If you are a fan of BBC’s story of Utred and Alfred, The Last Kingdom, you might be interested to learn about an important scholar working at that time, called Aelfric. Who was Aelfric? Aelfric of Wessex (955-1020) wrote the first grammar of English.
The Historical Context of Aelfric’s Life
In the two centuries leading up to Ælfric’s birth, Latin scholarship was in such decline in England that when King Alfred came to the throne in 871, he complained that almost no one south of the Humber could translate a letter out of Latin. The principal cause for this decline was the constant harassment by the Danes during their prolonged campaign of incursion and occupation. However, the English enjoyed a short reprieve under King Alfred who did much to prevent further cultural and economic decline during his reign by halting the Danes at a line running northwest from London to Chester (Law, 1997). He managed this by buying a five-year peace with a large tribute, fortifying the South, and then taking and occupying London in 886. Thirteen years later, in 899, after devoting his remaining years to the restoration of English learning and culture, and promoting translation of Latin texts into the vernacular, King Alfred died. And it was only in 954, a year before Ælfric was born, that Alfred’s grandson Ædred managed to expel Eric Bloodaxe, the last of the Scandinavian kings, from England. (Hurt, 1972).
At the time of Ælfric’s birth, England was a very different place. Half of southern England was dense, virgin forest, and the total population of the island was only about one million. Although London and Winchester were not mentioned in the Doomsday census, York, a city of comparable size to Winchester at the time had 8000 people living there (Hurt, 1972). Today, Winchester has over a hundred and seven thousand (“National Statistics,” 2005)
During Ælfric’s lifetime, four different kings occupied the English throne. The fourth in the list came to the throne when Ælfric was 23 years old. His name was King Æthelræd, a 10-year old boy known by the epithet Æthelræd Unræd, meaning “Noble counsel, no counsel.” His troubled reign (978-1016) was characterized by renewed attacks by the Danish and the six enormous tributes paid to buy peace from them. While the strategy had succeeded a century earlier under Alfred, during Æthelred’s reign paying tributes served only to strengthen the Danes and weaken the English. By all accounts, the political and economic situation during Ælfric’s lifetime was a disaster (Hurt, 1972).
Ælfric was born somewhere in Wessex, England circa 955 A.D. At the age of fifteen, he entered the Old Monastery at Winchester, a training school for monks, where he studied under Eathelwold. It was there that Ælfric was ordained at the age of thirty, the minimum age for ordination in those days. Two years later, in 987 he went to the newly founded Cernel Abbey in present day Cerne Abbas near Dorchester to teach Latin. It is there between 993 and 995 that he wrote his Glossary, Colloquy and Grammar. In 1005, Ælfric became the abbot of the newly built monastery at Eynsham near present day Oxford (Hurt, 1972), and it was there that he died in 1020 (Crystal, 1995). Apart from this brief outline, not much else is known about his life.
Earlier grammars of the major Greek and Roman grammarians were not generally pedagogical in nature. They were primarily inquiries into the structure of language for the benefit of native speakers (Hurt, 1972). In contrast, medieval grammars were intended above all as aids to learning a second language.
In Ælfric’s time, the most common textbooks in circulation were in fact grammar books written by Donatus and Priscian. Born in the fourth century, Ælius Donatus wrote two grammars: Ars Grammatica and Ars Minor. It is from Donatus that Western European languages get their grammatical terminology. Priscian, born in the early sixth century, wrote Institutiones Grammaticæ, “the standard advanced textbook to which the student progressed after mastering the more elementary Donatus” (Hurt, p. 106).
Ælfric’s grammar is organized according to the same plan using the 8 parts of speech used by Donatus (Hurt, 1972), but it was an abridged version of Priscian’s Institutiones known as Excerptiones de Prisciano by an unknown editor that Ælfric used as a starting point for his own grammar (Law, 1997), relying on Priscian for many of his examples and definitions. However, despite his debt to Donatus and Priscian, Ælfric’s grammar is more than a synthesis of the two earlier texts.
For one thing, Ælfric wrote his grammar in English. By doing so, he was able to pitch his grammar at a lower level than either Donatus’ or Priscian’s grammars (Law, 1997). As noted above, with Latin suffering two centuries of decline he needed his grammar to be accessible to monolingual language learners with little or no prior exposure to Latin. In his preface, he says how he expects to be reproached for this. His aim was not, after all, to train students to write Latin poetry as was the case with Bede and Aldhelm. Ælfric was attempting instead to redress the crisis of basic Latin literacy of his day that had lingered unresolved since King Alfred had complained of it 124 years earlier. Above all, he wanted to provide the key to understanding religious texts. His first hurdle to overcome in making that possible, therefore, was basic comprehension.
