Origins of the English Language: Zee Germans

I promised I would get around to this and here it is at long last, the start of a new series on the origins of the English language.

Imagine living in fifth century Britannia. You speak a bastardised form of Latin that might have been influenced by the Celtic languages that preceded the arrival of the Mediterranean language. The Roman Empire as you have always understood it is no more. The last governor that you had proclaimed himself Emperor Constantine III and left this island with the remaining legions to attempt to take back the empire. For a number of years, you have lived alongside any number of Germanic people who speak a collection of odd dialects.

Only, this small collection of immigrants is increasing in numbers. They are coming over from the turbulent continent bringing ships and weapons and asking – not particularly kindly – if you would mind if they set themselves up as kingdoms in these areas. They are pagans and at the time of arrival have very little respect for your established Christian beliefs. They have no churches or shrines. Instead they proclaim glades and ponds to have mystical powers and occupied by certain spirits.

The language they bring with them is alien to you, yet the form of Latin that you speak is adopting some words from this immigrant language. The grammar is in some ways similar, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to pick it up. The takeover is pretty swift considering you see these people as little more than smelly barbarians lacking in the finer technology of the Romans; soon the structure of Roman society – the post-Roman system that carried on in much the tradition of the Empire – is gone. Now you are ruled by chieftains and kings who hold Moots, drink lots of mead and live in large wooden buildings that will only last a couple of generations. Within time they would become Christian in a war of wits with the dying pagans that would see an explosion in artwork and written literature.

Welcome to Anglo-Saxon England.

Old English Language

Old English is the term we give to a version of our language that developed from the 5th century migrations of the Anglo-Saxon settlers through to The Norman Conquest in the 11th century. It would undergo changes in the 9th and 11th centuries (more on that in a later post). In written form, it is generally not recognisable to the modern reader. However, listen to it and you might pick out the odd word here and there that gives you a good general feel for what is being said. Re-visit the original post on the subject (link at the top) and watch the YouTube video there.

I find it very beautiful to listen to but the words are bizarre. Heaven, for example, is spelt heofonum. Similarly he says today but the text is written todaeg. The most recognisable sentence as spoken is and forgyf us ure gyltas. And that is the beauty of this era of the language, you can understand it when you read it aloud. Here we see the letter ð “thaet” which makes a “th” sound. This soon went out of fashion and replaced with þ “thorn” – we see this on the end of forgyfað. This is pronounced “forgiveth”.

Old English would be further changed by the influences of the Viking raiders and colonists of the 9th and 10th centuries. These Vikings found overwhelming success in two parts of Europe, places where they settled and had a profound effect on the culture and language – northwestern France (Normandy) and the north and east of England (again though, this is a subject for the next post).

Place names

Many place name etymologists love the Roman names of British settlements. I hold a particular affection for Corinium, the rather superhero sounding place name for modern Cirencester. I also like Glevum, the Roman place name for Gloucester and Camulodunum, which is Colchester. I also love the rather ethereal sounding Isca Silurum, my university city of Exeter. This is one of the rare examples where the Roman name is similar(ish) to the Anglo-Saxon name that followed it.

But it is the Anglo-Saxon place names that I adore the most. This is the most fascinating aspect of Old English and the part of the post where I go into geek overdrive. I studied place names at university as part of my MA in Landscape Archaeology. I love they roll off the tongue. Let us compare three names for the following places. Roman, Anglo-Saxon and modern.

Corinium – Cirrenceastre – Cirencester
Glevum – Glowancestre – Gloucester
Venta Belgarum – Wintanceaster – Winchester
Eboracum – Eoferwic – York
Isca Silurum – Exanceaster – Exeter

And we already see then influences of Old English on the new and the various paradigm shifts over the next 1500 years.

The Anglo-Saxons also gave us the following suffixes:


as in Gippeswic (Ipswich), Lundenwic (London), Hamwic (Southampton) and many others. -wic always denoted a coastal trading point. Because they had come from the continent and no doubt had family and trade links back in their Frisian and Germanic homelands, trading ports were necessary and it isn’t a surprise that so many were founded. What is also not surprising is how quickly the system fell apart when the Vikings saw them as lucrative and undefended ports ready and ripe for pillage.

-burh/borough (any variation of)

Fortified towns that were organised in light of the Viking raids. Established along military lines, many new towns were built to provide a defensive network to protect King Alfred’s England.


A shallow river crossing, possibly named on its suitability as a crossing point for large numbers of people such as an army


An enclosed house or village. Possibly the fenced village as the seat of a chieftain.

There are many more but I just wanted to provide a small selection of the most common.

What is clear is that we already see the formation of the modern language; even if it is barely recognisable written down we can get a sense of its most ancient form by listening to it. Place names offer us a fascinating insight into the history of the meaning of words too. In the next post (no promises when it will be), I will look at the Scandinavian influence with the Viking settlements and Danelaw and the changes wrought upon the landscape, place names and language.

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