Old English

Old English was used in Britain from c. 450 to c. 1150. We know a lot about it because 3,037 writings survive.

Anglo-Saxon texts include sermons, Bible translations, epic poetry such as Beowulf, legal works and histories such as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Origins of Old English

Old English comes from the Germanic peoples of mainland Europe. It is in the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages family.

West Germanic
  • Old Frisian
  • Old Saxon
  • Old High German
  • Old English

Old Northumbrian, a dialect of Old English, developed into early Scots. Scots today is English’s closest relative. (Scots is a West Germanic language, not to be confused with the Celtic language Scots Gaelic.)

North Germanic

English speakers today sometimes feel that Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic feel familiar. That’s because they are in the North Germanic branch of the Germanic language family.

Indo-European

All Germanic languages come from an unknown proto-Germanic language. Proto-Germanic is an offshoot of the Indo-European language family. Other Indo-European offshoots include Celtic, Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavonic and Italic.

Linguists believe that all Indo-European languages developed from a single language around 5,000 years ago. Some scholars think that it was spoken in the Caucasus.

Influence of Latin, language of the Romans

Language expert David Crystal says that Old English contained Latin loanwords. These could have entered English in any number of ways.

  • Contact between Germanic peoples and Romans on the continent before c. 450
  • Possible use of Latin loanwords by Celtic Britons
  • Possible that artistocratic Celtic Britons favoured Latin and used it for some time
  • Import of Latin words by the Church after St Augustine arrived in 597.

Influence of Old Norse, language of the Vikings

David Crystal notes that in the area of England that fell under Danelaw there are over 2,000 Scandinavian place names. Also that from 1200 the earliest Middle English literature contains thousands of Old Norse words. This is especially true for texts from the former Danelaw area, in northern and eastern England.

Runes

Before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity they used a runic alphabet. The Latin alphabet, which of course was used by the Romans, was popularised again by the Church.

30 Anglo-Saxon runes (Blodcyning • CC BY-SA 4.0)

Old English dialects

Old English developed into four major dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West Saxon. Mercian had a great influence on the spelling of Modern English. It was spoken in the Midlands, East Anglia and London.

West Saxon is the dominant dialect in surviving Anglo-Saxon literature.

The difference between Old and Modern English

All languages change and develop over time. Despite being the same language, the English spoken today is not quite the same as the English spoken in 1900. Old English, Middle English and Modern English are the same language at different stages of development.

A modern English speaker can not understand Old English without taking lessons. Our grammar is simpler and we no longer use a lot of Old English words. Old English pre-dates the Norman Conquest (1066), after which around 10,000 French words entered the English language.

However, some Old English words are still in common use in Modern English. Here are a few examples:

  • England
  • English
  • French
  • King
  • Year
  • Of
  • This
  • These
  • Was/Were
  • And
  • But

Old English resources online

Old English core vocabulary list

Old English online (an online course)

Essentials of Old English (an online course)

Old English texts online

Introduction to runes

The emergence of Scots: Clues from Germanic

Books on Old English

Introduction to Old English by Peter S. Baker