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Old English language

Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) was an early form of the English language that existed in England some 1000 years ago. It was a West Germanic language and was very similar to Old Norse. Unlike modern English, Old English was a language rich with morphological diversity. It maintained several distinct cases, such as the dative, genitive and instrumental[?], which are only marginally marked today.

Old English was not a static form. Its usage covered a period of some 700 or so years from approximately 450 AD to some time after the Norman invasion in 1066 when the language underwent a major and dramatic transitory upheaval, during a period which is (generally) now referred to as Middle English. During the 700 years in which it was in use it assimilated some aspects of the indigenous pre-Celtic languages, some of the Celtic languages which it came into contact with, some of the two variants of the invading Scandinavian languages occupying and controlling the Danelaw, and Norman French in the wake of 1066.

Further, 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 what was then the prevalent lingua franca. This influence predates the insular incursions of the Anglo-Saxons in their original continental language.

The language was further altered by the transition away from the runic futhark alphabet to the Latin alphabet was also a significant factor in the developmental pressures brought to bear on the language. Words were spelled as they were pronounced. Silent letters therefore did not often exist in Old English: for example, the Old English word for a "knight", cniht, had four distinct consonants.

The Scandinavian loanwords which were to impact on the emergent Anglo-Saxon language tend to be everyday words and those which are concerned with particular administrative aspects of the Danelaw.

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.

Table of contents

Dialects To further complicate matters, Old English was rich in dialect forms. This diversity was particularly marked until after the process of unification of the diverse Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 878 by Alfred the Great.

The four principal dialect forms of Old English were: Northumbrian[?], Mercian[?], Kentish[?] and West Saxon[?].

Pronunciation

Vowels

æ (called ash) is a as in "bat"

Consonants

Consonants equivalent to Modern English

b, d, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, x

h

If the letter h appears at the beginning of a word it is pronounced as it would be in Modern English.

It it appears after a vowel, the letter h is a fricative, the actual sound being contingent upon the preceding vowel.

s

s is pronounced as the Modern English equivalent if it is at the beginning of a word, the end of a word, or if it is adjacent to an unvoiced consonant.

If it comes between vowels or a vowel and a consonant that is voiced then it is pronounced like the letter z in Modern English.

Consonant pairs

þ and ð

Although in effect a single character, both of these represent a consonant pair, that of "th". Both these characters are interchangeable and resolve to the sound "th" as in mother and father between vowels, thin and path initially and finally.

sc

sc is pronounced as the "sh" sound, as in "ship". (The OE word for a ship is scip...)

c

c can be rendered either a soft consonant pair as in "child" (OE cild) or a hard single as in "king" (OE cyning). The sound is largely determined by the word itself and the vowels adjoining it in that word.

Old English Grammar

Characters

In addition to most of the characters in the current alphabet, Old English supported three other characters:

æ - ash (æsc) pronounced as the 'a' in Modern English "cat"
þ - thorn which represents the Modern English pair "th"
ð - eth which also represents the Modern English pair "th"

Additionally the letter w has a different manifestation in Old English as the character wynn[?].

Old English did not use v and j since these were later additions to the alphabet; q and z are sparingly found.

Syntax

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, OSV order and VSO order.

To further complicate the matter, prepositions may appear after their object, in which case they are, logically called postpositions:

 God cwæð him þus to
 (lit) God said him thus to
 i.e. God said thus to him

Verbs

Verbs in Old English are divided into strong or weak verbs. Strong verbs, which are in the majority, use the Germanic form of conjugation (known as Ablaut). Weak verbs are formed principally by adding endings to past and participles.

Strong verbs are further subdivided into seven separate classes and weak verbs into three.

Additionally there is a further group of four verbs which are anomalous, the verbs "will", "do", "go" and "be".

Nouns

Old English nouns are divided as either strong or weak. Strong nouns have branched declensions, with particular and specialised endings for different numbers and cases. The weak declension nouns were those nouns which had begun to lose their declensional system. It should be pointed out that the majority of noun stems in Old English were in the strong grouping.

Adjectives

Adjectives in Old English may be declined strong or weak. The strong or weak form is determined by the strength or weakness of the noun which it is qualifiying.

Pronouns

Pronouns preserved the dual number in declension, and this inclines to make them more archaic than the remainder of Old English speech patterns. Most of pronouns are declined by number, case and gender; in the plural form most pronouns have only one form for all genders.

Personal pronouns

1st Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, íc wit
Genitive mín úre uncer
Dative ús unc
Accusative mec, mé úsic, ús uncit, unc

2nd Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þú git
Genitive þin éower incer
Dative þe éow inc
Accusative þéc, þé éowic, éow incit, inc

3rd Person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative hé m., héo f., hit n. hié m., héo f.  
Genitive his m., hire f., his n. hiera m., heora f.  
Dative him m., hire f., him n. him  
Accusative hine m., híe f., hit n. hié m., hío f.  

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

Prepositions often follow the word which they govern, in which case they are called postpositions.

See also Old English language (list of prepositions)[?]

Front Mutation

Front Mutation[?] (also known as "I/J Mutation") has the effect that 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, and mus and mys.

Old English examples A sample of Old English can be found in the Beowulf article.

See also: Old English poetry



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