Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Old English language
Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) is an early form of the English language that was spoken in England between the years 500 and 1200. 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). Unlike modern English, Old English is a language rich with morphological diversity and is pronounced essentially as it is spelt. It maintains several distinct cases: the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and instrumental, remnants of which survive only in a few pronouns in modern English.
Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of some 700 years or so – from the Anglo-Saxon migrations into England around the mid-fifth century to some time after the Norman invasion of 1066, when the language underwent a major and dramatic transition. During this period of time 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 most important shaping force on Old English was, of course, 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 Gód dæg, modern Dutch Goede dag, 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 inanimate objects: for example, séo sunne (the Sun) was female, while se móna (the Moon) was male.
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.
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.
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 coast 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 neighbour 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'.
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 Kentish, Mercian, Northumbrian 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. 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.
Phonology and standardised orthography
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 (''). 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.
- c: between or before front vowels: [tʃ]; otherwise [k] in all other positions except after an 's' (see sc) or before a 'g'. The 'soft-c' ([tʃ]) is sometimes written with a diacritic by modern speakers for the sake of pronunciation, like so: 'ċ' or 'č' or 'ç'.
- cg: [dʒ]
- d: [d]
- ð/þ: initially, finally or between a vowel and a voiceless consonant: [θ]; between two vowels or between a vowel and a voiced consonant: [ð]. In the modern orthography, all voiceless 'ð'/'þ's use the þ (thorn), while all voiced ones use the ð (eth).
- ðð/þþ: [θː]
- f: initially, finally or between a vowel and a voiceless consonant: [f]; between two vowels or between a vowel and a voiced consonant: [v].
- ff: [fː]
- g: between or before front vowels: [j]; after a front vowel and before a consonant: [ɣ]; otherwise [g] in all other positions. The 'soft-g' ([j]) is sometimes written with a diacritic by modern speakers for the sake of pronunciation, represented as 'ġ' or the number three ('3') – representing yogh (Ȝ ȝ), which is not to be confused with ezh (Ʒ ʒ), a similar looking letter.
- h: initial or following a consonant: [h]; 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: [ç].
- hl: [ɬ] – a voiceless alveolar lateral fricative, like the Welsh letter 'll'.
- hƿ: [ʍ], replaced in modern print by hw – a voiceless labial-velar fricative, like the Scots letter 'wh'.
- k: [k] (rarely used)
- l: [l]
- m: [m]
- n: when before a 'g' or 'c': [ŋ]; otherwise [n].
- p: [p]
- q: [k] – Used before a '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: either [r] or perhaps [ɹ] found in modern English.
- s: initially, finally or between a vowel and a voiceless consonant: [s]; between two vowels or between a vowel and a voiced consonant: [z].
- sc: [ʃ] or unpredictably [sk], however [ʃ] is by far the more common, while [sk] is used only in a few words, the most common being 'ascian' ('to ask').
- ss: [sː]
- t: [t]
- ƿ (wynn): [w], replaced in modern print by w.
- x: [ks]
- z: [ts] rarely used as 'ts' was usually used instead, for example 'bezt' vs 'betst', said as [betst] meaning 'best'.
Doubled consonants have doubly long durations; 'ðð'/'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 accents (as in this article), macrons or following colons to denote long vowels and leave short ones unmarked.
- a: [a] or [ɒ] before [n] in some cases (for example 'land', which was often said as [lɒnd])
- á: [aː] or [ɑː]
- æ: [æ]
- ǽ: [æː] or [ɛː]
- e: [e] or [ɛ]
- é: [eː]
- i: [ɪ]
- í: [iː]
- o: [ɒ] or [ɔ]
- ó: [oː]
- u: [ʊ]
- ú: [uː]
- y: [ʏ]
- ý: [yː]
- ea: [æa]
- éa: [æːa]
- eo: [eɒ] or [eɔ] or [ɛɒ] or [ɛɔ]
- éo: [eːɒ] or [eːɔ]
- ie: [ɪe] or [ɪɛ]
- íe: [iːe] or [iːɛ]
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, for example:
God cwæð him þus to (lit.) God said him thus to that is God said thus to him
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:
- iː + 1 consonant.
- eːo or uː + 1 consonant.
- Originally e + 2 consonants (This was no longer the case by the time of written Old English).
- e + 1 consonant (usually l or r, plus the verb brecan 'to break').
- e + 1 consonant (usually a stop or a fricative).
- a + 1 consonant.
- No specific rule – first and second have identical stems (eː or eːo), and the infinitive and the past participle also have the same stem.
|Stem Changes in Strong Verbs|
|Class||Infinitive||First Preterite||Second Preterite||Past Participle|
|II||éo or ú||éa||u||o|
|III||see table below|
|VII||–||é or éo||é or éo||–|
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:
- e + two consonants (apart from clusters beginning with l).
- eo + r or h + another consonant.
- e + l + another consonant.
- g, c, or sc + ie + two consonants.
- i + nasal + another consonant.
|Stem Changes in Class III|
|Sub-class||Infinitive||First Preterite||Second Preterite||Past Participle|
Regular strong verbs were all declined roughly the same, with the main differences being in the stem vowel.
Weak verbs are formed principally by adding endings to past and participles. An example is "walk, walked" or "look, looked". There are only three different classes of weak verb.
Linguistic trends have greatly favoured 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 (for example "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").
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.
