While Anglo-Saxon is an ancestor of modern English, it is also a distinct language. It stands in much the same relationship to modern English as Latin does to the Romance languages. The English language developed from the West Germanic dialects spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and other Teutonic tribes who participated in the invasion and occupation of England in the fifth and sixth centuries. As a language, Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, was very different from modern English. The language flourished in England until the Norman conquest, when French became for a time the language of the court and of literature. English was thus left to everyday use and changed rapidly in the direction of the modern language. For example, a reader today can pick up the works of Chaucer, the greatest writer in Middle English, and understand him with a minimum of annotation; however, the same accessibility vanishes when one turns to such Anglo-Saxon works as "The Seafarer" or "Beowulf." One must find a translation or learn the language.
While a law student, Thomas Jefferson first became familiar with Anglo-Saxon and "devoted some time to it's study." He was especially interested in matters of early English law, but he also "felt great attraction" for the language.1 Jefferson’s interest in the language was likely enhanced by what historians refer to as the “Saxon myth:” a belief in some circles that English democracy and legal protections owe their origin to some Saxon period before the Norman Conquest.2
In subsequent years, Jefferson had little time to pursue his interest systematically, but he did codify his opinions as to the best way to approach the language. He felt the grammar should be simplified and the orthography fixed to settled forms. In his "Essay on Anglo-Saxon," Jefferson made it clear that much of the difficulty associated with the language was the result of misdirected scholarship: grammarians tended to draw up rules for Anglo-Saxon which would unnaturally "place our old language in the line of Latin and Greek."3
According to the Sowerby catalogue, Jefferson owned 17 volumes of Anglo-Saxon texts and grammars, evidence that he continued to study the language after his days as a law student.4
In the "Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia," Jefferson included Anglo-Saxon as part of the proposed curriculum for the university, placing it with the modern languages "because it is in fact that which we speak, in the earliest form in which we have knowledge of it." Jefferson was hopeful that Anglo-Saxon would "form the first link in the Chains of an historical review of our language through all its successive changes to the present day."5
- Russell L. Martin, 8/90; revised John Ragosta, 7/17/18
Primary Source References
1813 August 16. (Jefferson to John Waldo). "The 2d source of composition is of one family of roots with another. the Greek avails itself of this most abundantly, & beautifully. the English once did it freely, while in it’s Anglo-Saxon form. e.g. boc-c[err]æ[eff][te], book-craft, learning. eo[Anglo-Saxon: err]ð-[Anglo-Saxon: yogh]eme[Anglo-Saxon: te], earth-mate, geometry. [Anglo-Saxon: ess][Anglo-Saxon: te][Anglo-Saxon: yr][Anglo-Saxon: err][Anglo-Saxon: yogh]en[Anglo-Saxon: de]e-[Anglo-Saxon: de][Anglo-Saxon: err]enc, stirring-drink, a cathartic. [Anglo-Saxon: err]ih[Anglo-Saxon: te]-[Anglo-Saxon: yogh]elea[Anglo-Saxon: eff]-[Anglo-Saxon: eff]ull, right-belief-ful, orthodox. but it has lost by desuetude much of this branch of composition, which it is desirable however to resume. "6
1820 August 15. (Jefferson to John Adams). "...as an inducement to introduce Anglo-Saxon into our plan, it was said that it would reward amply the few weeks of attention which alone would be requisite for it's attainment..."7
1825 November 9. (Jefferson to J. Evelyn Denison). "I learn from you with great pleasure, that a taste is reviving in England for the recovery of the Anglo-Saxon dialect of our language; for a mere dialect it is, as much as those of Piers Plowman, Gower, Douglas, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, for even much of Milton is already antiquated. The Anglo-Saxon is only the earliest we possess of the many shades of mutation by which the language has tapered down to its modern form."8
Thompson, Peter. "'Judicious Neology': The Imperative of Paternalism in Thomas Jefferson's Linguistic Studies." Early American Studies 1 (2003): 187-224.
1. Jefferson to Sir Herbert Croft, October 30, 1798, in PTJ, 30:569.
2. See "Rockfish Gap Report of the University of Virginia Commissioners," August 4, 1818, in PTJ:RS 13:216-17. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. "An Essay Towards Facilitating Instruction in the Anglo-Saxon and Modern Dialects of the English Language for the Use of the University of Virginia," in L&B, 18:389. While originally thought to have been written before the 1798 letter to Sir Herbert Croft, it is now believed that this essay was written from 1818-1825 as Jefferson was working to include Anglo-Saxon in the curriculum for the University of Virginia. See PTJ, 30:570.