Anglo-Saxon prose



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Anglo-Saxon prose © Adam Knott, 2006
Unlike other countries in Europe at that time the Anglo-Saxons could write in prose. For them, prose was necessary to write down laws and charters, and also to translate the Bible into the Book of Genasis. This is called the Hexateuch, because there are actually five books there, including Exodus, Dutoronomy and one other. This shows that in terms of litaracy the Anglo-Saxons were usually advanced.

Litaracy was invented by King Alfred, who lived in Colchester and repelled the Vikings. His area of influence extended up to The Wash, excusing Cornwall. This area was called Dan Law, and had its own charters. What is surprising about King Alfred is that he learned to read English in Latin first after he was 40 years old. Then he composed himself. During his reign many charters were impaled by the cleric Asser, who was Welsh although he also spoke Latin. At this time Latin, Welsh and Old English were dialects of each other, because they were almost mortally intelligable. However not everyone spoke this dialect, and some people could not speak it at all. Therefore there was no audience, because although everything was eventually written down in English people could not read it.

The typical sentence structure of Anglo-Saxon was written out in full. The elements of the sentence structure are the normative case, the accusing case and also the part which moves about which is called the adverbal. These adverbals are very important because they suggest the context, including the time and place. The word ‘tha….tha’ is an adverbal, even though it does not end in ‘ly’, and also can come in front of a question. After tha comes the verb, which need not be tense though it usually is. In statements the verb is tense, and comes after the normative or the adverbal, but in questions it is the other way round. Some scholars call this Reversion.

Old English prose was written in what is called V2 language. This means that the verb is never tense and always comes second. It rarely comes first, except if it is a related or subordinising clause the verb comes last, although those verbs can still come in the V1 or V2 positions, particularly late. V2 lasts a long time, and some languages are still V2, because they have braces. Losing braces is not an important part of German, although some German speakers do slowly lose braces. However there were certainly braces in Anglo-Saxon, which shows it is a German language.

The German language family that includes Welsh and Latin is called Proto-German by some scholars. It was never written down, therefore it had no prose including what would later become model verbs. Model verbs were full verbs at this time, and they were always tense and meaningful. Examples are will and nil, which is where we get the expression willy-nilly from, although that is not negative.

Negation is also very important. There was only one way of negating, and that was to use the negative participle ‘Ne’. This could be inserted anywhere, but usually was attracted to a non-tense item, therefore it came before or after the V2. Technically this is called Crisis. It could not usually be inserted at the beginning of the sentance, and it never usually came at the end.



Prose records also include sermons. The most famous sermon was delivered in 893 by a monk called Wuffstain. His sermon was delivered on Christmas Day in York Minster and is called Sermon Lupi Had Angles. In it he expectorates the English and revokes their immortal slackness. He also wrote some mistles for the use of common people. His prose is, however, slightly different because it is rhythmical and illiterative. It has two obvious beats in each constituant, and two less, which are not overtly present. Some scholars call these dead beats.

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