Anglo-Saxon England

Research Article

The origin of Standard Old English and Æthelwold's school at Winchester

Helmut Gneussa1

a1 The University of Munich

‘In literary culture’, Sir James Murray has said, ‘the Normans were about as far behind the people whom they conquered as the Romans were when they made themselves masters of Greece.’ Indeed when the Normans set foot on English soil Anglo-Saxon England was in possession not only of a remarkable literature but also of a highly developed written standard language, known and used in all regions of the country. Most of our Old English manuscripts were written in the late tenth century and in the eleventh in a form of English – although not always quite pure – which the grammarians call late West Saxon. This form of the language is by no means just a dialect, any more than its literature is merely the literary product of a dialect. This fact is first brought home to us when we examine the negative evidence – the rareness before the end of the tenth century of texts in dialects other than West Saxon and their almost complete absence after this time, a state of affairs for which various explanations might be found, historical factors among others. Considerably more important, however, is a positive criterion: texts in this late West Saxon were written and read in other parts of the country too, in Kent (Canterbury), in Mercia (Worcester) and indeed even in Northumbria (York). Moreover, texts which had originally been written in Anglian were transcribed into late West Saxon, as was a large part of Old English poetry. There can be no doubt: in our Old English texts of the eleventh century we are dealing with a standard literary language which, although based on a dialectal foundation, had extended its domain beyond the borders of this dialect.