Old English language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Old English/Anglo-Saxon
Spoken in: parts of what is now England and southern Scotland
Language extinction: developed into Middle English by the 12th century
Language family: Indo-European
   West Germanic
     Old English/Anglo-Saxon
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: ang
ISO/FDIS 639-3: ang 

Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is an early form of the English language that was spoken in parts of what is now England and southern Scotland between the mid-fifth century and the mid-twelfth century. It is a West Germanic language and therefore is closely related to Old Frisian and Old Saxon. It also experienced heavy influence from Old Norse, a member of the related North Germanic group of languages.


Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of approximately 700 years – from the Anglo-Saxon migrations that created England in the fifth century to some time after the Norman invasion of 1066, when the language underwent a major and dramatic transition. During this early period it assimilated some aspects of the languages with which it came in contact, such as the Celtic languages and the two dialects of Old Norse from the invading Vikings, who were occupying and controlling large tracts of land in northern and eastern England, which came to be known as the Danelaw.

Germanic origins

The most important force in shaping Old English was its Germanic heritage in its vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar which it shared with its sister languages in continental Europe. Some of these features were specific to the West Germanic language family to which Old English belongs, while some other features were inherited from the Proto-Germanic language from which all Germanic languages are believed to have been derived.

Like other West Germanic languages of the period, Old English was fully inflected with five grammatical cases, which had dual plural forms for referring to groups of two objects (but only in the personal pronouns) in addition to the usual singular and plural forms. It also assigned gender to all nouns, including those that describe inanimate objects: for example, sēo sunne (the Sun) was feminine, while se mōna (the Moon) was masculine (cf. modern German die Sonne vs. der Mond).

Latin influence

A large percentage of the educated and literate population ( monks, clerics, etc.) were competent in Latin, which was the lingua franca of Europe at the time. It is sometimes possible to give approximate dates for the entry of individual Latin words into Old English based on which patterns of linguistic change they have undergone. There were at least three notable periods of Latin influence. The first occurred before the ancestral Saxons left continental Europe for England. The second began when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests became widespread. The third and largest single transfer of Latin-based words occurred following the Norman invasion of 1066, after which an enormous number of Norman words entered the language. Most of these Oïl language words were themselves derived ultimately from classical Latin, although a notable stock of Norse words were introduced, or re-introduced in Norman form. The Norman Conquest approximately marks the end of Old English and the advent of Middle English.

The language was further altered by the transition away from the runic alphabet (also known as futhorc or fuþorc) to the Latin alphabet, which was also a significant factor in the developmental pressures brought to bear on the language. Old English words were spelt as they were pronounced; the "silent" letters in many Modern English words, such as the "k" in "knight", were in fact pronounced in Old English. For example, the 'hard-c' sound in cniht, the Old English equivalent of 'knight', was pronounced. Another side-effect of spelling words phonetically was that spelling was extremely variable – the spelling of a word would reflect differences in the phonetics of the writer's regional dialect, and also idiosyncratic spelling choices which varied from author to author, and even from work to work by the same author. Thus, for example, the word "and" could be spelt either and or ond.

Old English spelling can therefore be regarded as even more jumbled than modern English spelling, although it can at least claim to reflect some existing pronunciation, while modern English in many cases cannot. Most present day students of Old English learn the language using normalised versions and are only introduced to variant spellings after they have mastered the basics of the language.

Viking influence

 The approximate extent of Old Norse and related languages in the early 10th century: ██  Old West Norse dialect  ██  Old East Norse dialect  ██  Old Gutnish dialect  ██  Crimean Gothic  ██  Other Germanic languages with which Old Norse still retained some mutual intelligibility
The approximate extent of Old Norse and related languages in the early 10th century: ██  Old West Norse dialect ██  Old East Norse dialect ██  Old Gutnish dialect ██  Crimean Gothic ██  Other Germanic languages with which Old Norse still retained some mutual intelligibility

The second major source of loanwords to Old English were the Scandinavian words introduced during the Viking invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries. In addition to a great many place names, these consist mainly of items of basic vocabulary, and words concerned with particular administrative aspects of the Danelaw (that is, the area of land under Viking control, which included extensive holdings all along the eastern coast of England and Scotland). The Vikings spoke Old Norse, a language related to Old English in that both derived from the same ancestral Proto-Germanic language. It is very common for the intermixing of speakers of different dialects, such as those that occur during times of political unrest, to result in a mixed language, and one theory holds that exactly such a mixture of Old Norse and Old English helped accelerate the decline of case endings in Old English. Apparent confirmation of this is the fact that simplification of the case endings occurred earliest in the North and latest in the Southwest, the area farthest away from Viking influence. Regardless of the truth of this theory, the influence of Old Norse on the English language has been profound: responsible for such basic vocabulary items as sky, leg and the modern pronoun they.

Celtic influence

It has traditionally been maintained that the influence of Celtic on English has been small, citing the small number of Celtic loanwords taken into the language. The number of Celtic loanwords is of a remarkably lower order than either Latin or Scandinavian.

