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The Routes of English - BBC Radio 4
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Winchester Library


The Dawn of English

Melvyn Bragg goes to Winchester, home of King Alfred the Great in the ninth century and the place where English, in the form of Old English, really took off. Bragg meets three generations of townspeople and hears how the distinctive local form of English has come under increasing pressure - from the influence of London and the media.

Today Winchester, a smallish town in Hampshire, is dominated by its thousand year old cathedral. It was the perfect setting for Melvyn Bragg and Dr Kathryn Lowe of Glasgow University to talk about a very unusual monk - Aelfric, a Benedictine who lived here in the tenth century.

Here is the problem that made Aelfric famous: how can you make Latin, the universal language of learning at the time, interesting to restless pupils? His solution was to write a lively dialogue or colloquy, getting his students to play the parts of ordinary folk - the ploughman, the fisherman, the baker. And to make things even easier, Aelfric put the Old English translation above the Latin! This is very important because it represents the first standard form for written English.


You may need to download the free Real Player to hear the clips.

How did early English sound?
Aelfric's Colloquy is one of the most significant milestones in the history of the language. To hear what this early version of English may have sounded like, here is a passage describing the baker's work. Sound

An alien language?
Anglo Saxon may sound very foreign at first, but it is closely related to German and Dutch. As Dr Kathryn Lowe points out, many of the words we still use every day come directly from Old English. Sound

The Winchester accent
In Aelfric's day, the Anglo Saxon of Winchester was the standard English of the time. Nowadays our idea of standard English may be more connected to Oxford or, increasingly, London. But the west of England, including Winchester, still has its own distinctive pronounciation - though older citizens like Arthur Dillow, who is now 96 years old, feel his kind of local English is now being watered down. Sound


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