By Richard K. Munro, MA

Chapter One:  Old English or the “Right-true Saxon tongue”

English -or the “right-true Saxon tongue[1] as it was once known- is a Germanic language, related at its heart to Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and German.   English is a not an ancient language, only coming into prominence in the last five hundred years. In the early 17th century barely one hundred individuals spoke English in all the Americas and in the British Isles only about five million people (80% of the population) spoke English[2].  English was not the languages of the schools or higher education at that time; George Washington –born in 1732-was among the first generation of educated English-speaking peoples to be educated almost entirely in the English medium.  Prior to 1700 most learned books in Britain and Western Europe were written in Latin and educated people learned French and Latin.    How did English rise from an insignificant, unwritten regional Germanic dialect to one of the great culture languages of the world?

Languages have always been instruments of great empires, great cultures and great religions.  I once asked my Scottish grandfather why we spoke English if we weren’t English; he answered simply: “English is the language of the banks and the long-range guns. That’s why everyone speaks English including the English.”  In other words, the winners write history.   

(The terms “England” Ireland, “Scotland”, and “Wales” are used purely to indicate geographic location relative to modern boundaries.  Roman Britain was a united province but in this time period the other nations did not exist as independent entities. )

The three big winners in English history were the Romans, the Normans and the English themselves.   Jorge Luis Borges said:

You will say that it’s easier for a Dane to study English than for a Spanish-speaking person to learn English or an Englishman Spanish; but I don’t think this is true, because English is a Latin language as well as a Germanic one. At least half the English vocabulary is Latin. Remember that in English there are two words for every idea: one Saxon and one Latin. You can say ‘Holy Ghost’ or ‘Holy Spirit,’ ‘sacred’ or ‘holy.’ There’s always a slight difference, but one that’s very important for poetry, the difference between ‘dark’ and ‘obscure’ for instance, or ‘regal’ and ‘kingly,’ or ‘fraternal’ and ‘brotherly.’ In the English language almost all words representing abstract ideas come from Latin, and those for concrete ideas from Saxon, but there aren’t so many concrete ideas.[4]

We still use a Roman alphabet; many of our everyday words and expressions are French and we speak English because the English-speaking homeland has not been successfully invaded since the Norman Conquest in 1066 and because the English-speaking peoples and their Allies triumphed in all the major wars of the last three centuries most recently against Hitler and the Kaiser. The story of the English language will explain why the English language (or tongue) is so complex, multifaceted, difficult to spell and pronounce and to tell the truth at times strange, weird and inexplicable. 

Figure 5 Indo-European roots of “tongue”

English belongs to the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. The European and many Indian languages go back to a common ancestor called “Indo-European”.   Indo-European was spoken about 4500 BC to 2500 BC and all modern Indo-European languages are descended from this single language.[5]

māter MOTHER
bhrāter BROTHER
swesor SISTER
dhughƏter DAUGHTER
seuƏ SON
nepot NEPHEW

For comparison we can compare several well-known Indo-European languages.

English & GERMAN Latin Greek
mother (OE mōdor Mutter māter “mother” mḗtēr” mother”
father (OE fæder)   Vater   pater “father” patḗr ”   father”  
brother (OE brōþor) Bruder         frāter “brother phrā́tēr” member of a phratry (brotherhood)
sister (OEsweostor, influenced by ON systir)
soror “sister”     éor “relative”
daughter(< OE dohtor)
x thugátēr“daughter”
son (OE sunu) Sohn x huiús  “son”
“nephew” (OE nefa) Neffe
Nepōs (nepōtis)“grandson, nephew” népodes

It is obvious from the above list that English is closely related to German and, indeed, English is a Germanic tongue.  But English is the least purely Germanic language because it is truly a hybrid.  “English is a baptized Anglo-Saxon barbarian with a fancy French makeover a little Latin and less Greek” is how a teacher once put it to me somewhat tongue in cheek.   Nonetheless, is it true that English is unusual in that it is a language composed of basically three strata:

 1. The Germanic or “Anglo-Saxon”[1] one, which is the basis of English.  Many irregular verbs are “Anglo-Saxon” (Germanic)

 2.  A classical strata mainly French, Latin (Romance)

 3. A classic philosophical, technical and academic strata of more sophisticated words and ideas (Greek). 

The “Anglo-Saxon words “are short, everyday words.  They are stronger sometimes vulgar.   The classical words are a more learned, more polite in tone, “colder”; they form more sophisticated stratum.  

