Old English

Old English Language and Alphabet

external image Old%20English%20Alphabet.jpg

The Old English language, called Englisc by the Anglo-Saxons, was utilized in various forms from the middle of the 5th century to the middle of the 12th century, a span of roughly 700 years. Though the language first emerged in the 5th century, it did not appear as a written language until the 8th century. The Anglo-Saxons were heavily influenced by other written languages such as Old Norse, Latin, and the Celtic languages, and the Anglo-Saxons were first introduced to the Roman alphabet by Irish missionaries. Prior to this, they used variations of the Runic alphabet. The introduction to the Roman alphabet radically changed the Old English language, and a new alphabet was born. During the reign of Alfred the Great, the king himself encouraged the use of the Anglo-Saxon language, especially the West Saxon dialect, rather than Latin, in both translation and the writing of new works. This helped thrust the language into prominence.

For Further Information:
Omniglot--Languages of the World
Old English Wikipedia

Old English as a Synthetic Language

A synthetic language is one which uses ‘inflectional forms,’ to dictate the grammatical function of the given set of words in a sentence. This often results in changing the word order, making clauses arbitrary and free. Synthetic languages are the opposite of analytic languages, which use ‘word order’ and ‘helper words’ more often than synthetic languages.

Old English can be described as a "synthetic" language given that it is a language where inflectional endings are a reflection of grammatical structure and word order is dynamic and fluid. Old English words had more inflection than the current modern English we know of today, and another primary difference was the placement of verbs and sometimes prepositions at the end of a sentence. Modern English has now evolved to become an analytic language because the word arrangement and order has a more defined structure - the typical Subject-Verb-Object order that modern English speakers and writers abide by.

For More Information:
University of Texas- Old English

Old English Dialects

Old English is typically divided up into four distinct dialects corresponding to four different sections of England.
  • Kent: A southern dialect of Old English, spoken in the kingdom of Kent. It is discernible only in scattered remains from the period, and Kentish texts often show heavy influence from the Mercian dialect.
  • Northumbria: This was the Northern (Northumbrian) dialect of Old English, which was most like the language of the Angles. Many of this dialect's words came from Old Scandinavian and Celtic languages, as well as words that were probably from the original inhabitants of the area (this is presumed because some vocabulary is not traceable to known Germanic language systems.) The Scots language is a descendent of the northern form of Northumbrian, which became a rightful language by the Middle English period.
  • West Saxon: The West Saxon dialect is often considered the most prominent of the Old English dialects. It gained status due to the political support of Alfred the Great. Much of the surviving literature from the period—including Beowulf and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles - was composed in the West Saxon dialect. This dialect maintained supremacy until the Norman conquest of 1066 when the Normans replaced the regional languages with French.
  • Mercia: The second language of the Angles (the other is Northumbrian); it is the language spoken in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, which is now the Midlands of England. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk."

For Further Information:
Proto Indo European Languages: Old English
A History of English Spelling by D.G. Scragg

Historical Influences on the Old English Language

55 B.C. - 449 A.D. was known as the Roman Period of English History, commencing with the first Roman invasion by Julius Caesar in 55 B.C. and 54 B.C. during his Gallic wars. However, Britain did not become part of the Roman Empire until emperor Claudius in 43 A.D. "It was, in fact, the deified Julius who first of all Romans entered Britain with an army: he overawed the natives by a successful battle and made himself master of the coast; but it may be said that he revealed, rather than bequeathed, Britain to Rome." -Tacitus Agricola.

In Excavations of the southern areas of present day Britain, evidence of these past Roman villas was unearthed as, "centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life" (Brittannia: Narrative History of England ). The Romans settled fairly quickly, establishing themselves around the land in a short span of forty years and would remain the primary occupants of Britain for about 400 years more. Present day Scotland and Wales, composed of Celts, had remained unsettled by the Romans then, most likely due to the agriculturally harsh landscapes.

The Romans had a successfully executed road system and innovative bridges which served not only as links among the many military forts, but also as very important factors in the spread of communication, ideals and language. When Roman Legions withdrew in the 5th century, turbulence arose between native Celts and Romanized Britain.

