The Beginning of English Poetry: Old English, Caedmon’s Hymn, and Beowulf

Is English a Romance language or a Germanic language? The answer is not easy because modern English is very different from de German or Danish. However, the influence of the Latin and French languages is notorious since the eleventh century since the Middle English lexicon. The 70% of words in Modern English have been taking from the Latin and French languages, and the rest of the lexicon are a Germanic origin. But, during the period of Old English, this language was similar to Frisian, Dutch or German languages.

But, from the fifth century to the eleventh century in Britannia the language was Englisċ, the language of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes, who displaced the Celtic tribes, the original inhabitants of the Roman province of Britannia. The language of the Anglo-Saxon tribes was Englisċ since the fifth century until Viking and Norman invasions during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

This Old English was a West Germanic Language. The Anglo-Saxon tribes came from the European region of Jutland (now, Denmark, and the modern German Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein). This language had a different origin from the languages of Visigoths, Ostrogoths or Vandals, because the Englisċ lexicon was similar to the Frisian, Dutch, or German languages:


Moreover, Englisċ had four dialects: Northumbrian in northern England, and southwestern Scotland; Mercian in central Britannia; Kentish in southwestern Britannia. Finally, West Saxon in southern and southwestern England. The first and the second dialect were the Anglian dialects.

On the other hand, the West Saxon Dialects (Mercian and Kentish) were writing of the Old English literature during the the reign of King Alfred the Great in the ninth century. This approach to Old English cannot end without comments on the Englisċ lexicon in comparison with other Germanic languages and modern English.

Then, we are going to understand that the lexicon of the Old English was like Dutch, Danish or German languages. The oldest book wrote in Englisċ was Caedmon’s Hymn, a cowherd named Caedmon who lived at the Abbey of Whitby in the eighth century. This hym was a ‘gloss’ like a work in praise of God. Besides, Caedmon’s Hymn marked the beginning of the English poetry. But, this hymn was a translation from Latin to Englisċ, and it was composed in the seventh century.

Caedmon’s Hymn in Old English and Modern English translation

Caedmon’s Hymn – Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Nu sculon herigean / heofonrices Weard
[Now must we praise / heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,]

Meotodes meahte / and his modgeþanc
[the Measurer’s might / and his mind-plans,]

weorc Wuldor-Fæder / swa he wundra gehwæs
[the work of the Glory-Father, / when he of wonders of every one,]

ece Drihten / or onstealde
[eternal Lord, / the beginning established.]

He ærest sceop / ielda bearnum
[He first created / for men’s sons]

heofon to hrofe / halig Scyppend
[heaven as a roof, / holy Creator;

ða middangeard / moncynnes Weard
[then middle-earth / mankind’s Guardian,]

ece Drihten / æfter teode
[eternal Lord / afterwards made –]

firum foldan / Frea ælmihtig.
[for men earth, / Master almighty.]

Other important text in Old English is the Beowulf’s poem. The Beowulf was an epic poem in the traditional Germanic heroic legends. Perhaps is like the poems in old Spanish or, old French. Beowulf with the Caedmon’s hymn were the most significant compositions in Old English. This poem is a manuscript from the tenth, or eleventh centuries. The plot of Beowulf is focused on Scandinavia. Therefore, the influence of the nordic culture was notorious. In these centuries, the Vikings invaded the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons.

BEOWULF in Old English and Modern English tranlation.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,

 [LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings]

þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,

[of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped]

hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

[we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!]

Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena/ þreatum,

[Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,]

monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,

[from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,]

egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð/

[awing the earls. Since erst he lay]

feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,

[friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him]

weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,

[for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,]

oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra

[till before him the folk, both far and near,]

ofer hronrade hyran sco

[who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,]

gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

[gave him gifts: a good king he!]

After the Vikings, and the Norman invasion with William the Conqueror, the Old English began to change to Middle English, and the influence of Latin, and French language began to modify the phonetics, and the lexicon. Finally, we can conclude that, in the first period of English, it had a similar evolution than Frisian, German, or Dutch. But, from Viking and Norman invasion the English lexicon was latinized by influence of Latin, and French. However, at the syntax level, the modern English is a Germanic language. Instead, at the phonetic level, Modern English is an isolated case.


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