Discovering Intellectual Fire: the Birth of English


Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon chest with rune inscriptions, via

The written word is both of the earth and of the spirit, positioned on the intersection between mind and flesh. It freezes the living, shimmering organism of language in time, petrifies it, making it immortal. The intangible, impenetrable roots of almost all European languages (apart from Finnish, Hungarian, Basque and Estonian) are planted in India – “the country of hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions,” in the unforgettable words of Mark Twain, or, as Salman Rushdie called his own country, “a collective fiction in which anything was possible, a fable rivalled only by the two other mighty fantasies: money and God.”

The beginnings of any language are fabled and mythical. Though deeply mysterious, these origins are still worth exploring not only because they are fascinating but also because there is still a vital and vitalizing connection between how our distant ancestors constructed their world by means of their language and how we use the language to grasp our reality nowadays. The historical roots of English are to be found in the hard surfaces of wood, metal, stone, and in the softness of the English soil. The Chinese traced the origins of their alphabet in marks left by animals in the sand, but the original, primary Old English alphabet was comprised of the Runes chiseled on hard surfaces. The language was brought by warrior tribes from across the sea in the fifth century. Eventually, they took over the land previously occupied by the Celts and proclaimed themselves its owners. As Melvyn Bragg writes:

 “That is one powerful image – English arriving on the scene like a fury from hell, brought to the soft shores of an abandoned imperial outpost by fearless pagan fighting men, riding along the whale’s way on their wave-steeds. It is an image of the spread of English which has been matched by reality many times, often savagely, across one and a half millennia. This dramatic colonisation became over time one of its chief characteristics.”

In time, the ruthless invaders turned into peaceful farmers:

 “Through their occupation English was earthed. This ability to plant itself deep in foreign territory became another powerful characteristic of the language.”

Although we nowadays perceive English as a hybrid composed of numerous languages it has conquered and absorbed throughout its history, its Anglo-Saxon roots were solid, almost impenetrable. The language of the Celts was preserved in Wales and Cornwall, but where the invading tribes chose to live it was ruthlessly eradicated. Melvyn Bragg’s explanation of this fact is quite compelling:

“… I speculate that English, finding a new home, its powerful voice freed by water from old roots, groping towards the entity it would become, wanted all the space it could claim. For English to grow to its full power, others had to be felled or chopped back savagely. Until it grew confident enough to take on newcomers, it needed the air and the place to itself.

Old English has hardly any loan words – an astonishing fact, indeed. The conquerors claimed their right to the new land with unvanquishable resoluteness and a full arrogance of a newly forged identity:

“The ‘-ing’ ending in modern place names means ‘the people of’ and ‘-ing’ is all about us – Ealing, Dorking, Worthing, Reading, Hastings; ‘-ton’ means enclosure or village, as in my own home town of Wigton, and as in Wilton, Taunton, Bridlington, Ashton, Burton, Crediton, Luton; ‘-ham’ means farm – Birmingham, Chippenham, Grantham, Fulham, Tottenham, Nottingham. There are hundreds of examples. These were straightforward territorial claims. The language said: we are here to stay, we name and we own this.

‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ said Churchill in 1940, ‘we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.’ Only ‘surrender’ is not Old English. That, in itself, might be significant.

At its heart, English is ferociously territorial. The unconquerable Anglo-Saxon pagans opened their hearts only to Christianity and much later, once they have been firmly established on the land. Church Latin proved too powerful to resist, the new religion too compelling to be ignored. The raw, lusty and primitive Old English, despite its hard crust and reserve, opened itself to be infiltrated and altered by the bookish, refined Latin. Thus, the Old English alphabet was born, as the Runes were supplanted with a brand new set of twenty-four letters preserved on vellum and parchment, not in stone, as it was before:

 “An alphabet most likely sown by anonymous clerics grew out of the Latin and remarkably early, by the seventh century, Old English had achieved its own alphabet. It was like discovering intellectual fire. A, æ, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, þ, ð, u, uu (to become w much later), y.

In the early years English knew its place and its place was literally in the margins: we see a small plain English hand crawling its shy translation above the towering, magnificently wrought Latin letters which brought the word of God to save the souls of the English. I have always been ridiculously pleased that the Lindisfarne Gospels, the first great English work of art, was a book. Though using craftsmen from other lands it was made in the Northumbrian part of what was to become England. The Lindisfarne Gospels were executed in brilliant colours, a mixture of Germanic, Irish and Byzantine motifs, elaborately designed letters, decorated with precious stones, works to awe the masses and to praise God.


The Lindisfarne Gospels: Gospel of St Matthew the Evangelist, initial page, via

Source of all quotes:

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English, Kindle edition

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5 Responses to Discovering Intellectual Fire: the Birth of English

  1. jeanraffa says:

    Thank you for the fascinating and erudite read!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting read, Monika !

    Liked by 1 person

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