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Old English Period Essay

This article is about the early medieval language of the Anglo-Saxons. For other uses, see Old English (disambiguation).

For Elizabethan or Shakesepearean English, see Early Modern English.

For the Gothic typeface, see Blackletter.

Old English

A detail of the first page of the Beowulf manuscript, showing the words "ofer hron rade", translated as "over the whale's road (sea)". It is an example of an Old English stylistic device, the kenning.

RegionEngland (except the extreme south-west and north-west), southern and eastern Scotland, and the eastern fringes of modern Wales.
Eramostly developed into Middle English and Early Scots by the 13th century

Language family


Writing system

Runic, later Latin (Old English alphabet).
Language codes
ISO 639-2
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Old English (Ænglisc, Anglisc, Englisc), or Anglo-Saxon,[2] is the earliest historical form of the English language, spoken in England and southern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages. It was brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers probably in the mid-5th century, and the first Old English literary works date from the mid-7th century. After the Norman conquest of 1066, English was replaced, for a time, as the language of the upper classes by Anglo-Norman, a relative of French. This is regarded as marking the end of the Old English era, as during this period the English language was heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman, developing into a phase known now as Middle English.

Old English developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or Ingvaeonic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons became dominant in England, their language replaced the languages of Roman Britain: Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, and Latin, brought to Britain by Roman invasion. Old English had four main dialects, associated with particular Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish and West Saxon. It was West Saxon that formed the basis for the literary standard of the later Old English period,[3] although the dominant forms of Middle and Modern English would develop mainly from Mercian. The speech of eastern and northern parts of England was subject to strong Old Norse influence due to Scandinavian rule and settlement beginning in the 9th century.

Old English is one of the West Germanic languages, and its closest relatives are Old Frisian and Old Saxon. Like other old Germanic languages, it is very different from Modern English and difficult for Modern English speakers to understand without study. Old English grammar is quite similar to that of modern German: nouns, adjectives, pronouns and verbs have many inflectional endings and forms, and word order is much freer.[3] The oldest Old English inscriptions were written using a runic system, but from about the 9th century this was replaced by a version of the Latin alphabet.


Englisc, which the term English is derived from, means 'pertaining to the Angles'.[4] In Old English, this word was derived from Angles (one of the Germanic tribes who conquered parts of Great Britain in the 5th century).[5] During the 9th century, all invading Germanic tribes were referred to as Englisc. It has been hypothesised that the Angles acquired their name because their land on the coast of Jutland (now mainland Denmark) resembled a fishhook. Proto-Germanic*anguz also had the meaning of 'narrow', referring to the shallow waters near the coast. That word ultimately goes back to Proto-Indo-European *h₂enǵʰ-, also meaning 'narrow'.[6]

Another theory is that the derivation of 'narrow' is the more likely connection to angling (as in fishing), which itself stems from a PIE root meaning bend, angle.[7] The semantic link is the fishing hook, which is curved or bent at an angle.[8] In any case, the Angles may have been called such because they were a fishing people or were originally descended from such, and therefore England would mean 'land of the fishermen', and English would be 'the fishermen's language'.[9]


Further information: History of the English language

Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of 700 years, from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century to the late 11th century, some time after the Norman invasion. While indicating that the establishment of dates is an arbitrary process, Albert Baugh dates Old English from 450 to 1150, a period of full inflections, a synthetic language.[3] Perhaps around 85 per cent of Old English words are no longer in use, but those that survived are basic elements of Modern English vocabulary.[3]

Old English is a West Germanic language, developing out of Ingvaeonic (also known as North Sea Germanic) dialects from the 5th century. It came to be spoken over most of the territory of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which became the Kingdom of England. This included most of present-day England, as well as part of what is now southeastern Scotland, which for several centuries belonged to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Other parts of the island – Wales and most of Scotland – continued to use Celtic languages, except in the areas of Scandinavian settlements where Old Norse was spoken. Celtic speech also remained established in certain parts of England: Medieval Cornish was spoken all over Cornwall and in adjacent parts of Devon, while Cumbric survived perhaps to the 12th century in parts of Cumbria, and Welsh may have been spoken on the English side of the Anglo-Welsh border. Norse was also widely spoken in the parts of England which fell under Danish law.

