« PreviousContinue »
THE SEMI-SAXON PERIOD.
A.D. 1066-A.D. 1250.
TRANSITION OF THE SAXON TONGUE INTO THE ENGLISH. 1. Character of the Language in this Stage-Duration of the Period.—2. The kinds of
Corruptions-Illustrated by Examples.-3. Extract from the Saxon Chronicle Translated and Analyzed.-4. Layamon's Brut-Analysis of its Language-Comparison with Language of the Chronicle.-5. Extract from Layamon Translated and Ana.
lyzed. 1. We are next to watch the Anglo-Saxon language at the earliest stages in that series of mutations, by which it passed into the Modern English.
When these began, it is not possible to say with precision. It cannot have been much later than the Norman Conquest : it may have been a century earlier, and probably was so.
Our manuscripts show some tokens of them; and, as there is reason to believe, they appeared soonest in the Northern Dialect.
At present it may suffice for us to know, that the changes assumed, in succession, two very distinct types, marking two eras quite dissimilar.
First came a period throughout which the old language was palpably suffering disorganization and decay, without exhibiting any symptoms which the most intelligent observer could, at the time, have interpreted as presaging a return to completeness and consistency. This was a Transition-era, a period of confusion, alike perplexing to those who then used the tongue, and to those who now endeavour to trace its vicissitudes. The state of chaos came to an end about the middle of the thirteenth century, a little earlier, or a little later. One of our best antiquaries sets down its close as occurring about the year 1230.* These approximate dạtes give it a duration of nearly two centuries from the Conquest. It is to this stage of the language that our philologers now assign the name of Semi-Saxon.
With it, in the meantime, our business lies. We shall afterwards study the second era, that period of Re-construction, during the whole of which the language may correctly be described as English.
* Sir Frederick Madden; in his Edition of Layamon's Brut, 1847.
2. Let a classical scholar imagine a case like this. In the Dark Ages of Italy, when the Latin was spoken barbarously, and the new language had not yet come into being, an ill-educated Roman monk endeavors to chronicle the calamities of the Eternal City, duly remembering those of his own convent. The etymology and syntax of a complex language, whose rules he had never studied, will fare badly in his hands. The forms of the Latin verb, for instance, will be prodigiously simplified, the personal pronouns being carefully prefixed to prevent mistakes : and, this precaution having been taken, “nos scripsi” will seem quite as good as “nos scripsimus.” The troublesome government of the prepositions, too, will be escaped from, as soon as it has become the fashion to give nouns no case but one; and “sub mons may, perhaps, be forced to do duty both for “sub monte” and “ sub montem.” The genders of substantives, again, will often be used wrongly, in a language which determines these chiefly by the endings of the words. The vocabulary itself, although it will hold out longer than the grammar, cannot answer all the demands which an ill-instructed writer has to make on it. Our Roman annalist may, when he is lamenting the mischiefs wrought by Totila the Goth, recollect, for some idea he has, no fit word but one which had been let fall by the barbarian troops in their occupation of the city, and had taken root on the banks of the Tiber.
Now, although this was not in all points what happened in Italy, it was, substantially, the earliest part of the process by which the Anglo-Saxon tongue passed, through a state of ruin, into the regular English. The later parts of the Saxon Chronicle were composed exactly in the circumstances of the imaginary case; and some of the results are close parallels to those which are there figured. The language written is nothing else than ungrammatical Anglo-Saxon, inflection and syntax being alike frequently incorrect; and the leading solecisms are plainly such as must have been current in the time of the writers, being the rudiments of forms which soon became characteristic features in the infant English. The introduction of new words from Norman roots is rare; but some of the instances are curious. We cannot suppose the poor monk of Peterborough, writing in the twelfth century, to have forgotten his native word for “ peace.” But, in registering the death of Henry the First, he disdained to bestow, on the quiet which-that able king enforced throughout England, the sacred name which suggested the idea of freedom.*
* Peace in Anglo-Saxon is frith (Germ. friede); Free is fred or frió :
3. The passage which will illustrate for us this state of things, is from the Saxon Chronicle. It occurs in a frightful description of the miseries inflicted on the peasantry by the nobles, during the disturbed reign of Stephen. Therefore it must have been written after that king's death; though it bears the date of 1137.*
Hí swencten? the wrecce3 men of the land4 mid castel
They oppressed the wretched men of the land with castleweorces.5 Tha the castles& waren maked,° thá fyldeno works. When the castles
then filled hí
mid yvele men.1 Thá namen 1 hí tháo men the they (them) with evil
they the men whom
Infin. swencan, to vex, fatigue, labour; old English, swink, used by Milton. The preterite plural retains its final syllable, but not purely: it should be swencton. This -en for -on was one of the most permanent of the changes
The Undeclined article, formerly used often for the Declined, was now used almost always.
8 Should be wreccan. The writer has lost one of the nicest distinctions of the Anglo-Saxon, that between the Definite and the Indefinite forms of the adjective (as in modern German).
• The Nominative for the Dative lande. The monk has forgotten the regimen of the preposition, or did not know the declension, or never thought of the matter. An old Anglo-Saxon, indeed, would have used the genitive of land without a preposition.
5 Here the Dative plural weorcum is lost, and the Nominative used ipstead.
6 A double corruption. (1.) Castel should have been declined in one of the neuter forms, which gives the nominative plural like the nominative singular. (2.) The masculine form which the monk attempts to follow, should have its nominative plural in -as. See the Extract from Alfred, Note 42. Observe further, that the simplest of the masculine declensions of the Anglo-Saxon (which is exemplified in the note just referred to), was the one that lingered longest, and founded our English possessive and plural. ? For waron.