Speech, tongue, land, understand, stand, sit, eat, head, foot, to mean, meaning, red, black, blue, the, his, her are examples of simple Germanic roots in English. Notice these are mostly three, four or five letter words or compounds of short words.   “Early to bed, early to rise makes us healthy, wealthy and wise”; this is an example of an ancient English proverb over a thousand years old.  It does not have a single Latinate word.  

We should, recall, that literature is older than the alphabet and the earliest genres are myths, orations, poems, prayers and proverbs.  Some English proverbs appear to be translations of Latin or French proverbs but others seems to be unique to English.Here are some other examples:

1)“All that glitters is not gold” (appearances can deceive)

2)“When meat is in, anger is out”  (one way to remedy anger)

3)“Better to ask the way than go astray” ( ask to as not to get lost)

4)“Hard words break no bones” (effect of criticism)

5) “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” (Value of diligence)

6) “Every shoe fits not every foot”  (people are different)

7) “When the moon’s in the full, then the wit’s in the wane”

                                    (Full moons make people crazy)

8) “Make not thy friend thy foe” (don’t make enemies of your friends)

9) “A hedge between keeps friendship green” (privacy helps keep friends)

10)“Many hands make light work” (value of people helping each other)

11) “Little gear, less care” (“gear” means possessions; rich people worry)

`12)“O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small[1]

Here is an example of writing English in a Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) way or in an academic/legal (Latin) way:

EXAMPLE#1: ANGLO-SAXON (“Germanic”) English:

Now anything he tries to do in the house without his shoes will be kept from his mother and father as well as his folk. The child’s behavior is trouble.

              EXAMPLE #2      LATINATE (Academic/legal) ENGLISH:

It will not be possible to restrain him from exercising in the domicile without his boots nor to conceal it from his parents as well as from the people. The comportment of the neonate is problematic.

Since less than 40% of modern English is Germanic (and about 25% is derived from Anglo-Saxon) it is impossible, today, to communicate without any Greco-Latin (or classical) words.  But the Anglo-Saxon roots, generally speaking, are high frequency words and are very emotive words.  Sophisticated words or polysyllabic words are almost always Greek or Latin in origin (including French words) but tend to be “colder” in tone.   For simplicity’s sake I always say “Anglo-Saxon” rather than “Germanic” or Old English so as to make it clear that I am not referring to German or modern English.

See the chart below for some examples.

Three Strata of English:

ANGLO-SAXON (includes native British words ****************** ****** and other
LATIN Includes Latinate or French words often legal, military or academic words GREEK often scientific
philosophical, medical or
technical terms
Everyday words four letter words” Quotidian;
Koine  (standard universal
To drink To imbibe Dipsosis (thirst)       
Dipsomaniac (person addicted to drinking alcohol)
Medical terms  
To eat To consume; to devour Parasite
Leech, toady
Servile person Parasite, sponger sycophant
Healer “nurse”
“saw bones”
Doctor General
practitioner (GP)
Medical doctor
Physician  Surgeon ;
The names for
are Greek derived: ex.
(baby doctor)
(child doctor)    
thing Object , entity  article,

Figure 6  Early  Anglo Saxon Runes or Alphabet

The history of English is traditionally divided into three periods usually called Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), Middle English, and Modern English. Three Germanic tribes, called Angles, Saxons and Jutes, invaded Roman Britain in the fifth century AD.  They may have first come as barbarian mercenaries and when the Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain the Anglo-Saxons or English –who were pagans- gradually took over from the native Romano-Britons who were Christian.   King Arthur, the legendary King of Camelot, [1]is supposed to have rallied the Britons against these pagan invaders from a time; this allowed Wales and Scotland to develop as independent countries with their own languages and traditions.[2]  Later those Celtic languages had some influence on English but relatively little until the 18th and 19th century. Some Celtic loanwords in modern English are loch (lake), whiskey, phoney, leprechaun, slogan, kibosh, shenanigans, ceilidh, galore, shanty, colleen, gillie , cairn, plaid , shamrock, clan, bog, cairn.  There are a score of others which may be Celtic but are usually considered of unknown origin;  Skullduddery? ,  toting a piece? (Carrying a weapon) ,   “a “checkered past”(?), “smashing” (good) , noggin ? and so on.  I make no claims of my own.;   I follow the authority of the  Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary. John Ciardi, the famous linguist, also said America popularized many Irish words which were frowned upon in England until recent times. See John Ciardi, A Brower’s Dictionary  Harper and Row, 1980. There are of course many Celtic loanwords in Latin and German dating back to pre-Roman times. See also An Etymological  Dictionary of the Gaelic Language  (1896) reprinted 1982. Most Celtic words in modern English were popularized by the poems and songs of Robert Burns, the poems of Thomas Moore, William Butler Yeats and the novels and poems of Walter Scott and others of the “Celtic Revival”.

