Old English is an early form of the English language and dates from the mid-5th to late 11th century A.D. It was written and spoken by the Anglo-Saxons in modern-day England and the eastern and southern parts of Scotland. Old English is part of the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages, a sub-group of the Indo-European language family.
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To exemplify the orthography, morphology and syntax of Old English, the following provides an extract from the Old English poem The Seafarer, which was written by unknown Anglo-Saxon poet, not later than 975 A.D.
1 Mæg Ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
2 siþas secgan, hu Ic geswincdagum
3 earfoðhwile oft þrowade.
4 Bitre breostceare gebiden hæbbe,
5 gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela (…).
Translation: I can narrate a true story about myself, speak of the journey, how, in days of tribulation, I often suffered a hard time. I have experienced painful anxiety, which I explored on a ship of sorrows.
Alphabet and Orthography
The Old English Latin alphabet had no standard orthography, i.e. a standardized system for using a particular writing system. It generally consisted of 24 letters. Although 20 of these letters were directly adopted from the Latin alphabet, some Old English sounds did not have an equivalent Roman letter (i.e. the letters we use today). For instance, the vowel ash [æ] in ‘Mæg’(line 1), the consonant thorn [þ] in ‘siþas’ (line 2) and the consonant eth [ð] in ‘soðgied’ (line 1).
Unlike Present Day English, Old English had a very rich morphological diversity. Old English was a highly inflected language which means that nouns, pronouns, adjectives and determiners were inflected to indicate case, gender and number. Verbs were inflected to indicate person, number, tense and mood. Hence, the Old English grammar is much more closely related to modern German than the English we currently speak. The following analysis will focus on the morphology of nouns and verbs and briefly comment on the syntax.
Old English nouns were not only divided into strong and weak, but also had four distinct visible cases. A case is a grammatical category whose value reflects the grammatical function.
- Nominative: indicates the subject of a finite verb (We went to the shop.)
- Genitive: indicates the possessor of another noun (John’s hat was on the floor.)
- Dative: indicates the indirect object of a verb (He gave me a kiss.)
- Accusative: indicates the direct object of a verb (John remembered us.)
The basic paradigm for the Old English strong masculine noun stan (‘stone’) would have looked like this:
The declension table for Old English weak masculine nouns was slightly different (nama means ‘name’):
Present Day English has lost most of its case system, although some case distinctions can still be seen in personal pronouns and the genitive case, e.g. I (subject = nominative) love him (direct object = accusative) and the genitive forms John’s hat or the hat of John.
Old English nouns also had three visible genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. The genders in Old English were grammatical, rather than the natural forms found in Present Day English. This means that the grammatical gender of a noun did not necessarily correspond to its natural gender (you can read more about genders in our Grammatical Genders in Different Languages article). So for instance, seo sunne (‘the Sun’) was feminine, whilst se mona (‘the Moon’) was masculine and þay wif (‘the woman/wife’) was neuter. (Compare the Modern German cognates die Sonne (feminine), der Mond (masculine) and das Weib (neuter)).
Considering all the given information, it is now possible to identify the case, gender and number of all the nouns in the poem The Seafarer:
The word soðgied (line 1) is a noun in its nominative form and is therefore not inflected. siþas (line 2) is a masculine noun in its nominative plural form, deriving from ‘siþ’; the <-as> ending indicates that it is a strong noun. geswincdagum (line 2) is a strong masculine noun in its dative plural form ( <-um> ending) , deriving from ‘geswincdagas’. earfoðhwile (line 3) is a strong noun, deriving from ‘earfoðhwil’; the singular accusative <-e> inflection indicates that it is a female noun. Finally, ceole (line 5) is a strong masculine noun, deriving from ‘creol’ and its <-e> ending reflects the singular dative.
Old English verbs were also divided into strong (irregular) and weak (regular) ones. As with some verbs in Present Day English, strong verbs changed their root vowel when forming the past tense. For example, the present form of the strong verb break turns into the past form broke, see turns into saw and ride changes into rode. In contrast, regular (or weak) forms only add an <-ed> to the root, for instance play-played, ask-asked and earn-earned.
In the poem The Seafarer, there is only one strong verb which changes the root vowel when forming the past tense: hæbbe (line 4), which derives from the present form ‘habban’ (‘to have’). þrowade (line 3) can be identified as a weak verb, because it is the past tense of ‘þrowian’ (‘to suffer’) and no change in the root vowel is visible.
Finite verbs had to agree with their subject in person and number. In Present Day English, you only have to add an <-s> when you use the third person singular in the present tense, e.g. he walks, she plays, it breaks. In Old English, however, there were different inflections to indicate person (1st, 2nd, 3rd) and number (singular, plural). For instance: the weak verb þrowade(‘I suffered’) has an <-e> inflection to indicate that the verb agrees with the subject in the first person singular.
Declension system for the weak verb deman (‘to judge) in its indicative form (present and past):
|1st person singular||deme||demde|
|2nd person singular||demest||demdest|
|3rd person singular||demeþ||demde|
The word order in Old English was rather flexible, because the subject and the object were indicated by inflections. In Present Day English, there is a relatively strict subject-verb-object word order, for example: The dog bit the king. The dog is the subject (nominative case) and the king is the object (accusative case). In Old English, however, you could have said:
a) se hund bit þone cyning (‘The dog bit the king.’)
b) þone cyning bit se hund (‘The king bit the dog’.)
This was possible because the relation of the words (and the cases they belonged to) was indicated by inflections rather than by their position in the sentence.
To view a full table of the Old English grammar, please click here.
If you are interested in the sound of Old English, watch this video from the University of Sheffield where students demonstrate Old English using famous movie scenes: