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Old English language

Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is an early form of the English language which was spoken in England around the year 1000. It was a West Germanic language, and was therefore similar to Frisian and Old Saxon. It was also quite similar to Old Norse (and, by extension, to modern Icelandic). Unlike modern English, Old English was a language rich with morphological diversity, and was pronounced essentially as it was spelled. It maintained several distinct cases: the nominative, dative, accusative, genitive, and instrumental, remnants of which survive only in a few pronouns in modern English speech.

Old English was not a static form. Its usage covered a period of some 700 or so years— from the Anglo-Saxon migrations into England in approximately 450 AD, to some time after the Norman invasion in 1066, when the language underwent a major and dramatic transition. During this period of time, it assimilated some aspects of the indigenous pre-Celtic languages, some of the Celtic languages which it came into contact with, and some of the two variants of the invading Scandinavian languages occupying and controlling the Danelaw.


Latin influence

The influence of Latin on Old English should not be ignored. A large percentage of the educated and literate population (monks, clerics, etc.) were competent in Latin, which was then Europe's prevalent lingua franca. It is sometimes possible to roughly date the entry of individual Latin words into Old English based on which patterns of linguistic change they have undergone, though this is not always reliable. 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. However, the largest single transfer of Latin-based words occurred following the Norman conquest 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) to the Latin alphabet, which was also a significant factor in the developmental pressures brought to bear on the language. Words were spelled as they were pronounced; the silent letters of Modern English, therefore, did not often exist in Old English. The K in "knight", for example, 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. Thus, for example, the word "and" could be spelled either "and" or "ond". Old English spelling is even more muddled than modern English spelling. Most students these days learn using normalized versions, and are only introduced to variant spellings after they have mastered the basics of the language.

Viking influence

The second major source of loanwords to Old English were the Scandinavian words introduced during the Viking raids of the ninth and tenth centuries. These tend to be everyday words, and those which are 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 seaboard of England and Scotland). The Vikings spoke Old Norse, a language which is related to English in that they both derive from the same ancestral Germanic language. One theory holds that the presence of very similar words in both Old Norse and Old English helped accelerate the decline of case endings in Old English -- that is, if your Nordic neighbor says "horsu" and you say "horsa", you split the difference and just say "horse", reducing the ending to no more than a silent vowel. Others point out that the silent 'e' of English was pronounced up until the beginning of the Renaissance, so this compromise would be impossible. A compromise between "horsa" and "horsu" being "horse" is possible, but it would have a pronounced 'e'.

Celtic influence

The number of Celtic loanwords is of a much lower order than either Latin or Scandinavian. As few as twelve loanwords have been identified as being entirely secure. Out of all the known and suspected Celtic loanwords, most are names of geographical features, and especially rivers.


To further complicate matters, Old English was rich in dialect forms. The four principal dialect forms of Old English were Northumbrian , Mercian , Kentish and West Saxon . Each of these was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. Of these, Northumbria and Kent were wholly overrun by Vikings during the 9th century. Most of Mercia was overrun as well, though a portion of it was successfully defended by and 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, as evidenced both by the existence of Middle English dialects later on, and by common sense - people don't 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 home kingdom. It seems likely that, with consolidation of power, it became necessary to standardize the language of government to reduce the difficulty of administering the remoter areas of the kingdom. As a result, paperwork was written in West Saxon. The Church was likewise affected, especially since Alfred initiated an ambitious program to translate religious materials into the vernacular. In order to retain his patronage and ensure the widest circulation of the translated materials, the monks and priests engaged in the program 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 ."

Due at least partially to the centralization 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.

Phonology and standardized orthography

Old English was at first written in runes, but shifted to the Latin alphabet with some additions: the letter yogh, adopted from Irish; the letter eth and the runes thorn and wynn. Also used were a symbol for the conjunction 'and', a character identical to a mirror-image of a capital gamma, and one 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 sound descriptions are in SAMPA and International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Where SAMPA and IPA symbols differ, they are separated by a slash. SAMPA is on the left and IPA is on the right.


