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The historical background of Old English

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Pre-Germanic Britain

The history of the English language begins with the invasion of the British Isles by Germanic tribes in the 5th c. of our era. Prior to the Germanic invasion the British Isles must have been inhabited for at least fifty thousand years. The earliest inhabitants were the Celts. Economically and socially they were a tribal society made up of kinship groups, tribes and clans; they were engaged in agriculture and carried on trade with Celtic Gaul. In the first century B.C. Gaul was conquered by the Romans. Having occupied Gaul Julius Caesar made two raids on Britain, in 55 and 54 B.C. The British Isles had long been known to the Romans as a source of valuable tin ore; Caesar attacked Britain for economic reasons – to obtain tin, pearls and corn, - and also for strategic reasons, since rebels and refugees from Gaul found support among their British kinsmen. The Roman occupation of Britain lasted nearly 400 years; it came to an end in the early 5th c. In A.D. 410, the Roman troops were officially withdrawn to Rome by Constantine. This temporary withdrawal turned out to be final, for the Empire was breaking up due to internal and external causes.

Germanic Settlement of Britain. Beginning of English

Reliable evidence of that period is extremely scarce. The story of the invasion is told by Bede (673-735), a monastic scholar who wrote the first history of England, HISTORIA ECCLESIASTICA GENTIS ANGLORUM. According to Bede the invaders came to Britain in A.D. 449 under the leadership of two Germanic kings, Hengist and Horsa. The invaders came in multitude, in families and clans, to settle in the occupied territories. The first wave of invaders, the Jutes or the Frisians, occupied the extreme south-east: Kent and the Isle of Wight. The second wave of immigrants was largely made up of the Saxons, who had been expanding westwards across Frisia to the Rhine and to what is known as Normandy. The Saxons consolidated into a number of petty kingdoms, the largest and the most powerful of them was Wessex. Last came the Angles from the lower valley of the Elbe and southern Denmark. They made their landing on the east coast and moved up the rivers to the central part of the island. Angles founded large kingdoms which had absorbed their weaker neighbors: East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria. The invaders certainly prevailed over the natives so far as language was concerned. After the settlement West Germanic tongues came to be spoken all over Britain with the exception of a few distant regions where Celts were in the majority: Scotland, Wales and Cornwall.

Events of external history between 5th and 11th c.

The period from the 5th till the 11th c. (which is called Old English in the history of the language) was a transitional period from the tribal and slave-owning system to feudalism. The basic economic unit was the feudal manor, which grew its own food and carried on some small industries to cover its needs. Tribal and clan division was gradually superseded by townships and shires, which were local entities having no connection with kinship. These conditions were reflected in the development of the West Germanic tongues brought to Britain. Four of the kingdoms at various times secured superiority in the country: Kent, Northumbria and Mercia – during the Early OE, pre-written period, and Wessex – all through the period of Written OE. In the 8th c. raiders from Scandinavia (the “Danes”) made their first plundering attacks on England. The Struggle of the English against the Scandinavians lasted over 300 years, in the course of which period more than half of England was occupied by the invaders and reconquered again. The Scandinavians subdued Northumbria and East Anglia, ravaged the eastern part of Mercia, and advanced on Wessex. The ultimate effect of the Scandinavian invasions on the English language became manifest at a later date, in the 12th and 13th c., when the Scandinavian element was incorporated in the central English dialects. Wessex stood at the head of the resistance. Under King Alfred of Wessex, one of the greatest figures in English history, by the peace treaty of 878 England was divided into two halves: the north-eastern half under Danish control called Danelaw and the south-western half united under the leadership of Wessex. The reconquest of Danish territories was carried on successfully by Alfred’s successors, but then the Danish raids were renewed again headed by Sweyn and Canute. The attacks were followed by demands for regular payments of large sums of money. In 1017 Canute was acknowledged as king, and England became part of a great northern empire, comprising Denmark and Norway. On Canute’s death (1035) his kingdom broke up and England regained political independence; by that time it was a single state divided into six earldoms. A most important role in the history of the English language was played by the introduction of Christianity. It gave a strong impulse to the growth of culture and learning. Monasteries were founded all over the country with monastic schools attached. Religious services and teaching were conducted in Latin. Thus due to the introduction of Christianity the English language acquired much influence from Latin.


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Periodisation in the history of the English language, Old English written records

 

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The nominal system of Old English


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