Anglo-Saxon literacy developed after Christianisation in the late 7th century. The oldest surviving text of Old English literature is Cædmon's Hymn, composed between 658 and 680.[3] There is a limited corpus of runic inscriptions from the 5th to 7th centuries, but the oldest coherent runic texts (notably the Franks Casket) date to the 8th century. The Old English Latin alphabet was introduced around the 9th century.

With the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (outside the Danelaw) by Alfred the Great in the later 9th century, the language of government and literature became standardised around the West Saxon dialect (Early West Saxon). Alfred advocated education in English alongside Latin, and had many works translated into the English language; some of them, such as Pope Gregory I's treatise Pastoral Care, appear to have been translated by Alfred himself. In Old English, typical of the development of literature, poetry arose before prose, but King Alfred the Great (871 to 901) chiefly inspired the growth of prose.[3]

A later literary standard, dating from the later 10th century, arose under the influence of Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, and was followed by such writers as the prolific Ælfric of Eynsham ("the Grammarian"). This form of the language is known as the "Winchester standard", or more commonly as Late West Saxon. It is considered to represent the "classical" form of Old English.[10] It retained its position of prestige until the time of the Norman Conquest, after which English ceased for a time to be of importance as a literary language.

The history of Old English can be subdivided into:

  • Prehistoric Old English (c. 450 to 650); for this period, Old English is mostly a reconstructed language as no literary witnesses survive (with the exception of limited epigraphic evidence). This language, or bloc of languages, spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and pre-dating documented Old English or Anglo-Saxon, has also been called Primitive Old English.[11]
  • Early Old English (c. 650 to 900), the period of the oldest manuscript traditions, with authors such as Cædmon, Bede, Cynewulf and Aldhelm.
  • Late Old English (c. 900 to 1066), the final stage of the language leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the subsequent transition to Early Middle English.

The Old English period is followed by Middle English (12th to 15th century), Early Modern English (c. 1480 to 1650) and finally Modern English (after 1650).


Old English should not be regarded as a single monolithic entity, just as Modern English is also not monolithic. It emerged over time out of the many dialects and languages of the colonising tribes, and it is only towards the later Anglo-Saxon period that these can be considered to have constituted a single national language.[12] Even then, Old English continued to exhibit much local and regional variation, remnants of which remain in Modern English dialects.[13]

The four main dialectal forms of Old English were Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon.[14] Mercian and Northumbrian are together referred to as Anglian. In terms of geography the Northumbrian region lay north of the Humber River; the Mercian lay north of the Thames and South of the Humber River; West Saxon lay south and southwest of the Thames; and the smallest, Kentish region lay southeast of the Thames, a small corner of England. The Kentish region, settled by the Jutes from Jutland, has the scantiest literary remains.[3]

Each of these four dialects was associated with an independent kingdom on the island. Of these, Northumbria south of the Tyne, and most of Mercia, were overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. The portion of Mercia that was successfully defended, and all of Kent, were then integrated into Wessex under Alfred the Great. From that time on, the West Saxon dialect (then in the form now known as Early West Saxon) became standardised as the language of government, and as the basis for the many works of literature and religious materials produced or translated from Latin in that period.

The later literary standard known as Late West Saxon (see History, above), although centred in the same region of the country, appears not to have been directly descended from Alfred's Early West Saxon. For example, the former diphthong/iy/ tended to become monophthongised to /i/ in EWS, but to /y/ in LWS.[15]

Due to the centralisation of power and the Viking invasions, there is relatively little written record of the non-Wessex dialects after Alfred's unification. Some Mercian texts continued to be written, however, and the influence of Mercian is apparent in some of the translations produced under Alfred's programme, many of which were produced by Mercian scholars.[16] Other dialects certainly continued to be spoken, as is evidenced by the continued variation between their successors in Middle and Modern English. In fact, what would become the standard forms of Middle English and of Modern English are descended from Mercian rather than West Saxon, while Scots developed from the Northumbrian dialect. It was once claimed that, owing to its position at the heart of the Kingdom of Wessex, the relics of Anglo-Saxon accent, idiom and vocabulary were best preserved in the dialect of Somerset.[17]

For details of the sound differences between the dialects, see Phonological history of Old English (dialects).

Influence of other languages[edit]

Further information: Celtic influence in English, Latin influence in English, and Scandinavian influence in English

The language of the Anglo-Saxon settlers appears not to have been significantly affected by the native British Celtic languages which it largely displaced. The number of Celtic loanwords introduced into the language is very small. However, various suggestions have been made concerning possible influence that Celtic may have had on developments in English syntax in the post-Old English period, such as the regular progressive construction and analytic word order,[18] as well as the eventual development of the periphrastic auxiliary verb "do".

Old English contained a certain number of loanwords from Latin, which was the scholarly and diplomatic lingua franca of Western Europe. It is sometimes possible to give approximate dates for the borrowing of individual Latin words based on which patterns of sound change they have undergone. Some Latin words had already been borrowed into the Germanic languages before the ancestral Angles and Saxons left continental Europe for Britain. More entered the language when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests became influential. It was also through Irish Christian missionaries that the Latin alphabet was introduced and adapted for the writing of Old English, replacing the earlier runic system. Nonetheless, the largest transfer of Latin-based (mainly Old French) words into English occurred after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and thus in the Middle English rather than the Old English period.

Another source of loanwords was Old Norse, which came into contact with Old English via the Scandinavian rulers and settlers in the Danelaw from the late 9th century, and during the rule of Cnut and other Danish kings in the early 11th century. Many place-names in eastern and northern England are of Scandinavian origin. Norse borrowings are relatively rare in Old English literature, being mostly terms relating to government and administration. The literary standard, however, was based on the West Saxon dialect, away from the main area of Scandinavian influence; the impact of Norse may have been greater in the eastern and northern dialects. Certainly in Middle English texts, which are more often based on eastern dialects, a strong Norse influence becomes apparent. Modern English contains a great many, often everyday, words that were borrowed from Old Norse, and the grammatical simplification that occurred after the Old English period is also often attributed to Norse influence.[3][19][20]

The influence of Old Norse certainly helped move English from a synthetic language along the continuum to a more analytic word order, and Old Norse most likely made a greater impact on the English language than any other language.[3][21] The eagerness of Vikings in the Danelaw to communicate with their southern Anglo-Saxon neighbours produced a friction that led to the erosion of the complicated inflectional word-endings.[20][22][23] Simeon Potter notes: "No less far-reaching was the influence of Scandinavian upon the inflexional endings of English in hastening that wearing away and leveling of grammatical forms which gradually spread from north to south. It was, after all, a salutary influence. The gain was greater than the loss. There was a gain in directness, in clarity, and in strength."[24]

The strength of the Viking influence on Old English appears from the fact that the indispensable elements of the language – pronouns, modals, comparatives, pronominal adverbs (like "hence" and "together"), conjunctions and prepositions – show the most marked Danish influence; the best evidence of Scandinavian influence appears in the extensive word borrowings for, as Jespersen indicates, no texts exist in either Scandinavia or in Northern England from this time to give certain evidence of an influence on syntax. The change to Old English from Old Norse was substantive, pervasive, and of a democratic character.[3][20] Old Norse and Old English resembled each other closely like cousins and with some words in common, they roughly understood each other;[20] in time the inflections melted away and the analytic pattern emerged.[23][25] It is most "important to recognize that in many words the English and Scandinavian language differed chiefly in their inflectional elements. The body of the word was so nearly the same in the two languages that only the endings would put obstacles in the way of mutual understanding. In the mixed population which existed in the Danelaw these endings must have led to much confusion, tending gradually to become obscured and finally lost." This blending of peoples and languages resulted in "simplifying English grammar".[3]


Main article: Old English phonology

The inventory of classical Old English (Late West Saxon) surface phones, as usually reconstructed, is as follows.

The sounds enclosed in parentheses in the chart above are not considered to be phonemes:

  • [dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ and when geminated (doubled).
  • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/.
  • [v, ð, z] are voiced allophones of /f, θ, s/ respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants.
  • [ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively.
  • [ɣ] is an allophone of /ɡ/ occurring after a vowel, and, at an earlier stage of the language, in the syllable onset.
  • the voiceless sonorants[ʍ, l̥, n̥, r̥] are analysed as realizing the sequences /hw, hl, hn, hr/.

