Thursday, June 11, 2015

Old English-Anglo Saxon

At present, English is considered to be the global language as it is geographically spread all over the world and used by approximately, one billion people as  their first, second and foreign language. The English language has become more popular than any other internationally used languages among many countries. It is, therefore, worth to investigate how this prominent language originated and spread far and wide so rapidly. English is a West Germanic language, first spoken in early medieval England.[1] It is spoken as a native  language by the majority of  the people of the United Kingdom (UK), United States of America (USA), Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and a host of Caribbean countries and considered as  the third most common native language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.[2] English is also widely learnt as a second language and foreign language all over the world and is one of the official languages of the European Union, many Commonwealth countries and the United Nations, as well as in many other world organizations.
 Three Germanic tribes invaded Britain during the 05th century.  These tribes consisted of Angles, Saxons and Jutes from Denmark and northern Germany. When they arrived, the inhabitants of Britain spoke Celtic. However, on their arrival, most of the Celtic people were expelled by the invaders to Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Celtic became the first language that influenced Old English. It was further influenced by Scandinavian languages, Latin and Greek.  The Germanic tribes, who invaded Britain, spoke similar languages, which gradually enriched Old English.  Today, even native English speakers find it difficult to understand Old English. However, most commonly used words in Modern English have their roots in Old English. The objective of the present study is, therefore, to investigate how those four ancient languages contributed to expand the English during the Anglo-Saxon period between 450 and 1100 AD.

 Celtic Influence on Old English
Old English culture and language spread rapidly across east and central parts of Britain during the 06th and 07th centuries while the dominant culture and language of the Celtic people, who captured Britain around 600 BC,[3] remained. Even today, their languages are found to be preserved in the areas where they had inhabited.  The Celtic people, who invaded Britain, seem to have integrated with the natives, who were absorbing elements of the language spoken by the new group. The Celts had already spread their influence across the most of central Europe and interacted with the Germanic tribes. Dialects spoken in northern Spain are heavily influenced by Celtic to this day. There is also a noticeable correspondence between northern Italian place names with those in Cornwall, particularly starting with tre, a Celtic word for a farm or settlement.

Celtic words in Old English derived from identifiable sources from the continent usually those associated with conflict and battle as they were often used as mercenaries. Celtic loan words were taken over after their settlement, usually place names, and words from Ireland frequently associated with Christianization of Britain. However, the Anglo-Saxons terrorized Celts rather than integrated with them and so their languages became isolated until the Norman Conquest[4]  creating a linguistic hierarchy with Celtic languages firmly[5].

The social stigma on the Celtic languages in British society during the long period of thousand years seems to be responsible for its lack of vocabulary in the English language, which is a language renowned for its borrowing of words from many other languages. Celtic languages were considered inferior and as a result it did not acquire due recognition during that specific period. In general, the words that have survived are of geographical significance particularly place names. They remained and all other words disappeared due to less respect. Some adopted words such as bucket, car, crockery, slogan and flannel, truant and geol survived. The survival of the Celtic languages can be seen in the areas, which were densely occupied by the Celts. In many such areas, Celtic influence on the English language is mostly obvious through place names. The Celtic language was also known as the British language, the language of Britons, who were the native inhabitants of the land. Some Celtic names survived in the areas, where the Celts occupied for a long time. The names of rivers such as the Thames and the Yare and important Roman towns such as London, York and Lincoln still remain in the form of Celtic. We also find a number of names, which are the compounds of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon words including ‘bre’ and ‘pen’ that are two Celtic words, which appear in a number of names associated with ‘hill’. For example, Brill in Buckinghamshire is a combination of ‘bre’ and Old English, ‘hyll’. Breedon on the Hill in Leicestershire is a combination of ‘bre’ and ‘dun’, both Celtic words, and Brewood in Staffordshire is combined with Old English ‘wudu’. It is also found that the use of "Combe" or "Coombe" as part of many place names derived from the Celtic word, ‘kumb’, which meant "valley". This was later adopted into Anglo Saxton English. The Celtic word ‘tor’ is mainly used in the south-west of Britain. ‘Tor’ means "rock" in English and it is with the granite peaks on Dartmoor and Bodmin moor, ‘Hay Tor’, ‘Hound Tor’, etc. This was later incorporated into the name of the coastal town, ‘Torquay’.

