The many origins of English, gathered into a British Library exhibit

January 29, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writing.

Those interested in the deep history of the English language will want to take a look at this article on the BBC website: BBC – Culture – What the earliest fragments of English reveal. And if you’re in London anytime soon will want to view the exhibit it describes at the British Library.

The exhibit, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, will be available until Tuesday, Feb. 19. It shows that the Mother Tongue had many mothers and father from various places in Europe:

The exhibition gathers together an array of documents, books and archaeological evidence to form a dense picture of the Anglo-Saxon period, including a burial urn with runic inscriptions in early English from Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire, England.Anglo-Saxons cremated their dead and interred their remains in earthenware vessels. About 20 objects with runic inscriptions from before 650AD are known from England, making this vessel – which seems to feature a woman’s name and the word for tomb – one of the earliest examples of English. Source: BBC – Culture – What the earliest fragments of English reveal

The BBC article, by Cameron Laux, points out that the roots of the English language date back to the Fifth Century in Denmark and Germany where the Anglican, Saxon, and Jute tribes lived. When the Romans withdrew from England about 410 AD, they were replaced by migrants from these tribes.

The written language these tribes developed use runes, which are vertical and diagonal lines of text that lent themselves to being carved into wood. One of the items in the exhibit is a 5th-century cremation urn with a rune that means “ale.”

On a more familiar note, the exhibit includes the only manuscript of Beowulf known to exist. It dates from the end of the 10th century.

This has been a well-reviewed and highly popular exhibit, and tickets might be hard to come by. Fear not, the BBC article and the exhibit’s website have lots of information and pictures of the exhibits.

Image: The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.

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