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Old English (Englisc, Ænglisc), also called Anglo-Saxon,The term Anglo-Saxon came to refer to all things of the early English period by the 16th century, including language, culture, and people. While this is still the preferred term for the latter two aspects, the language starting from the 19th century began to be called Old English. This is because the language itself began to be studied in detail, and scholars recognised the continued development of the English language from the Anglo-Saxon period to Middle English and through to the present day. However many authors still use the term Anglo-Saxon to refer to the language.
is an early form of the English language that was spoken and written in parts of what are now Englandmarker and south-eastern Scotlandmarker between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century.
What survives through writing represents primarily the literary register of Anglo-Saxon. It is a West Germanic language and is closely related to Old Frisian. It also experienced heavy influence from Old Norse, a member of the related North Germanic group of languages.


Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of approximately 700 years – from the Anglo-Saxon migrations that created England in the 5th century to some time after the Norman Conquest of 1066 when the language underwent a dramatic transition. During this early period it assimilated some aspects of the languages with which it came in contact, such as the Celtic languages and the two dialects of Old Norse from the invading Vikings, who occupied and controlled large tracts of land in northern and eastern England, which came to be known as the Danelawmarker.

Germanic origins

The most important force in shaping Old English was its Germanic heritage in its vocabulary, sentence structure and grammar, which it shared with its related languages in continental Europe. Some of these features are shared with the other West Germanic languages with which Old English is grouped, while some other features are traceable to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic language from which all Germanic languages are believed to have derived.

Like other Germanic languages of the period, Old English was fully inflected with five grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental, though the instrumental was very rare), which had dual plural forms for referring to groups of two objects (but only in the personal pronouns) in addition to the usual singular and plural forms. It also assigned gender to all nouns, including those that describe inanimate objects: for example, sēo sunne (the Sun) was feminine, while se mōna (the Moon) was masculine (cf. modern German die Sonne and der Mond).

Latin influence

A large percentage of the educated and literate population of the time were competent in Latin, which was the scholarly and diplomatic lingua franca of Europe at the time. It is sometimes possible to give approximate dates for the entry of individual Latin words into Old English based on which patterns of linguistic change they have undergone. There were at least three notable periods of Latin influence. The first occurred before the ancestral Saxons left continental Europe for Britain. The second began when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests became widespread. The third and largest single transfer of Latin-based words happened after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when an enormous number of Norman words began to influence the language. Most of these Oïl language words were themselves derived from Old French and ultimately from classical Latin, although a notable stock of Norse words were introduced or re-introduced in Norman form. The Norman Conquest approximately marks the end of Old English and the advent of Middle English.

One of the ways the influence of Latin can be seen is that many Latin words for activities came to also be used to refer to the people engaged in those activities, an idiom carried over from Anglo-Saxon but using Latin words. This can be seen in words like militia, assembly, movement, and service.

The language was further altered by the transition away from the runic alphabet (also known as futhorc or fuþorc) to the Latin alphabet, which was also a significant factor in the developmental pressures brought to bear on the language. Old English words were spelt as they were pronounced. The "silent" letters in many Modern English words were pronounced in Old English: for example, the c in cniht, the Old English ancestor of the modern knight, was pronounced. Another side-effect of spelling words phonetically was that spelling was extremely variable – the spelling of a word would reflect differences in the phonetics of the writer's regional dialect, and also idiosyncratic spelling choices which varied from author to author, and even from work to work by the same author. Thus, for example, the word and could be spelt either and or ond.

Norse influence

The second major source of loanwords to Old English was the Scandinavian words introduced during the Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries. In addition to a great many place names, these consist mainly of items of basic vocabulary, and words concerned with particular administrative aspects of the Danelawmarker (that is, the area of land under Viking control, which included extensive holdings all along the eastern coast of Englandmarker and Scotlandmarker). The Vikings spoke Old Norse, a language related to Old English in that both derived from the same ancestral Proto-Germanic language. It is very common for the intermixing of speakers of different dialects, such as those that occur during times of political unrest, to result in a mixed language, and one theory holds that exactly such a mixture of Old Norse and Old English helped accelerate the decline of case endings in Old English. Apparent confirmation of this is the fact that simplification of the case endings occurred earliest in the north and latest in the southwest, the area farthest away from Viking influence. Regardless of the truth of this theory, the influence of Old Norse on the English language has been profound: responsible for such basic vocabulary items as sky, leg, the pronoun they, the verb form are, and hundreds of other words.

