…behind the word

History of the languages: OLD ENGLISH

First page of Beowulf in Old English

Also called ANGLO-SAXON (or Englisc/Ænglisc by its speakers). It’s the language spoken and written in England before 1100.

This period begins with the migration of certain Germanic tribes from the continent to Britain in the fifth century A.D., though no records of their language survive from before the seventh century, and it continues until the end of the eleventh century or a bit later. By that time Latin, Old Norse (the language of the Viking invaders), and especially the Anglo-Norman French of the dominant class after the Norman Conquest in 1066 had begun to have a substantial impact on the lexicon, and the well-developed inflectional system that typifies the grammar of Old English had begun to break down.

The Jutes, Angles, and Saxons lived in Jutland, Schleswig, and Holstein, respectively, before settling in Britain. According to the Venerable Bede, the first historian of the English people, the first Jutes, Hengist and Horsa, landed at Ebbsfleet in the Isle of Thanet in 449; and the Jutes later settled in Kent, southern Hampshire, and the Isle of Wight. The Saxons occupied the rest of England south of the Thames, as well as modern Middlesex and Essex. The Angles eventually took the remainder of England as far north as the Firth of Forth, including the future Edinburgh and the Scottish Lowlands. In both Latin and Common Germanic the Angles’ name was Angli, later mutated in Old English to Engle (nominative) and Engla (genitive). Engla land designated the home of all three tribes collectively, and both King Alfred (known as Alfred the Great) and Abbot Ælfric, author and grammarian, subsequently referred to their speech as Englisc. Nevertheless, all the evidence indicates that Jutes, Angles, and Saxons retained their distinctive dialects.

Another highlight in this period was the arrival of St. Augustine in 597 and the subsequent conversion of England to Latin Christianity.

The River Humber was an important boundary, and the Anglian-speaking region developed two speech groups: to the north of the river, Northumbrian, and, to the south, Southumbrian, usually referred to as Mercian. There were thus four dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish (see the map). In the 8th century, the Northumbrian speech group led in literature and culture, but that leadership was destroyed by the Viking invaders, who sacked Lindisfarne, an island near the Northumbrian mainland, in 793. They landed in strength in 865. The first raiders were Danes, but they were later joined by Norwegians from Ireland and the Western Isles who settled in modern Cumberland, Westmorland, northwest Yorkshire, Lancashire, north Cheshire, and the Isle of Man. In the 9th century, as a result of the Norwegian invasions, cultural leadership passed from Northumbria to Wessex. During King Alfred’s reign, in the last three decades of the 9th century, Winchester became the chief centre of learning. There the Parker Chronicle (a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) was written; there the Latin works of the priest and historian Paulus Orosius, St. Augustine, St. Gregory, and the Venerable Bede were translated; and there the native poetry of Northumbria and Mercia was transcribed into the West Saxon dialect. This resulted in West Saxon’s becoming “standard Old English”; and later, when Ælfric (c. 955–c. 1010) wrote his lucid and mature prose at Winchester, Cerne Abbas, and Eynsham, the hegemony of Wessex was strengthened.

In standard Old English, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and verbs were fully inflected. Nouns were inflected for four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative) in singular and plural. Five nouns of first kinship—fæder (faeder), mōdor, brōþor (brōthor), sƿeostor (sweostor), and dohtor (“father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” and “daughter,” respectively)—had their own set of inflections. There were 25 nouns such as mon, men (“man,” “men”) with mutated, or umlauted, stems. Adjectives had strong and weak declensions, the strong showing a mixture of noun and pronoun endings and the weak following the pattern of weak nouns. Personal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, and relative pronouns had full inflections. The pronouns of the 1st and 2nd persons still had distinctive dual forms:

  • : “I”
  • ƿit (wit): “we two”
  • ƿē (wē): “we”
  • þū (thū): “thou”
  • ġit: “you two”
  • ġē: “you”

There were two demonstratives: , sēo, þæt (thaet), meaning “that,” and þes (thes), þēos (thēos), þis (this), meaning “this,” but no articles, the definite article being expressed by use of the demonstrative for “that” or not expressed at all. Thus, “the good man” was sē gōda mon or plain gōd mon. The function of the indefinite article was performed by the numeral ān “one” in ān mon “a man,” by the adjective-pronoun sum in sum mon “a (certain) man,” or not expressed, as in þū (thū) eart gōd mon “you are a good man.”

