Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of 700 years, from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century to the late 11th century, some time after the Norman invasion. While indicating that the establishment of dates is an arbitrary process, Albert Baugh dates Old English from 450 to 1150, a period of full inflections, a synthetic language. Perhaps around 85 per cent of Old English words are no longer in use, but those that survived are basic elements of Modern English vocabulary.
Old English is a West Germanic language, developing out of Ingvaeonic (also known as North Sea Germanic) dialects from the 5th century. It came to be spoken over most of the territory of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which became the Kingdom of England. This included most of present-day England, as well as part of what is now southeastern Scotland, which for several centuries belonged to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Other parts of the island – Wales and most of Scotland – continued to use Celtic languages, except in the areas of Scandinavian settlements where Old Norse was spoken. Celtic speech also remained established in certain parts of England: Medieval Cornish was spoken all over Cornwall and in adjacent parts of Devon, while Cumbric survived perhaps to the 12th century in parts of Cumbria, and Welsh may have been spoken on the English side of the Anglo-Welsh border. Norse was also widely spoken in the parts of England which fell under Danish law.
Anglo-Saxon literacy developed after Christianisation in the late 7th century. The oldest surviving text of Old English literature is Cædmon's Hymn, composed between 658 and 680. There is a limited corpus of runic inscriptions from the 5th to 7th centuries, but the oldest coherent runic texts (notably the Franks Casket) date to the 8th century. The Old English Latin alphabet was introduced around the 9th century.
With the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (outside the Danelaw) by Alfred the Great in the later 9th century, the language of government and literature became standardised around the West Saxon dialect (Early West Saxon). Alfred advocated education in English alongside Latin, and had many works translated into the English language; some of them, such as Pope Gregory I's treatise Pastoral Care, appear to have been translated by Alfred himself. In Old English, typical of the development of literature, poetry arose before prose, but King Alfred the Great (871 to 901) chiefly inspired the growth of prose.
A later literary standard, dating from the later 10th century, arose under the influence of Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, and was followed by such writers as the prolific Ælfric of Eynsham ("the Grammarian"). This form of the language is known as the "Winchester standard", or more commonly as Late West Saxon. It is considered to represent the "classical" form of Old English. It retained its position of prestige until the time of the Norman Conquest, after which English ceased for a time to be of importance as a literary language.
The history of Old English can be subdivided into:Prehistoric Old English (c. 450 to 650); for this period, Old English is mostly a reconstructed language as no literary witnesses survive (with the exception of limited epigraphic evidence). This language, or bloc of languages, spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and pre-dating documented Old English or Anglo-Saxon, has also been called Primitive Old English.
Early Old English (c. 650 to 900), the period of the oldest manuscript traditions, with authors such as Cædmon, Bede, Cynewulf and Aldhelm.
Late Old English (c. 900 to 1066), the final stage of the language leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the subsequent transition to Early Middle English.
The Old English period is followed by Middle English (12th to 15th century), Early Modern English (c. 1480 to 1650) and finally Modern English (after 1650).
Old English should not be regarded as a single monolithic entity, just as Modern English is also not monolithic. It emerged over time out of the many dialects and languages of the colonising tribes, and it is perhaps only towards the later Anglo-Saxon period that these can be considered to have constituted a single national language. Even then, Old English continued to exhibit much local and regional variation, remnants of which remain in Modern English dialects.
The four main dialectal forms of Old English were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. Mercian and Northumbrian are together referred to as Anglian. In terms of geography the Northumbrian region lay north of the Humber River; the Mercian lay north of the Thames and South of the Humber River; West Saxon lay south and southwest of the Thames; and the smallest, Kentish region lay southeast of the Thames, a small corner of England. The Kentish region, settled by the Jutes from Jutland, has the scantiest literary remains.
Each of these four dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. Of these, Northumbria south of the Tyne, and most of Mercia, were overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. The portion of Mercia that was successfully defended, and all of Kent, were then integrated into Wessex under Alfred the Great. From that time on, the West Saxon dialect (then in the form now known as Early West Saxon) became standardised as the language of government, and as the basis for the many works of literature and religious materials produced or translated from Latin in that period.
The later literary standard known as Late West Saxon (see History, above), although centred in the same region of the country, appears not to have been directly descended from Alfred's Early West Saxon. For example, the former diphthong /iy/ tended to become monophthongised to /i/ in EWS, but to /y/ in LWS.
Due to the centralisation of power and the Viking invasions, there is relatively little written record of the non-Wessex dialects after Alfred's unification. Some Mercian texts continued to be written, however, and the influence of Mercian is apparent in some of the translations produced under Alfred's programme, many of which were produced by Mercian scholars. Other dialects certainly continued to be spoken, as is evidenced by the continued variation between their successors in Middle and Modern English. In fact, what would become the standard forms of Middle English and of Modern English are descended from Mercian rather than West Saxon, while Scots developed from the Northumbrian dialect. It was once claimed that, owing to its position at the heart of the Kingdom of Wessex, the relics of Anglo-Saxon accent, idiom and vocabulary were best preserved in the dialect of Somerset.
For details of the sound differences between the dialects, see Phonological history of Old English (dialects).
The language of the Anglo-Saxon settlers appears not to have been significantly affected by the native British Celtic languages which it largely displaced. The number of Celtic loanwords introduced into the language is very small. However, various suggestions have been made concerning possible influence that Celtic may have had on developments in English syntax in the post-Old English period, such as the regular progressive construction and analytic word order, as well as the eventual development of the periphrastic auxiliary verb "do."
Old English contained a certain number of loanwords from Latin, which was the scholarly and diplomatic lingua franca of Western Europe. It is sometimes possible to give approximate dates for the borrowing of individual Latin words based on which patterns of sound change they have undergone. Some Latin words had already been borrowed into the Germanic languages before the ancestral Angles and Saxons left continental Europe for Britain. More entered the language when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests became influential. It was also through Irish Christian missionaries that the Latin alphabet was introduced and adapted for the writing of Old English, replacing the earlier runic system. Nonetheless, the largest transfer of Latin-based (mainly Old French) words into English occurred after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and thus in the Middle English rather than the Old English period.
Another source of loanwords was Old Norse, which came into contact with Old English via the Scandinavian rulers and settlers in the Danelaw from the late 9th century, and during the rule of Cnut and other Danish kings in the early 11th century. Many place-names in eastern and northern England are of Scandinavian origin. Norse borrowings are relatively rare in Old English literature, being mostly terms relating to government and administration. The literary standard, however, was based on the West Saxon dialect, away from the main area of Scandinavian influence; the impact of Norse may have been greater in the eastern and northern dialects. Certainly in Middle English texts, which are more often based on eastern dialects, a strong Norse influence becomes apparent. Modern English contains a great many, often everyday, words that were borrowed from Old Norse, and the grammatical simplification that occurred after the Old English period is also often attributed to Norse influence.
The influence of Old Norse certainly helped move English from a synthetic language along the continuum to a more analytic word order, and Old Norse most likely made a greater impact on the English language than any other language. The eagerness of Vikings in the Danelaw to communicate with their southern Anglo-Saxon neighbours produced a friction that led to the erosion of the complicated inflectional word-endings. Simeon Potter notes: “No less far-reaching was the influence of Scandinavian upon the inflexional endings of English in hastening that wearing away and leveling of grammatical forms which gradually spread from north to south. It was, after all, a salutary influence. The gain was greater than the loss. There was a gain in directness, in clarity, and in strength.”
The strength of the Viking influence on Old English appears from the fact that the indispensable elements of the language - pronouns, modals, comparatives, pronominal adverbs (like "hence" and "together"), conjunctions and prepositions - show the most marked Danish influence; the best evidence of Scandinavian influence appears in the extensive word borrowings for, as Jespersen indicates, no texts exist in either Scandinavia or in Northern England from this time to give certain evidence of an influence on syntax. The change to Old English from Old Norse was substantive, pervasive, and of a democratic character. Old Norse and Old English resembled each other closely like cousins and with some words in common, they roughly understood each other; in time the inflections melted away and the analytic pattern emerged. It is most “important to recognize that in many words the English and Scandinavian language differed chiefly in their inflectional elements. The body of the word was so nearly the same in the two languages that only the endings would put obstacles in the way of mutual understanding. In the mixed population which existed in the Danelaw these endings must have led to much confusion, tending gradually to become obscured and finally lost.” This blending of peoples and languages resulted in “simplifying English grammar.”