Celtic influence

Traditionally, many maintain that the influence of Celtic on English has been small, citing the small number of Celtic loanwords taken into the language. The number of Celtic loanwords is of a lower order than either Latin or Scandinavian. However, a minority view is that distinctive Celtic traits can be discerned in syntax from the post-Old English period.


Old English should not be regarded as a single monolithic entity just as Modern English is also not monolithic. Within Old English, there was language variation. Thus, it is misleading, for example, to consider Old English as having a single sound system. Rather, there were multiple Old English sound systems. Old English has variation along regional lines as well as variation across different times. For example, the language attested in Wessexmarker during the time of Æthelwold of Winchester, which is named Late West Saxon (or Æthelwoldian Saxon), is considerably different from the language attested in Wessex during the time of Alfred the Great's court, which is named Early West Saxon (or Classical West Saxon or Alfredian Saxon). Furthermore, the difference between Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon is of such a nature that Late West Saxon is not directly descended from Early West Saxon (despite what the similarity in name implies).

The four main dialectal forms of Old English were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. Each of those dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. Of these, all of Northumbriamarker and most of Merciamarker were overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. The portion of Mercia and all of Kent that were successfully defended were then integrated into Wessex.

After the process of unification of the diverse Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 878 by Alfred the Great, there is a marked decline in the importance of regional dialects. This is not because they stopped existing; regional dialects continued even after that time to this day, as evidenced both by the existence of Middle and Modern English dialects later on, and by common sense–-people do not spontaneously adopt another dialect when there is a sudden change of political power.

However, the bulk of the surviving documents from the Anglo-Saxon period are written in the dialect of Wessex, Alfred's kingdom. It seems likely that with consolidation of power, it became necessary to standardise the language of government to reduce the difficulty of administering the more remote areas of the kingdom. As a result, documents were written in the West Saxon dialect. Not only this, but Alfred was passionate about the spread of the vernacular and brought many scribes to his region from Mercia in order that previously unwritten texts be recorded.

The Church was affected likewise, especially since Alfred initiated an ambitious programme to translate religious materials into English. In order to retain his patronage and ensure the widest circulation of the translated materials, the monks and priests engaged in the programme worked in his dialect. Alfred himself seems to have translated books out of Latin and into English, notably Pope Gregory I's treatise on administration, Pastoral Care

Because of the centralisation of power and the Viking invasions, there is little or no written evidence for the development of non-Wessex dialects after Alfred's unification.

Modern-day Received Pronunciation is not a direct descendant of the best-attested dialect, Late West Saxon. It is rather a descendant of a Mercian dialect-—either East Mercian or South-East Mercian. Thus, Late West Saxon had little influence on the development of Modern English (by which is meant RP or some similar dialect, e.g. General American) and the developments occurring in its antecedent, Middle English. Late West Saxon was still used after the Norman Conquest but Latin and Norman French then became the languages of the nobility and administration.



The inventory of classical Old English (i.e. Late West Saxon) surface phones, as usually reconstructed, is as follows.
  Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Lateral approximant              

The sounds marked in parentheses in the chart above are allophones:
  • is an allophone of occurring after and when geminated
  • is an allophone of occurring before and
  • are allophones of respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants
  • are allophones of occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively
  • is an allophone of occurring after a vowel, and, at an earlier stage of the language, in the syllable onset.

Monophthongs Short Long
Front Back Front Back

The front mid rounded vowels occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect.

Diphthongs Short (monomoraic) Long (bimoraic)
First element is close
Both elements are mid
Both elements are open


Unlike modern English, Old English is a language rich with morphological diversity and is spelled essentially as it is pronounced. It maintains several distinct cases: the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and (vestigially) instrumental, remnants of which survive only in a few pronouns in modern English.


Word order

The word order of Old English is widely believed to be subject-verb-object (SVO) as in modern English and most Germanic languages. The word order of Old English, however, was not overly important because of the aforementioned morphology of the language. As long as declension was correct, it did not matter whether you said, "My name is..." as "Mīn nama is..." or "Nama mīn is..."

