Curious children: who was the first to speak English?

Curious children: who was the first to speak English?

Who was the first to speak English? – Grace, aged eight, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The first English speaker didn’t sound like you or me. This is because language changes all the time. You have probably noticed that your grandparents’ language is different from yours. You can imagine how much different English was when it was first spoken in Britain many centuries ago.

The earliest speakers of English spoke Old English. I use the word “speaker” because there must have been more than one speaker: after all, we use language to talk to others.

Old English developed during a turbulent period of British history. This was soon after The Romans had left Britain, about 1,600 years ago. The Romans had colonized Britain but they abandoned the country in the fourth century as the Roman Empire was collapsing around them.

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The Romans who ruled Britain spoke their language Latin. But most people who lived in Britain when the Romans were there – and before that too – spoke a Celtic language. This Celtic language was quite similar to Welsh, but again much older than today’s Welsh.

After the Romans left Britain, Germanic tribes invaded and were on the move throughout Europe in the 4th and 6th centuries. These tribes were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The language they spoke is known as North Sea Germanic.

The first English speakers

Once they settled in Britain it was Old English, which is also sometimes called “Anglo-Saxon”. From the Angles comes the word “English” and from the Angles and Saxons together comes the word “Anglo-Saxon”. I teach Old English to university English students.

So Old English or Anglo-Saxon is the oldest form of the English language spoken and written in England during the Early Middle Ages, the period from about 450 to 1050. Very few Celtic words were adopted into Old English. The word “hernia” (meaning “badger”) is one of the rare exceptions.

Do we know the names of the first speakers of Old English? Two names are mentioned in ancient legends that tell the story of how the Angels and Saxons arrived in Britain.

According to these legends, the Britons (when they were still Celtic-speaking) asked two Germanic leaders, Hengest and Horsato come to Britain to help protect the country after the Romans had left.

Hengest and Horsa arrived in Britain with lots of other people from their tribe and conquered the land. We have no way of knowing whether these legends are true, but if they are, we have here the names of the two chiefs who brought their language to Britain.

An old English poet

There is another name that deserves mention, and it is Caedmon. He is the first poet in English whose name is known. The story of his life is told by the monk and historian Bedewho lived in northern England from about 673 to 735.

Bede not only tells the story of Hengest and Horsa, but he also tells us about Caedmon, who was a cowherd. Bede wrote that Caedmon could not read or write and was given the ability to compose beautiful poetry as a gift from God. The first poem that Caedmon was inspired to create is a poem in praise of God. The first two lines of this poem give you a taste of Old English:

Now sculon herian heofonrices Weard, Methodes mihte and his modgeþanc

In modern English this means: “Now we must praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the ruler and his plan”.

You might think this is not English at all. But we still use some of the words used in Old English – “and” and “his” are both in these two lines of poetry. Other words have also survived, although we often spell and pronounce them differently. See if you can spot the Old English words for “might” and “now” in these lines from Caedmon’s poem.

Caedmon looked after the cattle in a monastery at Whitby in Yorkshire. One of my university students studying Old English is from Whitby and she told me that her school is named after our first named English poet: Caedmon College. His legend lives on.

Author: Ad Putter – Professor of Medieval English Literature, University of Bristol The conversation


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