When the Roman legions began to pull out of Britain in 410AD, the native Britons were placed in a precarious and untenable position. For hundreds of years they had had the most powerful military force in the world to protect them. Quite suddenly, that force was gone. They hoped that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Germanic tribes, would protect them from the Picts and Scots in the north who were disturbingly eager to overrun them.
This turned out to be a bad idea. Starting in 449AD, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came and, liking what they saw, they stayed. Many Britons withdrew to Cornwall and Wales. In a way it was like inviting people over for a visit and having them kick you out of your house.
So why learn about these relatively remote Germanic tribes who decided to take over this small green island?
Well, they gave us our language. Sure, as time passed the English borrowed many words from other groups, including the Christian missionaries who brought Latin, the Vikings who contributed Old Norse, the Normans, who gave us many French words, and many others.
But the soul of the English language, the words that are the building blocks, the words that are learned by English speaking children at their mother’s (or father’s) knee, the words that are used in every sentence of English (including the word English itself) are nearly all from the Anglo-Saxons, as they came to be called.
From www.gutenberg.net (allowed to be used freely); the inscription says, “God spede ye plow and send us Korne enow”.
♦Why are English and German so similar in many ways?
♦Why are Christmas and Easter actually celebrated on the dates of pagan festivals?
The Anglo-Saxons provide the answer to all these riddles.
They were brilliant at riddles themselves. Nearly a hundred of their riddles have come down to us. Here’s an example for you to try to solve. It is from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/english/beowulf/riddle.htm, where you can read others later if you have time.
I am all on my own,
Wounded by iron weapons and scarred by swords.
I often see battle.
I am tired of fighting.
I do not expect to be allowed to retire from warfare
Before I am completely done for.
At the wall of the city, I am knocked about
And bitten again and again.
Hard edged things made by the blacksmith’s hammer attack me.
Each time I wait for something worse.
I have never been able to find a doctor who could make me better
Or give me medicine made from herbs.
Instead the sword gashes all over me grow bigger day and night.
Helmet found at Sutton Hoo, an Anglo-Saxon burial site
Listen to Old English on the Ages of English Timeline at the trusty BBC website below. You may need to use your earphones. It sounds quite different from modern English, more German perhaps, and it is almost completely incomprehensible. And yet…every now and then, a word or a short sentence sounds very much the same. If you listen to the sound of the words rather than the words themselves, it can seem strangely familiar.
Listen, for instance, to the short passage from Beowulf at this link. The last four words of this passage sound very familiar indeed. Can you guess what they mean?
AGES of English TIMELINE LINK
(First click on the ? on the top right so that you know how to use the timeline.)