Because of its similarity with Old Norse, it is believed that the word order of Old English changed when asking a question, from SVO to VSO; i.e. swapping the verb and the subject.
"I am..." becomes "Am I...?"
"Ic eom..." becomes "Eom ic...?"


Old English was first written in runes (futhorc) but shifted to a (minuscule) half-uncial script of the Latin alphabet introduced by Irish Christian missionaries. This was replaced by insular script, a cursive and pointed version of the half-uncial script. This was used until the end of the 12th century when continental Carolingian minuscule (also known as Caroline) replaced the insular.

The letter yogh was adapted from Irishmarker ecclesiastical forms of Latin <&NBSP;  =""> ; the letter ðæt <&NBSP;  =""> (called eth or edh in modern English) was an alteration of Latin <&NBSP;  ="">, and the runic letters thorn and wynn are borrowings from futhorc.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Also used was a symbol for the conjunction and, a character similar to the number seven (<&NBSP;  ="">, called a Tironian note), and a symbol for the relative pronoun þæt, a thorn with a crossbar through the ascender (<&NBSP;  ="">).</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Macrons <&NBSP;  =""> over vowels were rarely used to indicate long vowels.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Also used occasionally were abbreviations for following m’s or n’s.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">All of the sound descriptions below are given using symbols.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>

Conventions of modern editions

A number of changes are traditionally made in published modern editions of the original Old English manuscripts. Some of these conventions include the introduction of punctuation and the substitutions of symbols. The symbols <&NBSP;  =""> are used in modern editions, although their shapes in the insular script are considerably different.</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">The insular symbols <&NBSP;  =""> and <&NBSP;  =""> are substituted by their modern counterpart <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Insular <&NBSP;  ="">Insular <&NBSP;  =""> is not equivalent to Middle English yogh <&NBSP;  ="">. is usually substituted with its modern counterpart <&NBSP;  =""> (which is ultimately a Carolingian symbol).</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Additionally, modern manuscripts often distinguish between a velar and palatal <&NBSP;  =""> and <&NBSP;  =""> with diacritic dots above the putative palatals: <&NBSP;  ="">, <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">The wynn symbol <&NBSP;  =""> is usually substituted with <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Kentish <&NBSP;  =""> is sometimes substituted with modern <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Macrons are usually found in modern editions to indicate putative long vowels, while they are usually lacking in the originals.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">The decision to add macrons is usually etymologically based as they are printed even when these vowels are in unstressed positions where they would most probably be short.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">In older printed editions of Old English works, an acute accent mark was used to maintain cohesion between Old English and Old Norse printing.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>

The alphabetical symbols found in Old English writings and their substitute symbols found in modern editions are listed below:

