes first settled in England. Because those people were isolated from their kindred on the continents, British varieties of the Germanic tongue slowly changed and developed into recognizably different species. Within a few hundred years, Anglo-Saxon was substantially different from continental Saxon or Norse, though speakers of these varieties could clearly understand each other. The processes of independent change continued during the intervening centuries, so that speakers of modern English, Danish, Dutch, and German can no longer understand each other's native tongues. Two kinds of facts will be of particular interest. First, the records from this period give us a glimpse of the processes that occurred as a number of subtly different varieties evolved into a single national variety. Since this was also the period during which speakers of English first became writers of English, we can also become informed about the role writing can play in the development of a national variety.