Since the 1980s, a growing number of authors, including Hildegard Tristram, have argued that the effects of Celtic language contact have historically been underplayed. In recent years Celtic etymologies have been proposed for an increasing number of English dialect words. Tristram, Theo Vennemann and others have argued that distinctive Celtic traits are clearly discernable from the post-Old English period in the area of syntax.


To further complicate matters, Old English had many dialects. The four main dialect forms of Old English were Mercian, Northumbrian (known collectively as Anglian), Kentish, and West Saxon. Each of these dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. Of these, all of Northumbria and most of Mercia were overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. The portion of Mercia and all of Kent that were successfully defended were then integrated into Wessex.

After the process of unification of the diverse Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 878 by Alfred the Great, there is a marked decline in the importance of regional dialects. This is not because they stopped existing; regional dialects continued even after that time to this day, as evidenced both by the existence of middle and modern English dialects later on, and by common sense – people do not spontaneously develop new accents when there is a sudden change of political power.

However, the bulk of the surviving documents from the Anglo-Saxon period are written in the dialect of Wessex, Alfred's kingdom. It seems likely that with consolidation of power, it became necessary to standardise the language of government to reduce the difficulty of administering the more remote areas of the kingdom. As a result, paperwork was written in the West Saxon dialect. Not only this, but Alfred was passionate about the spread of the vernacular and brought many scribes to his region from Mercia in order that previously unwritten texts be recorded. The Church was likewise affected, especially since Alfred initiated an ambitious programme to translate religious materials into English. In order to retain his patronage and ensure the widest circulation of the translated materials, the monks and priests engaged in the programme worked in his dialect. Alfred himself seems to have translated books out of Latin and into English, notably Pope Gregory I's treatise on administration, " Pastoral Care".

Because of the centralisation of power and to the Viking invasions, there is little or no written evidence for the development of non-Wessex dialects after Alfred's unification.

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Corpus of literature

Old English literature, though more abundant than literature of the continent before 1000 A.D., is, nonetheless, scanty. In his supplementary article to the 1935 posthumous edition of Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader, Dr. James Hulbert writes:

In such historical conditions, an incalculable amount of the writings of the Anglo-Saxon period perished. What they contained, how important they were for an understanding of literature before the Conquest, we have no means of knowing: the scant catalogs of monastic libraries do not help us, and there are no references in extant works to other compositions....How incomplete our materials are can be illustrated by the well-known fact that, with few and relatively unimportant exceptions, all extant Anglo-Saxon poetry is preserved in four manuscripts.

Jorge Luis Borges, in 'An Autobiographical Essay', The Aleph & Other Stories, says:

I knew that at home, on a certain top shelf, I had copies of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. When the students came the next Saturday morning, we began reading these two books. We skipped grammar as much as we could and pronounced the words like German. All at once, we fell in love with a sentence in which Rome (Romeburh) was mentioned. We got drunk on these words and rushed down Peru Street shouting them at the top of our voices. And so we set out on a long adventure. I had always thought of English literature as the richest in the world; the discovery now of a secret chamber at the very threshold of that literature came to me as an additional gift. Personally, I knew that the adventure would be an endless one, and that I could go on studying Old English for the rest of my days.


The inventory of Old English surface phones, as usually reconstructed, is as follows.

  Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p  b     t  d     k  g  
Affricate         tʃ  (dʒ)      
Nasal m     n     (ŋ)  
Fricative   f  (v) θ  (ð) s  (z) ʃ (ç) (x)  (ɣ) h
Approximant       r   j w  
Lateral approximant       l        

The sounds marked in parentheses in the chart above are allophones:

  • [dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ and when geminated
  • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /g/
  • [v, ð, z] are allophones of /f, θ, s/ respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants.
  • [ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively
  • [ɣ] is an allophone of /g/ occurring after a vowel
Monophthongs Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i  y u iː  yː
Mid e  (ø) o eː  (øː)
Open æ ɑ æː ɑː

The front mid rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect.

Diphthongs Short ( monomoraic) Long (bimoraic)
First element is close iy iːy
Both elements are mid eo eːo
Both elements are open æɑ æːɑ

Standardised orthography

Old English was at first written in runes ( futhorc), but shifted to the Latin alphabet, with some additions, after the Anglo-Saxons' conversion to Christianity. The letter yogh, for example, was adopted from Irish; the letter eth was an alteration of Latin "d", and the runic letters thorn and wynn are borrowings from futhorc. Also used was a symbol for the conjunction 'and', a character similar to the number seven (, called a Tironian note), and a symbol for the relative pronoun 'þæt', a thorn with a crossbar through the ascender (' '). Also used occasionally were macrons over vowels, abbreviations for following 'm's or 'n's. All of the sound descriptions below are given using IPA symbols.

