A Short Description of Old English

1. The Germanic Languages

Old English is a Germanic language: that is, it belongs to a group of related languages with a common ancestor known as Proto-Germanic or Primitive Germanic. Its closest affinities are with Old High German, Old Saxon and Old Frisian, as all four are West Germanic languages. The other main branches are North Germanic, represented by Old Norse, and East Germanic, represented by Gothic. Proto-Germanic appears to have originated in the areas now comprising southern Scandinavia and northern Germany, but was no longer spoken after about the fourth century AD. No written records survive, and so its reconstruction is based on correspondences between the various languages descended from it.

The Germanic language group in turn is part of a wider ‘family’ of Indo-European languages. Again, there are no records of the original Indo-European language, which was possibly spoken about five thousand years ago in an area of Europe between the Baltic and the Alps on the north and south, and the Don and the Rhine on the east and west. However, some aspects of its vocabulary and structure are reflected in features common to some or all of its descendants, including the Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indic, Iranian, Latin and Slavic languages.

An example is the word for ‘night’. From similarities between Old English niht, Old High German naht, Old Norse nátt and Gothic nahts, we can deduce the existence of a common ancestor in Proto-Germanic. From further similarities with Latin noctis, Greek nuktos, Irish nocht and Lithuanian naktis, we can also work out that the word goes back to Indo-European. Even where sounds developed differently in different language groups, they may still form identifiable patterns. For instance, the sound that became /f/ in Germanic became /p/ in some other branches of Indo-European. Hence the words for ‘father’ and ‘foot’ are fæder and fōt in Old English, fater and fuoz in Old High German, faðir and fótr in Old Norse and fadar and fotus in Gothic, but pater and pedis in Latin and patēr and podos in Greek. This can lead to apparent disjunctions in Present-Day English where a word from Old English survives alongside a later borrowing from Latin, as with father and paternal, foot and pedicure.

2. Dialects of Old English

Early Old English was not so much a language as a group of related dialects brought to southern Britain by Germanic invaders from the continental homelands during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Differences already existed between the dialects of the various tribes involved in the invasions, including Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and further divisions may have evolved within the separate kingdoms formed under tribal leaders. Recurrent warfare meant that both political and dialectal boundaries shifted frequently with the balance of power; but by the beginning of the seventh century there appear to have been seven major kingdoms, later known as the ‘heptarchy’ of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex, Wessex and Kent. Only towards the end of the late ninth century, in response to a common threat from Viking invaders, was England united under King Alfred the Great; and at this stage a national language also began to emerge.

The major dialects of Old English are Northumbrian in the north, Mercian in the midlands, West Saxon in the south and south-west, and Kentish in the south-east. Northumbrian and Mercian are sometimes described together as ‘Anglian’. Alfred was king of Wessex before becoming king of England, and he established West Saxon as the standard literary form. Most surviving manuscripts of Old English are written in this variety, even where it is clear that the texts themselves have been translated from one of the other dialects. For this reason, textbooks and grammars of Old English are usually based on West Saxon, although this may be either the Early West Saxon of King Alfred, or the Late West Saxon of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

3. The Alphabet and Pronunciation

When the Germanic invaders arrived in Britain, they had a writing system known as runes. These were straight-sided characters primarily suitable for carving on hard surfaces such as wood, bone or stone. The Latin alphabet, with rounded letter-forms more suited to writing on parchment, was introduced by Roman missionaries towards the end of the sixth century, and is used in all manuscripts of Old English. Although some of the letters are written differently, the alphabet is similar to that of Present-Day English, except that <j>, <k>, <q>, <v> and <z> are rarely if ever used, and there are three extra letters that have since fallen out of use. These are <æ>, a vowel pronounced as in cat, and the consonants <þ> and <ð>. Both were used interchangeably for the voiced and unvoiced sounds now written as <th> in words such as them (voiced) and theme (unvoiced). All vowels could be pronounced short or long, with no distinction in spelling. It is customary in editions of Old English to indicate long vowels by means of a length mark or ‘diacritic’, in order to differentiate between otherwise identical forms such as god ‘God’ and gōd ‘good’.

A major difference between the spelling systems of Old and Modern English is that Old English had no ‘silent’ letters. This is because the spelling system was not yet standardized, so that the language was written down as it was pronounced. The initial letters of words such as cnēow ‘knee’, gnæt ‘gnat’ and wrītan ‘write’ were pronounced, and the medial <h> was pronounced in words such as niht ‘night’.

Both initial consonants were sounded in words such as hwǣr ‘where’ and hwīt ‘white’, a pronunciation retained in some varieties of Modern English despite the later reversal of spelling. Since Modern English no longer has the consonant clusters <hl-> or <hr->, these have been reduced to <l> and <r> in the descendants of words such as hlāford ‘lord’ and hræfn ‘raven’.

