Old English is the language of the Germanic inhabitants of England, dated from the time of their settlement in the 5th century to the end of the 11th century. It is also referred to as Anglo-Saxon, a name given in contrast with the Old Saxon of the inhabitants of northern Germany; these are two of the dialects of West Germanic, along with Old Frisian, Old Franconian, and Old High German. Sister families to West Germanic are North Germanic, with Old Norse (a.k.a. Old Icelandic) as its chief dialect, and East Germanic, with Gothic as its chief (and only attested) dialect. The Germanic parent language of these three families, referred to as Proto-Germanic, is not attested but may be reconstructed from evidence within the families, such as provided by Old English texts.
Old English itself has three dialects: West Saxon, Kentish, and Anglian. West Saxon was the language of Alfred the Great (871-901) and therefore achieved the greatest prominence; accordingly, the chief Old English texts have survived in this dialect. In the course of time, Old English underwent various changes such as the loss of final syllables, which also led to simplification of the morphology. Upon the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066, numerous words came to be adopted from French and, subsequently, also from Latin.
For a reconstruction of the parent language of Old English, called Proto-Germanic, see Winfred Lehmann's book on this subject. For a sketch of the evolution of the Germanic and other Indo-European language families, with links to online maps showing homeland areas, see IE Maps. For access to our online version of Bosworth and Toller's dictionary of Old English, see An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary.
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The alphabet used to write our Old English texts was adopted from Latin, which was introduced by Christian missionaries. Unfortunately, for the beginning student, spelling was never fully standardized: instead the alphabet, with continental values (sounds), was used by scribal monks to spell words "phonetically" with the result that each dialect, with its different sounds, was rendered differently -- and inconsistently, over time, due to dialectal evolution and/or scribal differences. King Alfred did attempt to regularize spelling in the 9th century, but by the 11th century continued changes in pronunciation once again exerted their disruptive effects on spelling. In modern transcriptions such as ours, editors often add diacritics to signal vowel pronunciation, though seldom more than macrons (long marks).
Anglo-Saxon scribes added two consonants to the Latin alphabet to render the th sounds: first the runic thorn (þ), and later eth (ð). However, there was never a consistent distinction between them as their modern IPA equivalents might suggest: different instances of the same word might use þ in one place and ð in another. We follow the practices of our sources in our textual transcriptions, but our dictionary forms tend to standardize on either þ or ð -- mostly the latter, though it depends on the word. To help reduce confusion, we sort these letters indistinguishably, after T; the reader should not infer any particular difference. Another added letter was the ligature ash (æ), used to represent the broad vowel sound now rendered by 'a' in, e.g., the word fast. A letter wynn was also added, to represent the English w sound, but it looks so much like thorn that modern transcriptions replace it with the more familiar 'w' to eliminate confusion.
The nature of non-standardized Anglo-Saxon spelling does offer compensation: no letters were "silent" (i.e., all were pronounced), and phonetic spelling helps identify and track dialectal differences through time. While the latter is not always relevant to the beginning student, it is nevertheless important to philologists and others interested in dialects and the evolution of the early English language.
At first glance, Old English texts may look decidedly strange to a modern English speaker: many Old English words are no longer used in modern English, and the inflectional structure was far more rich than is true of its modern descendant. However, with small spelling differences and sometimes minor meaning changes, many of the most common words in Old and modern English are the same. For example, over 50 percent of the thousand most common words in Old English survive today -- and more than 75 percent of the top hundred. Conversely, more than 80 percent of the thousand most common words in modern English come from Old English. A few "teaser" examples appear below; our Master Glossary or Base-Form Dictionary may be scanned for examples drawn from our texts, and any modern English dictionary that includes etymologies will provide hundreds or thousands more.
In theory, Old English was a "synthetic" language, meaning inflectional endings signalled grammatical structure and word order was rather free, as for example in Latin; modern English, by contrast, is an "analytic" language, meaning word order is much more constrained (e.g., with clauses typically in Subject-Verb-Object order). But in practice, actual word order in Old English prose is not too often very different from that of modern English, with the chief differences being the positions of verbs (which might be moved, e.g., to the end of a clause for emphasis) and occasionally prepositions (which might become "postpositions"). In Old English verse, most bets are off: word order becomes much more free, and word inflections & meaning become even more important for deducing syntax. The same may be said, however, of modern English poetry, but in these lessons we tend to translate Old English poetry as prose. Altogether, once a modern English reader has mastered the common vocabulary and inflectional endings of Old English, the barriers to text comprehension are substantially reduced.
As we will see, Old English words were much inflected. Over time, most of this apparatus was lost and English became the analytic language we recognize today, but to read early English texts one must master the conjugations of verbs and the declensions of nouns, etc. Yet these inflectional systems had already been reduced by the time Old English was first being written, long after it had parted ways with its Proto-Germanic ancestor. The observation that matters "could have been worse" should serve as consolation to any modern English student who views conjugation and declension with trepidation.
These categories of Old English words are declined according to case (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, or sometimes instrumental), number (singular, plural, or [for pronouns] dual meaning 'two'), and gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter: inherent in nouns, but inherited by adjectives and pronouns from the nouns they associate with). In addition, some adjectives are inflected to distinguish comparative and superlative uses.
Adjectives and regular nouns are either "strong" or "weak" in declension. In addition, irregular nouns belong to classes that reflect their earlier Germanic or even Indo-European roots; these classes, or more to the point their progenitors, will not be stressed in our lessons, but descriptions are found in the handbooks.
Pronouns are typically suppletive in their declension, meaning inflectional rules do not account for many forms so each form must be memorized (as is true of modern English I/me, you, he/she/it/his/her, etc). Tables will be provided. Similarly, a few nouns and adjectives are "indeclinable" and, again, some or all forms must be memorized.
Old English verbs are conjugated according to person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), number (singular or plural), tense (present or past/preterite), mood (indicative, imperative, subjunctive or perhaps optative), etc.
Most verbs are either "strong" or "weak" in conjugation; there are seven classes of strong verbs and three classes of weak verbs. A few other verbs, including modals (e.g. for 'can', 'must'), belong to a special category called "preterit-present," where different rules apply, and yet others (e.g. for 'be', 'do', 'go') are "anomalous," meaning each form must be memorized (as is true of modern English am/are/is, do/did, go/went, etc).
The numerals may be declined, albeit with fewer distinct forms than is normal for adjectives, and those for 'two' and 'three' may show gender. Other parts of speech are not inflected, except for some adverbs with comparative and superlative forms.
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Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; however, courses in Old and Middle English, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, are taught in the Department of English (link opens in a new browser window). Other online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).