I’m sorry I can’t be at school to see you today. I can barely speak. Luckily Ms Taylor can use her melodious and completely functional voice instead.
Anyway, I don’t need to be there to speak to you. I have the written word, that invention of the Sumerians that changed the world and created the study and recording of history. I also have this little blog, which receives the words I type and then flings them into cyberspace for you to find. Magic, isn’t it?
Of course, the Anglo-Saxons did not have the blogging option. Their communication was mostly oral. When they did write, they ripped their words into wood or stone, using the angular runic letters most suited to writing with a knife. Our verb to write is related to the German verb, reiβen or reissen, meaning to rip or to tear.
Yet here’s the remarkable thing: across the gulf of time between those people 1500 years ago and the world today, their words have come to us. Their words became the language known by dictionary writers as Old English. Those long-ago farmers with their warlike stories and their riddles rich with metaphor gave us the building blocks of modern English, which has now become a world language. Who would have thought it?
There’s a resource that allows you to trace the history of our language from way back then. The wonderful BBC website has “The Ages of English Timeline”, which allows you to discover the history of English for yourselves. Judging from your startling, fluent and witty assignments on ancient Egypt, you love your language already. This timeline takes you back to its origins.
I have to warn you that it’s a little spooky to listen to a passage of Old English being spoken. It sounds oddly familiar and yet quite foreign.
The ? symbol on the top right tells you how to use the Timeline in the most productive way. Try to click on and read every detail for each of the first three acts. Listen to the spoken versions of Old English; for instance, the Anchor Riddle and the excerpt from Beowulf.
You’ll notice that the language sounds a little bit like German. There’s a reason for that. The Anglo-Saxons spoke a Germanic language. Many of the words of Old English are very similar to modern German words as well as to modern English. The words that are similar in English and German are often the words that come from Old English: house (Haus), sheep (Schaf), brother (Bruder), sister (Schwester), midday (Mittag), hound (Hund), swine (Schwein), hundred (Hundert), etc. They are the common, everyday words, although now we use “dog” and “pig” more than hound and swine.
After you have spent some time reading and listening to the first three acts of this timeline, leave a comment describing something that you found out about the history of English. Try to make it clear and informative for the benefit of others.