An Introduction to Old English

An Introduction to Old English

An Introduction to Old English

An Introduction to Old English

Excerpt

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the name given to the language spoken in Britain by the Germanic settlers from the time of the earliest settlements in the fifth century until the end of the eleventh century. Like all living languages, Old English was changing during the whole period of its history, but during the eleventh century, partly as a result of the Norman Conquest, the rate of change was quickened, and it is convenient to regard a new period, known as Middle English, as extending from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Old English is worthy of study partly because it is the language in which English literature is written for the first three or four centuries of its recorded history and partly because of the light it throws on the later development of the English language.

2. A knowledge of English literature that does not include Old English writings is seriously incomplete, for English literary tradition is unbroken from the time of the earliest recorded prose and verse down to the present day. When compared with most other European literatures, English literature is remarkable for the early date from which texts of real literary value have been preserved. Chaucer is sometimes described as the father of English literature, but it is well to remember that in date Chaucer comes rather later than half-way in the chronological stream of English literature that has been preserved. The persistent influence of Old English can be seen in the themes and images from Old English poetry which have been used by later English writers. In a letter to Robert Bridges, dated 26 November 1882, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, 'In fact I am learning Anglosaxon and it is a vastly superior thing to what we have now'. In his enthusiasm Hopkins no doubt over-stated the truth, but students of Old English poetry will see the connection between this statement and the 'sprung rhythm' of Hopkins's poetry. English verse is based on stress, not on the number of syllables in a line, and this accentual system, fundamental to English poetry, is an inheritance from Old English, a deeprooted native technique which has survived military invasion and the influence of foreign literary fashions.

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