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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer

§ 1. Continuity of the English Language

THE THREE Germanic peoples—the Jutes from Jutland, the Angles from Schleswig and the Saxons from Holstein—who, in the fifth and sixth centuries, made themselves masters of the greater part of south Britain, spoke dialects so nearly allied that they can have had no great difficulty in understanding each other’s speech. It does not appear, however, that, in their original seats, they had any general name for their common race or their common language. The sense of their unity, with the consequent need for a general designation for themselves, would, naturally, be the product of the time when they found themselves settled among a population speaking an alien and unintelligible tongue. In fact, it was probably not by themselves, but by other nations, that the Jutes, Angles and Saxons of Britain were first regarded as forming an ethnic whole; just as in earlier times the larger kindred of which they were part had received the name of Germans from the Celts. The Britons applied to all the Germanic invaders of their country the name of Saxons, because, in the days of Roman rule, that nation had been the most conspicuous among those who ravaged the coasts of Britain; and, as is well known, the Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the British islands still continue to call the English people and its language “Saxon.” On the Continent, the Germanic conquerors of Britain seem, for a long time, to have been called indiscriminately sometimes Saxons, after the Celtic practice, and sometimes Angles, the latter being the name of the people which had the largest extent of territory. At the end of the sixth century, pope Gregory I uses only the name Angli. This is a somewhat remarkable fact, because the missionaries sent by Gregory laboured in the Jutish kingdom of Kent, which, at that time, was paramount over all the country south of the Humber. Possibly, the explanation of Gregory’s choice of this name may be found in the famous story according to which his zeal for the conversion of the pagans of Britain was first awakened by his admiration of the beauty of the boy slaves from the Anglian kingdom of Deira. On the other hand, about A.D. 660, pope Vitalian, writing to an Angle king, Oswiu of Northumbria, addresses him as rex Saxonum.

The Roman missionaries naturally followed Gregory’s practice; and it was probably from the official language of the church that the Jutes and Saxons learned to regard themselves as part of the “Angle kindred” (Angolcynn, in Latin gens Anglorum). The political ascendency of the Angle kingdoms, which began in the seventh century, and continued until the time of the Danish invasions, doubtless contributed to ensure the adoption of this general name. In the early years of the eighth century, Bede sometimes speaks of Angli sive Saxones, thus treating the two appellations as equivalent. But, with this sole exception, his name for the whole people is always Angli or gens Anglorum, and he calls their language sermo Anglicus, even when the special reference is to the dialect in which the Kentish laws were written. When he does speak of lingua Saxonica, the context, in every instance, shows that he means the language of the East or West Saxons. It is true that Bede was an Angle by birth, and this fact might seem to detract from the significance of his use of the name. But, a century and a half later, the West Saxon king Alfred, whose works are written in his native dialect, never uses any other name for his own language but English—the language of the Angles. It is in the great king’s writings that we find the earliest vernacular examples of the name which our language has ever since continued to bear.

In a certain sense it may be said that this name, as applied to the language of the south of England, became more and more strictly appropriate as time went on. For the history of southern English, or of the language of English literature, is, to a considerable extent, concerned with the spread of Anglian forms of words and the disappearance of forms that were specifically Saxon. Moreover, several of the most important of the processes of change that transformed the English of Alfred into the English of Chaucer—the loss of inflections and grammatical gender, and the adoption of Danish words—began in the Anglian regions of the north, and gradually extended themselves southward. Leaving out of account the changes that were aue to French influences, we might almost sum up the history of the language during five centuries in the formula that it became more and more “English” and less and less “Saxon.”