Who Was the First Person to Speak English?

By: Ad Putter  | 
medieval reenacters
It's believed that the English language came to Britain via Norse rulers from a medieval Anglo-Saxon village. Simon Annable/Shutterstock

The first speaker of English did not sound like you or me. That's because language changes all the time. You have probably noticed that the language of your grandparents differs from yours. You can imagine how very different English was when it was first spoken in Britain many centuries ago.

The earliest speakers of English spoke Old English. I am using the word "speakers" because there must have been more than one speaker; after all, we use language to talk to others.


Old English developed in a turbulent period of British history. This was just after the Romans had left Britain, around 1,600 years ago. The Romans had colonized Britain but they abandoned the country in the fifth century because the Roman empire was collapsing all around them.

The Romans who ruled Britain spoke their own language, Latin. But most of the people who lived in Britain when the Romans were there — and before that too — spoke a Celtic language. This Celtic language was like Welsh, but again much older than the present-day Welsh language.

After the Romans left Britain, Germanic tribes who were on the move throughout Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries invaded. These tribes were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. The language they spoke is known as North Sea Germanic.


The First English Speakers

Hengist and Horsa
This remake of the Viking long-ship Hugin was built to commemorate the landing of the Norse leaders Hengist and Horsa on the Kent coast 1,500 years ago. PA Images via Getty Images

Once they settled in Britain it became Old English, which is also sometimes called "Anglo-Saxon." From the Angles comes the word "English" and from the Angles and Saxons together comes the word "Anglo-Saxon." I teach Old English to students of English at university.

So Old English or Anglo-Saxon is the oldest form of the English language that was spoken and written in England in the early Middle Ages, the period from about 450 C.E. to 1050 C.E. Very few Celtic words were taken over into Old English. The word "brock" (meaning "badger") is one of the rare exceptions.


Do we know the names of the first speakers of Old English? Two names are mentioned in ancient legends that tell the story of how the Angles and the Saxons arrived in Britain.

According to these legends, the British (when they were still Celtic speakers) asked two Germanic leaders, Hengist (also spelled Hengest) and Horsa, to go to Britain to help protect the country after the Romans left.

Hengist and Horsa arrived in Britain with many other people from their tribe and conquered the land. We have no way of knowing if these legends are true, but if they are, Hengist and Horsa could be the two chieftains who brought the Old English language to Britain.


An Old English Poet

Bede’s Latin Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
This section of Bede’s Latin Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum shows an Old English text of Cædmon’s Hymn added in the lower margin. ©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, CC BY-NC-SA

There is one other name that deserves to be mentioned and that is Caedmon. Caedmon is the first poet in English whose name is known. The story of his life is told by the monk and historian Bede, who lived in the north of England from around 673 to 735 C.E.

Bede not only tells the story of Hengest and Horsa, but he also tells us about Caedmon, who was a cowherd. Bede wrote that Caedmon could not read or write and received the ability to compose beautiful poetry as a gift from God. The first poem that Caedmon was inspired to write is in praise of God.


The first two lines of this poem will give you a taste of Old English:

Nu sculon herian        heofonrices Weard
Metodes mihte     and his modgeþanc

In modern English, this means: "Now we must praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom, the Ruler's might and his plan."

You might think this really isn't English at all. But we still use some of the words used in Old English; "and" and "his" are both in these two lines of poetry. Other words have survived too, though we often spell and pronounce them differently.

Caedmon looked after the cattle in a monastery in Whitby in Yorkshire. One of my university students studying Old English comes from Whitby and she told me that her school is named after our first named English poet: Caedmon College. His legend lives on.

Ad Putter is a professor of medieval English literature at the University of Bristol.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. You can find the original article here.