It is obvious, that in order to make a thorough study of the English language, and in order to understand its laws of development it is necessary to know the history of the English people who are the creators and carriers of the English language. It goes without saying that the history of a people cannot be given in a single text. Therefore we shall only deal with such facts of English history as throw light on the development of the English language and to some extent explain its complex character.
The first settlers in Britain that we know of belonged to the Celtic tribes which, before they arrival in Britain, had spread over what is now Germany, France and Spain. These first Celtic invaders are known as the Goidels, and their language survives in some parts of Ireland and Scotland.
About two centuries later a new wave of Celtic tribes known as Britons landed on the shores of Britain. They spoke a different language from that of the Goidels, both of which may be regarded as Celtic dialects. The modern language spoken in Wales (the western part of Britain) is a survival of their language. The Celtic people lived in tribes based on kinship.
The actual conquest of Britain by Rome began one hundred years later, in 43 A.D. And their rule over Britain lasted for about four centuries. During this period a considerable part of the land was cleared for cultivation, many new towns grew up, roads in all directions were made and a number of forts were built for the defense of their frontiers.
Britain, now a Roman province, was frequently troubled by the Picts and Scots, the Celtic tribes which had escaped the Roman conquest and settled in Scotland and Ireland. But in the fifth century other enemies appeared. These were Germanic tribes: the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. By this time the Britons were left on the island alone to defend their country, as the Roman legions had been withdrawn to the Continent to defend Rome from the advancing Germanic tribes.
We know very few details of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. We know that the invaders belonged to the Germanic tribes. Their languages and dialects belonged to the Indo-European family of languages.
Before their raid on Britain the invaders had lived on the Danish peninsula and at the estuary of the river Elbe. The details of the invasion are lost in the dim light of unrecorded history. Some information can be found in the so-called Anglo-Saxon scribes, but it was written centuries after the time of the Anglo-Saxon conquest. Its stories were folk tales, handed down from generation to generation.
The Anglo-Saxon colonies began on the coast-line of the eastern half of England and worked their way slowly inland. The earliest invaders were Jutes, who occupied first Thanet and then Kent, not long after the middle of the fifth century. The open country of the South Downs was seized by some Saxon tribes, who speedily reached the limits of their expansion and settled down as the small and backward kingdom of Sussex. Other Saxons took the northern bank of the Thames estuary and founded the kingdom of Essex. North of them appeared Angles. A few more angles settled on the high inner part of what is now Lincolnshire. The Angles then occupied the coast-lines and open country north of the Humber estuary. From their scattered settlements arose the kingdom of Northumbria. Some time after a stream of newcomers poured into the midland and founded Mercia, whilst another stream took the coast-line west of the Isle of Wight and moved northwards to the Thames and westwards towards Devon and Somerset. These last named settlements grew into the Kingdom of Wessex.note 2
The social order of these tribes preserved the early organization of human society in its transition stage from kindred order to that of feudalism. The unit of settlements was the kindred (clan), a large family or a group of families.
They worked in the fields in common, i.e., the ploughing and other operations were performed by the common efforts of the whole community. But there are evident traces of slavery. Slaves were mostly prisoners of war. By the time the Kingdoms were organized there was a definite social differentiation of the society.
The isolation of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the Continental Germanic tribes actually led to the formation of the English nationality. The dialects of these tribes had so much in common that the tribes could easily understand each other. So we can say that even in this remote past the English people had a common language which they themselves called “Englisc” (English).
The time of the invasion of Britain by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes is considered to be the real beginning of the history of the English language which isolated from the continental Germanic dialects, developed according to its inner laws of development.
The century after the Caesar incident was a century of preparation for the Romanization of Britain. Gaul became a peaceful province of Rome. On the Britons the raids had had a considerable influence, and we hear no more of their stirring up trouble in Gaul. There was certainly an active trade between the Celts of the opposite shores of the narrow sea. It is possible that Landon was already a town of some importance, for its site was the first practicable landing-place on the Thames for those who wished to travel northwards into the midlands, and it was probably the only crossing-place on the road from Kent into the same region. The Emperor Claudius undertook the invasion in 43 A.D. Within twenty years the south and midlands had been subdued and partly romanized. London, Colchester, and Verulam (near the present St. Albans) had become towns filled with Romans and their slaves and with a multitude of Britons who had evidently yielded to the new way of life.
There are a great many instances in the early history of most nations upon which positive statements cannot fairly be made. The surviving facts are few, and sometimes seems to contradict one another, and there are frequent gaps in the record which have to be bridged by guess-work. It is safer to say that our explanations are probable than that are certain. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of England is an example.
One clear fact about the invaders is that they belonged to the Germanic tribes. As invasion spread across Britain, three kingdoms, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex, overshadowed the rest in power and size. Northumbria became for a time the most advanced state in old England. Mercia and Wessex had the same experience. Each in turn had a period of supremacy, Mercia in the eighth century, and Wessex in the ninth century.
Little is known about the making of Mercia, although it was a much larger area than the earlier kingdoms. Its history is almost all lost. The Wessex record is more fully preserved.
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