The First King's English: Alfred the Language Maker

Talks and presentations

THE FIRST KING’S ENGLISH: Alfred the Language Maker 

Christopher Mulvey

The King Alfred Lecture   25 October 2013

Sponsored by the English Project and Hyde 900

The First King’s English

King Alfred generally called himself ‘the king of the Angles and of the Saxons’, but one of his pennies carried the inscription ‘Rex Anglo’, so it might be that King Alfred could be called the first King of England. Peter Ackroyd seems to think so. (Ackroyd, Foundation 57, 68) Nonetheless, that is not why I am calling this talk ‘The First King’s English’.

I am thinking of the King’s English as Henry Alford thought of the Queen’s English in the reign of Victoria. ‘We speak,’ said Alford, a clergyman poet,  ‘of the Queen’s Highway, not meaning that Her Majesty is possessed of that portion of road, but that it is a high road of the land, as distinguished from byroads and private roads: open to all, […] the general property of our country. And so it is with the Queen’s English. It is, so to speak, this land’s great highway of thought and speech.’ (Alford 1-2) Alford meant by the Queen’s English what is now more commonly called Standard English. Tonight I will talk about the first Standard English, a King’s English not a Queen’s English, because it was the English of King Alfred. He died in 899, and his English remained Standard English until it received a blow in 1066.

1066 put us at a great remove from King Alfred, and we remain separated from him not only by time but also by the English language itself, by the very language that we might have thought we had in common. We speak what is called Modern English, and he spoke what is called Old English. Old English is difficult. Reading a poem like Beowulf requires us to learn a foreign language. By contrast, reading a poem like The Canterbury Tales does not:

    Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,

    þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

    hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

    Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,


   Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

   The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

   And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

   Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Chaucer is pretty easy to read, and the reason why is that Chaucer was using our kind of English, or rather we are using Chaucer’s kind of English. With a good glossary, you can get well into The Canterbury Tales within an hour. Why anyone can read The Canterbury Tales and few can read Beowulf has only partly to do with the fact that Beowulf was composed nearly 1300 years ago and The Canterbury Tales were composed 700 years ago. It has as much to do with the fact that Beowulf was written in Alfred’s English, an unmodified Germanic English, and The Canterbury Tales were written in Richard II’s English, a hugely modified Franco-Latinate English. So let’s look at Alfred’s English.

Alfred’s Spoken English

In Alfred’s day, that is, in the ninth century, there were four forms of English in which manuscripts were written. From those manuscripts, we infer four dialect types in the territory that stretched from the south coast as far north as the River Forth and from the east coast as far west as the Welsh Marches. In modern terms, we are speaking about the land from Southampton to Edinburgh and from Great Yarmouth to Ludlow. There were two main northern dialects, Northumbrian and Mercian. Northumbrian was spoken from the Forth to the Humber; Mercian was spoken from the Humber to the Thames. South of the Thames, there were two main dialects, Kentish and West Saxon. Kentish was the dialect of the Jutes who inhabited Kent and some parts of the Isle of Wight and southern-most Hampshire. West Saxon was spoken from Sussex through Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, and Gloucestershire and on through Devon as far as the River Tamar. It was Alfred’s dialect.

Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish and West Saxon were versions of a language that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes shared with the Alamanni, Batavians, Franks, Frisians, Geats, Lombards, Swabians, and Teutons. That language has, today, become modern German, Dutch and English. If we went further back, we would find a language called Germanic from which has descended not only German, Dutch and English but also Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic. That is the language family of Alfred’s English. It is the Germanic family, one of the four great language families of Western Europe; the others are the Hellenic, Celtic, and Italic language families.

Alfred’s English was an English with no French words and a few Latin words. Of the 10,000 words preserved in the Old English dictionary, six to seven hundred are of foreign origin. The vocabulary of a present-day English speaker might be 50,000 words. Of those 50,000 words, 40,000 would come from Latin and French. Your vocabulary is mostly Italic. So was Chaucer’s vocabulary. That is one of the reason’s why it is easier to read Chaucer than Alfred. Alfred’s vocabulary was Germanic through and through.

