"Of Saxons, and of Angles and Jutes...": The Beginnings of English in England

External History

Once we move into a discussion of Old English, we are moving away from the more speculative (but systematic) endeavors of language reconstruction (Indo-European) into an area for which we do have more solid footing--in the form of written documents.

©Daniel W. Mosser

Before the Germanic settlers arrived in Britain and became the first speakers of "English," other peoples had claimed the island as their home. The first inhabitants for whom we have linguistic knowledge were the Celts, who arrived around the time of the Bronze Age (2000-500 B.C.). They were almost certainly the first speakers of an Indo-European language to arrive.

In 55 B.C.E. Julius Caesar attempted an invasion of Britain, but he was not to succeed until the following year (54 B.C.E.). How successful he was, however, is perhaps suggested by the fact that the tribute Caesar demanded before returning to Gaul was never paid.

In 43 C.E., the Emperor Claudius, with 40,000 men, was far more successful, although the Romans never penetrated far into Wales or Scotland. Hadrian's wall marks extent of the Roman Governor Agricola's rule northward. The lands south of the Wall were ruled by Romans for over 300 years. The Romans built roads, baths (such as those at Bath), temples, and introduced Christianity. By the end of the Roman occupation, the subjugated Celts had apparently lost the ability to defend themselves against the Picts and Scots from the north. When the legions withdrew in 410 C.E. to defend the diminishing Empire, the Celts began to look elsewhere for defensive aid.

The origin of English is customarily linked to the date 449 C.E. This is the year in which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Laud MS version) records the issuing of an invitation by Vortigern (king of the British, or Celts) to the "Angle kin" (Angles, led by Hengest and Horsa) to help them in their defense against the Picts. In return for their military assistance, the Chronicle says the Angles were granted lands in the southeast. Further aid was sought, and in response "came men of three peoples of Germanie": "of Ald Seaxum of Anglum of Iotum" (Saxons, Angles, and Jutes). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documents the subsequent influx of "settlers," and over the course of the next century-and-a-half the newcomers establish seven kingdoms, known as the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. The earlier Celtic inhabitants were dubbed Wéalas, the plural form of wealh--meaning "foreigner, stranger, slave"--from which comes Welsh (see also McCrum, Cran, & McNeil 43).

The terms English, England, and East Anglia are derived--fairly transparently--from words referring to the Angles: Englisc (vernacular writers referred to themselves by this term), Angelcynn, and Englaland. The similar OE word engel--"angel"--inspires Pope Gregory to pun on the two words (as recounted in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum [the Ecclesiastical History of the English People]).

(Kings of Wessex) Egbert, the West Saxon chief, having reclaimed his throne from Mercian dominance, ruled all of England and Wales from 830 until his death in 839. His son, Æthelwulf maintained his father's kingdom and around 849 he added Berkshire to the holdings of the West Saxon kingdom. In 855, while on pilgrimage to Rome, he married Judith (then thirteen years old), daughter of Charles the Bald, the king of the West Franks. Meanwhile, his oldest son, Æthelbald, and the nobles of Wessex, stripped Æthelwulf of his kingship, and West Saxon kingdom was sundered, with Æthelbald getting Wessex and Æthelwulf taking Kent and other parts of SE England. When Æthelwulf died in 858, his second son, Æthelberht, took over those provinces. The elder son, Æthelbald, married his father's young widow (Judith). When he died in 860, Æthelberht reunited the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. But he died five years later, without heir, and his younger brother Æthelred became king. Unfortunately for Æthelred, the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, "Ivar the Boneless" (born with gristle instead of bone) and Halfdan, led the Danish in an attack on England, landing in East Anglia. Burgred, the king of Mercia, had married Æthelred's sister, and now asked Æthelred for help. Æthelred and his brother Alfred joined the Mercians, but eventually, as we will see in the next section, they had to pay the Danes for a peace.