Dón 'to do', gán 'to go', and willan 'will' are conjugated alike:
|Present Subjunctive||(all persons)||dó||gá||wille|
|Past Subjunctive||(all persons)||dyde||éode||wolde|
The verb 'to be' is actually composed of three different stems:
The present forms of wesan are almost never used. The béon forms are usually used in reference to future actions. The modern verb 'to be' takes its present indicative forms from sindon, its past indicative forms from wesan, its present subjunctive forms from béon, its past subjunctive forms from wesan, and its imperative and particicple forms from béon.
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 nominative case indicated the subject of the sentence, for example "cyning" means "king". It was also used for direct address. Adjectives in the predicate (qualifying a noun on the other side of 'to be') were also in the nominative.
- The accusative indicated the direct object of the sentence, for example "Æþelbald lufode cyning" means "Æþelbald loved the king", where Æþelbald is the subject and the king is the object. Already the accusative had begun to merge with the nominative; it was never distinguished in the plural, or in a neuter noun.
- The genitive case indicated possession, for example the "cyninges scip" is "the ship of the king" or "the king's ship". It also indicated partitive nouns.
- The dative case indicated the indirect object of the sentence, for example "hringas cyninge" means "rings for the king" or "rings to the king". There were also several verbs which took direct objects in the dative.
- The instrumental case indicated an instrument used to achieve something, for example "lifde sweorde", "he lived by the sword", where "sweorde" is the instrumental form of "sweord". During the Old English period, the instrumental was falling out of use, having largely merged with the dative. Only pronouns and strong adjectives retained separate forms for the instrumental.
There were different endings depending on whether the noun was in the singular (for example "hring", one ring) or plural (for example "hringas", many rings).
Nouns are also categorised 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 strong declensional endings and examples for each gender:
|The Strong Noun Declension|
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.
|Example of the Strong Noun Declension for each Gender|
Note the syncopation of the second e in engel when an ending follows. This syncopation of the vowel in the second syllable occurs with two-syllable strong nouns which have a long vowel in the first syllable. However, this syncopation is not always present, so forms such as engelas may be seen.
Here are the weak declensional endings and examples for each gender:
|The Weak Noun Declension|
|Example of the Weak Noun Declension for each Gender|
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.|
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, for example "we two" or "you two" or "they two"). These were uncommon even then, but remained in use throughout the period.
|Accusative||mec, mé||úsic, ús||uncit, unc|
|Accusative||þéc, þé||éowic, éow||incit, inc|
|Nominative||hé m., héo f., hit n.||hié m., héo f.||–|
|Accusative||hine m., híe f., hit n.||hié m., hío f.||–|
|Genitive||his m., hire f., his n.||hiera m., heora f.||–|
|Dative||him m., hire f., him n.||him||–|
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 (also known as "I/J Mutation" or "i/j umlaut") 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.
|||oretmecgas æfter æþelum frægn:||...asked the warriors of their lineage:|
|||"Hwanon ferigeað ge fætte scyldas,||"Whence do you carry ornate shields,|
|||græge syrcan ond grimhelmas,||Grey mail-shirts and masked helms,|
|||heresceafta heap? Ic eom Hroðgares||A multitude of spears? I am Hrothgar's|
|||ar ond ombiht. Ne seah ic elþeodige||herald and officer. I have never seen, of foreigners,|
|||þus manige men modiglicran,||So many men, of braver bearing,|
|||Wen ic þæt ge for wlenco, nalles for wræcsiðum,||I know that out of daring, by no means in exile,|
|||ac for higeþrymmum Hroðgar sohton."||But for greatness of heart, you have sought Hrothgar."|
|||Him þa ellenrof andswarode,||To him, thus, bravely, it was answered,|
|||wlanc Wedera leod, word æfter spræc,||By the proud Geatish chief, who these words thereafter spoke,|
|||heard under helme: "We synt Higelaces||Hard under helm: "We are Hygelac's|
|||beodgeneatas; Beowulf is min nama.||Table-companions. Beowulf is my name.|
|||Wille ic asecgan sunu Healfdenes,||I wish to declare to the son of Healfdene|
|||mærum þeodne, min ærende,||To the renowned prince, my mission,|
|||aldre þinum, gif he us geunnan wile||To your lord, if he will grant us|
|||þæt we hine swa godne gretan moton."||that we might be allowed to address him, he who is so good."|
|||Wulfgar maþelode (þæt wæs Wendla leod;||Wulfgar Spoke – that was a Vendel chief;|
|||his modsefa manegum gecyðed,||His character was to many known|
|||wig ond wisdom): "Ic þæs wine Deniga,||His war-prowess and wisdom – "I, of him, friend of Danes,|
|||frean Scildinga, frinan wille,||the Scyldings' lord, will ask,|
|||beaga bryttan, swa þu bena eart,||Of the ring bestower, as you request,|
|||þeoden mærne, ymb þinne sið,||Of that renowned prince, concerning your venture,|
|||ond þe þa ondsware ædre gecyðan||And will swiftly provide you the answer|
|||ðe me se goda agifan þenceð."||That the great one sees fit to give me."|
- Declension in English
- Exeter Book
- History of the English language
- History of the Scots language
- List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents
- Old English poetry
- Go (verb)
Old English might also refer to Old English (Ireland)
- The Electronic Introduction to Old English
- First steps in Old English - a course for absolute beginners
- Old English - Anglo-Saxon alphabet
- The Origins of Old English
- Guide to using Old English computer characters (Unicode, HTML entities, etc.)
- Dictionary of Old English Project at the University of Toronto
- The Germanic Lexicon Project
- Text Collections - Texts and Translations
- Links relating to Old English, including learning resources
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