See Note 1. 8 For macod or gemacod; from inf. macian. 9 See Note 1. 10 Nominative for Dative both in substantive and adjective.
11 See Note 1. The word is from inf. niman (German, nehmen), still preserved in thieves' slang, and in the name of Shakspeare's Corporal Nym.
12 An accusative plural, not unauthorized by older use.
but some of their derivatives seem to interchange meanings. “Peace (pais, Norman, the modern paix),” says the monk, in summing up the character of the king, “. peace he made for man and beast.”
* Ingram's “Saxon Chronicle, with an Tinglish Translation,” 1823.
hí wénden 3 thæt anil4 gód hefden,'5 báthe 16 be nihtes17 they thought that any goods (they) had, both by night and be dæies.18 Mele hengedéo
up bi the fét,2' and and by day. (Some) men hanged (they) up by the feet, and smoked22 heom mid fi123 smoke:24
me dide 25 smoked them with foul smoke : (some) men did (they) knotted strenges abútan here27 hæved, 28 and wríthen 29 to-thæt30 it31 strings about their
head, and twisted till it gæde32 to the hærnes.33 went to the brain.
4. Our cursory survey of the Semi-Saxon brings us now to
19 See Note 1. From inf. wénan ; ic wéne, I ween (old English). 14 For ánig or ænig; the Terminating Consonant dropped.
16 For hoefdon : See Note 1. Irregularities of spelling are constant in the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of all ages.
16 The original of both (Scottish, baith); but the pure Anglo-Saxon is (adjective) bá, begen, or bátwa (both-two).
°17 Meant as a Genitive of niht: a praiseworthy attempt at grammar. (1.) niht seems to have properly nihte in the genitive. (2.) Be or bei should have had a dative nihte. The word nihtes, by night (like modern German), used adverbially, would have been good Anglo-Saxon.
18 For døges, genitive of dæg; should have been the dative, doege : See Note 17. Good Anglo-Saxon is deeges, by day.
Very common in Semi-Saxon MSS., for man or men. 20 A very instructive example of innovations. The irregular verb hón, to hang, has in pret. ic heng, we hengon. Our monk and his contemporaries, (1.) seem to have formed a new infinitive, such as hengan ; (2.) they have made from it a regular preterite henged (more correctly hengede); (3.) they have then dropped the plural termination, which would have given hengedon. This loss of the Last Syllable in the Plurals is especially noteworthy. For it is a decided step towards English.
21 Sing. fót; plur. fóta, or sometimes fét ; see also Note 4. 22 Inf. smedcan, smócian, or smécan (Scottish, smeek); pret. ic smeac,
The plural -on is lost; See Note 20. 23 The adjective robbed of its cases should be dat. fúlum. 24 Smeóce, smece, or smice, dat.
25 Plural termination lost; See Note 20. For the verb, see Alfred, Note 94.
26 For cnottede ; Plural of adjective lost.
28 Correctly, heafod. Grammar right, (perhaps by accident,) abutan, taking an accusative, and the noun having the nominative and accusative alike.
29 Inf. writhan (English, writhe); See Note 1. 30 To-thot, for oth, or some such word: unusual. 31 Correctly, hit. See Alfred, Note 11. Another approach to English.
32 An attempt to inflict an irregular verb regularly. For the verb see Alfred, Note 44.
33 A noun singular, perhaps not old Anglo-Saxon, (Scottish, harns.)
Layamon's Metrical Chronicle, the “ Brut,” which belongs to the end of the twelfth century, or the beginning of the thirteenth.
The editor of the poem has subjected its language to a masterly analysis, the chief results of which are easily understood, and provide very valuable materials for those who study the early history of our English tongue.
We have to take account, first, of the words constituting the vocabulary; and, secondly, of the manner in which these are dealt with when they are combined in sentences.
The Vocabulary is especially instructive. Written a century and a half after the Norman Conquest, the Brut has hardly any words that are not Anglo-Saxon. Containing more than thirtytwo thousand lines, it has not, in the older of its two manuscripts, so many as fifty French words, although we include in the list new words taken through that tongue from the Latin; and, of those which it has, several had been introduced earlier, being found in the Saxon Chronicle. In a more recent text, supposed to belong to the reign of Henry the Third, about thirty of the French words are retained, and upwards of forty others are added.
We have thus decisive proof of an assertion, which we found reason to believe when we reviewed the literature of the Norman period. The immediate effects of the Conquest, even on the Vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxon tongue, were by no means so considerable as they were once believed to have been.
In respect of Etymology and Syntax, again, Layamon's deviations from the Anglo-Saxon are set down for us in several articles; and of them we may take, first, those (and the proportion is surprisingly large) of which it happens that instances have occurred to us in our short extract from the Saxon Chronicle.
First: There is a general disregard of Inflections in the substantives: and Masculine forms are given to neuters in the plural. Indeed, the inflections of the Anglo-Saxon nouns were so complex, that our grammars are not yet quite at one in describing them. Instances, which have just been noted in the Chronicle, lead us towards this very important fact; that the declension which lingered longest was the simplest of those that had been used for Masculine Substantives, a declension giving a genitive singular in -es, and a nominative plural in -as. The plural ending was, as we have seen, corrupted into -es; the declension, so changed, then usurped the place of the more difficult ones in a great majority of the most common words; and this was the foundation of our modern genitive in 's, and of our plural in
8 or es.