  • b: [b]
  • c: [k] or, between front vowels, [tS/tʃ]; the affricate 'c' is often written with a diacritic by modern speakers for the sake of pronunciation, like so: 'č' or 'ç'.
  • cg: [dZ/dʒ]
  • d: [d]
  • ð/þ: initially, finally, or between a vowel and an unvoiced consonant: [T/θ]; between two vowel or between a vowel and a voiced consonant: [D/ð]; in the modern orthography, all unvoiced 'ð'/'þ's use the þ (thorn), while all voiced ones use the ð (eth)
  • þþ: [T:/θː]
  • f: initially, finally, or between a vowel and an unvoiced consonant: [f]; between two vowels or between a vowel and a voiced consonant: [v]
  • ff: [f:]
  • g: [j], between front vowels, [g], or, only after an 'n', [dZ/dʒ]; [j] and [dZ] are sometimes represented with the number three ('3') by modern speakers, representing yogh (Ȝ/ȝ)
  • h: when initial or following a consonant: [h\/ɦ]; following a back vowel or a diphthong beginning with a back vowel: [x]; following a front vowel or a diphthong beginning with a front vowel: [C/ç]
  • hl: [K], a voiceless dental/alveolar fricative, as in the Welsh ll.
  • k: [k] (rarely used)
  • l: [l]
  • m: [m]
  • n: when preceding a 'g' or 'c': [N/ŋ]; otherwise: [n]
  • p: [p]
  • q: [k] (used before a consonantal 'u') (rarely used, being rather a feature of Middle English; Old English favored cƿ (c-wynn))
  • r: perhaps [r\`/ɻ]
  • s: initially, finally, or between a vowel and an unvoiced consonant: [s]; between two vowel or between a vowel and a voiced consonant: [z]
  • sc: unpredictably, [sk] or [S/ʃ]; however, [S/ʃ] is by far the more common, while [sk] is used only in a few words, the most common of which being 'ascian' ('to ask')
  • ss: [s:]
  • t: [t]
  • ƿ (wynn): [w]; usually replaced in modern print by w.
  • x: [ks]
  • z: [z]

Doubled consonants have doubly long durations; 'þþ', 'ff', and 'ss' are shown above only to demonstrate that they cannot be voiced as their single constituents can be.


Pure vowels and diphthongs in Old English have two degrees of length; though the distinction was originally unwritten, in our modern orthography we use acute accent marks or macrons or following colons to denote long vowels and leave short ones unmarked.

  • a: [a]
  • á: [A/ɑ]
  • æ: [{/æ]
  • æ:: [{:/æː]
  • e: [E/ɛ]
  • é: [e]
  • i: [I/ɪ]
  • í: [i]
  • o: [Q/ɒ]
  • ó: [o]
  • u: [U/ʊ]
  • ú: [u]
  • y: [9/œ]
  • ý: [2/ø]


Old English grammar


As a West Germanic language, Old English syntax has a great deal of common ground with Dutch and German. Old English is not dependent upon S (subject), V (verb), O (object) or "SVO" word order in the way that Modern English is. The syntax of an Old English sentence can be in any of these shapes: SVO order, VSO order, and OVS order. The only constant rule, as in German and Dutch, is that the verb must come as the second concept. That is, in the sentence 'in the town, we ate some food', it could appear as 'in the town, ate we some food', or 'in the town, ate some food we'. This variable word order is especially common in poetry. Prose, while still displaying variable word order, is much more likely to use SVO ordering. Similarly, word order became less flexible as time went on: the older a text is, the less likely it is to have a fixed word order.

To further complicate the matter, prepositions may appear after their object, though they are not postpositions, as they may occur in front of the noun too, and usually do, e.g.:

 God cwæð him þus to
 (lit) God said him thus to
 i.e. God said thus to him


Verbs in Old English are divided into strong or weak verbs.

Strong verbs

Strong verbs use the Germanic form of conjugation (known as Ablaut). In this form of conjugation, the stem of the word changes to indicate the tense. We still have verbs like this in modern English: for example, "sing, sang, sung" is a strong verb, as are "swim, swam, swum" and "choose, chose, chosen." The root portion of the word changes rather than its ending. In Old English, there were seven major classes of strong verb; each class has its own pattern of stem changes. Learning these is a major challenge for students of the language.

The classes had the following distinguishing features to their infinitive stems:

Class I - i: + 1 consonant
Class II - e:o or u: + 1 consonant
Class III - Originally e + 2 consonants(This was no longer the case by the time of written Old English)
Class IV - e + 1 consonant(usually l or r, plus the verb brecan'to break')
Class V - e + 1 consonant (usually a stop or a fricative)
Class VI - a + 1 consonant
Class VII - No specific rule - 1st and 2nd have identical stems(e: or e:o), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.

Stem Changes in Strong Verbs
Class Infinitive 1st Preterite 2nd Preterite Past Participle
Class I i: a: i i
Class II e:o or u: e:a u o
Class III see table below
Class IV e æ æ: o
Class V e æ æ: e
Class VI a o: o: a
Class VII - e: or e:o e: or e:o -

The first preterite stem is used in the preterite tense, for the first and third persons singular. The second preterite stem is used for second person singular, and all persons in the plural (as well as the preterite subjunctive).