Anglo-Saxon Cross at Lindasfarne
©Daniel W. Mosser


Statue of Alfred in Winchester
©Daniel W. Mosser

In 871 Æthelred died, and even though he left heirs, Alfred was acknowledged as king. He became known to history as Alfred the Great (871-899). In 886, he established a West Saxon occupation of London, giving the Saxons renewed hope in their fight against the Danes. Those areas of England not subject to Danish rule united under Alfred.

Alfred was instrumental in the establishment of literary language, and he produced translations of the Bible, Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, Orosius, Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. He has come to be known as the Father of English prose, a tradition carried on and developed by Ælfric and Wulfstan.

Generally, when we study Old English today, our source of texts is predominantly West Saxon, since Alfred's influence helped to establish that dialect as a sort of literary standard. But there were other dialects, the other three being Northumbrian, Mercian and Kentish.

External Linguistic Influences


One might have expected the native Celts to exert a major linguistic influence on the development of OE, but this is not the case at all: the major influences were, rather, Latin and Scandinavian (Old Norse). This certainly says something about the attitude of the Anglo-Saxon peoples toward those who had prior claim to the island. Richard M. Hogg suggests that:

In the whole of Old English languages it is doubtful whether there are more than twenty Celtic borrowings into literary vocabulary (of which the most widespread now, but not in Old English, is perphaps cross). On the other hand, outside the literary vocabulary a very large number of place-, especially river-, names were retained by the invaders, hence Thames, Severn, and settlement-names such as Manchester (with the second element OE ceaster 'former Roman settlement'). It would seem that, although relations were sometimes friendly, the fifth-and sixth-century Anglo-Saxons were in this respect as resolutely monolingual as their twentieth-century descendants. (3)

Further illustrations of the constrained nature of OE borrowing from Celtic, include:

Devonshire < Dumnonii (a Celtic tribe)
Cornwall < "Cornubian Welsh"
Avon <afon, the Welsh word for "river"
Bryn Mawr <Welsh for "big hill"
cumb < Welsh cwm "valley, glen" (e.g., Duncombe, Holcombe)
brocc < Welsh broch<Welsh for "badger" (e.g., "Brockhall")

This has been the traditional view of historians of the English language. But for such an utter lack of interaction to have occurred, the contact between Celts and Anglo-Saxons would have had to have been so minimal as to assume there were no Celts left alive. John McWhorter cites DNA evidence to establish that "only about 4 percent of British men's genetic material is traceable to a migration from across the North Sea" (12), meaning that native bloodlines remained dominant. In consequence, he argues that some syntactic features that are present only in English of all the Germanic languages most plausibly derive from the influence of the language of the native Britons, who spoke Celtic, primarily Welsh in those areas in contact with the Anglo-Saxons.

McWhorter suggests that what is sometimes referred to as "do-support" (the use of an auxiliary verb or "dummy-do" to form questions and negative statements in English) resembles the use of nes (meaning "did") in Welsh (pp. 5-6):

Did I open?

Nes i agor?

I did not open?

Nes i ddim agor?

I opened

Nes i agor.

Another "quirk" in English (vis-à-vis other Germanic languages) is the construction of the progressive aspect (-ing forms of verbs). The other -ing construction in English produces gerunds, or "verbal nouns" (cf. "Tom is running" and "Running is hard work"). Welsh uses verbal nouns to accomplish something quite similar to the English progressive structure (McWhorter, 9-10):

Mae Mair yn canu

(is Mary in singing)

= Mary is singing (English)

These features did not appear as part of the Anglo-Saxon written record, McWhorter, argues, because the written form of English did not always reflect innovation in spoken English(es). Thus, it was not until English resurfaced as a written language in the fourteenth century that these developments were reflected in written English (31, ff.). It seems plausible, then, that Celtic did affect the history of English, though primarily through syntactic rather than lexical or phonological contributions


Unlike the native Britains (Celts), the Romans represented a higher civilization with tools and knowledge worth borrowing, and with those tools and that knowledge they brought the words or names needed to express them or refer to them.