Alfred’s grammar was Germanic. Alfred’s English was synthetic while our English is analytic. Alfred’s nouns had three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Ours have no grammatical genders. Alfred’s nouns had four case endings - nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive.  Ours have two case endings. Alfred did not have to follow the pattern of subject-verb-object to make his meaning clear. Alfred could say: The dog bit the man. The man bit the dog. The man the dog bit. The dog the man bit. By the endings of the words, it would have been clear that Alfred meant what we mean by saying: The dog bit the man. Our grammar has French and Latin elements in it. Alfred’s did not.

In order to write a Germanic language in Roman script, monks had had first to adapt the Roman alphabet to fit Germanic sounds.  They added five new letters: ‘ash’, ‘thorn’, ‘eth’, ‘wynn’ and ‘yogh’. ‘Ash’ represented the vowel that appeared in Alfred’s name. It is the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ not the ‘a’ in ‘father’. ‘Thorn’ and ‘eth’ represented the two ‘t-h’ sounds that we have in English as in ‘thin’ and ‘then’. Wynn represented the back-of-the-mouth ‘wuh’-sound. Our modern letter for that is the ‘double-u’. ‘Yogh’ represented the breathed ‘huh’-sound that today survives as the ‘g-h’ in words like ‘enough’. To create their new letters, the Kentish monks took signs from the Germanic runic alphabet. Linguistically speaking, the monks did a very good job. Old English spelling was spot on; you could read every letter and every letter counted. ‘Queen’ was spelled ‘c-w-e-n’ not ‘q-u-e-e-n’. That excellent spelling system has subsequently been terribly knocked about by French, Latin, and other foreign spelling systems, not to mention a thousand years of sound change and meddling. A Saxon child in King Alfred’s day would have found it a good deal easier to learn to read than an English child in Queen Elizabeth’s day. 

If you would like to get an idea of what it might have been like to hear Alfred talking, you should take a holiday in Frisia, an island region in the northwest Netherlands. The islanders speak Frisian, a language closer to English than to Dutch. It is likely that King Alfred and a modern-day Frisian could understand each other while we would have difficulty understanding either of them.

   Hoi, Aelfred is myn namme. Myn marse is fol fan Eels, buten Langh festjen is nin brae sperjen.

   Hwaet! Aelfred is min nama. Min bearwe is æla ful, ac an longe  fæsten biergeþ  nan hlaf.

   Hello, Alfred is my name. My basket is full of eels, but a long fast saves no bread.

Frisian is one of Europe’s least changed languages. English is one of Europe’s most changed languages. History accounts for that difference.

Alfred’s Written English

It is now time to talk about Alfred’s written English. The first thing to say is that Alfred could write. That was an unusual accomplishment in a king. Writing was not something admired by the warrior world into which he had been born. Writing was the work of the clerk and the monk not the work of the prince. But Alfred seems to have had himself taught to read at the age of twelve. At some point he also learned to write. We associate the two, but the Saxons did not. Even more remarkably, when Alfred was king, he got a monk to teach him to read and write Latin (Frassetto 38). That was an astonishing thing to do for a man with his duties, cares, enemies and dangers.

Alfred called to his court the island’s most learned scholar, a man called John Asser, a monk of St David’s Abbey in the Welsh Kingdom of Dyfed. With Asser, Alfred decided that what his priests, monks and churchmen needed was a higher level of education and an increase in their understanding of their religion. Alfred began to select texts that he believed would bring about the changes he wanted. The chosen texts were first Liber Regulae Pastoralis, second Consolatio Philosophiae, third Liber Soliloquiorum, fourth Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, and finally Historiarum Adversum Paganos.

What Alfred did with Abbot Asser and with the Latin language was impressive enough. A warrior king of a small kingdom had made himself a director of research and made his court a powerhouse of scholarship. That was an astonishing thing to do in the ninth century, but it was not unique. In fact, he was modelling himself on Charles the Great, Charlemagne, as we know him, who had made his court the most learned in Europe a century before. But what Alfred did next was unique. It was truly remarkable, and it was something that Charlemagne did not do. Alfred ordered his monks to translate the chosen texts. In English, they became The Pastoral Care by Gregory, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, The Soliloquies by Augustine, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, and The Histories against the Pagans by Orosius. (Ackroyd, Foundation 78)

I wonder what Asser thought of that. It was not in the mindset of churchmen to do such a thing. It must have seemed pointless, foolish. Why translate those fathers and philosophers into a language as obscure and confined as English? Why?, the translating monks must have thought as they laboured on a quite novel and possibly objectionable job. Whatever the monks may or may not have thought, there was no questioning the king. As the translations were finished, the copyings began. For some of the works, Alfred wrote powerful prefaces, and he began sending the newly-copied manuscripts about his kingdom.

