Early Germanic Dialects: Old Saxon

Well, you’ve certainly have had fun without me, haven’t you? It’s been four weeks since you heard anything new about the Early Germanic dialects, but I can see that Lisa has had a word with you about contact situations and language influence (and exposed the HLC’s horrifying lies about language change!), and our great guest posts, by Sarah and Claire, must have kept you plenty entertained!

Now we’re getting back at it, though, and today, we’ll have a look at a little language that was part of the foundation of the Anglo-Saxon community in England: Old Saxon!

Let’s do what we usually do and start with a bit of a general history lesson, shall we?

The Saxons–surprise surprise!–were a somewhat warlike people. So much so, in fact, that their very name is a reference to a sword: a short sword characteristic of the Saxon people, known as the sahs (we still find its derivation in the second part of the German word for ‘knife’ (Messer)).

The Saxons were first mentioned during the middle of the 2nd century A.D. by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in his chapter Magna Germanica (in the book Geographia), in which Ptolemy places the Saxons in the area around the North Sea coast and to the east of the lower Elbe, an area that is now Holstein in the county of Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost state of Germany (just south of Denmark)–and if you’re wondering why all the warlike people seem to be coming from the northernmost areas of the world: it’s the cold. Definitely the cold.

In the following centuries, the Saxons show up prominently in a bunch of bloody battle accounts and struggles; they were fighting with their neighbours, with their allies, with their enemies… with pretty much everyone and anyone. But mostly, they fought with their neighbours, the Franks.

Despite this, they must have had a reasonably amicable relationship with their neighbours to the southwest around the year 531, when they joined together to destroy the kingdom of Thuringia:

1

However, the new Saxon kings of Thuringia were forced to pay a yearly tribute to the Frankish kingdom, which did not sit well with the Saxons. So, naturally, for about 200 years, there is an on-again-off-again war between the Saxons and the Franks.

Then, in 715, the western Saxons invaded the lower Rhenish areas. They were pushed back by Charles Martel in 718, who had to enter western Saxony twice–and was not happy about it (which he brutally took out on the local population). Yet, the Saxons were nothing if not stubborn and revolted again in 753, with the same expected results. One would think they had enough by now, right? Yeah, not so much. The scenario was repeated again, with the same results, in 758 (have you ever heard that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”2?).

Eventually, we reach the fatal year 772–the beginning of the end for the Saxons as an independent state. In that year, the Imperial council officially declared war on the Saxons. Enter, stage right: Charlemagne.

Charlemagne completed the Frank’s annexation of Saxon territory in 782, but the final battles between the Saxons and the Franks weren’t fought for another 12 years, when finally, we see the end of the Saxons as an independent state.

That isn’t the last we’ll hear about the Saxons, of course, but I’ll deal with their history in England in the chapter on Old English rather than here (it’ll make sense to you soon enough, I promise).

Our knowledge about the Saxon language comes from two major surviving texts: the epic poem Heliand and a copy of Genesis which runs to just 330 lines, so it’s quite short–though it is argued that the original was likely quite long. The Heliand is quite interesting for a multitude of reasons: an alliterative poem of some 6000 long lines, it recounts the story of Jesus in a way that combines the contributions of all four Gospels in a single narrative. The poem not only translates the story into a Germanic verse form, but changes the setting of the story–the tale of Jesus is told not in some far-away Holy Land but on the plains and marshes of northern Germany, and the shepherds who are told of Jesus’s birth are not tending sheep, but horses.

Now that we’ve looked quite a bit at the history of the Saxons and their surviving texts, let’s have a look at the language that they spoke! It is why we are here after all.

Most of the time, the letters used in Old Saxon texts correspond quite well to what one, as an English-speaker, would expect–p, t, k, for example, are pronounced just as in modern English–but there are a couple of surprises:

In word-final position, the letter g corresponds to [x] (the sound in Scots loch or German nacht), so a word like dag ‘day’ would be pronounced something like dach, except if it was preceded by n. In these cases, g was pronounced like [k], so g in words like lang ‘long’ would be pronounced [k], i.e. lank.

