Is there an Old English Poetic koiné? Problems with the Language of Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Jonathan Newman

copyright 2000


koine n [Gk koin­ē, fro fem. koinos common]

1 cap: the Greek language commonly spoken and written in eastern Mediterranean countries in Hellenistic and Roman periods. 2: a dialect or language of a region that has become the common or standard language of a larger area.

(From Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)


A brief overview of Old English dialects

Scholarly consensus, or near-consensus, finds four distinguishable dialects of Old English in the extant manuscripts: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West Saxon. (Mitchell and Robinson 11) The former three held varying degrees of prestige in earlier periods of Anglo-Saxon England until the catastrophic Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth century; as the kingdom of Wessex remained the only major part of England to retain Anglo-Saxon autonomy, West Saxon became the written standard in the final two centuries before the Norman invasion. (Toon 414-8; Mitchell et al. 11) Sisam and preceding scholars sometimes use the term 'Anglian' to refer to Northumbrian, Mercian, or some combination of both as sharing similar features distinguishing them from West Saxon.


Some features of the poetic language of Old English

What makes poetic language both challenging and useful to historical linguist and critic alike is that it "shows the language being tested to the full, being used by individuals who think seriously about the right choice and use of language and are prepared to employ the full range of possibilities." (Godden 490) Nevertheless, there does seem to be, for whatever reason, a "relatively homogeneous poetic language shared by most poems." (491) The language of verse differs markedly from that of prose in several respects, perhaps in part to "allow the poet to vary his vocabulary and distort his syntax to meet the demands of metre and alliteration," but also to "lend colour and heightening to the tone of verse." (494) Many lexical and inflectional archaisms survive in the poetic language that appear far less frequently in verse. (497-512) Poetry announces itself as "distinct kind of linguistic experience" (495); the nature of this distinction has proved controversial in the last half-century.


The problem

Most Old English poetry survives in four manuscripts "produced near the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, around 975-1000, but most modern opinion holds that many of the poems were already centuries old by then." (Godden 496) These poetic texts are distinct from Old English prose in that they seem to admit a mixture of dialects, "predominantly Late West Saxon but with elements of other dialects and earlier forms." (496-7) This mixture suggests that poets used "forms not current in their own normal dialect" and the "scribes of the late manuscripts, while generally converting texts into the standard, recognised and accepted certain spellings as appropriate to poetry which were not current in their own usage." (497)

The traditional solution to this problem, that dialectal variations found in the poems are attributable to the fact that they were composed in Anglian and 'converted' incompletely into Late West Saxon, was notably challenged by Kenneth Sisam in an essay entitled "Dialect Origins of the Earlier Old English Verse" from his 1953 publication "Studies in the History of Old English Literature," in which he characterized this traditional solution as a reduction to "crude alternatives: Anglian or West Saxon?" (121) Sisam finds that the difficulty in this traditional approach

. . . lies in the artificial, often archaic vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon alliterative poems, whatever may be the period or dialect which produced them. The technique and style of the verse kept the poet hunting for synonyms or variant expressions, and encouraged the persistence of set phrases. Hence many poetic words are not found in prose at all, and many compounds are hardly conceivable except in poetic diction. (126)


Sisam's alternative hypothesis

Sisam concludes from this observation that the presence of a form known to occur in only one dialect does not prove that "the poem was composed in that dialect." (126) In examining these text, one might instead consider "the probability that there was a body of verse, anonymous and independent of local interest, which was the common stock for the entertainment or instruction of the English peoples." (138) While the notion of a body of verse being communicated through a small geographic area among peoples speaking closely related dialects does not strain credibility, Sisam takes his argument one step further by suggesting that a poet might produce poems from this common stock "that do not belong to any local dialect,

but to a general Old English poetic dialect, artificial, archaic, and perhaps mixed in its vocabulary, conservative in inflexions that affect the verse-structure, and indifferent to non-structural irregularities, which were perhaps tolerated as part of the coulouring of the language of verse. (138)