Symbol Description and notes
Short . Spelling variations like <&NBSP; ~=""  =""> "land" suggest it may have had a rounded allophone before in some cases)</&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
Short . Before 800 the digraph <&NBSP;  =""> is often found instead of <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">During the 8th century <&NBSP;  =""> began to be used more frequently was standard after 800.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">In 9th century Kentish manuscripts, a form of <&NBSP;  =""> that was missing the upper hook of the <&NBSP;  =""> part was used.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Kentish <&NBSP;  =""> may be either or although this is difficult to determine.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
Represented . Also represented in early texts before 800. For example, the word "sheaves" is spelled <&NBSP;  =""> in an early text but later (and more commonly) as <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Except in the digraphs <&NBSP;  ="">, either or .</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">The pronunciation is sometimes written with a diacritic by modern editors: most commonly <&NBSP;  ="">, sometimes <&NBSP;  =""> or <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Before a consonant letter the pronunciation is always ; word-finally after <&NBSP;  =""> it is always .</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Otherwise a knowledge of the historical linguistics of the word in question is needed to predict which pronunciation is needed.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">(See The distribution of velars and palatals in Old English for details.)</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
(the surface pronunciation of geminate ); occasionally also for
Represented . In the earliest texts, it also represented but was soon replaced by <&NBSP;  =""> and <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">For example, the word meaning "thought" (lit. mood-i-think, with -i- as in "handiwork") was written <&NBSP;  =""> in a Northumbrian text dated 737, but later as <&NBSP;  =""> in a 10th century West Saxon text.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Represented and its allophone . Called in Old English (now called eth in Modern English), <&NBSP;  =""> is found in alternation with the thorn <&NBSP;  =""> symbol (both representing the same sound) although it is more common in texts dating before Alfred.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Replaced earlier <&NBSP;  =""> and <&NBSP;  =""> (along with <&NBSP;  ="">).</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">First attested (in definitely dated materials) in the 7th century.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">After the beginning of Alfred's time, <&NBSP;  =""> was used more frequently for medial and final positions while <&NBSP;  =""> became increasingly used in initial positions (although both still varied).</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Some modern editions attempt to regularise the variation between <&NBSP;  =""> by using only <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Short .
Either Kentish or although this is difficult to determine. A modern editorial substitution for a form of <&NBSP;  =""> missing the upper hook of the <&NBSP;  =""> found in 9th century texts.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
Short ; after <&NBSP;  ="">, sometimes or .</&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">After <&NBSP;  ="">, sometimes .</&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Short ; after <&NBSP;  ="">, sometimes</&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
and its allophone
Mostly absent in Old English works, but used as a substitute for <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
and its allophone ; and its allophone (when after <&NBSP;  ="">).</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">In modern printed editions of Old English works, the symbol <&NBSP;  =""> is used instead of the more common <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">The and pronunciations are sometimes written <&NBSP;  =""> or <&NBSP;  =""> by modern editors.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Before a consonant letter the pronunciation is always (word-initially) or (after a vowel).</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Word-finally after <&NBSP;  =""> it is always .</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Otherwise a knowledge of the historical linguistics of the word in question is needed to predict which pronunciation is needed.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">(See The distribution of velars and palatals in Old English for details.)</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
and its allophones . In the combinations <&NBSP;  ="">, the second consonant was certainly voiceless.</&NBSP;>
Short .
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
Short ; after <&NBSP;  ="">, sometimes .</&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">After <&NBSP;  ="">, sometimes .</&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
(rarely used)
; probably velarised (as in Modern English) when in coda position.
and its allophone
Short .
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
Short (in dialects with this sound).
Long (in dialects with this sound). Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
A rare spelling of , which was usually written as  > (=  > in modern editions).The spelling <&NBSP;  =""> is much more common in later Middle English.
; the exact nature of r is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant , as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar flap , or an alveolar trill .
A substitution for an insular symbol resembling <&NBSP;  =""> that is used in modern printed editions of Old English works.</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">It represents and its allophone .</&NBSP;>
or occasionally .
Represented in the earliest texts but was soon replaced by <&NBSP;  =""> and <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">For example, the word meaning "thought" (lit. mood-i-think, with -i- as in "handiwork") was written <&NBSP;  =""> in a 6th century Northumbrian text, but later as <&NBSP;  =""> in a 10th century West Saxon text.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
An alternate symbol called thorn used instead of <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">Represents and its allophone .</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">Replaced earlier <&NBSP;  =""> and <&NBSP;  =""> (along with <&NBSP;  ="">).</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">First attested (in definitely dated materials) in the 8th century.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Less common than <&NBSP;  =""> before the Alfred's time.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">From the beginning of Alfred's time and onward, <&NBSP;  =""> was used increasingly more frequently than <&NBSP;  =""> at the beginning of words while its occurrence at the end and in the middle of words was rare.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  =""><&NBSP;  ="">Some modern editions attempt to regularise the variation between <&NBSP;  =""> by using only <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
and in early texts of continental scribes. The <&NBSP;  =""> was eventually replaced by <&NBSP;  =""> outside of the north of the island.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
Short in early texts of continental scribes. Outside of the north, it was generally replaced by <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;>
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
. A modern substitution for <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;>
Runic wynn. Represents , replaced in modern print by <&NBSP;  =""> to prevent confusion with <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;>
(but according to some authors, )
Short .
Long . Rarely found in manuscripts, but usually distinguished from short <&NBSP;  =""> in modern editions.</&NBSP;>
. A rare spelling for <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;> <&NBSP;  ="">Example: "best" is rarely spelled <&NBSP;  =""> for more common <&NBSP;  ="">.</&NBSP;></&NBSP;></&NBSP;>

Doubled consonants are geminated; the geminate fricatives ðð/þþ, ff and ss cannot be voiced.


