Languages change. Modern English stretches back to roughly the time of Shakespeare; before that was Middle English, Chaucer’s language. Middle English was not so different from what we speak today. But before Middle English was Old English, and that was a very different creature.
Old English was what the Anglo-Saxons spoke before William the Conqueror took over the island in 1066, before some Norman dog put an arrow in poor King Harold‘s eye at the Battle of Hastings. Old English was a rough, Germanic language, the stuff that was around before the influx of French (with its Latin roots) turned it into Middle English. Most of the long words used by today’s bureaucrats and businessmen come from Latin or French through Middle English, whereas many of our shorter, more basic words are Old English.
We got “precipitation” from the Norman Invasion; but Old English gave us “rain.”
And the very oldest surviving poem in Old English is Cædmon’s Hymn, a song praising God, composed by a man who couldn’t read or write. Here it is in its entirety:
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten, or onstealde.
He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
þa middangeard moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig.
This is it. This is the earliest poem we have that’s written in anything we could still call “our” language.
To the modern reader, of course, it’s almost completely gibberish; we no longer even recognize all the letters. But this is English. In its earliest, most primal form, this is English. Even today, you can pick out bits that remain virtually unchanged after thirteen centuries: “æfter” for “after,” “ælmihtig” for “almighty,” the same three letters for “and.”
Old English fascinates me for a lot of reasons. Partly I’m intrigued because Tolkien loved it, and his love for it permeates The Lord of the Rings. Partly I’m intrigued because Old English is the language of Beowulf, England’s original epic. But mostly I’m intrigued because I, myself, am deeply in love with modern English, and Cædmon’s Hymn is its cradle.