Old English written records
The word rune originally meant “secret”, “mystery” and they are believed to be magic. There is no doubt that the Germanic tribes knew the runic writing long before they came to Britain. The first runes were found in Scandinavia. The runes were used as letters; each symbol indicated a separate sound.
The runic alphabet is a specifically Germanic one, which cannot be found in other Indo-European languages. The shape of preferred, this is due to the fact that all runic inscriptions were cut in hard material: stone, bone, wood.
The number of runes in different Old Germanic languages greatly varied from 28 to 33 runes in Britain against 16 or 24 on the mainland. Runes were used only for short inscriptions on the objects in order to bestow some special power or magic on them and they were not used in writing.
The two best known runic inscriptions in England are “Franks Casket”, and “Ruth well Cross”. Both records are in Northumbrian dialect.
The first English manuscripts were written in Latin letters. The center of learning was monasteries and the monks were practically the only literate people. The religious services were conducted in Latin and the first English writings appeared in Latin letters. English scribes modified the Latin script to suit their needs: the shape of some letters was changed and new symbols which indicated the English sounds, for which Latin had no equivalents, were added.
The first English words were personal names and place names inserted in Latin texts, and then came glosses and longer textual insertions.
The first official documents were written in Latin, but later they were written in local dialects, because not many people knew Latin. Among the earliest insertions in Latin texts are pieces of poetry. Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum written in Latin in the 8 th c. contains an English fragment of five lines known as “Bede’s Death Song” and a religious poem of nine lines, “Cadmon’s Hymn” Old English poetry is mainly restricted to three subjects: heroic, religious and lyrical. Most of poetry is believed to be composed at that time when there was no writing and they existed in oral form and handed down from one generation to another.
The greatest poem of the Old English period was Beowulf, an epic of the 7th c. As some linguists and historians Consider this epic was composed in the Mercian or Northumbrian dialect, but came to the present time in West Saxon dialect. Beowulf consists of several songs arranged in three chapters (over 3 000 lines in all). It is based on old legends about the ancient Teutons. It depicts the life and fight of the legendary hero Beowulf, some extracts of the epic describes the real historical events.
In the 10th c. when the old heroic versus began to decline, some new poems were composed which were the picture of the real historical events. Among them were the chronicles: the battle of Brunanburh, the Battle of Maldon. They depicted the wars with the Scots, the Picts and the invaders from Scandinavia.
Old English poetry is characterized by the so-called system of versification Old Germanic alliterative verse. The structure of this verse is this: the line is divided into two halves with two strongly stressed syllables in each half and is bound together by the use of the same sound at the beginning of two stressed syllables in the line. The lines are not rhymed and the number of the syllables in a line is pee.
There is another specification in Old English poetry: the use of metaphorical phrases as hēapu-swāt – “war sweat” (blood). The greatest written monument of the Anglo-Saxon poetry of that time was the poem “Beowulf” that was created early in the 7th century and had 3182 lines full not only of masterful descriptions and dignified speeches but also of fine lyrical feeling which is in keeping with the whole body of early Anglo-Saxon poetry.
The plot is simple enough: in the first part of the poem Beowulf, a young hero of the Geats (a tribe that lived in the southern part of Sweden), hears of a sea monster Grendel preying upon Hrothgar the king of the Danes killing his warriors right after their feast in the “middle hall” called Heorot. So he goes with his men to kill this monster and free the Danes from the terror of the monster. He mortally wounds him in the single combat with his bare hands and then kills another, who is more terrible and much stronger than the first. It is Grendel’s mother who wants to take revenge upon Beowulf and the people for her son’s death. Beowulf kills the second monster in her cave with the magic sword that he wrests from the enemy. The poem symbolized a triumph of human courage over the hostile forces of nature.
The second part of the poem greatly influenced by Christianity after its introduction into the early Germanic society tells about Beowulf where he is an aged king an ideal king of the tribal society who peacefully and wisely rules the Danes. At that time appears a fire-breathing monster that hoards the gold and a plenty of treasure in a cave and becomes a grave menace for people. Gold is shown here as a force which threatens the tribal society, that brings discord and destruction. Desire of gold is the root of all evil and Beowulf dies protecting his people from the great menace of gold which is implied in the image of this monster.
Literary critics highly appreciate the aesthetic quality of “Beowulf” considering it to be the masterpiece of the old Germanic prose. Some of them think that this poem was written by one author, probably acquainted with the traditions of the Latin epic narrative. They concluded it on the bases of comparisons which were made on Virgil’s “Aeneid”. There was another opposite opinion, classifying the poem as a sort of synthesis of the Germanic epics and the topic of the Biblical stories, treating Grendel as a descendant of Cain and making allusions to the struggle of God and Satana in connection with hero’s struggle against evil forces.
