Old English

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Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, refers to the English language as it was from about the middle of the fifth century until around the middle of the twelfth century. It is a West-Germanic language and as such it is closely related to Dutch, German and especially Frisian, as well as, more distantly the Scandinavian (or North-Germanic) languages.

History and origin of Old English

It is certain that English was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders in the early centuries AD. The traditional view, based largely on Bede, is that the Celtic tribes of Britain hired continental Germanic warriors to fight as mercenaries against the crumbling remnants of Roman power on the island, and that they arrived in AD 449 under the leadership of the chieftains Hengest and Horsa. Modern archeological, historical, and linguistic research rejects this view as too strongly influenced by revisionist tendencies in the writings of eighth-century Anglo-Saxon historians. Although the general features of the traditional account remain accepted, including the supposition that the majority of the invaders were Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from the northwestern coast of Continental Europe, the dating and manner of the invaders' arrival as well as the role of the Frisians remain vague. Both linguistic and genetic research into the relationship between modern English and Frisian people, and their respective languages, suggest a far greater importance for the Frisians in the establishment of an English culture in Britain and in the formation of Old English, but in the absence of clearer information and more research, no conclusions can yet be formed.

Old English was not a monolithic linguistic structure but rather a tapestry of many varying dialects that must have represented the different tribal origins of the original settlers. When Scandinavian raiders (or Vikings), predominantly from what is now Denmark, started settling in the northeastern part of Britain which came to be known as the Danelaw, the language of the Anglo-Saxons came to be influenced by the dialect of Old Norse spoken by these new arrivals. Old Norse and Old English were sufficiently close to allow for communication but the languages also had considerable differences in phonology, morphology, and lexicon. Because of the varying degrees of influence of Old Norse on Old English, the modern language still retains etymological doublets, such as shirt and skirt, both deriving from the same root but with divergent meanings and phonological makeup (the former from Old English, the latter through Old Norse). Danish also had influence on the pronoun system, replacing the original pronoun hie with the Danish equivalent they.

Other more modest influences on Old English were Latin and the languages spoken by the Celtic settlers displaced by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Latin was the language of learning and the church in the Middle Ages and also served as a lingua franca in international diplomacy and trade. It is certain that many words of commerce were borrowed into Germanic before the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain, while others entered English after the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons in England. Many other Latin words borrowed by Old English were brought into the language through the mediation of the Celts who had lived in Britain under Roman overlordship for many centuries. Even before the Norman Conquest of 1066, French had started to exert influence on Old English.


There were several major dialect areas of Old English: Northumbrian in the north, Kentish in the southeast, West Saxon in the southwest, and Mercian in the central Midlands region. Although Mercian is the most direct ancestor of Modern English, few documents survive in it. The vast majority of written materials that survive are in West Saxon, because of the ravages of the Viking attacks across Britain in the ninth century. Because of the successful resistance of King Alfred of Wessex, many manuscripts escaped the worst. Alfred and his descendants also conquered much of the remaining Norse-dominated England, thus exerting an enormous influence over the rest of the island. In the tenth and early eleventh century and as a consequence of Alfred's program of education as well as the administrative reforms by him and his successors, the West-Saxon variant of Old English as spoken and written at the capital of Wessex, Winchester, became the model for a standardized Old English language throughout the united English kingdom.

Old English had no written form (aside from the occasional use of runes) until the introduction of Christianity; with it came a relatively phonetic alphabetic system, as well as loanwords from Latin and some Greek.





Old English literature

Old English survives rather abundantly, especially in comparison with the other Germanic languages of the period. Nevertheless, a small number of texts excepted most of the texts are of little literary interest.


Among the surviving poems are:

  • Beowulf, a heroic epic (virtually complete)
  • The Battle of Maldon (incomplete), about a battle in 991 in which the Danes defeated an Anglo-Saxon army
  • A set of riddles
  • The Wanderer, an elegiac poem in which an old man recalls the slaughter of friends and kinsfolk in his youth
  • The Seafarer, another elegiac poem about a sailor in love with the sea, despite its discomforts. The second part is an allegory of the Christian life.
  • The Dream of the Rood, in which Christ's cross is personified and Christ is presented like an Anglo-Saxon warrior

Other poems include biblical paraphrases, adaptations from Latin works, and magical charms.

Old English poetry relies heavily on alliteration, generally with a caesura (pause) in the middle of each line. It often uses "kennings" - stock phrases describing one thing in terms of another, such as "whale's road" for the sea. It was intended largely for oral recitation.


The most well-known work of Old English prose is probably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a set of annals which was probably begun in the late ninth century, and which survives in several versions: this is still a major source of information on the history of England in the Anglo-Saxon period and for the first century after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

A translation into Old English of the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius is attributed to King Alfred the Great.

For the most part other surviving prose works in Old English are either sets of laws or religious (sermons, saints' lives, translations from the Bible, and so on). There are also a few medical and scientific works.

Old English text sample

Beowulf lines 1 to 11, approximately 900

Original (translation by Francis Gummere)
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning!
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!



  • S.A.J. Bradley. 1982. Anlo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman's Library. London: J.M. Dent/Rutland (VT): Charles E. Tuttle. ISBN 0460870866
  • Karl Brunner. 1965. Altenglische Grammatik nach der Angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers. 3rd ed. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Bruce Mitchell. 1995. An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford (UK)/Cambridge (USA): Blackwell. ISBN 0631174354; ISBN 0631174362 (pbk)
  • Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson. 1992. A Guide to Old English. Oxford (UK)/Cambridge (USA): Blackwell. ISBN 0631166564; ISBN 0631166572 (pbk)
  • Eduard Sievers. 1903. Old English Grammar. Albert S. Cook trs. Boston/London: Ginn & Co. (Still a very good grammar; the German version by Karl Brunner, 1965, is also good.)
  • Elaine Treharne ed. 2000. Old and Middle English. An Anthology. Oxford (UK)/Malden (Mass.): Blackwell. ISBN 063120462; ISBN 0631204660 (pbk)