The influence of Latin is usually described as resulting from three distinct periods (e.g., Baugh and Cable 75-82; many of the examples that follow are drawn from this source).

  1. Romans occupy continental homes of Germanic tribes
  2. Romans under Claudius conquer Britain in 43 C.E. (influence on OE via Celtic)
  3. Pope Gregory I sends mission under Augustine to Christianize the English (597 C.E.)

How do we determine when a Latin word was actually borrowed into the language?

Our written records only provide evidence from ca. 700 C.E., so the appearance of word in literature (written evidence) does not in itself tell us anything about the word's history before that time, only that the word was in the language from the date of its first appearance in a document.

The occurrence of a word of Latin origin in several Germanic dialects probably indicates that it was borrowed during the continental period.

The best evidence is the phonetic form of the word: systematic sound changes that occurred within constrained dates can tell us that a word was either present in the language before these sound changes occurred (and was therefore "targeted" by those changes) or came into the language after a given sound change had been effected (and thus was not a "target").

In the course of the seventh century, a sound change occurred in Germanic known as i-umlaut (umlaut="alteration of sound" in German). Words that were subject to this process underwent a raising of certain vowels in stressed syllables as the result of "attraction" to an i or j in the following syllable (The tongue is in the top, front part of the mouth when we pronounce i or j and, in anticipation of this, the speaker unconsciously "raises" the articulation of the preceding vowel). An example of consequences of this process can be seen in the Latin word for "cheese"--cáseus; which develops into OE cíese (the letter 'c' in OE had the hard 'k' pronunciation by default, but in the environment of high, front vowels, became "palatal," with the "ch" sound at the beginning of PDE "cheese"; see the discussion in the Phonology & Spelling section below). Thus if we find the change occurring in a word borrowed from Latin, it must have come into the language prior to or during that change. The palatal feature of that initial consonant in turn triggered a process during the early OE period known as palatal diphthongization: the word-initial palatal consonant changed certain following stressed vowels in the same syllable from single sounds (monophthongs) to double sounds (diphthongs). We can say then that the word for "cheese" had been borrowed during the Continental period, was still in use during the prehistoric OE period, and has been in continuous use from the time it was borrowed to the present day.

Another widespread soundchange evidenced in OE is commonly referred to as "Breaking." Similar to the effect of "palatal diphthonization," in this process certain vowels (the monophthongs æ, e, and i) "broke" into diphthongs (ea, eo, and io respectively) when they occurred before an r+consonant, l+consonant, or h. (Long vowels also "broke" before h). We can hear this in the differences between Standard and Nonstandard pronunciations of American English in words like "help": this is the sound one hears in Southern American English often associated with the characterization of "drawl." Breaking would have to have occurred sometime between the Germanic invasion of England in the middle of the fifth century and the oldest surviving texts in the first half of the eighth (see Campbell 50; 109; the sound changes affecting OE are list chronologically in Cassidy and Ringler [87] and presented in more detail throughout the grammar sections of that text).

Based on tests like those described above, we can characterize the three periods of Latin influence and their contributions as follows:

During the Continental Period of influence, some fifty words from Latin can be credited with a considerable degree of probability to the ancestors of the English in their continental homes. They include military words such as camp ("battle"), segn ("banner"), weall ("wall"), míl (mile); business/trade words such as céap ("bargain," producing PDE words such as "cheap"), mangere ("monger," as in "fishmonger"), pund ("pound"), mynet ("coin," as in "mint"), wín flasce ("wine-flask"), pise (from Latin pisum: "pea").

We also know that many of these words are borrowed from Latin and are not Germanic cognates because they have not been affected by the First Consonant Shift (Grimm's Law). If they had descended directly from Indo-European, the initial consonant in words spelled with c [k] would have been [h], and the words beginning with f would have instead begun with p.