Old English literature, though more abundant than literature of the continent before AD 1000, is nonetheless scanty. In his supplementary article to the 1935 posthumous edition of Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader, Dr. James Hulbert writes:

In such historical conditions, an incalculable amount of the writings of the Anglo-Saxon period perished.
What they contained, how important they were for an understanding of literature before the Conquest, we have no means of knowing: the scant catalogs of monastic libraries do not help us, and there are no references in extant works to other compositions....How incomplete our materials are can be illustrated by the well-known fact that, with few and relatively unimportant exceptions, all extant Anglo-Saxon poetry is preserved in four manuscripts.

Old English was one of the first vernacular languages to be written down. Some of the most important surviving works of Old English literature are Beowulf, an epic poem; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a record of early English history; and Caedmon's Hymn, a Christian religious poem. There are also a number of extant prose works, such as sermons and saints' lives, biblical translations, and translated Latin works of the early Church Fathers, legal documents, such as laws and wills, and practical works on grammar, medicine, and geography. Still, poetry is considered the heart of Old English literature. Nearly all Anglo-Saxon authors are anonymous, with a few exceptions, such as Bede and Caedmon.

Comparison with other historical forms of English

Old English is often erroneously used to refer to any form of English other than Modern English. The term Old English does not refer to varieties of Early Modern English such as are found in Shakespeare or the King James Bible, nor does it refer to Middle English, the language of Chaucer and his contemporaries. The following timeline helps place the history of the English language in context. The dates used are approximate dates. Language change is gradual, and cannot be as easily demarcated as are historical or political events.



The first example is taken from the opening lines of the epic poem Beowulf. This passage describes how Hrothgar's legendary ancestor Scyld was found as a baby, washed up on the shore, and adopted by a noble family. The translation is quite literal and represents the original poetic word order. As such, it is not typical of Old English prose. The modern cognates of original words have been used whenever practical to give a close approximation of the feel of the original poem. The words in brackets are implied in the Old English by noun case and the bold words in parentheses are explanations of words that have slightly different meanings in a modern context. Notice how what is used by the poet where a word like lo or behold would be expected. This usage is similar to what-ho!, both an expression of surprise and a call to attention.

Line Original Translation
[1] Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum, What! We [of] Gar-Danes (lit. spear-danes) in yore-days,
[2] þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon, [of] people-kings, trim (glory) afrained (have learned of by asking),
[3] hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon. how those athelings (princes) arm-strong feats framed (made/performed).
[4] Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, Oft Scyld Scefing, [from] scathers (enemies) [in] threats (armed bands),
[5] monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, [from] many magths (clans, groups of sons, cf. Irish cognate Mac-), mead-settles took,
[6] egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð awed earls (leaders of men). Sith (since) erst (first) [he] worth (came to be)
[7] feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad, fewshiped (helpless, in "fewship") founden, he [in a state of] loving care abode (lived),
[8] weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah, wex (waxed) under welkin (the clouds), [in] mind's-worth (honour) thrived,
[9] oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra oth that (until that) [to] him each [of] those [who were] by-sitting ("sitting" or dwelling roundabout)
[10] ofer hronrade hyran scolde, over whale-road (kenning for sea) hear (obedience) should (owed),
[11] gomban gyldan. Þæt wæs god cyning! gifts [to] yield. That was [a] good king!

A semi-fluent translation in Modern English would be:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes, of the kings of the people, in the days of yore, [and] how those princes did deeds of glory. Often Scyld Scefing deprived armed bands of foes, many clans of mead-benches, [and] terrified warriors. Since he first was found helpless, he grew under the heavens, [and] thrived with honours, until each of the nearby peoples over the sea were obliged to pay him tribute. That was a good king!

The Lord's Prayer

This text of The Lord's Prayer is presented in the standardised West Saxon literary dialect

Line Original Translation
[1] Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum, Father ours, thou that art in heaven,
[2] Si þin nama gehalgod. Be thy name hallowed.
[3] To becume þin rice, Come thy rich (kingdom),
[4] gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum. Worth (manifest) thy will, on earth also as in heaven.
[5] Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg, Our daily loaf sell (give) us today,
[6] and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And forgive us our guilts as also we forgive our guilty
[7] And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. And lead thou us not in temptation, but loose (release) us of evil.
[8] Soþlice. Soothly.

Charter of Cnut

This is a proclamation from King Canute the Great to his earl Thorkell the Tall and the English people written in AD 1020. Unlike the previous two examples, this text is prose rather than poetry. For ease of reading, the passage has been divided into sentences while the pilcrows represent the original division.