The third class went through so many sound changes that it was barely recognisable as a single class. The first was a process called 'breaking'. Before <h>, and <r> + another consonant, <æ> turned into <ea>, and <e> to <eo>. Also, before <l> + another consonant, the same happened to <æ>, but <e> remained unchanged (except before combination <lh>).

The second sound-change to affect it was the influence of palatal sounds <g>, <c>, and <sc>. These turned anteceding <e> and <æ> to <ie> and <ea>, respectively.

The third sound change turned <e> to <i>, <æ> to <a>, and <o> to <u> before nasals.

Altogether, this split the third class into five sub-classes:

a)e + two consonants(apart from clusters beginning with l)
b)eo + r or h + another consonant
c)e + l + another consonant
d)g, c, or sc + ie + two consonants
e)i + nasal + another consonant

Stem Changes in Class III
Subclass Infinitive 1st Preterite 2nd Preterite Past Participle
Subclass a) e æ u o
Subclass b) eo ea u o
Subclass c) e ea u o
Subclass d) ie ea u o
Subclass e) i a u u

Regular strong verbs were all declined roughly the same, with the main differences being in the stem vowel.

Weak verbs

Weak verbs are formed principally by adding endings to past and participles. An example is "walk, walked" or "learn, learned". There are only three different classes of weak verb.

Linguistic trends have greatly favored weak verbs over the last 1200 years. In Old English, especially early on, strong verbs were the dominant form of verb. Today, there are many more weak verbs than strong verbs. Some verbs that were originally strong have become weak; most foreign verbs are adopted as weak verbs; and when verbs are made from nouns (eg "to scroll" or "to water") the resulting verb is weak. Additionally, weak verbs are easier to conjugate, since there are fewer different classes of them. In combination, these factors have drastically reduced the number of strong verbs, so that in modern English weak verbs are the dominant form (although occasionally a weak verb may turn into a strong verb through the process of analogy, such as "to spit" or "to sneak").

Atypical verbs

Additionally there is a further group of four verbs which are anomalous, the verbs "will", "do", "go" and "be". These four have their own conjugation schemes which differ significantly from all the other classes of verb. This is not especially unusual: "will", "do", "go", and "be" are the most commonly used verbs in the language, and are very important to the meaning of the sentences they are used in. They have their own conjugation schemes to make them as distinct as possible, to reduce the possibility that a listener will mis-hear the word.


Old English nouns were declined -- that is, the ending of the noun changed to reflect its function in the sentence. There were five major cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and instrumental. The instrumental case is also known as "ablative", for those who know Latin. The nominative case indicated the subject of the sentence (eg "cyning" means "king"). The genitive case indicated possession (eg the "cyninges scip" is "the ship of the king" or "the king's ship"). The dative case indicated the indirect object of the sentence (eg "hringas cyninge" means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king"). The accusative indicates the direct object of the sentence (eg "Æþelbald lufode cyning" means "Æþelbald loved the king", where Æþelbald is the subject and the king is the object). The instrumental case indicates the agency whereby something was done, eg "lifde sweorde", "he lived by the sword", where "sweorde" is the instrumental form of "sweord"). There were different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (eg "hring", one ring) or plural ("hringas", many rings).

Nouns are also categorized by grammatical gender -- masculine, feminine, or neuter. Masculine and neuter words generally share their endings. Feminine words have their own subset of endings.

Furthermore, Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Weak nouns have their own endings. In general, weak nouns are easier than strong nouns, since they had begun to lose their declensional system. However, there is a great deal of overlap between the various classes of noun: they are not totally distinct from one another. There are only a couple dozen endings in practice, so it's a lot easier than it sounds at first.

Here are the weak declension and the strong declension:

The Strong Masculine Noun Declension
Singular Plural
Nom. - -as
Gen. -es -a
Dat. -e -um
Acc. - -as
The Weak Masculine Noun Declension
Singular Plural
Nom. -a -an
Gen. -an -ena
Dat. -an -um
Acc. -an -an
The Strong Feminine Noun Declension
Singular Plural
Nom. -u / - -a, -e
Gen. -e -a
Dat. -e -um
Acc. -e -a, -e
The Weak Feminine Noun Declension
Singular Plural
Nom. -e -an
Gen. -an -ena
Dat. -an -um
Acc. -an -an
The Strong Neuter Noun Declension
Singular Plural
Nom. - -u / -
Gen. -es -a
Dat. -e -um
Acc. - -u / -
The Weak Neuter Noun Declension
Singular Plural
Nom. -e -an
Gen. -an -ena
Dat. -an -um
Acc. -e -an

For the '-u / -' forms above, the '-u' is used with a root ending in a short syllable while roots ending in long ones are not inflected. For the '-a, -e' forms, either suffix is acceptable.

