Anglo Saxon words used today

September 1, 2016
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Settlement routes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes

HISTORY > OLD ENGLISH (c. 500 - c. 1100)

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Settlement routes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes
(from BBC)
More important than the Celts and the Romans for the development of the English language, though, was the succession of invasions from continental Europe after the Roman withdrawal. No longer protected by the Roman military against the constant threat from the Picts and Scots of the North, the Celts felt themselves increasingly vulnerable to attack. Around 430AD, the ambitious Celtic warlord Vortigern invited the Jutish brothers Hengest and Horsa (from Jutland in modern-day Denmark), to settle on the east coast of Britain to form a bulwark against sea raids by the Picts, in return for which they were "allowed" to settle in the southern areas of Kent, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

But the Jutes were not the only newcomers to Britain during this period. Other Germanic tribes soon began to make the short journey across the North Sea. The Angles (from a region called Angeln, the spur of land which connects modern Denmark with Germany) gradually began to settle in increasing numbers on the east coast of Britain, particularly in the north and East Anglia. The Frisian people, from the marshes and islands of northern Holland and western Germany, also began to encroach on the British mainland from about 450 AD onwards. Still later, from the 470s, the war-like Saxons (from the Lower Saxony area of north-western Germany) made an increasing number of incursions into the southern part of the British mainland. Over time, these Germanic tribes began to establish permanent bases and to gradually displace the native Celts.

All these peoples all spoke variations of a West Germanic tongue, similar to modern Frisian, variations that were different but probably close enough to be mutually intelligible. The local dialect in Angeln is, at times, even today recognizably similar to English, and it has even more in common with the English of 1, 000 years ago. Modern Frisian, especially spoken, bears an eerie resemblance to English, as can be seen by some of the Frisian words which were incorporated into English, like miel (meal), laam (lamb), goes (goose), bter (butter), tsiis (cheese), see (sea), boat (boat), stoarm (storm), rein (rain), snie (snow), frieze (freeze), froast (frost), mist (mist), sliepe (sleep), blau (blue), trije (three), fjour (four), etc.

The influx of Germanic people was more of a gradual encroachment over several generations than an invasion proper, but these tribes between them gradually colonized most of the island, with the exception of the more remote areas, which remained strongholds of the original Celtic people of Britain. Originally sea-farers, they began to settle down as farmers, exploiting the rich English farmland. The rather primitive newcomers were if anything less cultured and civilized than the local Celts, who had held onto at least some parts of Roman culture. No love was lost between the two peoples, and there was little integration between them: the Celts referred to the European invaders as barbarians (as they had previously been labelled themselves); the invaders referred to the Celts as weales (slaves or foreigners), the origin of the name Wales.


Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (Heptarchy) c. 650
(from WNC Coins)
Despite continued resistance (the legends and folklore of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table date from this time), the Celts were pushed further and further back by the invaders into the wilds of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, although some chose to flee to the Brittany region of northern France (where they maintained a thriving culture for several centuries) and even further into mainland Europe. The Celtic language survives today only in the Gaelic languages of Scotland and Ireland, the Welsh of Wales, and the Breton language of Brittany (the last native speaker of the Cornish language died in 1777, and the last native speaker of Manx, a Celtic language spoken on the tiny Isle of Man, died as recently as the 1960s, and these are now dead languages).

The Germanic tribes settled in seven smaller kingdoms, known as the Heptarchy: the Saxons in Essex, Wessex and Sussex; the Angles in East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria; and the Jutes in Kent. Evidence of the extent of their settlement can be found in the number of place names throughout England ending with the Anglo-Saxon -ing meaning people of (e.g. Worthing, Reading, Hastings), -ton meaning enclosure or village (e.g. Taunton, Burton, Luton), -ford meaning a river crossing (e.g. Ashford, Bradford, Watford) -ham meaning farm (e.g. Nottingham, Birmingham, Grantham) and -stead meaning a site (e.g. Hampstead).

Although the various different kingdoms waxed and waned in their power and influence over time, it was the war-like and pagan Saxons that gradually became the dominant group. The new Anglo-Saxon nation, once known in antiquity as Albion and then Britannia under the Romans, nevertheless became known as Anglaland or Englaland (the Land of the Angles), later shortened to England, and its emerging language as Englisc (now referred to as Old English or Anglo-Saxon, or sometimes Anglo-Frisian). It is impossible to say just when English became a separate language, rather than just a German dialect, although it seems that the language began to develop its own distinctive features in isolation from the continental Germanic languages, by around 600AD. Over time, four major dialects of Old English gradually emerged: Northumbrian in the north of England, Mercian in the midlands, West Saxon in the south and west, and Kentish in the southeast.

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