Anglo-Saxon Study of Language


Sarah Crellin


copyright 2001


A small, but important, segment of the Anglo-Saxon population were conscious of formal aspects of language and how they applied these aspects in their works.  From the seventh to the eleventh centuries the literate population in Anglo-Saxon England was comprised mainly of the clergy, priests, monks, nuns, royalty and aristocracy (Gneuss, 4).  These Anglo-Saxon scholars studied grammatical texts on Latin primarily (in Latin, and later in English) and this study formed the basis for any analysis that they did on Old English (OE). Among the literate there eventually emerged an academic elite who produced written works in English, examined OE grammar through their study of Latin, and even made attempts at creating a standardized version of OE.


Education in the Seventh and Eighth Centuries

The tenth and eleventh centuries were particularly rich in the production of OE prose works and language standards; however, the backdrop to these developments is thought to be a relatively “high standard of education and learning” in the seventh and eight centuries (Gneuss, 5).  Alcuin of York, for example, was an Anglo-Saxon who lived in King Charlemagne’s court at Aachen from 781 to 794 (Garrison, 24).  Originally Alcuin had been educated in York, at a school run by Archbishop Acgberht.  In time Alcuin became headmaster of the York school, and was afterwards invited by Charlemagne to become the headmaster of his Palace School.  While residing at the Frankish court, Alcuin, “a man of prodigious learning and a prolific writer” (Garrison, 24), greatly influenced the literary and ecclesiastical landscape of all of England and all of Europe.  The scholar’s main contributions in terms of creating a philosophy of language include his resurrection of scholarly works that had been forgotten, his training of “most of the high-ranking continental churchmen” of the generation after him, and his insistence on a “new standard of accuracy and clarity in the scriptorium” (Garrison, 24).  He produced many textbooks, including three works on grammar (in Latin) (Law, 217).  These works include the Dialogus Franconis et Saxonis de octo partibus orationis, or the “Dialogue of the Frank and the Saxon on the eight parts of speech,” which made significant use of classical sources (217).


Latin Grammars

            Latin grammars were used in England since the conversion to Christianity in the seventh-century (Law, 216).  Speakers and writers of OE had to learn Latin as a second language if they were part of the clergy, for example.  The texts they used were thus Latin texts, not at all designed for non-Latin speakers.  Some of the first texts used include Donatus’ Ars minor, a Roman work produced around the year 350, and a work produced in Constantinople around the year 500 by Priscian, entitled Institutiones grammaticae (216).   

Later in the seventh-century, and until the ninth-century, Anglo-Saxon scholars began to alter the basic Latin textbooks to better suit their audiences’ needs (217).  The ninth-century shows an overall decline in learning and attention to language, due to the Scandinavian invasions and other internal factors.  However, a period of monastic reform occurred in the tenth century – the Benedictine Reform.  After the reform grammars again began to appear in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (217).  It is important to realize that the term “grammar” as applied to these texts corresponds more closely with our present day terms “philology” or “linguistics” (Gneuss, 7).  These books dealt with subjects such as “the phonology, morphology and syntax of a language” (Gneuss, 7). The grammars reintroduced in the middle of the tenth century were Latin texts by classical authors such as Priscian and Donatus, as well as Anglo-Saxon authors such as Bede and Alcuin (Law, 217).


Aelfric’s Grammar

At the end of the century an important and revolutionary development in the grammatical textbook commenced (Law, 217).  Aelfric of Eynsham, born in 950, produced his grammar Excerptiones de arte grammatica anglice, or “Excerpts from a grammar textbook rendered into English.”  As the title suggests the work was in English, and thus “is virtually unique among grammars written before the fourteenth century in being written in the native language of the students rather than in the target language” (Law, 218).  The work was produced around 998, and was not only an introduction to Latin grammar but “partially designed to explain the vernacular too” (Godden, 8).

Within Aelfric’s textbook students found Latin definitions, examples and quotations translated into English (Gneuss, 14).  Using loan-words, loan-formations and semantic loans Aelfric created “a complete system of linguistic terminology” in OE (16).  For example, the Latin terms declination, pronomen, and verbum became declinung, naman speliend, and word respectively in OE ((16).  There is evidence to support the possibility that Aelfric’s English terms “won widespread acknowledgement” (16).  The book “provided a complete introductory course in Latin” and focused primarily on “the inflection of Latin nouns, pronouns, verbs and on vocabulary building” (Law, 218).  For example, Aelfric “distinguishes eight types of perfect in the third conjugation and seventy-eight endings in the third declension” (Gneuss, 15).  He also “Christianized” and “anglicized” vocabulary (15).  However, the text “offers no systematic treatment of the morphology of Old English nor of its grammatical peculiarities” (14).  Instead, students were expected to apply the terms and categories used to describe Latin to their own language (14). 


The Winchester Standard

Aelfric is associated with a monastery in Winchester that is believed to have been the spot that the first standardized written English emerged.  Before becoming a monk and a priest, Aelfric was a student of Bishop Aethelwold in Winchester.  At Winchester, Aethelwold “created a school devoted to the spread of learning and religion” (Hogg, 13).  This school produced Aelfric, who helped to spread the written standard of English that was used in Winchester “throughout the country, in places as diverse as Canterbury, Worcester and York” (13).  However, it is important to note that this new standard was used more in an ecclesiastical context than a literary one (14).

The first standardized written English was based on Late West Saxon (Godden, 518).  The Benedictine reform “had its greatest impact” in the south and west of the country around the monastery at Winchester, where the dialect was spoken (Blake, 6).  The spread of Late West Saxon has been attributed not only to the fact that “the north of England had suffered most from the Scandinavian invasion” (Blake, 6) but also to “deliberate efforts by those in authority” at Winchester (Godden, 519).  Whatever the cause for this standard, the work of Aelfric and Wulfstan both demonstrate the standard at work.  Both authors edited their own works and the works of others to conform to certain grammatical features.  For example, in his early work Aelfric used “a mixture of dative and accusative cases” after prepositions such as ymbe (519).  In later manuscripts Aelfric revised this practice so that he used accusative throughout (519).  As well, scribes and authors “from Canterbury to Northumbria” used the same spellings.  Glosses and translations demonstrate that vocabulary was also standardized (518-19).

The Winchester standard died with the Norman Conquest.  Monasteries did not keep the standard going because English bishops were soon replaced by Norman bishops who brought their own Latin textbooks and conventions (Hogg, 14).  Latin soon became the “language for all serious writing” and any standard written English became a distant memory by the mid-twelfth century (14).


For Further Reading


Blake, Norman, ed.  The Cambridge History of the English Language.  Vol. 2.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


Garrison, Mary.  “Alcuin of York.”  Lapidge.


Gneuss, Helmut.  “The Study of Language in Anglo-Saxon England.”  Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 72.1 (Spring 1990): 3-32.


Godden, Malcolm R.  “Literary Language.”  Blake 513-535.


---.  “Aelfric of Eynsham.”  Lapidge.


Hogg, Richard M.  “Introduction.”  Blake 8-19.


Lapidge, Michael, et al., eds.  The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England.  Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1999.


Law, Vivien.  “Grammar, Latin (Study of).” Lapidge.