The contribution of Celtic languages to the English language seems to be much less when compared to that of other languages to the former. However, the place names such as London, York and Lincoln introduced by the Celtic languages remain even today with their own identity.

Scandinavian Influence on Old English
During the 05th century AD, three Germanic tribes, Angles, Saxons and Jutes invaded Britain with their knowledge of building ships and their skills of navigation. Subsequently, the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes, who were collectively known as Vikings[6], arrived in Britain. The English language over the ages came into contact with different speech communities such as Celtic, Latin, Greek and Scandinavian.[7] Accordingly, during the first seven hundred years of the existence of language, three major influences on its development can be observed. First, English had the contact with Celtic and then with the Roman[8] and eventually the Scandinavian.

Apart from Greek and Latin, only Scandinavian language made substantial contribution to the English vocabulary during the Anglo Saxon period. The contribution of Celtic language was really much less during this period. The Scandinavian[9] colonization of the British Isles had a considerable impact on the English language and its vocabulary and culture. Enormous similarity is found between these two languages, i. e. English and Scandinavian, in nouns like ‘man’, ‘wife’, ‘father’, ‘folk’, ‘mother’, ‘house’, ‘life’, ‘winter’, ‘summer’; verbs like ‘like’, ‘will’, ‘can’, ‘meet’, ‘come’, ‘bring’, ‘hear’, ‘see’, ‘think’, ‘smile’, ‘ride’, ‘spin’; and adjectives and adverbs like ‘full’, ‘wise’, ‘better’, ‘best’, ‘mine’, ‘over’ and ‘under’. Due to the Scandinavian influence, there exist a large number of places that bear Scandinavian names. More than 600 place names in English are ending in ‘by’.[10] Numerous examples can be cited in support of this fact. Grimsby, Whitby, Derby and Rugby are some of them. Althorp, Bishopsthorpe and Linthrope consist of the Scandinavian word ‘thorp’, which means village. An isolated block of land in Scandinavian was called ‘thwaite’.   We find such endings in Applethwaite and Braithwaite. They are considered place names. There is another Scandinavian word, ‘toft’, which means a piece of ground, e.g. Brimtoft, Eastoft and Nortoft ending in ‘toft’. We also find a number of words relating to law or social and administrative system entering in the English language. The word, ‘law’ itself is of Scandinavian origin and the words such as ‘nioing’ (criminal), ‘mall’ (action of law), ‘wapentake’ (an administrative district), ‘husting’ (assembly), ‘stefnan’ (summon) are in this category. After the Scandinavians had steadily settled down in England, a number of Scandinavian words acquired to the English vocabulary were much higher. We also find some other common words in English that owe their origin to the  Scandinavian  such as ‘bank’, ‘birth’, ‘bull’, ‘dirt’, ‘egg’, ‘gap’, ‘kid’, ‘link’, ‘race’, ‘skirt’, ‘sister’, ‘window’, ‘low’, ‘meek’, ‘rotten’, ‘shy’, ‘tight’, ‘weak’, ‘bait’, ‘crawl’, ‘dig’, ‘gape’, ‘kindle’, ‘lift’, ‘screech’, ‘thrust’, ‘they’, ‘their’, ‘then’, ‘aloft’, ‘athwart’ and many more. In respect of grammar, many of the pronominal forms like ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ etc., are of the Scandinavian origin. The use of ‘shall’ and ’will’ and the prepositional use of ‘to’, ‘till’, ‘fro’ are acquired due to Scandinavian influence.