The inventory of classical Old English (Late West Saxon) surface phones, as usually reconstructed, is as follows.
The sounds enclosed in parentheses in the chart above are not considered to be phonemes:[dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ and when geminated (doubled).
[ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/.
[v, ð, z] are voiced 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 /ɡ/ occurring after a vowel, and, at an earlier stage of the language, in the syllable onset.
the voiceless sonorants [ʍ, l̥, n̥, r̥] are analysed as realizing the sequences /hw, hl, hn, hr/.
The above system is largely similar to that of Modern English, except that [ç, x, ɣ, l̥, n̥, r̥] (and [ʍ] for most speakers) have generally been lost, while the voiced affricate and fricatives (now also including /ʒ/) have become independent phonemes, as has /ŋ/.
The mid front rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ had merged into unrounded /e(ː)/ before the Late West Saxon period. During the 11th century such vowels arose again, as monophthongisations of the diphthongs /e(ː)o/, but quickly merged again with /e(ː)/ in most dialects.
The exact pronunciation of the West Saxon close diphthongs, spelt ⟨ie⟩, is disputed; it may have been /i(ː)y/ or /i(ː)e/. Other dialects may have had different systems of diphthongs; for example, Anglian dialects retained /i(ː)u/, which had merged with /e(ː)o/ in West Saxon.
For more on dialectal differences, see Phonological history of Old English (dialects).
Some of the principal sound changes occurring in the pre-history and history of Old English were the following:Fronting of [ɑ(ː)] to [æ(ː)] except when nasalised or followed by a nasal consonant ("Anglo-Frisian brightening"), partly reversed in certain positions by later "a-restoration" or retraction.
Monophthongisation of the diphthong [ai], and modification of remaining diphthongs to the height-harmonic type.
Diphthongisation of long and short front vowels in certain positions ("breaking").
Palatalisation of velars [k], [ɡ], [ɣ], [sk] to [tʃ], [dʒ], [j], [ʃ] in certain front-vowel environments.
The process known as i-mutation (which for example led to modern mice as the plural of mouse).
Loss of certain weak vowels in word-final and medial positions, and of medial [(i)j]; reduction of remaining unstressed vowels.
Diphthongisation of certain vowels before certain consonants when preceding a back vowel ("back mutation").
Loss of /h/ between vowels or between a voiced consonant and a vowel, with lengthening of the preceding vowel.
Collapse of two consecutive vowels into a single vowel.
"Palatal umlaut", which has given forms such as six (compare German sechs).
For more details of these processes, see the main article, linked above. For sound changes before and after the Old English period, see Phonological history of English.
Unlike Modern English, Old English is a language rich in morphological diversity. It maintains several distinct cases: the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and (vestigially) instrumental. The only remnants of this system in Modern English are in the forms of a few pronouns (such as I/me/mine, she/her, who/whom/whose) and in the possessive ending -'s, which derives from the old (masculine and neuter) genitive ending -es. In Old English, however, nouns and their modifying words take appropriate endings depending on their case.
The modern English plural ending -(e)s derives from the Old English -as, but the latter applied only to "strong" masculine nouns in the nominative and accusative cases; different plural endings were used in other instances. Besides singular and plural, the first- and second-person personal pronouns also retained dual forms, meaning "we (two)", "you (two)".
Old English nouns had grammatical gender, a feature absent in modern English, which uses only natural gender. For example, the words sunne ("sun"), mōna ("moon") and wīf ("woman/wife") were respectively feminine, masculine and neuter; this is reflected, among other things, in the form of the definite article used with these nouns: sēo sunne ("the sun"), se mōna ("the moon"), þæt wīf ("the woman/wife"). Pronoun usage could reflect either natural or grammatical gender, when those conflicted (as in the case of wīf, a neuter noun referring to a female person).