Scotia’s Bard: Robert Burns

Here are a few famous examples: [

The Cotter’s Saturday Night
                                                            Robert Burns
Inscribed to R. Aiken, Esq.
“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
  Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear, with a disdainful smile,
  The short and simple annals of the Poor.  
MY lov’d, my honour’d, much respected friend!  
No mercenary bard[1] his homage pays;  
With honest pride, I scorn each selfish end,  
My dearest need, a friend’s esteem and praise:     5

Only “bard” is a native Celtic word.

Bard is a Celtic word (poet);  Ingle (fireplace ) is a Celtic word; but most of
the “difficult” words such as “weary kiaugh” (cark) burden; worry are
Scottish English dialect derived from Middle English. They are archaisms of English not Celtic.

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832)
HE is gone on the mountain,
  He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
  When our need was the sorest.
The font reappearing
  From the raindrops shall borrow,
But to us comes no cheering,
  To Duncan no morrow!
The hand of the reaper
  Takes the ears that are hoary,
But the voice of the weeper
  Wails manhood in glory.
The autumn winds rushing
  Waft the leaves that are serest,
But our flower was in flushing
  When blighting was nearest.
Fleet foot on the corrie
  Sage counsel in cumber,
Red hand in the foray,
  How sound is thy slumber!
Like the dew on the mountain,
  Like the foam on the river
Like the bubble on the fountain,
  Thou art gone, and forever.
Only a few Celtic words are added (Corry and Coronach) though it is
possible the simple style reads like a translation from Gaelic.
Correi (or Corrie ; Coire) is a round hollow in the hillside.  Use of this
Gaelic word adds local color but otherwise the poem is pure English.
A coronach id funeral dirge on the bagpipes ( from the Gaelic Coranach )

“How Oft Has the Banshee Cried”
By Thomas Moore
  HOW oft has the Banshee cried!
  How oft has death untied
  Bright links that Glory wove,
  Sweet bonds entwined by Love!
Peace to each manly soul that sleepeth;
Rest to each faithful eye that weepeth;
  Long may the fair and brave
  Sigh o’er the hero’s grave!

Once again there is only one Celtic word (Banshee). A banshee (Bean-Sidh) is a legend, a banshee is a fairy woman who begins to wail if someone is about to die. In Scottish mythology the creature is called the bean sìth or bean-nighe and is seen washing the blood stained clothes or armor of those who are about to die.

Here is an extended quotation from Merriam Webster.  I can read Middle
English (Chaucer) with some annotation but I cannot read Anglo-Saxon nor am I an expert on Anglo-Saxon so here it is best to go word by word from an expert source:    

The following brief sample of Old English prose illustrates several of the
significant ways in which change has so transformed English that we must
look carefully to find points of resemblance between the language of the
tenth century and our own. It is taken from
Aelfric’s “Homily on St. Gregory the Great” and concerns the famous story of how that pope came to send missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity after seeing Anglo-Saxon boys for sale as slaves in Rome
Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, “Rihtlice hi sind Angle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.”

A few of these words will be recognized as identical in spelling with their modern equivalents—he, of, him, for, and, on—and the resemblance of a few others to familiar words may be guessed—nama to name, comon to come, wære to were, wæs to was—but only those who have made a special study of Old English will be able to read the passage with understanding. The sense of it is as follows:

Again he [St. Gregory] asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said, “Rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels’
companions in heaven.”

Some of the words in the original have survived in altered form, including axode (asked), hu (how), rihtlice (rightly), engla (angels), habbað (have), swilcum (such), heofonum (heaven), and beon (be).
” Perhaps the most distinctive difference between Old and Modern English
reflected in Aelfric’s sentences is the elaborate system of inflections, of
which we now have only remnants.
The period of Middle English extends roughly from the twelfth century through the fifteenth…”

We can hear elements of Middle English, still, in northern English and
Scottish dialects. 








[1] The excellent English language

[2] The rest spoke Welsh or Irish or Scottish Gaelic languages still spoken in the Isles today.

[3] This fact has a great influence on how modern English is spelled.

[4] Rita Guibert Seven Voices

Knopf Doubleday, 2015 p. 71 ed. Richard Burgin

In-depth and personal interviews by Rita Guibert of Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Angel Asturias, Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Pablo Neruda in 1971, Miguel Angel Asturias in 1967, Octavio Paz in 1990 and Gabriel García Márquez in 1982.

[5] Also called “Aryan” this was a linguistic group like Latin or Spanish. In Nazism it was considered a “race” of “pure Europeans” (Caucasian Gentiles of a Nordic type). Indo-European speakers were of many races.