The influence of Latin on OE (via Celtic) from the period of Roman occupation of Britain is slight: not more than five words can confidently be attributed to this period. While the Celts adopted some 600 Latin terms, as mentioned earlier, the relationship between Celt and Saxon was not conducive to borrowing. The most significant borrowings likely attributable to this period are:


< Lat. castra ("camp," "former Roman settlement')


< Lat. portus ("harbor," "gate," "town")

< Lat. vícus ("village")

Ruins of a Roman Theater at Caerleon
©Daniel W. Mosser

The Church

In 597, Pope Gregory I dispatched a band of missionaries to the Angles. The leader of this band was St. Augustine. In 601 Augustine was consecrated the first Archbishop of Canterbury (Centwara="men of Kent" + byrig="dwellings within a fortified wall" [borough]). Along with the Church came the Roman alphabet, which "was essential in the remarkable early development of a vernacular manuscript tradition in Britain compared with what obtained elsewhere in the Germanic areas" (Hogg 5). This actually marked the reintroduction of Christianity into Britain, since the Romans had earlier converted the Celts during the Roman occupation of the island.

 Æthelberht, the King of Kent, had married a Christian wife, the Frankish princess Bertha. Within three months of Augustine's arrival, Æthelberht, too, was baptized. By the time Augustine died seven years later, all of Kent had become Christian. Within 100 years of Augustine's landing all of England was Christian.

By the close of the OE Period, about 450 words appear in English writings as a result of the Christianizing of Britain. The semantic categories include religion (abbod ["abbot"], alter ["altar"], canon, cleric, discipul, engel ["angel, messenger"], martir ["martyr"], mynster["monastery, nunnery"], nunne ["nun"], purpure ["purple (garment)"], food (rædic["radish"], loppestre ["lobster"], merscmealwe ["marshmallow"], medicine, and education (grammatic ["grammatical"], fers ["verse"]), along with others dispersed across the lexical spectrum.

Also of interest are the new words created from Anglo-Saxon roots to express the new concepts introduced through contact with Latin speakers. Old English retained God rather than borrowing deus, along with heaven (OE heofon, "sky") and hell.

The Old English Language

For modern speakers of English, many features of Old English will make it appear "foreign": the absence of Latin and French vocabulary; the grammatical features of a synthetic as opposed to an analytic language (inflections, freer word order, grammatical gender, strong/weak nouns and adjectives); spellings (runic letters, long vowels).

Phonology and Spelling

Because the Latin alphabet did not require characters to represent some of the sounds used in OE, scribes supplemented it with characters from the runic alphabet, futhorc, as well as with innovations of their own. Four OE characters that may cause PDE readers problems are:

In addition to the Old English characters cited above, certain letters and combinations of letters signified different values from PDE conventions: sc = "sh" (e.g., sceap); cg stands for the sound at the end of the word "bridge" and the beginning and end of the word "judge." Old English lacked the individual symbols v or z, but the sounds signified by these letters in the modern English alphabet were generated as allophones (literally, "other sounds") of the phonemes [f] and [s].

Old English Grammatical Features


OE nouns use inflections to distinguish three genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), four cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative), and two numbers (singular and plural). (Gender in OE--as well as IE & Gmc--refers to grammatical gender as contrasted with natural gender (as in PDE). Thus in OE, the word for "woman," wíf, is neuter, as are bearn, "son," and cild, "child"; sunne, "sun," is feminine; stán, "stone," is masculine (strong, masculine, a-stem declension):


For a full range of the variation in OE personal pronouns, consult the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of Old English. OE retained the Germanic dual pronoun, as seen here in line 48 of "The Dream of the Rood" (the speaker is the Cross, and the intimate relationship the dual signifies is that of the Cross and the crucified Christ):

Gmc Personal Pronouns

ME Personal Pronouns

EME Personal Pronouns

PDE Personal Pronouns


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