With the copy of The Pastoral Care that was sent to Bishop Wærferth of Worcester, Alfred wrote:

It seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we also should translate certain books which are most necessary for all men to know into the language that we can all understand.

Alfred wanted Englishmen to be able to read what they needed to read in their own language. And he did not stop with translations from Latin. There was one further thing that Alfred did. He told a monk to write a history of the kingdom of Wessex. The monk began with the genealogy of Alfred and brought the history up to the year 891. Another monk took over at that point and year-by-year entries continued to be made until Alfred’s death in 899. Monk after monk then took up the task of the annual entries. This history in its various versions came to be called The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The wonderful thing about The Chronicle was that Alfred ordered it to be written in English. It is, says the British Library, ‘the earliest known history of England written in the English language.’

Alfred’s initiatives produced a mass of West Saxon texts in multiple copies, and they impressed people beyond the boundaries of Wessex. Alfred’s Chronicle came to be called the Winchester Chronicle when abbeys across England adopted the Winchester habit and began to write chronicles of their own. Many of them, starting with the creation of the world, pass rapidly through the assassination of Julius Caesar to focus on the doings of their king and their abbot at the date of writing. And these chronicles were written in West-Saxon English even though the monks who wrote them might speak Mercian or Northumbrian or Kentish. The hundred years following Alfred’s death, says David Crystal, saw ‘the rise of the West Saxon dialect as the literary language’ and ‘by the year 1000 it had achieved the status of a scribal standard, used throughout the country’. (Crystal 72)  

A Standard English

A Standard English, says Webster’s Dictionary, is ‘the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood.’ Webster’s is an American dictionary, and it describes an American standard as the Oxford dictionary describes a British standard. The differences between the two dictionaries make the point that English is unusual among modern global languages in having two standards. Russian, French, Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic, the other global languages, have only one.

Today is not the first time that two English standards have co-existed. In the fifteenth century, two royal courts refined and defined an English that would be used for government record, learning and literature. In the south of Britain, that was done at the Court of Westminster. In the north of Britain, that was done at the Court of Edinburgh. The two Englishes that were standardized were very different.

Westminster saw the beginnings of the process in the late-fourteenth century with court patronage of Geoffrey Chaucer. Within a hundred years and the arrival of the printing press, the business of fixing a standard spelling, grammar, and vocabulary was well under way. The Royal Chancery, or Record Office, had a lot to do with this, and the Chancery clerks even developed a standardized form of handwriting. This English was a refined version of London English, and that was a descendant of the Old English dialect called Mercian – that was an English spoken south of the Humber.

In Edinburgh, the Court of James IV of Scotland patronized a group of poets known to us as the Scottish Chaucerians. They called their language Scots not English. Scots was descended from the Old English dialect called Northumbrian – that was the English spoken north of the Humber. Under a succession of kings, Scots was given a standard spelling, grammar, and vocabulary through its use for court literature, official records, for the writing or learned and professional texts. It remained a prestige dialect until the eighteenth century.  The Act of Union led to the suppression of the Scots Court and the consequent adoption by the upper classes of Edinburgh of Westminster English, what we know as the Miss Jean Brodie accent.


But why did King Alfred’s English lose its place and why was it Mercian English not West Saxon English that became the forerunner of Modern Standard English?

The answer is 1066. The French speakers arrived in sufficient numbers with sufficient military power to dominate England for the next three hundred years. The focus of their attention was London. It was over the possession of London that Saxons and Danes had fought again and again. In 1066, Normans snatched London from both Danes and Saxons. Winchester remained an administrative centre, but West Saxon English ceased to be a language of power and record. Latin continued as before, but Norman French took the place of Alfred’s English. Three hundred years later, when kings of England were once again speakers of English, it was London English, Mercian English, that they spoke.

The English of Wessex had become a rural dialect, and the story of West Saxon is like the story of the D’Urbervilles – once noble but later peasant. Tess Durbeyfield is always given a broad West Country accent, as she should be. However, had Winchester remained the capital of England, Tess’s English would now be the Queen’s English. On Christmas Day, her Majesty would greet Country and Commonwealth with the words:

   Moy uzbund and oy, wish yew a very merrie Chrismaz.