Letters <f> and <s> were used for the sounds represented by <v> or <z> in Modern English. Between vowels, <f> and <s> were pronounced as in the final sounds of ModE glove and rose. Elsewhere, they represent the initial sounds of ModE fat and sing.

Three other consonants whose pronunciation was affected by their position are <c>, <g> and <h>. At the beginning of a word, <h> was pronounced as in the initial sound of ModE hard. Elsewhere, it was pronounced as in the final sound of Scots loch. Before consonants or the vowels <a>, <o> and <u>, the letters <c> and <g> were pronounced as in the initial sounds of ModE king and God. Before the vowels <e> and <i>, and after them at the end of a word, <c> and <g> were usually pronounced as in the initial sounds of ModE chill and yet, for example ic (I), manig (many).

The sounds usually represented by <j> and <q> in Modern English were written <cg> and <cw>. OE ecg was therefore pronounced like its Modern English descendant (or ‘reflex’) edge, and the first two sounds of OE cwēn were pronounced like those of its Modern English descendant queen.

 The combination <sc> was pronounced as in the final sound of ModE wish, so OE fisc and scip were pronounced like their Modern English descendants fish and ship.

Double consonants were pronounced differently from single ones, as in Modern English phrases such as ‘good dog’ or ‘pen-knife’. There was therefore a distinction between otherwise identical Old English words with single and double consonants, such as the pronoun man ‘one’ and the noun mann ‘man’.

4. The Grammatical Structure of Old English

Old English is a more ‘synthetic’ language than Present-Day English, in that the grammatical functions of sentence components are signalled through their form, and in particular by inflectional endings, rather than through word order as in ‘analytic’ languages. In Present-Day English, a noun such as king has only two main forms: the singular king and plural kings, with an apostrophe used to signal the possessive king’s or kings’. The plural -s and the apostrophe are relics of a much more highly developed inflectional system in Old English, where not only nouns but also other types of words took different forms in different contexts.

4.1 The Case System

There are four main grammatical cases in Old English, known by the Latin terms Nominative, Accusative, Genitive and Dative. The Nominative is used for the Subject (the person or thing performing an action): The king ruled the kingdom. The Accusative is used for the Direct Object (the person or thing to which the action is done): An assassin murdered the king. The Genitive is used to express possession: The king’s reign lasted for 20 years. The Dative is used for the Indirect Object, and after many prepositions: His subjects owed allegiance to the king. Note that in these examples, the word ‘the’ has also been underlined. This is because grammatical case applies to all words within the Noun Phrase, including determiners and adjectives.

4.2 Nouns and Determiners

The pattern of inflections for the noun cyning ‘king’, together with the corresponding forms of the determiner ‘the’, is as follows:

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
Singular se cyning þone cyning þæs cyninges þǣm cyninge
Plural þā cyningas þā cyningas þāra cyninga þǣm cyningum

 Old English nouns belong to one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. OE cyning is a masculine noun, and illustrates the general pattern of inflections for masculine nouns. For feminine nouns such as cwēn ‘queen’, and neuter nouns such as wīf ‘woman’, the corresponding inflections are as follows:

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
Singular sēo cwēn þā cwēne þǣre cwēne þǣre cwēne
Plural þæt wīf þæt wīf þæs wīfes þǣm wīfe
  þā cwēna þā cwēna þāra cwēna þǣm cwēnum
  þā wīf þā wīf þāra wīfa þǣm wīfum

Note that the form of the singular determiner changes according to the gender of the noun, while plural determiners remain the same irrespective of gender. The ‘zero’ plurals of some Present-Day English nouns, such as deer, fish and sheep, derive from the Old English neuter gender, where only the form of the determiner shows that þæt wīf ‘the woman’ is singular whereas þā wīf ‘the women’ is plural.

Not all nouns conform to the main patterns of inflections set out above. The most common exceptions are those that use -an for the majority of inflections, and those that indicate case through vowel changes. Examples of each are the feminine noun tunge ‘tongue’ and the masculine noun fōt ‘foot’:

  Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
Singular sēo tunge þā tungan þǣre tungan þǣre tungan
Plural þā tungan þā tungan þāra tungena þǣm tungum
  Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
Singular se fōt þone fōt þæs fēt þǣre fēt
Plural þā fēt þā fēt þāra fōta þǣm fōtum

The plural form of Present-Day English ox/oxen is a relic of the -an inflection, while foot/feet still survives as an irregular plural alongside other nouns of the same original type such as goose/geese and tooth/teeth.