Verbs had two tenses only (present-future and past), three moods (indicative, subjunctive, and imperative), two numbers (singular and plural), and three persons (1st, 2nd, and 3rd). There were two classes of verb stems. (A verb stem is that part of a verb to which inflectional changes—changes indicating tense, mood, number, etc.—are added.) One type of verb stem, called vocalic because an internal vowel shows variations, is exemplified by the verb for “sing”: singan, singþ (singth), sang, sungon, gesungen. The word for “deem” is an example of the other, called consonantal: dēman, dēmþ (dēmth), dēmde, dēmdon, gedēmed. Such verbs are called strong and weak, respectively.

Lord's Prayer in Old English

All new verbs, whether derived from existing verbs or from nouns, belonged to the consonantal type. Some verbs of great frequency (antecedents of the modern words be, shall, will, do, go, can, may, and so on) had their own peculiar patterns of inflections.

Grammatical gender persisted throughout the Old English period. Just as Germans now say der Fuss, die Hand, and das Auge (masculine, feminine, and neuter terms for “the foot,” “the hand,” and “the eye”), so, for these same structures, Ælfric said sē fōt, sēo hond, and þæt (thaet) ēaġe, also masculine, feminine, and neuter. The three words for “woman,” ƿīfmon (wīfmon), cƿene (cwene), and ƿīf (wīf), were masculine, feminine, and neuter, respectively. Hors “horse,” sċēap “sheep,” and mæġden (maeġden) “maiden” were all neuter. Eorþe (eorthe) “earth” was feminine, but lond “land” was neuter. Sunne “sun” was feminine, but mōna “moon” was masculine. This simplification of grammatical gender resulted from the fact that the gender of Old English substantives was not always indicated by the ending but rather by the terminations of the adjectives and demonstrative pronouns used with the substantives. When these endings were lost, all outward marks of gender disappeared with them. Thus, the weakening of inflections and loss of gender occurred together. In the North, where inflections weakened earlier, the marks of gender likewise disappeared first. They survived in the South as late as the 14th century.

Because of the greater use of inflections in Old English, word order was freer than today. The sequence of subject, verb, and complement was normal, but when there were outer and inner complements the second was put in the dative case after to: Sē biscop hālgode Ēadrēd tō cyninge “The bishop consecrated Edred king.” After an introductory adverb or adverbial phrase the verb generally took second place as in modern German: Nū bydde iċ ān þing (thing) “Now I ask [literally, “ask I”] one thing”; Þȳ (thȳ) ilcan gēare gesette Ælfrēd (Aelfrēd) cyning Lundenburg “In that same year Alfred the king occupied London.” Impersonal verbs had no subject expressed. Infinitives constructed with auxiliary verbs were placed at the ends of clauses or sentences: Hīe ne dorston forþ (forth)þære (thaere) ēa siglan “They dared not sail beyond that river” (siglan is the infinitive); Iċ ƿolde (wolde) þās (thās) lytlan bōc āƿendan (āwendan) “I wanted to translate this little book” (āƿendan is the infinitive). The verb usually came last in a dependent clause—e.g., āƿrītan (āwrītan) ƿile (wile) in gif hƿā (hwā) þās (thās) bōc āƿrītan (āwrītan) ƿile (wile) (gerihte hē hīe be þære [thaere] bysene) “If anyone wants to copy this book (let him correct his copy by the original).” Prepositions (or postpositions) frequently followed their objects. Negation was often repeated for emphasis.

Almost at the end of the Old English period, another important event happened in the history of the English language in general. The Norman Conquest took place in 1066. With the beginning of the XII century, the language underwent a dramatic transition, and the Middle English era started.


  • Encyclopædia Britanica, English Language (see link).
  • Merriam-Webster, What Are the Origins of the English Language? (see link)

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