In 449 A.D., three Germanic tribes, the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons invaded and seized parts of the land (An Outline History of England, by James Richard Joy). Vortigern, a British chief, "invited Hengest and Horsa, two chiefs of Jutes from Denmark, and they landed in Kent and established permanent settlements to fight the Picts. After driving the Picts north they turned their armies against the Britons." Eric the Jute, Hengest's son, established the kingdoms of East and West Kent. (Telusplanet.net: European & Asian History). The Angles came to occupy most of the land, thus naming it Angle-Land, then England.


The Anglo-Saxons brought with them their religious beliefs of multiple deities. Their society was made up of an upper and lower class system of families and tribes. Immortality was a virtue, which was believed to be achieved through death in battle. It wasn't until the Monk Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 AD and converted King Ethelberg that Christianity mixed with the Anglo Saxon tribes. Christianity spread throughout Britain, with monks teaching in Latin and Greek.

The extensive influence of Christianity impacted the language greatly, as Latin words became part of everyday language. Most of the words changed to suit the predominant Anglo-Saxon pronunciations, but a few remained intact. Of about 30,000 words from the original Old English (Teutonic), only about 15 percent have survived the influences of time, change, Latin, and French, which would come with the Norman Conquest.) These 15 percent are central to our Modern English language; man, wife, child, house, eat, meat, sleep, fight, live, drink, father, sister, brother, numbers; such as 1-10, and basic grammatical elements; plus other essential words.

At this time, Old English was essentially Anglo-Saxon spiced with words from Danish, Norse and Latin. The Latin brought by the ever-increasing numbers of Christians gave us Old English words like "street, kitchen, kettle, cup, cheese, wine, angel, bishop, martyr, candle". Placenames, such as Kent, Devon, Dover, Thames, retained their Celtic origins. One of the reasons that English today has so many words with similar meanings is because of this conglomeration of languages. Take for example Norse and English vocabularies, respectively: anger and wrath; nay and no; raise and rear; ill and sick: skin and hide; skill and craft; etc. We use all of these words, sometimes interchangeably, but sometimes to convey subtle nuances which no other word can inflect.
For further information, see: http://www.wordinfo.info/words/index/info/view_unit/4221

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great was the first king of England (A.D. 871-899); he was responsible for the revival of law, religion, and learning, after the Vikings’ attacks. Alfred worked diligently to restore and build monasteries and churches and to promote a desire for education among his people. Because the books of that time were written in Latin and most of the population was unable to translate Latin to English, Alfred believed that using English rather than Latin as the basic means of communication would prove useful. In order to achieve this utilization of English, he set out to translate what he considered the most important books of his age into English, such as Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Orosius's History Against the Pagans, Gregory's Pastoral Care and Augustine's Soliloquys. Clearly, Alfred's principles remain with educating the English people on their own history and on Christianity. He believed that religion was a shared, communal practice and that his people's reading of religious texts aloud to each other would better their own understanding of their faith. King Alfred's greatest contribution to the development of English prose was his creation in 891 of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which recounted the history of England from the time of Caesar's invasion in 55 B.C. until its termination in A.D. 1154.


Information retrieved from: English & its Historical Development

The Venerable Bede

external image The_Venerable_Bede_translates_John_1902.jpg
Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People). Bede's history is cataloged over the course of five volumes, beginning with Caesar's invasion in 55 B.C. and ending with accounts of history in Bede's present day. While much of Bede's accounts of history traces the journey of Christianity throughout the land, it is still revered for the cataloging of important events in the history of the country.

"The Venerable Bede" was a doctor of the church. He was born in approximately 635 C.E. and died in 735. In 1889, he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII. He spent part of his life as a monk at Saint Peter's monastery in Northumbria. Today, this is part of Sunderland, England. He is the only native of Great Britain to receive the designation of doctor of the church. His most famous work was, "Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum" (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) . This earned him his second designation as the father of English History."

Throughout his life, Bede completed sixty books. According to Wikipedia, "Bede wrote scientific, historical and theological works, reflecting the range of his writings from music and metrics to exegetical Scripture commentaries. He knew patristic literature, as well as Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, Horace and other classical writers. He knew some Greek and Hebrew. His Latin is generally clear, but his Biblical commentaries are more "technical." He is most known among linguists for his authoritative writings on the early history of England. Through the eyes and hands of a monk, audiences read of the invading Angles and Saxons, and how missionary attempts at converting those of the tribes faced success and failures. Bede's writings also include accounts of miracles and visions.