Grammatical gender does not always correspond to natural gender, but neither is it entirely arbitrary. The underlying principles are not yet fully understood, and there is much more work to be done in this area. Only recently has it been realised that the neuter gender tends to be used for more general categories than the other two. For instance, the neuter noun wīf ‘woman’ is a superordinate term for feminine nouns such as cwēn ‘queen’, hlǣfdige ‘lady’ and widuwe ‘widow’, and the neuter nouns dēor ‘wild animal’ and fisc ‘fish’ are superordinates for masculine nouns such as bera ‘bear’, hara ‘hare’ and wulf ‘wolf’ and for feminine nouns such as blǣge ‘gudgeon’, cudele ‘cuttlefish’ and ostre ‘oyster’. The alphabetical organisation of standard dictionaries tends to obscure this kind of pattern, whereas the layout of a thesaurus throws it into relief and facilitates further investigation.

4.3 Adjectives

One of the features that distinguish Germanic languages is the use of two sets of inflections for adjectives, depending on whether they are preceded by a determiner: The good kings, as opposed to Good kings, or The kings are good. The pattern of inflections for Old English adjectives that are preceded by a determiner is as follows:

Singular Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
masculine gōda gōdan gōdan gōdan
feminine gōde gōdan gōdan gōdan
neuter gōde gōde gōdan gōdan
Plural (all genders) gōdan gōdan gōdra gōdum

The pattern of inflections for Old English adjectives that are not preceded by a determiner is as follows:

Singular Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
masculine gōd gōdne gōdes gōdum
feminine gōd gōde gōdre gōdre
neuter gōd gōd gōdes gōdum
masculine gōde gōde gōdra gōdum
feminine gōde gōde gōdra gōdum
neuter gōd gōd gōdra gōdum


4.4 Pronouns

As in Present-Day English, pronouns may be used in place of Noun Phrases. Thus a Noun Phrase such as the good king can be represented by a pronoun he. Indeed, Present-Day English pronouns retain many aspects of the case system, with different forms used to express Subject, Object and possession: He ruled his kingdom until an assassin murdered him. The pronoun system of Old English looks like this:

Singular Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
1st person ic mīn
2nd person þū þē þīn þē
3rd person masc. hine his him
3rd person fem. hēo hīe hire hire
3rd person neut. hit hit his him
1st person ūs ūre ūs
2nd person ēow ēower ēow
3rd person (all genders) hīe hīe hira him

4.5 Names

Names are made up of vocabulary words – mostly nouns and adjectives – and take the same grammatical inflections. Place-names are usually literal descriptions of the places to which they refer. For instance, royal manors were described as cyninges tūn ‘king’s estate’, giving rise to the common place-name Kingston. Here the word cyning is in the genitive case, indicating possession. Where the name is preceded by a preposition such as æt ‘at’, the final part appears in the dative case, signalled by an -e inflection on the masculine word tūn ‘estate’: æt cyninges tūne ‘at the king’s estate’.

Unlike place-names, personal names do not make literal sense. This is clear from examples such as Æthelstan ‘noble stone’, Wulfstan ‘wolf stone’ and Wulfgifu ‘wolf gift’. However, the OE system does have an internal logic. Many names are compounds, and the grammatical gender of the second element shows whether the name is masculine or feminine. Here the masculine word stān ‘stone’ gives the masculine names Æthelstan and Wulfstan, while the feminine word gifu ‘gift’ gives the feminine name Wulfgifu. Moreover, family relationships are signalled through alliterating names, or names sharing a common element. It was not uncommon for a child to be named after both parents: for instance, the eleventh-century statesman and homilist (writer of religious texts) Archbishop Wulfstan was the son of Æthelstan and Wulfgifu.

4.6 Verbs

Old English verbs have only two tenses: present and past. The present tense was also used for the future, while the pluperfect (also called past perfect) was signalled by the past tense with the adverb ǣr ‘formerly’: Ic lufode ‘I loved’, Ic lufode ǣr ‘I had loved’. However, Old English verbs also have three moods: the Indicative, used for statements of fact (I love him), the Imperative, used for commands (Love me!), and the Subjunctive, used for hypothetical statements (If I loved you) and reported speech (He said he loved me).