In addition, nouns which end in '-or' are unchanged as per usual in the uninflected forms, but the '-or' is removed and '-r' suffixed to the root for all suffixed forms. Here is an example of such a declension:

Wuldor ('glory', n.)
Singular Plural
Nom. wuldor wuldor
Gen. wuldres wuldra
Dat. wuldre wuldrum
Acc. wuldor wuldor


Adjectives in Old English are declined like nouns. They fall under the same categories (strong or weak, masculine or feminine or neuter, singular or plural) and have the same number of cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and instrumental). There is a great deal of overlap between the endings of adjectives and those of nouns, especially since you usually match the two. That is, you assign the same ending to the adjective and the word it describes.


Most pronouns are declined by number, case and gender; in the plural form most pronouns have only one form for all genders. Additionally, Old English pronouns reserve the dual form (which is specifically for talking about groups of two things, eg "we two" or "you two" or "they two"). These were uncommon even then, but remained in use throughout the period.

Personal pronouns

1st Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, íc wit
Genitive mín úre uncer
Dative ús unc
Accusative mec, mé úsic, ús uncit, unc
2nd Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þú git
Genitive þin éower incer
Dative þe éow inc
Accusative þéc, þé éowic, éow incit, inc
3rd Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative hé m., héo f., hit n. hié m., héo f.  
Genitive his m., hire f., his n. hiera m., heora f.  
Dative him m., hire f., him n. him  
Accusative hine m., híe f., hit n. hié m., hío f.  

Many of the forms above bear strong resemblances to their contemporary English language equivalents: for instance in the genitive case éower became "your", úre became "our", mín became "mine".


Prepositions (like our words by, for, with, because) often follow the word which they govern, in which case they are called postpositions. They are not declined.

See also Old English language (list of prepositions)

Front mutation

Front Mutation (also known as "I/J Mutation") is an important type of linguistic change, in which if a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed syllable which contained a letter "i" or "j", then the previous stressed vowel is fronted or raised. The "i" or "j" is dropped from the word or changes to "e".

A particular class of nouns contain an "i" in the dative singular and plural nominative accusative forms. Consequent upon front mutation, irregular singular/plural oppositions therefore occur such as fot and fet (our foot and feet), and mus and mys (our mouse and mice).

Front mutation is particularly important to the development of English, since it explains many of the changes in pronunciation that have taken place over the last 1200 years.


This text is from the epic poem Beowulf.

Line Count Original Translation
[332] oretmecgas æfter æþelum frægn: asked of the heroes their home and kin
[333] "Hwanon ferigeað ge fætte scyldas, "Whence, now, bear ye burnished shields,
[334] græge syrcan ond grimhelmas, harness gray and helmets grim,
[335] heresceafta heap? Ic eom Hroðgares spears in multitude? Messenger, I, Hrothgar's
[336] ar ond ombiht. Ne seah ic elþeodige herald! Heroes so many ne'er met I
[337] þus manige men modiglicran, as strangers of mood so strong.
[338] Wen ic þæt ge for wlenco, nalles for wræcsiðum, 'Tis plain that for prowess, not plunged into exile,
[339] ac for higeþrymmum Hroðgar sohton." for high-hearted valor, Hrothgar ye seek!"
[340] Him þa ellenrof andswarode, Him the sturdy-in-war bespake with words,
[341] wlanc Wedera leod, word æfter spræc, proud earl of the Weders answer made,
[342] heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces hardy 'neath helmet: -- "Hygelac's, we,
[343] beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama. fellows at board; I am Beowulf named.
[344] Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes, I am seeking to say to the son of Healfdene
[345] mærum þeodne, min ærende, this mission of mine, to thy master-lord,
[346] aldre þinum, gif he us geunnan wile the doughty prince, if he deign at all
[347] þæt we hine swa godne gretan moton." grace that we greet him, the good one, now."
[348] Wulfgar maþelode (þæt wæs Wendla leod; Wulfgar spake, the Wendles' chieftain,
[349] his modsefa manegum gecyðed, whose might of mind to many was known,
[350] wig ond wisdom): "Ic þæs wine Deniga, his courage and counsel: "The king of Danes,
[351] frean Scildinga, frinan wille, the Scyldings' friend, I fain will tell,
[352] beaga bryttan, swa þu bena eart, the Breaker-of-Rings, as the boon thou askest,
[353] þeoden mærne, ymb þinne sið, the famed prince, of thy faring hither,
[354] ond þe þa ondsware ædre gecyðan and, swiftly after, such answer bring
[355] ðe me se goda agifan þenceð." as the doughty monarch may deign to give."

See also

Old English might also refer to Old English (Ireland)

External links

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45