Original Translation
¶ Cnut cyning gret his arcebiscopas and his leod-biscopas and Þurcyl eorl and ealle his eorlas and ealne his þeodscype, twelfhynde and twyhynde, gehadode and læwede, on Englalande freondlice. ¶ Cnut, king, greets his archbishops and his people's-bishops and Thorkell, earl, and all his earls and all his peopleship, greater (having a 1200 shilling weregild) and lesser (200 shilling weregild), hooded(ordained to priesthood) and lewd(lay), in England friendly.
And ic cyðe eow, þæt ic wylle beon hold hlaford and unswicende to godes gerihtum and to rihtre woroldlage. And I kithe(make known/couth to) you, that I will be [a] hold(civilised) lord and unswiking(uncheating) to God's rights(laws) and to [the] rights(laws) worldly.
¶ Ic nam me to gemynde þa gewritu and þa word, þe se arcebiscop Lyfing me fram þam papan brohte of Rome, þæt ic scolde æghwær godes lof upp aræran and unriht alecgan and full frið wyrcean be ðære mihte, þe me god syllan wolde. ¶ I nam(took) me to mind the writs and the word that the Archbishop Lyfing me from the Pope brought of Rome, that I should ayewhere(everywhere) God's love(praise) uprear(promote), and unright(outlaw) lies, and full frith(peace) work(bring about) by the might that me God would(wished) [to] sell(give).
¶ Nu ne wandode ic na minum sceattum, þa hwile þe eow unfrið on handa stod: nu ic mid godes fultume þæt totwæmde mid minum scattum. ¶ Now, ne went(withdrew/changed) I not my shot(financial contribution, cf. Norse cognate in scot-free) the while that you stood(endured) unfrith(turmoil) on-hand: now I, mid(with) God's support, that [unfrith] totwemed(separated/dispelled) mid(with) my shot(financial contribution).
Þa cydde man me, þæt us mara hearm to fundode, þonne us wel licode: and þa for ic me sylf mid þam mannum þe me mid foron into Denmearcon, þe eow mæst hearm of com: and þæt hæbbe mid godes fultume forene forfangen, þæt eow næfre heonon forð þanon nan unfrið to ne cymð, þa hwile þe ge me rihtlice healdað and min lif byð. Tho(then) [a] man kithed(made known/couth to) me that us more harm had found(come upon) than us well liked(equalled): and tho(then) fore(travelled) I, meself, mid(with) those men that mid(with) me fore(travelled), into Denmark that [to] you most harm came of(from): and that[harm] have [I], mid(with) God's support, afore(previously) forefangen(forestalled) that to you never henceforth thence none unfrith(breach of peace) ne come the while that ye me rightly hold(behold as king) and my life beeth.

See also




  • Whitelock, Dorothy (ed.) (1955) English Historical Documents; vol. I: c. 500–1042. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode


  • Baugh, Albert C.; & Cable, Thomas. (1993). A History of the English Language (4th ed.). London: Routledge.
  • (Reissue of one of 4 eds. 1877–1902)
  • Hogg, Richard M. (ed.). (1992). The Cambridge History of the English Language: (Vol 1): the Beginnings to 1066. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hogg, Richard; & Denison, David (eds.) (2006) A History of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jespersen, Otto (1909–1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. 7 vols. Heidelberg: C. Winter & Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard
  • Lass, Roger (1987) The Shape of English: structure and history. London: J. M. Dent & Sons
  • Quirk, Randolph; & Wrenn, C. L. (1957). An Old English Grammar (2nd ed.) London: Methuen.
  • Strang, Barbara M. H. (1970) A History of English. London: Methuen.

External history

  • Bremmer Jr, Rolf H. (2009). An Introduction to Old Frisian. History, Grammar, Reader, Glossary. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Stenton, F. M. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.


  • Bourcier, Georges. (1978). L'orthographie de l'anglais: Histoire et situation actuelle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Elliott, Ralph W. V. (1959). Runes: An introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Keller, Wolfgang. (1906). Angelsächsische Paleographie, I: Einleitung. Berlin: Mayer & Müller.
  • Ker, N. R. (1957). A Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Ker, N. R. (1957: 1990). A Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon; with supplement prepared by Neil Ker originally published in Anglo-Saxon England; 5, 1957. Oxford: Clarendon Press ISBN 0198112513
  • Page, R. I. (1973). An Introduction to English Runes. London: Methuen.
  • Scragg, Donald G. (1974). A History of English Spelling. Manchester: Manchester University Press.


