Anglos and Saxons Before England

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders about the terms Anglos and Saxons:

I have often heard the term Anglo-Saxon, but never just Anglos or Saxons. However, I learned that these are two separate people groups from different areas (of what I guess is Northern Europe). If what I learned is accurate, from what countries are the Anglos, and from what countries are the Saxons? I appreciate any help. I’ve been trying to confirm this information since I was in college. 

In the fifth century, when the Teutonic invasions of Britain began, the map of Europe did not conform to the way the countries are arranged there today.

Picture northern Europe, starting at Denmark on the Jutland Peninsula and descending along the coast opposite England, down to Belgium. In the fifth century, these lands were inhabited by tribes known as Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Franks. All were Germanic in ethnicity and language. A mix of these tribes migrated to England in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E.

The earliest historical reference to these invasions occurs in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 C.E.) of the Venerable Bede. He refers only to the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes by name.

The Celtic people who already lived in Britain called all the Germanic invaders “Saxons.” Latin writers came to refer to all the invaders as Angli and the country as Anglia. The Latin title of Bede’s history is Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.

When the time came for the invaders to write in the vernacular, they all called the language they spoke Englisc (English). The name derives from the name for the Angles (Engle) but was used for all the dialects the invaders spoke.

If you want to associate modern terms with these peoples, the Saxons, Franks, and Frisians were “German-Dutch.” The Angles were “southern Danish,” and the Jutes were “northern Danish.”

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15 Responses to “Anglos and Saxons Before England”

  • Mel

    Best bit of history reading I’ve had in a while. Thanks for summing up this occasionally confusing “invasion” in such an easily understood fashion!

  • Michael W. Perry

    If you’d like to know more, listen to the marvelous History of English podcast (5.0 rating on iTunes). He takes up the various migrations and invasions of England in discussing how the English language came to be and where many of our words came from. Fascinating!

    http://historyofenglishpodcast.com

  • Julian Barker

    I’ve always found it interesting that the English refer to themselves as (effectively) Angles, while the Welsh and Scottish refer to them as Saxons (Saesneg and Sassenach, respectively).

  • Marie

    Thank you. That was the best, concise explanation of the origin of Anglo Saxon origin I have come across.I never realized the exact origin of those people but you have explained it well and I plan to print it out for future reference

  • Roberta B.

    @Julian Barker…….and (I am told) that the term used (by the Scots) is often a pejorative.

    Also, why do the Hispanics here in the US refer to anyone of (non-Iberian) European descent as an Anglo? We’re not all Anglos…….and some (as I just mentioned) might even take offense.

  • Maeve

    Roberta,
    I have a post in the works about modern uses of Anglo and Saxon. Stay tuned.

  • Meridiean

    Brilliant explanation – a joy to read. Any time you wish to spend on the lingual aspects of all-thing-Anglo/Saxon/etc. will be extremely appreciated.

  • venqax

    As someone who lives in a part of the country where the term “Anglo” is used and has been used tradtionally, I can tell you the implication is purely linguistic. “Anglos” means English-speaking people, as opposed to Spanish speakers or speakers of the various Indian languages. There may have be many “ethnic” groups, but only 3 language groups. So Blacks, e.g. are “Anglos” as well. So were, to their distress, the Irish, and even Asians who came later but spoke English.

    As as aside, I think the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) use the term the same way. Anyone who is not Amish (or similar, like Mennonites) is “English” in the Amish frame of reference, by which they mean those who speak English as opposed to their form of German.

  • Sean Scarisbrick

    Fascinating stuff. I’ll be using this brief summary in my 12 Honours classes.

    Can you tell us what the primary sources you drew your information from? I’d love to do a little (a lot of?) further reading on the subject.

    Thanks!

    Sean

  • Jean Kearsley

    This topic puts me in mind of the story that Scots tell about the final destination of at least one of these tribes. It seems that when the Angles came to the “Disputed Country” — the north of England and the south of Scotland, ye ken? — everyone knows that the acute Angles went north, and the obtuse ones south.

  • venqax

    You know, I have to say I find the reader’s vexation a bit bewildering.
    “I have often heard the term Anglo-Saxon, but never just Anglos or Saxons.”

    I am not intending condescension. Really. But I can’t help another question popping to mind, namely, “Do they speak Latin in Latin America?” Never heard of Saxons or Angle(o)s? Honestly?

    “I’ve been trying to confirm this information since I was in college.”

    And no luck, eh? Since college, no less.

  • Maeve

    Mel, Marie, Sean and Meridiean,
    Thank you for your appreciative remarks. My interest in the Old English period is of long standing. I studied OE history, language and literature in England many years ago, so I already knew a lot about it when I received this reader’s question and was delighted to have an excuse to write about it. I’d love to have more questions relating to the history of English, but most of the questions readers ask relate to grammar, punctuation, spelling, pronunciation, idiom, and etymology and, after all, this is a site devoted to usage and not to history.

    My two main references for history of the language are Alfred C. Baugh’s A HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE and a book that was published as a companion to a PBS television series, THE STORY OF ENGLISH by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil.
    The BBC has an excellent history site for children. You’ll find an attractive presentation of the Saxon invasions here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/anglo_saxons/who_were_the_anglo-saxons/

  • Maeve

    Jean,
    Love it!

  • Roberta B.

    The PBS series with Robert MacNeil (1980s) was excellent in describing the contributing factors to the English language we speak today. To this day, I remember a lot of the information presented in those episodes.

  • Ian Rahn

    @Roberta B

    Here in Québec, “anglos” is often used in reference to native speakers of English, and it can sometimes have a somewhat pejorative feel to it, but here, it is merely a colloquial shortening of “anglophones,” which is the completely acceptable term to refer to people who are usually native speakers of English, or people for whom English has become their dominant language, to the detriment of their mother tongue.

    We Canadians are quite attached to this borrowing from French and find it quite convenient.

    Their are other common words in the -ophone family: hispanophones, italophones, rusophones and lusophones (for native speakers of Portuguese, from Lusitania). Obviously, this combining form is not always so smooth sounding in English: Berberophones. Perhaps this is the reason why these forms have not caught on outside traditional minority French-speaking territories. They are nonetheless rigorously correct. 🙂

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