Critical reception of Sisam's theory

In a festschrift for Constance Hieat, David Megginson undertakes a reanalysis of both Sisam's theory and its critical reception, finding among the scholarship an assumption seemingly derived from Sisam's theory that "just as the poems in Old English manuscripts show a metre and syntax distinct from those of prose, they also show a distinct orthography." (117) Although Sisam specifically rejects "orthography (and other scribal contributions)" (Megginson 123) as evidence for dialectal identification, many scholars attempting critical editions of OE poetic texts, when confronted with the problem of dialect in the "compulsory discussions" of a poem's language, have appealed to Sisam's 'general poetic dialect' as "a simple and attractive alternative to the 'Anglian or West Saxon' choice'." (Megginson 119) Following a selective overview of some dozen critical editions, Megginson concludes thusly:

Almost without critical scrutiny, the idea that Old English orthography can be grouped into a fifth poetic dialect, in addition the four main regional Old English dialects, has become an important part of our understanding of Old English poetry and Anglo-Saxon culture. Although none of the editors quoted above makes an explicit case for orthography as an element of prosody, all strongly imply that either the spelling or the pronunciation it is supposed to represent is, somehow, an intrinsic part of Old English verse. (122)

Megginson calls this implication a "popularized version" of Sisam's theory (125) and rejects its use for analyzing variant orthographies within one text on the grounds that "is is by no means self-evident that that form was meant to be read aloud the way that it was written; it might just as easily have been intended to look different as it was to sound different." (119) Consequently, we cannot determine if there were regional standardized orthographies. Spelling could have stabilized before the surviving poetic codices were copied, even while pronunciation could have, and probably did, change. Therefore the metrical and orthographical evidence sometimes conflicts. (118) Although Megginson does not dispute the possibility of a poetic dialect, he follows a particular line in problematizing any attempt to prove a poetic koiné's existence:

To prove the existence of a poetic, orthographic dialect, it would be necessary to discover a set of specific spellings common to verse but not to prose, and in this area, even the most promising words. . .eventually fail. The problem is that, while Old English poetry as a whole seems to deviate somewhat from the orthographic standards of late West Saxon prose, the poems and scribes individually deviate far more from each other, leaving the idea of a common poetic orthography (or orthographic prosody) with little support. (128-9)


Back to the problem

Sisam and Megginson stand on common ground. Sisam takes a step back from the assumptions with which, in his time, he was presented. The thesis of his 1953 essay was essentially negative: "This survey does not support a presumption that the extant earlier poetry is Northumbrian or Anglian." (Sisam 138) His "poetic dialect" theory is stated more in the way of a casual, if provocative, excursus: "More attention should be paid to the probability of . . . a general Old English poetic dialect" (138) In asking why late scribes would have standardized poetic orthography to West Saxon if there was a knowledge of a poetic koiné among the audience of these works, Megginson challenges this "probability." (126-7) Both concede the true difficulty of solving this problem with limited, confused, inconsistent and often contradictory evidence.


for further reading


Godden, Malcolm R. "Literary Language." The Cambridge History of the English Language vol I. ed. Richard M. Hogg. pg 490. University Press: Cambridge. 1992


Megginson, David. "The Case against a 'General Old English Poetic Dialect.'" Prosody and Poetics in the Early Middle Ages: Essays in Honour of C.B. Hieatt. ed. M.J. Toswell. pg. 118. U of Toronto Press: Toronto. 1995


Sisam, Kenneth. "Dialect Origins of the Earlier Old English Verse." Studies in the History of Old English Literature. pg 119. Clarendon Press: Oxford. 1953


Toon, Thomas. "Old English Dialects." The Cambridge History of the English Language vol I. -------

online resources


Map of the "Anglo-Saxon heptarchy"


Map of later Anglo-Saxon England


The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records: an online edition of all the poetry preserved in the late West Saxon poetic manuscripts.


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