Old Language: OLD ENGLISH

Indo-European > Germanic > West Germanic > Old English

Germanic tribes began migrating to Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries, bringing with them various dialects that became collectively known to modern scholars as Old English (OE). To the modern reader this ancestor more closely resembles German or Dutch than the language we speak today, yet the hundred most commonly used words in Modern English are of OE origin (Crystal, 2004: p124).

OE, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was much more of an inflected language than that of today. Many of the inflections were lost in the late OE and Middle English periods, probably due to the influence of the Danes and the French. OE is normally divided into the convenient dialect areas of West Saxon, Kentish, Northumbrian and Mercian (see Baugh & Cable: p52); many of today's British accents are testimony to this dialectal period. Most of the corpus of extant OE texts are later West Saxon in origin. After his defeat of the Vikings, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, instigated a resurgence of West Saxon literacy. OE was not insular, however; Anglo-Saxon missionaries spread English influence around Europe, particularly in Germany.

The earliest English writing is found in runic manuscripts. Runes were common throughout Germanic Europe, and the most weel-known English runes are to be found on the Frank's Casket and the Ruthwell Cross. The latin script was later adopted, though certain runic characters such as thorn (þ) were kept.

Without a doubt the most famous OE poem is Beowulf, the first great heroic epic in English. Written in the traditional alliterative style, Beowulf is set in pre-migration, pre-Christian Scandinavia, and promotes values of courage, heroism and loyalty as well as painting a picture of the early-Germanic mead-hall culture.

examples of old english

Ða com of more under misthleoþum
Grendel gongan. Godes yrre bær.
Mynte se manscaða manna cynnes
Sumne besyrwan in sele þam hean.
From 'Beowulf', lines 710-713 (c.8th C, WSaxon) (Translation: 'Then from the moor under the misty slopes came Grendel advancing. He bore God's anger. The evil ravager intended to ensnare one of the race of men in that lofty hall.' E. Treharne: 2004)

Nū wē sculon herigean heofonrīces Weard
Meotodes meahte ond his mōdgeþanc,
Weorc Wuldorfæder, swā hē wundra ghwæs,
Ēce Drihten, ōr onstealde.
Hē ærest sceōp eorðan bearnum
Heofon tō hrōfe, hālig Scyppend.
Þa middangeard monncynnes Weard,
Ēce Drihten, æfter tēode
Fīrum foldan, Frēa ælmihtig.
Cædmon’s Hymn’, from Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People' (c. 7th C, WSaxon). (Translation: 'Praise we the Lord of the heavenly kingdom, God's power and wisdom, The works of His hand; as the Father of glory, Eternal Lord, Wrought the beginning of all His wonders! Holy Creatot! Warden of men! First, for a roof, O'er the children of earth, He stablished the heavens, and founded the world, and spread the dry land for the living to dwell in. Lord Everlasting! Almighty God!' C.W. Kennedy, 1916)

Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard,
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc,
uerc uuldurfadur, sue he uundra gihuaes,
eci dryctin, or astelidæ.
He aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe, haleg scepen;
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard,
eci dryctin, æfter tiadæ
firum foldu, frea allmectig.

'Caedmon's Hymn', Northumbrian version.

a short old english bibliography
  • Bruce Mitchell & Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English (Blackwell, Oxford: 1992)
  • Dorothy Whitelock (ed), Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, 15th ed (Oxford: 1975)
  • Elaine Treharne (ed), Old & Middle English, 890-1400: An Anthology, 2nd ed (Blackwell, Oxford: 2004)
  • Dennis Freeborn, From Old English to Standard English, 2nd ed (Macmillan, London: 1998)
  • Richard Hogg, Introduction to Old English (Edinburgh: 2002)
  • Orrin C. Robinson, Old English and its Closest Relatives (Routledge, London: 1992)
  • Richard Marsden, The Cambridge Old English Reader (Cambridge: 2004)

old english links


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