The definite article sē and its various forms could serve both as a definite article ("the") and a demonstrative adjective ("that"). Another demonstrative was þes ("this"). These words, like other adjectives, inflected for gender, number and case. Adjectives had both strong and weak sets of endings, the weak ones being used when a definite or possessive determiner was also present.
The form of the verb varies with person (first, second and third), number (singular and plural), tense (present and past), and mood (indicative, subjunctive and imperative). Old English also sometimes uses compound constructions to express other verbal aspects, the future and the passive voice; in these we see the beginnings of the compound tenses of Modern English. Old English verbs include strong verbs, which form the past tense by altering the root vowel, and weak verbs, which use a suffix such as -de. As in Modern English, and peculiar to the Germanic languages, the verbs formed two great classes: weak (regular), and strong (irregular). Like today, Old English had fewer strong verbs, and many of these have over time decayed into weak forms. Then, as now, dental suffixes indicated the past tense of the weak verbs, as in work and worked.
Old English syntax was similar in many ways to that of modern English. However, there were some important differences. Some were simply consequences of the greater level of nominal and verbal inflection, which meant that word order was generally freer. In addition:The default word order was more like modern German than modern English, with verb-second order in main clauses, and verb-final in subordinate clauses.
There was no do-support in questions and negatives. Questions were usually formed by inverting subject and finite verb, and negatives by placing ne before the finite verb, regardless of what the verb was.
Multiple negatives could stack up in a sentence, and intensified each other (negative concord).
Sentences with subordinate clauses of the type "when X, Y" (e.g. "When I got home, I ate dinner") did not use a wh-type conjunction, but rather used a th-type correlative conjunction such as þā, otherwise meaning "then" (e.g. þā X, þā Y in place of "when X, Y"). The wh-words were used only as interrogatives and as indefinite pronouns.
Similarly, wh- forms were not used as relative pronouns. Instead, the indeclinable word þe was used, often preceded by (or replaced by) the appropriate form of the article/demonstrative se.
Old English was first written in runes, using the futhorc – a rune set derived from the Germanic 24-character elder futhark, extended by five more runes used to represent Anglo-Saxon vowel sounds, and sometimes by several more additional characters. From around the 9th century, the runic system came to be supplanted by a (minuscule) half-uncial script of the Latin alphabet introduced by Irish Christian missionaries. This was replaced by insular script, a cursive and pointed version of the half-uncial script. This was used until the end of the 12th century when continental Carolingian minuscule (also known as Caroline) replaced the insular.
The Latin alphabet of the time still lacked the letters ⟨j⟩ and ⟨w⟩, and there was no ⟨v⟩ as distinct from ⟨u⟩; moreover native Old English spellings did not use ⟨k⟩, ⟨q⟩ or ⟨z⟩. The remaining 20 Latin letters were supplemented by four more: ⟨æ⟩ (æsc, modern ash) and ⟨ð⟩ (ðæt, now called eth or edh), which were modified Latin letters, and thorn ⟨þ⟩ and wynn ⟨ƿ⟩, which are borrowings from the futhorc. A few letter pairs were used as digraphs, representing a single sound. Also used was the Tironian note ⟨⁊⟩ (a character similar to the digit 7) for the conjunction and, and a thorn with a crossbar through the ascender for the pronoun þæt. Macrons over vowels were originally used not to mark long vowels (as in modern editions), but to indicate stress, or as abbreviations for a following m or n.
Modern editions of Old English manuscripts generally introduce some additional conventions. The modern forms of Latin letters are used, including ⟨g⟩ in place of the insular G, ⟨s⟩ for long S, and others which may differ considerably from the insular script, notably ⟨e⟩, ⟨f⟩ and ⟨r⟩. Macrons are used to indicate long vowels, where usually no distinction was made between long and short vowels in the originals. (In some older editions an acute accent mark was used for consistency with Old Norse conventions.) Additionally, modern editions often distinguish between velar and palatal ⟨c⟩ and ⟨g⟩ by placing dots above the palatals: ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩. The letter wynn ⟨ƿ⟩ is usually replaced with ⟨w⟩, but æsc, eth and thorn are normally retained (except when eth is replaced by thorn).