But there is one further development of West Saxon that might have pleased King Alfred better than the sinking of his dialect into a rural remnant. West Country migration to the New World in the seventeenth century numbered close to 250,000 and they went to Virginia by way of Bristol. (Fischer 227) By 1700, those migrants had already created a large speech community, and, by the 1770s, travelers from the northern colonies were already noting that Virginians had their own way of talking. One such traveler wrote: ‘Where a northerner said, “I am,” “You are,” “She isn’t,” “It doesn’t,” and “I haven’t,” a Virginian even of high rank preferred to say “I be,” “You be,” “She ain’t,” “It don’t,” and “I hain’t.”’(Fischer 257) Virtually ‘all peculiarities of grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation which have been noted as typical of Virginia’ have also been recorded in the counties of King Alfred’s Kingdom of Wessex. (Fischer 259)  West Saxon English evolved over time into West Country English, and West Country English evolved over time into American Southern English.

King Alfred, A Remarkable Man

Some final thoughts. That ‘language that we can all understand’ was called, by Alfred, the English language. Why didn’t he call it the Saxon language? Why name his language after another people, the Angles? Why not name it after his own people, the Saxons? The answer maybe in the fact that the first recorded use of the word ‘English’ to mean the English language appears in King Alfred’s translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. (OED) Bede was an Angle not a Saxon, and he had called his book Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. Bede may not have given a great deal of thought to using the word ‘anglorum’, but he gave a great deal of thought to the idea that God had a Christian destiny for the people who had come as pagans from across the North Sea to inhabited the island of Britannia. Bede saw all those people as one people with one destiny. Alfred, too, wanted those people to be Christian, and he too wanted them to be one people. Moreover, he wanted to be their king. Bede’s book was already old when Alfred chose it for his educational programme. Had Alfred translated ‘gentis anglorum’ as ‘the Saxon people’ and had he talked about translating the book from Latin into Saxon, he would have slighted Bede and, at the same time, emphasized a North-South divide that would have not have helped his claim to be ‘Rex Anglorum’, King of the English.

Alfred has been known as ‘the Great’ since the sixteenth century. (Frassetto 37) He deserves to be because he was a very remarkable man indeed. He becomes more impressive as we find out more about him. His strengths as we know so well in Winchester were threefold – he was a great soldier, a great administrator and a great educator. That combination makes him the greatest king that England has ever had.

Four things count against Alfred’s being recognized as our greatest king. First, he lived before the watershed of the Norman Conquest when traditionally English history goes to point zero and starts again. When you buy school rulers that list our rulers, the first ruler is William. The kings of England rhyme begins:

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,

Harry, Dick, John, Harry three;

‘Willie, Willie’ – that’s a shame. That’s William the Conqueror and William Rufus. Why not start ‘Alfie, Eddie, Alfie, Ath’ for Kings Alfred, Edward, Alfweard, and Athelstan?

Second, the Normans set the boundaries of modern England; the boundaries of Alfred’s England are fluid by comparison and disputable.

Third, Alfred lived a long time ago, eleven hundred years ago.

Fourth, a distance in language compounds the distance in time. If we could read the language of Alfred, if we could read the poetry, the prose, the laws, the records of that older England as easily as we read the materials of a later England, then Alfred would be a more real king for us. If we were not separated from Alfred by our common language, Alfred would then be recognized by all as England’s greatest king. Our ruler rhyme would then run something like this:

Alfie, Eddie, Alfie, Ath,

Eddie, Eadie, Eadwee, Ed,

Ed again, Ath and Swain,

Ath, Ed, Nute, and Hairyfute

Harth, Eddie, Harold, Ed,

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,

Harry, Dick, John, Harry three.

But our ruler lists do not begin with Alfie, and they won’t until Hyde 900 brings his bones to rest once more in a royal grave in Winchester.



Ackroyd, Peter. The History of England. Volume 1: Foundation. London: Pan Macmillan, 2011.

Alford, Henry. A Plea for the Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling. London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1878.

Crystal, David. The Stories of English. London, Penguin Books, 2005.

Frassetto, Michael. The Early Medieval World. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

Lucas, Bill & Mulvey, Christopher. A History of the English Language in a 100 Places. London: Robert Hale, 2013.