Influence of Latin on Old English

During the Anglo Saxon period, Old English was influenced much more than any other non-West Germanic language, with which Old English came into contact. Influence of Latin on Old English can be chronologically divided into three periods; the first period occurred on the continent, prior to the arrival of Anglo-Saxons in England. The second period was from the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England up to their Christianization. The last period spans from the time of Christianization up to the arrival of the Normans in 1066[11].

 Prior to the Christianization of England, the English language didn’t have a proper alphabet and as a result, runic letters were in use d. Much less is known how the Runic alphabet[12] originated. The word, rune means 'letter', 'text' or 'inscription' in Old Norse[13].

The most significant influence that Latin had on Old English was the use of the ancient Latin alphabet[14].  Latin also held the most pervasive influence on Old English in the area of vocabulary.  It has been found that in total approximately 450 Old English words, mostly nouns were borrowed from Latin (Baugh: 106). Around 170 of these words entered the Old English lexicon during the continental period (Hogg: 302; Williams: 57). They are related mostly to plants, household items, clothing and building materials. Accordingly, they represent the influence of spoken Latin rather than Classical Latin.

The influx of such words clearly reflects the influence of the literate, Classical Latin culture associated with the Church following the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons. A few words relating to Christianity such as ‘church’ and ‘bishop’ were borrowed earlier. The list of such loan words includes ‘abbot’, ‘alms’, ‘altar’, ‘angel’, ‘anthem’, ‘Arian’, ‘ark’, ‘candle’, ‘canon’, ‘chalice’, ‘cleric’, ‘cowl’, ‘deacon’, ‘disciple’, ‘epistle’, ‘hymn’, ‘litany’, ‘manna’, ‘martyr’, ‘mass’, ‘minster’, ‘noon’, ‘nun’, ‘offer’, ‘organ’, ‘pall’, ‘palm’, ‘pope’, ‘priest’, ‘provost’, ‘psalm’, ‘relic’, ‘rule’, ‘shrift’, ‘shrine’, ‘shrive’, ‘stole’, ‘synod’, ‘temple’, and ‘tunic’. 

The church also exercised a profound influence on the domestic life of the people during this period. This resulted in the adoption of many new words, such as the names of articles of clothing and those in household use;cap’, ‘sock’, ‘silk’, ‘purple’, ‘chest’, ‘mat’, ‘sack’ words denoting foods, such as beet’, ‘cabbage’, ‘lentil’, ‘millet’, ‘pear’, ‘radish’, ‘doe’, ‘oyster’, ‘lobster’, ‘mussel’ to which we may add the noun ‘cook’; names of trees, plants, and herbs such as box’, ‘pine’, ‘aloes’, ‘balsam’, ‘fennel’, ‘hyssop’, ‘lily’, ‘mallow’, ‘marshmallow’, ‘myrrh’, ‘rue’, ‘savory’ and the general word ‘plant’. Some words related to education and learning reflect another aspect of the church's influence. They are ‘school’, ‘master’, ‘Latin’, ‘verse’, ‘meter’, ‘gloss’, and ‘notary’. A number of miscellaneous words were also found there , like ‘anchor’, ‘coulter’, ‘fan’ (for winnowing), ‘fever’, ‘place’, ‘sponge’, ‘elephant’, ‘phoenix’, ‘coin’ and some more or less learned or literary words, such as ‘circle’, ‘legion’, ‘giant’, ‘consul’ and ‘talent’. The words cited in these examples are mostly nouns, but Old English borrowed also a number of verbs and adjectives such as ‘spend’, ‘exchange’, ‘compose’, ‘torture’, ‘weigh’, ‘prick’, ‘to dance’, ‘grind’, ‘turn’; ‘crisp’.[15]

Latin also forms a familiar element in English place-names such as Chester, Colchester, Dorchester, Manchester, Winchester, Lancaster, Gloucester, Worcester and many others. The words, port (harbor, gate and town) ‘portus’ and ‘porta’; ‘mûnt’ (mountain) ‘mons’, ‘montem’; ‘torr’ (tower, rock), ‘street’, ‘wall’, ‘wine’ were introduced through Latin language.