Major Linguistic Features of Old English

The origin of Old English is Germanic and therefore the very structure of Old English, its vocabulary and grammar, are similar. According to Wikipedia, Old English was fully inflected with five grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental. Each case had two plural forms, in addition to regular singular and plural form, and nouns all had masculine and feminine forms.

Old English encompasses Latin, Norse, and Celtic influence. Since most monks were educated and literate, and proficient in Latin, the spread of Christianity had a magnificent impact on Old English. Additionally, there is such a massive number of words borrowed from the Scandinavians, it also had a profound influence on Old English. Although there is a much smaller amount of words borrowed from Celtic, there are Celtic traits found in the syntax, and therefore Old English enjoys Celtic influence as well.

The word order in Old English is said to be subject-verb-object (as in Modern English), however word order wasn't that important. (See above Old English as a Synthetic Language.) For example, one could say, "My horse is brown," or the equally acceptable, "Brown horse, mine is."

Almost all adjectives in Old English were categorized as either strong or weak. The same adjective could be strong or weak, depending on how it was used in a sentence. A strong adjective was considered strong, because it could stand on its own, as the adjective "yellow" does in the sentence, "Yellow flowers grew in the meadow." An adjective is weak if it is used with a demonstrative. In the sentence, "These yellow flowers grew in the meadow," yellow is a weak adjective because it follows the demonstrative "these." Whether an adjective was strong or weak was important because that determined what declensions (endings added to the stem of the word) were used. The declension indicated what case the word was in (see the five grammatical cases listed above).

Additionally, when comparing Old English to Modern English, the presence and importance of inflection becomes very clear. Much of Old English writing utilizes a complex (and often confusing) system of inflection of words to indicate gender, case, and number. Nouns, adjectives and articles were inflected in writing to identify and emphasize anything from the masculine quality of a word to a plural identification of a group of people.

In Old English, verbs can be put into four basic categories: strong, weak, preterite-present, and irregular.

A weak verb adds an ending to its stem when indicating tense (past), number (singular or plural), person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), or mood. Example: the verb deman (to judge), is conjugated into the past tense as : demde (1st person singular), demdest (2nd person singular), demde (3rd person singular, demdon (1st, 2nd, 3rd person plural)

A strong verb changes its internal vowel sound to indicate its tense. Example: the verb singan (to sing), is conjugated in the past tense as : sange (1st person singular), sung (2nd person singular), sange (3rd person singular), sungon (1st, 2nd, 3rd person plural)

Some verbs in Old English combine the characteristics of both strong and weak, and those are called preterite-present verbs. They are basically strong verbs but their past tense and present tense are swapped. Example: witan (to know); the stem is wit, and then we use the idea of strong verb construction (internal vowel changes), and the present tense of wit, becomes wat.

There are only four irregular verbs in Old English: beon (to be), willan (to wish), don (to do), gan (to go).

Refer to:

Old English Vocabulary

English words may look strange to a modern English speaker because so many are no longer used in Modern English; on the contrary, with minor spelling differences and/or minor meaning changes, many of the most common words in Old and Modern English are the same. Over half of the thousand most common words in Old English survive today and more than three quarters of the top hundred. Over 80 percent of the thousand most common words in Modern English come from Old English. A few vocab samples are as follows:

    • Nouns: cynn 'kin', hand, god, man(n), word.
    • Pronouns: , ic 'I', , self, .
    • Verbs: beran 'bear', cuman 'come', dyde 'did', sittan 'sit', wæs 'was'.
    • Adjectives: fæst 'fast', gōd 'good', hālig 'holy', rīce 'rich', wīd 'wide'.
    • Adverbs: ær 'ere', alle 'all', 'now', 'too', ðǣr 'there'.
    • Prepositions: æfter 'after', for, in, on, under.
    • Articles: ðæt 'that', ðis 'this'.
    • Conjunctions: and, gif 'if''

Features of Old English Poetry


What is also striking about the manuscript Beowulf is the difference in writing. Beowulf was thought to be transcribed by two Scribes, Scribe B taking over at line 1939. Scribe B’s handwriting is thought to possibly match the transcription of the Blicking Homilies. It is for this reason that theorists have thought that Beowulf was simply a version of Saint Paul’s vision of hell from the Blicking Homilies.