Another surprise concerns the letters b and d. In general, these are pronounced as in Modern English, but in word-final position and before voiceless consonants (like t or s), they were probably pronounced [p] and [t]. So:

bi'by'[b] > [b]
dôan ‘do’[d] > [d]
lamb‘lamb’[b] > [p]
flôd‘flood’[d] > [t]

Another difference is found in the voiceless fricative /f/: when between vowels, it becomes voiced,  /v/, as does /θ/ and /s/ which become [ð] and [z] respectively. The difference between /f/ and the other letters that get voiced, is that the change in /f/ is faithfully reflected in writing! When /f/ became [v], it was consistently spelt ⟨ƀ⟩ and ⟨u⟩, so if you see those letters in between vowels, you can start to suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon.

Let’s look at some other indicators that you’re looking at Old Saxon.

Unlike Gothic and Old Norse, Old Saxon shows a development of the older diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to the monophthongs [e:] and [o:]. Other early Germanic dialects do this, too, but it is a conditional change, meaning that certain conditions must be fulfilled before the change can happen. In Old Saxon, though, we would call it an unconditional change, meaning that this change occurs virtually without exception–let’s look at stone as an example:

Old Saxonstên
Gothicstains
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

So if you’re seeing <e> where in comparable texts you see a diphthong, you might suspect that you’re looking at Old Saxon–like we said, though, this is not bulletproof evidence, so let’s look at some more stuff that Old Saxon does!

When we were talking about Old Norse, we briefly touched upon a process called gemination. What this means is that the consonants g and k doubled to gg and kk after a short vowel and before j (and sometimes w). This process has far greater scope in Old Saxon than in Old Norse; in Old Saxon, all consonants can be doubled except r and the doubling takes place before not just j and w but also quite frequently before r and l, and sometimes before m and n. Another unique feature of Old Saxon among the West Germanic languages (remember our tree?) is that it usually still shows the conditioning <j>:

Old SaxonOld EnglishModern English
biddian biddan‘ask’
huggianhycgan‘think’

Two more things before we wrap up:

In Old Saxon, as in all the languages that we will look at following this post (but not the ones that precede it), we find that the verbal infinitive has developed into something approaching a true noun, what we would today call the gerund. The gerund may function as the subject of a sentence:

Eating people is wrong

or the object of a verb:

The hardest thing about learning English is understanding the gerund.

And finally:  

Unlike in Gothic and Old Norse, the masculine nominative singular ending of Proto-Germanic, *-az, has disappeared completely in Old Saxon. In Old Norse, we find -r in its place, e.g. dagr ‘day’, while in Gothic, we find –s, e.g.  þs ‘good’. In Old Saxon, though, we find dag and gôd for these words – the ending has completely disappeared!

So, there you have it, features to look for in Old Saxon. Let’s wrap this up with a bit of an example, from the Eucharist, with a translation from Murphy3:

EucharistTranslation
tho sagda he that her scoldi cumin en wiscuning
mari endi mahtig an thesan middelgard
bezton giburdies; quad that it scoldi wesan barn godes,
quad that he thesero weroldes waldan scoldi
gio te ewandaga, erdun endi himiles.
He quad that an them selbon daga, the ina salingna
an thesan middilgard modar gidrogi
so quad he that ostana en scoldi skinan
huit, sulic so wi her ne habdin er
undartuisc erda endi himil odar huerigin
ne sulic barn ne sulic bocan
Then he spoke and said
there would come a wise king,
magnificent and mighty,
to this middle realm;
he would be of the best birth;
he said that he would
be the Son of God,
he said that he would rule this world, earth and sky, always and forevermore.
he said that on the same day on which the mother gave
birth to the Blessed One in this middle
realm, in the East,
he said, there would
shine forth a brilliant light in the sky, one
such as we never had before between
heaven and earth nor anywhere
else, never such a baby and never such a beacon.

Sources

As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

For this post, we have also taken a look at:

Robert Flierman. 2017. Saxon Identities, AD 150-900. London, Oxford, New York, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.

1 The map is an edited version from this map

2This famous quote is, of course, attributed to Albert Einstein

3And finally, this text comes from Wikipedia


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