  • Anderson, John M; & Jones, Charles. (1977). Phonological structure and the history of English. North-Holland linguistics series (No. 33). Amsterdam: North-Holland.
  • Brunner, Karl. (1965). Altenglische Grammatik (nach der angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers neubearbeitet) (3rd ed.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Girvan, Ritchie. (1931). Angelsaksisch Handboek; E. L. Deuschle (transl.). (Oudgermaansche Handboeken; No. 4). Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.
  • Halle, Morris; & Keyser, Samuel J. (1971). English Stress: its form, its growth, and its role in verse. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Hockett, Charles F. (1959). "The stressed syllabics of Old English". Language, 35 (4), 575–597.
  • Hogg, Richard M. (1992). A Grammar of Old English, I: Phonology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Kuhn, Sherman M. (1961). "On the Syllabic Phonemes of Old English". Language, 37 (4), 522–538.
  • Kuhn, Sherman M. (1970). "On the consonantal phonemes of Old English". In: J. L. Rosier (ed.) Philological Essays: studies in Old and Middle English language and literature in honour of Herbert Dean Merritt (pp. 16–49). The Hague: Mouton.
  • Lass, Roger; & Anderson, John M. (1975). Old English Phonology. (Cambridge studies in linguistics; No. 14). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Luick, Karl. (1914–1940). Historische Grammatik der englischen Sprache. Stuttgart: Bernhard Tauchnitz.
  • Maling, J. (1971). "Sentence stress in Old English". Linguistic Inquiry, 2, 379–400.
  • McCully, C. B.; & Hogg, Richard M. (1990). "An account of Old English stress". Journal of Linguistics, 26, 315–339.
  • Moulton, W. G. (1972). "The Proto-Germanic non-syllabics (consonants)". In: F. van Coetsem & H. L. Kurfner (Eds.), Toward a Grammar of Proto-Germanic (pp. 141–173). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Sievers, Eduard (1893). Altgermanische Metrik. Halle: Max Niemeyer.
  • Wagner, Karl Heinz (1969). Generative Grammatical Studies in the Old English language. Heidelberg: Julius Groos.


  • Brunner, Karl. (1965). Altenglische Grammatik (nach der angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers neubearbeitet) (3rd ed.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Wagner, Karl Heinz. (1969). Generative grammatical studies in the Old English language. Heidelberg: Julius Groos.


  • Brunner, Karl. (1962). Die englische Sprache: ihre geschichtliche Entwicklung (Vol. II). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Kemenade, Ans van. (1982). Syntactic Case and Morphological Case in the History of English. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • MacLaughlin, John C. (1983). Old English Syntax: a handbook. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.
  • Mitchell, Bruce. (1985). Old English Syntax (Vols. 1–2). Oxford: Clarendon Press (no more published)
    • Vol.1: Concord, the parts of speech and the sentence
    • Vol.2: Subordination, independent elements, and element order
  • Mitchell, Bruce. (1990) A Critical Bibliography of Old English Syntax to the end of 1984, including addenda and corrigenda to "Old English Syntax" . Oxford: Blackwell
  • Traugott, Elizabeth Closs. (1972). A History of English Syntax: a transformational approach to the history of English sentence structure. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Visser, F. Th. (1963–1973). An Historical Syntax of the English Language (Vols. 1–3). Leiden: E. J. Brill.


  • Bosworth, J.; & Toller, T. Northcote. (1898). An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Based on Bosworth's 1838 dictionary, his papers & additions by Toller)
  • Toller, T. Northcote. (1921). An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Campbell, A. (1972). An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Enlarged addenda and corrigenda. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Clark Hall-Merritt
  • Clark Hall, J. R.; & Merritt, H. D. (1969). A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (4th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Cameron, Angus, et al. (ed.) (1983) Dictionary of Old English. Toronto: Published for the Dictionary of Old English Project, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto by the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1983/1994. (Issued on microfiche and subsequently as a CD-ROM and on the World Wide Web.)

External links

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