The earliest sample of prose works are: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which are of no great importance as a literary work but are of great interest for the linguists because they were written in spoken language and they are much better than sophisticated Translations from Latin.
The flourishing of learning and literature began in the times of reign of King Alfred. He was a learned man and realized that culture hat to be developed in mother tongue. He translated from Latin books on geography, history, philosophy. One of his most important contributions is the West Saxon version of Orosius’s World History (Historiarum Adversus paganos Libri Septem “Seven books of history against the heathens”). This is the description where the Germanic languages were spoken, the story of two voyages which were made one by Ohthere, a Norwegian, who sailed along the coast of Scandinavia into the Write Sea and the other Wulfstan, a Dane, who had traveled round the Baltic Sea. Another work is book for instructions for priests Pastoral Care (Cura Pastoralis) by Pope Gregory the Great.
Another outstanding writer of the Old English period was Aelfric who created the alliterative prose work “The Lives of the saints”. He was the first to translate from Latin some parts of the Holy Bible. He was known also as educator he wrote a Latin Grammar giving Old English equivalents of Latin forms and constructions.
Wulfstan was the prominent late West Saxon author, was an Archbishop of York in the early 11th c.
During the period the language was developing very slowly.
The phonetics of the Old English period was characterized by a system of dynamic stress. The fixed stress fell on the first root syllable.
agāne (gone); зesēon (see); зaderian (gather)
The vowels had the following characteristic features:
a) the quantity and the quality of the vowel depended upon its position in the word. Under stress any vowel could be found, but in unstressed position there were no diphthongs or long monophthongs, but only short vowels [a], [e], [i], [o], [u].
b) The length of the stressed vowels (monophthongs and diphthongs) was phonemic, which means that there could be two words differing only in the length of the vowel:
metan (to meet, to measure) – mētan (to meet)
pin (pin) – pīn (pain)
God (god) – gōd (good)
ful (full) – fūl (foul)
c) There was an exact parallelism of long and short vowels:
Short: a o e u i æ y ea eo
Long: ā ō ē ū ī ǽ ý ēo ēa
The consonants were few. Some of the modern sounds were non-existent ([∫], [з], [t∫], [dз]).
The quality of the consonant very much depended on its position in the word, especially the resonance (voiced and voiceless sounds: hlāf [f] (loaf) – hālord [v] (lord, “bread-keeper”) and articulation (palatal and velar sounds: climban [k] (to climb) – cild [k’] (child)), etc.
The Old English spelling was mainly phonetic, i.e. each letter as a rule denoted one sound in every environment. Note should be taken that the letters f, s, þ, ð could denote voiced consonants in intervocalic positions or voicless otherwise; the letter c was used to denote the sound [k] (palatal or velar); the letter y denoted the sound [ÿ] (similar to German [ü in the word Gemüt or in Russian [ю] in the word “бюро”).
The letter з could denote three different sounds:
[j] – before or after front vowels [æ], [e], [i]:
Зiefan (give), Зēar (year), dæз (year)
[γ] – after back vowels [a], [o], [u] and consonants [l] and [r]:
Dæзas (days), folзian (follow)
[g] – before consonants and before back vowels [a], [o], [u]:
Зōd (good), зlēo (glee)
Old English was a synthetic language (the lexical and grammatical notions of the word were contained in one unit). It was highly inflected, with many various affixes. The principal grammatical means were suffixation, vowel interchange and supplition.
Ic cēpe (I keep) – þu cēpst (you keep) – he cēpð (he keeps)
wrītan (to write) – Ic wrāt (I wrote)
зān (to go) – ēode (went)
bēon (to be) – Ic eom (I am)
þu eart (you are)
he is (he is)
There was no fixed word-order in old English, the order of the words in the sentence being relatively free.
Almost all of it was composed of native words, there were very borrowings.
Borrowings were mainly from Latin:
a) The forefathers of English, when on the Continent, had contacts with the Roman Empire and borrowed words connected mainly with trade:
cīese (cheese), wīn (wine), æpple (apple)
b) They borrowed Latin words from the Romanized Celts:
stræt (street), weall (wall), myln (mill)
c) Some borrowings were due to the introduction of Christianity:
biscop (bishop),deoful (devil), munic (monk)
New words appeared as a result of two processes:
a) word derivation:
fisc+ere = fiscere (fish – fisher)
wulle+en = wyllen (wool – woolen)
clæne+s+ian = clæsian (clean – to cleanse)
b) word composition:
sunne+dæз = Sunnandæз (sun + day = Sunday)
Mōna+dæз = Mōnandæз (moon + day = Monday)
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