Something else that stands out is how the poem mixes the West Saxon and Anglican dialects of Old English, though they are predominantly West Saxon, as are other Old English poems copied at the time. Many linguistic forms appear in the Beowulf manuscript. It is this fact that leads some scholars to believe that Beowulf has endured a long and complicated transmission through all the main dialect areas. The poem retains a complicated mix of the following dialectical forms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Early West Saxon, Kentish and Late West Saxoon. Kiernan argues that it is virtually impossible that there could have been a process of transmission which could have sustained the complicated mix of forms from dialect to dialect, from generation to generation, and from scribe to scribe.

Beowulf also contains alliterative verse, a form of verse that uses alliteration, the repetition of initial consonants, as a structuring device to unify lines of poetry. This is a technique in which the first half of the line (the a-verse) is linked to the second half (the b-verse) through similarity in initial sound. In addition, the two halves are divided by a caesura:

Oft Scyld Scefing \\ sceaþena þreatum

in a pair of lines four or five stressed words might begin with the same consonant or vowel:
  • werodes wisa word-hord onleac

The Letters
Some letters which are no longer found in modern English, such as thorn, þ, and eth, ð — representing both pronunciations of modern English "th", as in "cloth" and "clothe" — are used extensively both in the original manuscript and in modern English editions. The voicing of these characters echoes that of f and s. Both are voiced (as in "clothe") between other voiced sounds: oðer, laþleas, suþern. Otherwise they are unvoiced (as in "cloth"): þunor, suð, soþfæst.

Old English verse has four main emphases (or beats in each line, reflecting the way these poems were performed to the accompaniment of loud strums on a harp or lyre. Scops or bards sand their verse tales to audience in mead halls.

Another striking element is that of a kenning, which is a compound noun used in place of an ordinary name or noun. For example, a poet might call the sea a "whale-road" or a king might be called a "ring-giver."
Bards used kennings in their lyric performance. There are many kennings in Beowulf, and the device is typical of much of classic poetry in Old English, even with its many anomalies and discrepancies. More examples below:
  • swan-rad (swan’s riding place) = sea
  • hilde-leoma (light of battle) = sword
  • mere-hraegl (sea-garment) = sail
  • mere-hengst (sea horse) = ship
  • ban-haus (bone-house) = body
  • woruld-candel (world candle) = sun
repetition of statements with differing words for emphasis

Rapid narrative style
No superfluous details so that the story can move forward smoothly.

Abbreviations are seen. For example, a stroke over the word monezu signals that an m or n has been omitted.
Although other punctuation marks were used in Old English, the first page of the Beowulf manuscript contains a point, similar to Modern English's period.

King Alfred's Grammar Book by Michael D.C. Drout

Caedmon's "Hymn": Oldest Surviving Old English Document

The oldest surviving Old English text is Caedmon’s alliterative vernacular praise poem, “Hymn.” The poem itself was translated into many regional dialects, but many believe the poem was originally composed in the Northumbrian dialect. The West Saxon version of the lines is preserved in the English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and here Bede also offers his own Latin translation. Many scholars see both Bede’s Latin version and the West Saxon version as mere approximations of Cædmon’s original Northumbrian text. The poem was first published in its Northumbrian form in 1705 by Wanley in his Catalogus historico-criticus; Wanley titled the poem Canticum illud Saxonicum Caedmonis a Baeda Memoratum.

Caedmon, who we know about through the work of Bede, lived at the abbey of Whitby in Northumbria in the 7th century. He is considered the father of Old English poetry. Supposedly, he was not born with the talent of writing poetry. According to Bede, Caedmon had a dream one night and woke with the ability to compose beautiful poetry. Caedmon's Hymn is the only known work that remains from the poet. The poem is intended to praise God, as Caedmon was quite religious. He became a dedicated monk after his life-changing dream. He dedicated much of his poetry to religious topics. He supposedly learned to sing Caedmon's Hymn in this dream as well. The poem is one of the earliest examples of Old English and therefore, is usually studied quite closely by scholars who study the progression of the English language. In addition to the poem, the Ruthwell Cross and the Franks Casket are probably the three oldest examples of Old English.
“Hymn” by Cædmon

Today, scholars still debate the original form of the poem.

the “original” Northumbrian version:
Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard,
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc,
uerc uuldurfadur, sue he uundra gihuaes,
eci dryctin, or astelidæ.
He aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe, haleg scepen;
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin, æfter tiadæ
firum foldu, frea allmectig.
The West Saxon version:
Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc
weorc wuldorfæder, swa he wundra gehwæs
ece drihten, or onstealde.
He ærest sceop eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend;
þa middangeard moncynnes weard
ece drihten, æfter teode
firum foldan, frea ælmihtig

English Translation of “Hymn”

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect,
and his purpose, the work of the father of glory as he, the eternal lord,
established the beginning of wonders.
He, the holy creator, first created heaven as a roof for the children of men.
Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal lord, the lord almighty,
afterwards appointed the middle earth, the lands, for men.

