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14. Early Old English (up to 899)

Daniel Donoghue

Subject History, Literature

Period 1 - 999 CE » 500 - 999 CE

Key-Topics language

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405129923.2008.00023.x


The first chapter of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People begins with a geographical survey of the island of Britain followed by a listing of the five languages spoken there: “These are the English, British, Irish, Pictish, as well as the Latin languages; through the study of scriptures, Latin is in general use among them all” ( McClure & Collins 1999 : 10). By “British” Bede means what is now called Welsh; Pictish, now extinct and evidenced only in scattered bits such as place-names, was spoken in northern Scotland; Irish was spoken in Ireland, of course, but also in many areas of Northumbria and Scotland; English needs little comment here, except that like Welsh and Irish it has undergone extensive changes since the eighth century. Latin was different. It was no one's native tongue, but a common language among the educated elite of western Europe, almost all of whom were churchmen like the monk and priest Bede (d. 735), who was one of the greatest scholars of early medieval Europe. For Bede, there was no question that he should write in Latin. His choice had little to do with the linguistic features of his native vernacular, a northern dialect of what we now call Old English, but the most “literary” use to which it was put at the time was oral poetry, which sustained a tradition stretching back centuries. Bede was “familiar with English poetry” according to ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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