In contrast with Modern English orthography, that of Old English was reasonably regular, with a mostly predictable correspondence between letters and phonemes. There were not usually any silent letters – in the word cniht, for example, both the ⟨c⟩ and ⟨h⟩ were pronounced, unlike the ⟨k⟩ and ⟨gh⟩ in the modern knight. The following table lists the Old English letters and digraphs together with the phonemes they represent, using the same notation as in the Phonology section above.
Doubled consonants are geminated; the geminate fricatives ⟨ðð⟩/⟨þþ⟩, ⟨ff⟩ and ⟨ss⟩ cannot be voiced.
Old English literature, though more abundant than literature of the continent before AD 1000, is nonetheless scant. The pagan and Christian streams mingle in Old English, one of the richest and most significant bodies of literature preserved among the early Germanic peoples. 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 catalogues 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.
Some of the most important surviving works of Old English literature are Beowulf, an epic poem; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of early English history; the Franks Casket, an inscribed early whalebone artefact; and Cædmon's Hymn, a Christian religious poem. There are also a number of extant prose works, such as sermons and saints' lives, biblical translations, and translated Latin works of the early Church Fathers, legal documents, such as laws and wills, and practical works on grammar, medicine, and geography. Still, poetry is considered the heart of Old English literature. Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous, with a few exceptions, such as Bede and Cædmon. Cædmon, the earliest English poet we know by name, served as a lay brother in the monastery at Whitby.
The first example is taken from the opening lines of the folk-epic Beowulf, a poem of some 3,000 lines and the single greatest work of Old English. This passage describes how Hrothgar's legendary ancestor Scyld was found as a baby, washed ashore, and adopted by a noble family. The translation is literal and represents the original poetic word order. As such, it is not typical of Old English prose. The modern cognates of original words have been used whenever practical to give a close approximation of the feel of the original poem.
The words in brackets are implied in the Old English by noun case and the bold words in brackets are explanations of words that have slightly different meanings in a modern context. Notice how what is used by the poet where a word like lo or behold would be expected. This usage is similar to what-ho!, both an expression of surprise and a call to attention.
English poetry is based on stress and alliteration. In alliteration, the first consonant in a word alliterates with the same consonant at the beginning of another word, as with Gār-Dena and ġeār-dagum. Vowels alliterate with any other vowel, as with æþelingas and ellen. In the text below, the letters that alliterate are bolded.
A semi-fluent translation in Modern English would be:
Lo! We have heard of majesty of the Spear-Danes, of those nation-kings in the days of yore, and how those noblemen promoted zeal. Scyld Scefing took away mead-benches from bands of enemies, from many tribes; he terrified earls. Since he was first found destitute (he gained consolation for that) he grew under the heavens, prospered in honours, until each of those who lived around him over the sea had to obey him, give him tribute. That was a good king!
This text of the Lord's Prayer is presented in the standardised West Saxon literary dialect, with added macrons for vowel length, markings for probable palatalised consonants, modern punctuation, and the replacement of the letter wynn with w.
This is a proclamation from King Cnut the Great to his earl Thorkell the Tall and the English people written in AD 1020. Unlike the previous two examples, this text is prose rather than poetry. For ease of reading, the passage has been divided into sentences while the pilcrows represent the original division.
Like other historical languages, Old English has been used by scholars and enthusiasts of later periods to create texts either imitating Anglo-Saxon literature or deliberately transferring it to a different cultural context. Examples include Alistair Campbell and J. R. R. Tolkien. A number of websites devoted to Modern Paganism and historical reenactment offer reference material and forums promoting the active use of Old English. There is also an Old English version of Wikipedia. However, one investigation found that many Neo-Old English texts published online bear little resemblance to the historical language and have many basic grammatical mistakes.