A lot of medical terms also originated from Latin language such as ‘cancer’, ‘paralysis’, ‘plaster’ and words relating to the animal kingdom, like ‘viper’, ‘camel’, ‘scorpion’, ‘tiger’, apparently belonged to the same category of learned and literary borrowings.

Greek influence on Old English

Ancient Greek is alien to most modern English speakers, but it remains a foundational source of their language. Modern English is complex and varied due to the influence of other languages including Greek. Old English was, thus, well shaped by its own considerable inheritance from Greek[16].

Greek alphabet[17] was the greatest gift that Old English had inherited from Greek. It is also found that many letters in English have been borrowed from ancient Greek, for instance, the English letters “a” and “b” are variations on the Greek letters “alpha” and “beta."

Greek alphabet

hɛːta, ɛːta


It has been found that some English words originated directly from Greek or borrowed from other languages like Latin, French or German, which were believed to be formed out of the various elements of common Greek words. The influence of Greek vocabulary on English is most obvious in the fields of technical and academic language. ‘Diagnosis’, ‘analysis’, ‘synthesis’ and ‘antithesis’ derived from some Greek words. Moreover, the names of academic disciplines are often formed by combining the Greek word “logos” with another Greek word. “Logos” means “speech” or “thought” and, in this context, it means the study of something. For instance, ‘geology’ combines “geo," the Greek word for Earth, with “logos” to mean the ‘study of the Earth’.

Greek heavily influenced Latin, which was the dominant language of cultural exchange in Europe for centuries. Approximately, majority of English words come from Latin and a substantial portion of those have their ultimate origin in Greek. Much of what English has borrowed from French and German also came from Greek through of Latin. According to "Lingua Franca", the biannual newsletter of the foreign language department at Salem State University, “village," "magnify," “bonus" and “fame” are all words that Latin borrowed from Greek and that English subsequently borrowed from Latin.

English grammar is heavily influenced by Greek and even the term “grammar” originated from Greek. It is also found that the most elemental grammatical concepts in English like noun, subject, predicate, adjective, preposition and pronoun are also found to be basic to Greek. The word, “democracy" dates back to ancient Greece. Also, many conjugations of the word “auto” are all originally Greek: “autocracy,” “autonomy,” “autobiography” and “autograph” are easily recognizable examples.


The present study reveals that during the Old English period, four main languages such as Celtic, Scandinavian, Latin and Greek contributed to expand the English language. Much less contribution was made by the Celtic language as it was not recognized by the Germanic tribes. The Celts were condemned and chased away by them. Hence, the Celtic language was not much spread over the island comparing with the other languages. Nevertheless, at last, a few Celtic words survived during that period. However, the spread of the Scandinavian, Latin and Greek languages was not so disturbed like that. That was the reason for such languages to have survived today along with a large number of words belonging to various activities and fields.



1.      Barber, Charles.,(1993), The English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page Nos.100-150

2.      Baugh, Albert C. A., (1957), History of the English Language. 02nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. 86-106

3.      Crystal, David., (1995), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (02nd ed.), Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

4.       Crystal, David., (2003), English as a Global Language (02nd ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5.      Hogg, Richard M.,( 1992), The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6.      Jackson, Kenneth., (1953), Language and History in Early Britain, London: Edinburgh University Press.

7.      Johannes, Huhmann., (2008), The Scandinavian Influence on the English Language, London: Grin Verlag.

8.      Reaney, P.H., (1960), The Origins of English Place Name, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

9.      Williams, Joseph M. (1975), Origins of the English Language: A Social and Linguistic History. New York: The Free Press.


11.   Influence of Ancient Greece on the English…05_influence-ancient-greece-english-01.10.2013




No comments:

Post a Comment