Old English/Anglo-Saxon (Englisc)
Spoken in: parts of what is now England and southern Scotland
Region: British Isles
Total speakers: none native
Ranking: not ranked
Genetic classification: Indo-European
  West Germanic
     Old English
Official status
Official language of: none
Regulated by: none
Language codes
ISO 639-1
ISO 639-2
See also: LanguageList of languages

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 similar to Old Frisian and Old Saxon. It is also quite similar to Old Norse (and by extension, to modern Icelandic).

Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of some 700 years – from the Anglo-Saxon migrations into England of the fifth century to some time after the Norman invasion of 1066, when the language underwent a major and dramatic transition. During this period it assimilated some aspects of the languages that it came in contact with, such as the Celtic languages and the two variants of the Scandinavian languages from the invading Norsemen who were occupying and controlling the Danelaw in northern and eastern England.

The term Old English does not strictly refer to older varieties of Modern English such as are found in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, which are called Early Modern English by linguists. In some older works (such as the 1913 edition of Webster's Dictionary), Old English refers to Middle English, or also more specifically Middle English as used from 1150 to 1350, with the older form of the language referred to exclusively as Anglo-Saxon. [1]

Germanic originsEdit

The most important shaping force on Old English was its Germanic heritage in vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar that 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.

Though many of these links with the other Germanic languages have since been obscured by later linguistic influences, particularly Norman French, many remain even in modern English. Compare modern English 'Good day' with the Old English Gōdne dæg, modern Dutch Goedendag, or modern German Guten Tag.

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, in addition to the usual singular and plural forms. It also assigned gender to all nouns, even to those that describe inanimate objects: for example, sēo sunne (the Sun) was feminine, while se mōna (the Moon) was masculine.

Latin influenceEdit


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 the prevalent lingua franca of Europe. 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, 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 invasion of 1066, after which an enormous number of Norman French 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.

Alphabet and spellingEdit

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. Old English words were spelt as they were pronounced; the silent letters of Modern English therefore did not often exist 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. Thus, for example, the word "and" could be spelt either and or ond.

Therefore, Old English spelling can 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 students of Old English in the present day learn the language using normalised versions and are only introduced to variant spellings after they have mastered the basics of the language.

Viking influenceEdit

File:Old norse, ca 900.PNG

The second major source of loanwords to Old English were the Scandinavian words introduced during the Viking raids 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 they both derive from the same ancestral Germanic language. It is very common for the intermixing of speakers of different dialects, such as occurs 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 and the modern pronoun they.

Celtic influenceEdit

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 main dialect forms of Old English were Mercian, Northumbrian (the latter two known collectively as Anglian), Kentish, and West Saxon. Each of these dialects were 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 both 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 remoter 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 were recorded. The Church was likewise affected, especially since Alfred initiated an ambitious programme 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 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".

Due at least partially to 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.


Main article: Old English phonology

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 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 an 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[2] iːy
Both elements are mid eo eːo
Both elements are open æɑ æːɑ

2. ^  It is uncertain whether the diphthongs spelt ie/īe were pronounced [i(ː)y] or [i(ː)e]. The fact that this diphthong was merged with /y(ː)/ in many dialects suggests the former.

Standardised orthographyEdit

Old English was at first written in runes (futhorc), but shifted to the Latin alphabet with some additions: the letter yogh, adopted from Irish; the letter eth and the runic letters thorn and wynn. Also used was a symbol for the conjunction 'and', a character similar to the number seven ('7'), and a symbol for the relative pronoun 'þæt', a thorn with a crossbar through the ascender ('File:OE thaet.png'). 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 alphabetEdit

  • 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 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/
  • 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.
  • 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.


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, for example:

         God cwæð him þus tó
(lit.)   God said him thus to
that is  God said thus to him


Main article: Old English morphology

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.

Sample text Edit

This text is from the epic poem Beowulf.

Line Original Translation
[332] oretmecgas æfter æþelum frægn: …asked the warriors of their lineage:
[333] "Hwanon ferigeað ge fætte scyldas, "Whence do you carry ornate shields,
[334] græge syrcan ond grimhelmas, Grey mail-shirts and masked helms,
[335] heresceafta heap? Ic eom Hroðgares A multitude of spears? I am Hrothgar's
[336] ar ond ombiht. Ne seah ic elþeodige herald and officer. I have never seen, of foreigners,
[337] þus manige men modiglicran, So many men, of braver bearing,
[338] Wen ic þæt ge for wlenco, nalles for wræcsiðum, I know that out of daring, by no means in exile,
[339] ac for higeþrymmum Hroðgar sohton." But for greatness of heart, you have sought Hrothgar."
[340] Him þa ellenrof andswarode, To him, thus, bravely, it was answered,
[341] wlanc Wedera leod, word æfter spræc, By the proud Geatish chief, who these words thereafter spoke,
[342] heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces Hard under helm: "We are Hygelac's
[343] beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama. Table-companions. Beowulf is my name.
[344] Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes, I wish to declare to the son of Healfdene
[345] mærum þeodne, min ærende, To the renowned prince, my mission,
[346] aldre þinum, gif he us geunnan wile To your lord, if he will grant us
[347] þæt we hine swa godne gretan moton." that we might be allowed to address him, he who is so good."
[348] Wulfgar maþelode (þæt wæs Wendla leod; Wulfgar Spoke – that was a Vendel chief;
[349] his modsefa manegum gecyðed, His character was to many known
[350] wig ond wisdom): "Ic þæs wine Deniga, His war-prowess and wisdom – "I, of him, friend of Danes,
[351] frean Scildinga, frinan wille, the Scyldings' lord, will ask,
[352] beaga bryttan, swa þu bena eart, Of the ring bestower, as you request,
[353] þeoden mærne, ymb þinne sið, Of that renowned prince, concerning your venture,
[354] ond þe þa ondsware ædre gecyðan And will swiftly provide you the answer
[355] ðe me se goda agifan þenceð." That the great one sees fit to give me."

See alsoEdit

External links Edit


References Edit

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original content was at Old English language. The list of authors can be seen in that page's history. As with Tolkien Languages, the content of Wikipedia is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.