Last recorded use of Old English in history revealed

Last recorded use of Old English in history revealed

Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, was spoken in the British Isles from the 5th century AD.  Academics have revealed that it was last formally used in the city of Peterborough in 1154 AD.

Old English developed from the North Sea Germanic dialects spoken by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who settled in Britain after the departure of the Romans.  Its earliest surviving written use is in Cædmon’s Hymn, composed between 658 and 680, but its use in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from the 9th century represents the primary source of history of Dark Ages Britain.

The original manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably created in Wessex during the reign of Alfred the Great and multiple copies were distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated.  Just 9 copies survive.

According to Professors Bill Lucas and Christopher Mulvey, authors of A History of the English Language in 100 Places, a monk in Peterborough’s Abbey of St Peter made the last entry in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles in 1154.

Professor Mulvey said: “The monk wrote: ‘In this year king Stephen died’.

“A few further lines follow, and that’s it.  The monk wrote no more; never was another entry made; the Chronicle finished unfinished; it was the last formal use of Old English.  For the next two hundred years, French took over.

“Peterborough takes its place alongside Canterbury (where the Roman alphabet is adopted), Reading (the first song in English), Bruges (where the printing press begins) and Jamestown (where the English language arrives in America).

“The monks of St Peter’s Abbey were the last men to maintain a chronicle in Old English.  After them, monastery records were made in Norman French or, more commonly, in Latin.”

While French remained the dominant language of literature and law in England for a few centuries after the Norman conquest in 1066, the ruling elite gradually ‘re-Anglicised’ and Old English made its transition to Middle English (12th to 15th century), then Early Modern English (c. 1480 to 1650) and finally Modern English (after 1650).

The colonial influence of the British Empire from the 18th century and the economic and cultural influence of the United States since the mid-20th century have made English a global language.  It is the language most often taught as a second language, the official language of the UN, the EU and many Commonwealth countries, and, by international treaty, the official language for air and maritime communication.  It has also become the dominant language of the internet (overall web content in English is as high as 80%).

Today, Old English would probably sound more familiar to modern German and Icelandic speakers than to speakers of modern English.

Source:  Peterborough Today

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