The alphabet

  • a: /ɑ/ (spelling variations like land/lond "land" suggest it may have had a rounded allophone [ɒ] before [n] in some cases)
  • ā: /ɑː/
  • æ: /æ/
  • ǣ: /æː/
  • b: /b/
  • c (except in the digraphs sc and cg): either /tʃ/ or /k/. The /tʃ/ pronunciation is sometimes written with a diacritic by modern editors: most commonly ċ, sometimes č or ç. Before a consonant letter the pronunciation is always /k/; word-finally after i it is always /tʃ/. Otherwise a knowledge of the historical linguistics of the word in question is needed to predict which pronunciation is needed. (See Old English phonology#The distribution of velars and palatals for details.)
  • cg: [ddʒ] (the surface pronunciation of geminate /jj/); occasionally also for /gg/
  • d: /d/
  • ð/þ: /θ/ and its allophone [ð]. Both symbols were used more or less interchangeably (to the extent that if there was a rule, it was to avoid using ð word-initially, but this was by no means universally followed). Many modern editions preserve the use of these two symbols as found in the original manuscripts, but some attempt to regularise them in some fashion, for example using only the þ. See also Pronunciation of English th.
  • e: /e/
  • ē: /eː/
  • ea: /æɑ/; after ċ and ġ, sometimes /æ/ or /ɑ/
  • ēa: /æːɑ/; after ċ and ġ, sometimes /æː/
  • eo: /eo/; after ċ and ġ, sometimes /o/
  • ēo: /eːo/
  • f: /f/ and its allophone [v]
  • g: /g/ and its allophone [ɣ]; /j/ and its allophone [dʒ] (when after n). The /j/ and [dʒ] pronunciations are sometimes written ġ or ȝ by modern editors. Before a consonant letter the pronunciation is always [g] (word-initially) or [ɣ] (after a vowel). Word-finally after i it is always /j/. Otherwise a knowledge of the historical linguistics of the word in question is needed to predict which pronunciation is needed. (See Old English phonology#The distribution of velars and palatals for details.)
  • h: /h/ and its allophones [ç, x]. In the combinations hl, hr, hn and hw, the second consonant was certainly voiceless.
  • i: /i/
  • ī: /iː/
  • ie: /iy/; after ċ and ġ, sometimes /e/
  • īe: /iːy/; after ċ and ġ, sometimes /eː/
  • k: /k/ (rarely used)
  • l: /l/; probably velarised (as in Modern English) when in coda position.
  • m: /m/
  • n: /n/ and its allophone [ŋ]
  • o: /o/
  • ō: /oː/
  • oe: /ø/ (in dialects with this sound)
  • ōe: /øː/ (in dialects with this sound)
  • p: /p/
  • q: /k/ – Used before u representing the consonant /w/, but rarely used, being rather a feature of Middle English. Old English preferred cƿ or in modern print cw.
  • r: /r/; the exact nature of r is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant [ɹ], as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar flap [ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r].
  • s: /s/ and its allophone [z]
  • sc: /ʃ/ or occasionally /sk/
  • t: /t/
  • u: /u/
  • ū: /uː/
  • ƿ ( wynn): /w/, replaced in modern print by w to prevent confusion with p.
  • x: /ks/ (but according to some authors, [xs ~ çs])
  • y: /y/
  • ȳ: /yː/
  • z: /ts/. Rarely used as ts was usually used instead, for example bezt vs betst "best", pronounced /betst/.

Doubled consonants are geminated; the geminate fricatives ðð/þþ, ff and ss cannot be voiced.


Unlike modern English, Old English is a language rich with morphological diversity and is spelled essentially as it is pronounced. It maintains several distinct cases: the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and (vestigially) instrumental, remnants of which survive only in a few pronouns in modern English.


Old English is often erroneously used to refer to any form of English other than Modern English. The term Old English does not refer to varieties of Early Modern English such as are found in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, nor does it refer to Middle English, the language of Chaucer and his contemporaries. The following timeline helps place the history of the English language in context. The dates used are approximate dates. It is inaccurate to state that everyone stopped speaking Old English in 1099, and woke up on New Year's Day of 1100 speaking Middle English. Language change is gradual, and cannot be as easily demarcated as historical or political events are.

450–1100 Old English (Anglo-Saxon) – The language of Beowulf.

1100–1500 Middle English – The language of Chaucer.

1500–1650 Early Modern English (or Renaissance English) – The language of Shakespeare.

1650–present Modern English (or Present-Day English) – The language as spoken today.



The first example is taken from the epic poem Beowulf. The modern English translation is very literal, and does not fit modern word order ( SVO). The original word order has been followed to give a close approximation of the feel of the original poem.

Line Original Translation
Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum, Lo! We of the Spear-Danes in days gone by
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, of the kings, of fame have heard,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. how those nobles did great deeds
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, Often Scyld Scefing, from the army of his enemies,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, from many warriors, took the mead-benches
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð terrified the nobles. After he was first
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad discovered, a foundling, he gained a consolation
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, waxed under the heavens, prospered in glory,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra until eventually everyone in surrounding tribes,
ofer hronrade hyran scolde, over the whale-road, had to obey
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning! and yield to him. He was a good king!

The Lord's Prayer

This text of The Lord's Prayer is presented in the standardised West Saxon literary dialect:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
Si þin nama gehalgod.
To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. soþlice.
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