As in Present-Day English, there are two main types of verbs in Old English. ‘Strong’ verbs change their vowel in different tenses (sing/sang), while ‘weak’ verbs use inflectional endings for the same purpose (love/loved). The main patterns of inflections for both types, together with the irregular verb ‘to be’, are as follows:

  Weak Strong Irregular
  ‘to love’ ‘to sing’ ‘to be’
Infinitive lufian singan bēon
Singular 1st person lufie singe eom
Singular 2nd person lufast singst eart
Singular 3rd person lufaþ singþ is
Plural (all) lufiaþ singaþ sind(on)
Singular (all) lufie singe sīe
Plural (all) lufien singen sīen
Singular lufa sing bēo
Plural lufiaþ singaþ bēoþ
Participle lufiende singende wesende
Singular 1st person lufode sang wæs
Singular 2nd person lufodest sunge wǣre
Singular 3rd person lufode sang wæs
Plural (all) lufodon sungon wǣron
Singular (all) lufode sunge wǣre
Plural (all) lufoden sungen wǣren
Participle gelufod gesungen gebēon

There are many variations on these basic patterns, including seven main types of strong verbs, and three main types of weak verbs. As with the rest of the material outlined in this Unit, they are treated more fully in books listed in the Bibliography.

5. The Later History of Old English

What happened to Old English? Why aren’t we speaking it today? In some respects, of course, we still are. Much of our everyday (or ‘core’) vocabulary derives from Old English (see Unit 3 Old English Vocabulary). The examples we have seen in this Unit include words such as bear, father, foot, fish, God, good, hare, he, him, his, I, king, lady, lord, love, man, me, night, oyster, queen, raven, ship, sing, stone, tongue, us, we, where, white, widow and wolf, all of which are still in use today. Many have changed their spellings, and some have developed different meanings. OE dēor ‘wild animal’, for instance, has narrowed in meaning to refer to a single type of animal (‘deer’), and OE wīf ‘woman’ has narrowed to refer to a married woman (‘wife’). Nonetheless, they are still recognisable as the precursors of Present-Day English words.

Some of the apparent oddities of the modern spelling system, such as the silent letters in words such as knight, light and write, can also be traced back to Old English, where they represented sounds that were pronounced. They have now become fossilized, preserving evidence for the history of the language. In addition, some grammatical inflections have been retained. This applies particularly to the pronoun system; but the verb system too reflects many aspects of its Old English roots, including the division between strong and weak verbs, and the use of irregular forms of the verb ‘to be’.

To a certain extent, then, Present-Day English may be viewed as a continuation of Old English. Nevertheless, there are major differences both in vocabulary and in grammar, which are largely due to contact with other languages over the last millennium. The single most important event was the Norman Conquest of 1066. This resulted not only in a huge influx of French words into English, but in the loss of a high proportion of the existing vocabulary. Many Old English words went out of use, and are no longer recognisable today. Unlike place-names, which tend to have a high survival rate, the existing stock of personal names too was largely wiped out and replaced by more fashionable names imported from the continent.

Changes in grammatical structure were already taking place towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period itself. Following the Viking invasions, speakers of Old Norse had settled in England and were living alongside speakers of Old English. As another Germanic language, Old Norse was sufficiently similar to Old English for the inflectional systems to become easily confused, resulting in a movement towards a more analytic language with greater reliance on word order.

The loss of the case system in particular makes it necessary to approach Old English almost as a foreign language. Unlike modern languages, however, there are no native speakers to consult over points of difficulty; and evidence for the lexicon is limited to the vocabulary preserved in surviving manuscripts and in place-names. For these reasons, our knowledge of Old English will always be incomplete – but this is one of the things that make it such a fascinating field of study.

6. Select Bibliography

Baker, Peter S. 2003. Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell.
Barber, Charles, Joan C. Beal and Philip A. Shaw. 2009. The English Language: A Historical Introduction, 2nd edn. Cambridge:
          Cambridge University Press.
Bibire, Paul. 2013. ‘Germanic Languages’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon
, eds Michael Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 375-376.
Cox, B. 1999. ‘Place-Names, OE’. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England,
          eds Michael Lapidge et al. Oxford: Blackwell, 368–369.
Gneuss, Helmut. 1991. ‘The Old English Language’. The Cambridge Companion to Old
          English Literature
, eds Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge: Cambridge
          University Press, 23–54.
Hoad, T. 2013. ‘Dialects’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, eds Michael
          Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 143–144.
Hough, Carole, and John Corbett. 2013. Beginning Old English, 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
McCully, Chris, and Sharon Hilles. 2004. The Earliest English: An Introduction to Old English
. Harlow: Longman Pearson.
Page, R. I. 2013. ‘Old English’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England,
          eds Michael Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 350–351.
Page, R. I. 2013. ‘Personal Names, Old English’. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon
, eds Michael Lapidge et al, 2nd edn. Chichester: Wiley, 370–371.
Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred Robinson. 2007. A Guide to Old English, 7th edn.
          Oxford: Blackwell.
Smith, Jeremy J. 2005. Essentials of Early English, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.