Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 2. “English” and “Saxon;” Periods of English

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

§ 2. “English” and “Saxon;” Periods of English

It will be convenient at this point to give some account of the history of the nomenclature of the various stages in the development of the English language. When, in the sixteenth century, the remains of vernacular literature earlier than the Norman conquest began to attract the attention of scholars, Englishmen naturally found it inconvenient to apply the name of “English” to what to them was, practically, a foreign language, requiring not less study to understand than the Flemish of their own day. It became customary, therefore, to speak of this language as “Saxon.” As the few pre-Conquest texts then known were written in the south, this designation may be said to have been accurately descriptive. It was so, however, merely by accident, for those who employed it were accustomed to use the term “Saxons” as a general name for the Germanic inhabitants of England before the Norman conquest. The popular view was that the “English” people and the “English” language came into being as the result of the fusion of “Saxons” and Normans. Traces of this misuse of names, indeed, are to be found in various forms of expression that are still current. Although the double misnomer of “the Saxon heptarchy” no longer appears in our school histories modern writers continue to speak of “the Saxon elements in the English vocabulary,” and to misapply the epithet “Saxon” to the architecture of the parts of the country inhabited by the Angles.

The term “Saxon,” besides being historically incorrect as a designation for the whole early Germanic population of Britain, was inconveniently ambiguous, because it survived as the proper appellation of a portion of the inhabitants of Germany. In the last years of the reign of Elizabeth, Camden revived the use of the old name Anglosaxones, and, probably for the first time, used lingua Anglosaxonica for the language of England before the Norman conquest. He explains that Anglosaxones means the Saxons of England, in contradistinction to those of the Continent; and, in his English Remains, he accordingly renders it by “English Saxons.” Throughout the seventeenth century, and even later, “English Saxon” continued to be the name ordinarily applied by philologists to the language of king Alfred, but, in the eighteenth century, this gave place to “Anglo-Saxon.”

Camden’s explanation of the compound name was, there can be little doubt, historically correct. In its early use, it was applied to distinguish those Saxons who were considered part of the “Angolcynn,” and whose language was called “English,” from the “Old Saxons,” who remained in Germany; and the structure of the native form Angulseaxe shows that the first element was intended as a descriptive prefix. It was, however, natural that the compound should be interpreted as meaning “Angle and Saxon,” and, apparently, it was taken in this sense already at the end of the seventeenth century by George Hickes, who also applied the analogous name “Dano-Saxon” to the Old Northumbrian dialect, under the mistaken notion that its peculiar features were the result of Scandinavian admixture. As thus misunderstood, the term “Anglo-Saxon” was accepted as supplying the need for a general name applicable to the Anglian and Saxon dialects in their fully inflected stage. In this comprehensive sense it continues to be extensively used. The proposal of some scholars to restrict its application, on grounds of historical propriety to the Saxon dialect failed to gain acceptance, because what was wanted was an inclusive name for the early language of England, as the object of a well-defined branch of linguistic study. When professorships of “Anglo-Saxon” had been founded at Oxford and Cambridge, it was hardly possible to narrow the meaning of the name to a part of the subject which the professors were appointed to teach.

As a popular designation, the name “Anglo-Saxon” has the merits of definiteness and intelligibility, which may possibly long preserve it in use. It has, however, the great disadvantage of concealing the important fact that the history of our language from the earliest days to the present time has been one of continuous development. When this fact became evident through the attention bestowed by scholars on the language of the thirteenth century, the inconvenience of the traditional nomenclature could not escape recognition. The language of this period was too different from the Anglo-Saxon of the grammars to be conveninently called by the same name, while, on the other hand, it could hardly be called English so long as “English” was understood to mean a language which the unlearned reader could at once perceive to be substantially identical with his own. An attempt was made to meet the difficulty by the invention of the compound “Semi-Saxon,” to denote the transitional stage between “Anglo-Saxon” and “English,” but this name was so obviously infelicitous that its introduction helped to procure acceptance for a nomenclature which recognised that the language of Caedmon was no less “English” than that of Chaucer. The great German philologist Jacob Grimm had introduced the practice of dividing the history of a language into three periods, designated by the prefixes “Old,” “Middle” and “New” or “Modern”; and, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, many scholars in England adopted “Old English” as the name for that stage of the language which had, till then, been known as Anglo-Saxon. The change found much opposition, on the not wholly unreasonable ground that “Old English” was popularly applied to any form of English that was characterised by abundance of obsolete words and by antiquated spelling, so that the novel use could not but lead to frequent misunderstanding. The advantages of the new nomenclature for purposes of historical treatment are, however, so considerable that it has now come into general use, although a few philologists, both in England and Germany, still decline to adopt it.

The main reason for restoring to the language of Caedmon and Alfred its historical name of “English,” is to emphasise the truth that there was no substitution of one language for another in England after the Norman conquest, but only a modification of the original language by gradual changes in pronunciation and grammar, by the accession of new words and the obsolescence of old ones. The change of nomenclature will be a mere useless pedantry if we allow ourselves to imagine that there was any definite date at which people ceased to speak “Old English” and began to speak “Middle English,” or even that there ever was a time when the English of the older generation and that of the younger generation differed widely from each other. Nevertheless, owing partly to the fact that the twelfth century was an age of exceptionally rapid linguistic change, and partly to other causes hereafter to be explained, it is quite true that, while the literary remains of the first half of the century exhibit a form of the language not strikingly different from that of preceding centuries, those of the latter half present such an amount of novelty in spelling and grammatical features as to make the most superficial observation sufficient to show that a new period has begun. The date of A.D. 1150, as the approximate point of demarcation between the Old and Middle periods of English, is, therefore, less arbitrary than chronological boundaries in the history of a language usually are; though, if we possessed full information respecting the spoken English of the twelfth century, we should have to be content with a much less precise determination. While the Middle English period has thus a definite beginning, it has no definite ending. It is, however, convenient to regard it as terminating about A.D. 1500, because the end of the fifteenth century coincides pretty closely with the victory of the printing-press over the scriptorium; and many of the distinctive features of literary Modern English would never have been developed if printing had not been invented.