Furthermore, Ælfric wrote for young students. To improve the comprehensibility of difficult abstract grammatical concepts that are often difficult for young learners, Ælfric developed a complete set of grammatical terms in the English of his day (Hurt, 1972)—though there is some evidence to suggest that some of his terms may actually predate him (Law, 1997). Nevertheless, his literal renderings—while more comprehensible than their Latin counterparts—are veritable tongue twisters. For example, Interjectio thus becomes “betwuxaworpennys” and subjunctivus becomes “underðeodendlic” (Hurt, p.111). While it is unlikely that Ælfric intended for these renderings to be replacements for the Latin terms, showing no preference himself for either the traditional Latin or English versions, he did use some English terms consistently in place of the Latin terms. They were tid, cynn, word, and stæf for tempus, genus, verbum, and littera respectively (Hurt, 1972). Whatever his particular contribution to English metaterms may have been, none survived the Norman invasion of 1066, and all the terms we have today are borrowings from Latin from a later time.
Ælfric’s grammar is both a simplification and a clarification of his sources. He follows Priscian’s anonymous editor by leaving out all Greek from his grammar, but goes a step further by eliminating long lists and digressions retained by the editor (Law, 1997). Also, he leaves out an entire section on swearing (Hurt, 1972), pointing out the Christian prohibition against making oaths (Matthew 5:37).
Ælfric’s grammar, in some respects, expands on Donatus and Priscian. For example, he includes paradigms of each major type of noun within each declension—absent in Priscian. Similarly, all regular and some irregular verb paradigms also not present in Priscian are added. Another insertion by Æflric is his digressions on aspects of Latin morphology treated inadequately in Donatus’s grammars (Law, 1997). Although he makes only a few Latin-English contrasts, he does make a point of illustrating how some words in Latin have a different gender in English. Also, he mentions how all six Latin conjunctions are equivalent to one word in English: and. Among the similarities between the two languages, he notes that Latin and English both have 8 parts of speech and that both employ the impersonal mood only very rarely. Most significantly, Ælfric appended to his grammar a several hundred word Glossary arranged by topic—not alphabetically—most likely based on Etymologies by Isidore of Seville (Hurt, 1972).
Some substitutions are apparent. He replaces proper nouns with Eadgar and Dunstan, names familiar to him from his own school years. Pagan examples are Christianized with one example using Æneas being replaced with King David. He also disagrees with his sources on two occasions, citing evidence form biblical passages. In one, he challenges the Excerptiones on the form of the word sanguis pointing out that in scripture it is sanguinum. The second exception he makes is to a prescriptivist prohibition by Donatus against the compound adverbs de intus and de foris, both found in scripture (Law, 1997).
Using Crystal’s taxonomy (1995), Ælfric’s is a traditional grammar, presenting language forms in a highly analytical way and relying on high scripture for examples. While pedagogically prescriptive in the sense that it lists correct forms to be learned, it does not insist upon the prohibitions and forms of earlier authorities. One could almost say that it is descriptive in the sense that, for Ælfric, the Bible was his language corpus. In terms of his contrastive analysis, Law and Hurt both agree that his grammar offers little insight to the modern linguist into the nature of Middle English.
Sadly Ælfric’s Grammaticus survives only as a museum piece. His (by some accounts) original metalanguage was lost, and his grammar is now of interest only to historians and specialists. While impressive for his time, the few books that are available on him at the Concordia library look as though they have never been opened. For instance, Hurt’s highly readable Ælfric, though printed 33 years ago, looks brand new. However, there is a lot that language teachers will find inspiring about Ælfric. His sincere dedication to the “ignorant children” in his care, and his energetic attempts to make the target language as comprehensible and practical as possible for learners is admirable for his or any age.
- In what way are the challenges facing language teachers today similar to the challenges Ælfric faced a millennium ago?
- Does Ælfric deserve a place in the pantheon of grammarians or should he be passed over as a minor figure in the history of our linguistics?
Crystal, David. (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Hurt, James (1972). Aelfric. Twayne Publishers, New York.
Law, Vivien (1997). Grammarand grammarians in the early middle ages. Longman, New York.
National Statistics, Retreived January, 2005, from http://www.statistics.gov.uk/census2001/pyramids/pages/24up.asp
White, Caroline (1974). Aelfric a new study of his life and writing. Archon Books, Hamden, CT.