One can even listen to the poem read aloud in Old English: http://www.archive.org/details/caedmon_librivox

For Further Reference:


The Ruthwell Cross
The Ruthwell Cross includes inscriptions from the famous Old English poem, "The Dream of the Rood", as well as the Old English alphabet. Unfortunately, the cross was destroyed by Presbyterian iconoclasts in 1664, but was luckily restored in 1818.
Ruthwell Cross

The Franks Casket
The Franks Casket is a chest made of whalebone which has Old English runes on it. It is currently on display at the British Museum. Until relatively recently, no one knew of the existence of the casket. It was owned by a family in France and they were unaware of the historical significance of the small chest. Ultimately, the hinges broke off and the chest was no longer held together. It was examined by professors who were able to date it back to the seventh century CE.

Franks Casket
Wikipedia Entry on Ruthwell Cross
Wikipedia Entry on Caedmon
Wikipedia Entry on Franks Casket

Most high school students can attest to reading possibly the most famous Old English poem, Beowulf. The epic poem tells the legend of Geats and their brave leader, Beowulf, who battle three enemies: Grendel, who has been attacking the resident warriors of Heorot in Denmark, Grendel's mother, and an unnamed, fire breathing dragon. The last battle takes place later (50 years after the battle with Grendel's mother) in the great warrior's life, after Beowulf has returned to Geatland (modern southern Sweden), and become king. In the final battle, Beowulf is fatally wounded. After his death his retainers bury him in Geatland.

This work of 3182 lines is thought to be one of the most important works of Anglo Saxon literature. It has been taught and studied for quite a long time by the literary world. Beowulf was written in Old English and its author remains unknown. Its date is thought to be between the 8th and 11th centuries, according to Nowell Codex manuscript. The actual manuscript was copied some time around the year 1000, though there is some debate over when the original poem was actually written. The dates range from the 750s through the 900s and there has been no real resolution to the debate. Some of the events in Beowulf are historical in nature and occurred in the year 515, which is one of the reasons the document is of such great importance. It provides a window into that time period. One of the most interesting aspects of studying Beowulf is that the actual manuscript was found in a distressed condition. It caught on fire in 1731 and barely survived. Because of this, some of the lines are difficult to read, or are cut off due to the fire damage. This leads to seemingly endless debates over what the manuscript actually said. This is perhaps one of the reasons English scholars delve into such lengthy discussions and debates over Beowulf. There are no clear answers to the questions, and multiple theories as to what it actually says.

The Old English version can be seen in the graphic below.


The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is another important Old English text that remains from the period. It is believed to have been created during the latter half of the 10th Century. Within the 131 remaining parchment pages, the book contains 31 poems and 96 riddles. The name comes from the Exeter Cathedral library, to which the Bishop of Exter, Leofric willed the text upon his death in 1072. The text was likely put on parchment by a single scribe and the texts contained within likely predate its writing by decades and even centuries.

The Exeter Book contains several famous poems. In many cases, the Exeter Book contains the only remaining copy. They include the following:

"The Wanderer"
"The Seafarer"
"Wulf and Eadwacer"
"The Wife's Lament"

Some evidence exists that points to "The Wanderer" dating back to the 6th Century, when St. Augustine began his quest to convert the Anglo-Saxon tribes to Christianity. For example, the narrator of the poem offers advice with heavy Christian overtones. "The Wife's Lament" might predate "The Wanderer," as there are no Christian references or insinuations in the poem, suggesting that it originated before this time period.

The Exeter Book is characteristic of other texts from the Old English period, including poetic structure, the frequent use of kenning, and the presence of several Old English riddles in the text.

For Further Reference:

The Exeter Book (Goucher College)
The Exeter Book (Wikipedia)
The Wanderer (Text & Modern Translation)