Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or what was spoken Old English like?

Diglossia in Anglo-Saxon England, or what was spoken Old English like?

By Hildegard L. C. Tristram

Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, Vol. 40 (2004)

Abstract: This paper argues that the texts surviving from the Old English period do not reflect the spoken language of the bulk of the population under Anglo-Saxon elite domination. While the Old English written documents suggest that the language was kept remarkably unchanged, i.e. was strongly monitored during the long OE period (some 500 years!), the spoken and “real Old English” is likely to have been very different and much more of the type of Middle English than the written texts. “Real Old Engish”, i.e. of course only appeared in writing after the Norman Conquest. Middle English is therefore claimed to have begun with the ‘late British’ speaking shifters to Old English.

The shift patterns must have differed in the various part of the island of Britain, as the shifters became exposed to further language contact with the Old Norse adstrate in the Danelaw areas and the Norman superstrate particularly in the South East, the South West having been least exposed to language contact after the original shift from ‘Late British’ to Old English. This explains why the North was historically the most innovative zone. This also explains the conservatism of the present day dialects in the South West. It is high time that historical linguists acknowledge the arcane character of the Old English written texts.

Click here to read this article from Studia Anglica Posnaniensia

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email