Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or What Was Spoken Old English Like?

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or What Was Spoken Old English Like?

Article excerpt


This paper suggests that diglossia in caste-like Anglo-Saxon societies consisted of O[E.sub.H] used by a very, small elite of largely Continental Germanic ancestry and O[E.sub.L] spoken by the bulk of the population. These shifted from British (Low) Latin and Late British to Old English (OE) after the Anglo-Saxon Conquest, in some areas over a period of about 300 years. It is hard to guess what the spoken language of the users of O[E.sub.H] was like and how great the gap between the spoken and written language was. The latter, through intensive networking, was kept remarkably constant over the entire OE period. Speakers of O[E.sub.L] are likely to have produced the attrition of inflections in the NP and the acquisition of aspectual distinctions in the VP. This surfaced in writing only after the whole-sale replacement of the Anglo-Saxon elite by the Normans. Cross-language contact linguistic research has shown that bottom-up language shift of large population groups is likely to produce grammatical (and phonological) contact phenomena in the target language rather than lexical ones. It is therefore claimed that Middle English started to be spoken as a low variety of English not after the Norman Conquest, but not long after the Anglo-Saxon Conquest.


As we all know, the Anglo-Saxon period is the longest period in the history of the English language. By its external political demarcations (fifth century AD to the end of the eleventh century AD), Anglo-Saxon culture was present for around 600 years in the island of Britain. (1) This is a very long period, indeed. Within this period, Anglo-Saxon culture had a written presence for about 400 years. I would assume that Old English was enscripted in alphabetical characters around the beginning of the seventh century, with the impact of Christianization which started from both ends of the island, north and south. According to the Venerable Bede, Saint Augustin landed in Kent in 597 AD at the request of Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604 AD) and Lindisfarne ("Holy Island") was founded by Saint Aidan in 634 AD. Aidan came from the island of Iona (Inner Hebrides) and was a representative of the Irish Church. The entire conversion process of the Anglo-Saxons lasted from 587-681 AD, coming to a close when Saint Wilfrid converted the South Saxons of the Isle of Wight to Christianity. And with Christianity came of course the acquisition of the cultural technology of writing. The Northern scriptoria exerted a lasting effect on the writing of Old English right up to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, as the invariable use of the so-called "insular script" for the writing of Old English demonstrates, a script which is Irish in origin.

Interesting evidence of the process of the enscripting of Old English in the Northern cultural province is, for instance, provided by Bede's well-known story of Caedmon and the divine inspiration of the beginning of Old English literature (HE IV.23). Caedmon's poems were orally composed and later taken down in writing by the monks of Whitby. Bede says that Caedmon composed his songs in sua, id est Anglorum, lingua (Colgrave and Mynors 1969: 414), i.e. in English. But his name bears witness to his British ancestry.

A short side remark: it is interesting to note that the name of Caedmon is an Anglicization by oral loan of a Brittonic hero's or warrior's name, evidenced among the British princes in the seventh century. *Catu-mand-os in Brittonic meant 'war horse' or 'war pony'. (2) There is, for instance, the Cata-man-us inscribed stone in Anglesey, which has been securely dated to the first hall of the seventh century. (3) The Old English spelling (and pronunciation) of this Brittonic name is interesting, since both unstressed syllables of the compound *Catu-mand-os are dropped, by syncope of the composition vowel and by apocope of the inflectional ending (> Late British Cad[mu]ann, with lenition of the originally intervocalic */m/as*/v/in the environment of the voiced stop/d/) (cf. …

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