The above system is largely similar to that of Modern English, except that [ç, x, ɣ, l̥, n̥, r̥] (and [ʍ] for most speakers) have generally been lost, while the voiced affricate and fricatives (now also including /ʒ/) have become independent phonemes, as has /ŋ/.

The mid front rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ had merged into unrounded /e(ː)/ before the Late West Saxon period. During the 11th century such vowels arose again, as monophthongisations of the diphthongs /e(ː)o/, but quickly merged again with /e(ː)/ in most dialects.[26]


The exact pronunciation of the West Saxon close diphthongs, spelt ⟨ie⟩, is disputed; it may have been /i(ː)y/ or /i(ː)e/. Other dialects may have had different systems of diphthongs; for example, Anglian dialects retained /i(ː)u/, which had merged with /e(ː)o/ in West Saxon.

For more on dialectal differences, see Phonological history of Old English (dialects).

Sound changes[edit]

Main article: Phonological history of Old English

Some of the principal sound changes occurring in the pre-history and history of Old English were the following:

  • Fronting of [ɑ(ː)] to [æ(ː)] except when nasalised or followed by a nasal consonant ("Anglo-Frisian brightening"), partly reversed in certain positions by later "a-restoration" or retraction.
  • Monophthongisation of the diphthong [ai], and modification of remaining diphthongs to the height-harmonic type.
  • Diphthongisation of long and short front vowels in certain positions ("breaking").
  • Palatalisation of velars [k], [ɡ], [ɣ], [sk] to [tʃ], [dʒ], [j], [ʃ] in certain front-vowel environments.
  • The process known as i-mutation (which for example led to modern mice as the plural of mouse).
  • Loss of certain weak vowels in word-final and medial positions, and of medial [(i)j]; reduction of remaining unstressed vowels.
  • Diphthongisation of certain vowels before certain consonants when preceding a back vowel ("back mutation").
  • Loss of /h/ between vowels or between a voiced consonant and a vowel, with lengthening of the preceding vowel.
  • Collapse of two consecutive vowels into a single vowel.
  • "Palatal umlaut", which has given forms such as six (compare German sechs).

For more details of these processes, see the main article, linked above. For sound changes before and after the Old English period, see Phonological history of English.


Main article: Old English grammar


Nounsdecline for five cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental; three genders: masculine, feminine, neuter; and two numbers: singular, and plural; and are strong or weak. The instrumental is vestigial and only used with the masculine and neuter singular and often replaced by the dative. Only pronouns and strong adjectives retain separate instrumental forms. There is also sparse early Northumbrian evidence of a sixth case: the locative. Adjectives agree with nouns in case, gender, number, and strong, or weak forms. Pronouns and sometimes participles agree in case, gender, and number. First-person and second-personpersonal pronouns occasionally distinguish dual-number forms. The definite article and its inflections serve as a definite article ("the"), a demonstrative adjective ("that"), and demonstrative pronoun. Other demonstratives are þes ("this"), and ġeon ("yon"). These words inflect for case, gender, number. Adjectives have both strong and weak sets of endings, weak ones being used when a definite or possessive determiner is also present.

Verbs conjugate for three persons: first, second, and third; two numbers: singular, plural; two tenses: present, and past; three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative;[27] and are strong (exhibiting ablaut) or weak (exhibiting a dental suffix). Verbs have two infinitive forms: bare, and bound; and two participles: present, and past. The subjunctive has past and present forms. Finite verbs agree with subjects in person, and number. The future tense, passive voice, and other aspects are formed with compounds. Adpositions are mostly before but often after their object. If the object of an adposition is marked in the dative case, an adposition may conceivably be located anywhere in the sentence.

Remnants of the Old English case system in Modern English are in the forms of a few pronouns (such as I/me/mine, she/her, who/whom/whose) and in the possessive ending -'s, which derives from the masculine and neuter genitive ending -es. The modern English plural ending -(e)s derives from the Old English -as, but the latter applied only to "strong" masculine nouns in the nominative and accusative cases; different plural endings were used in other instances. Old English nouns had grammatical gender, while modern English has only natural gender. Pronoun usage could reflect either natural or grammatical gender when those conflicted, as in the case of wīf, a neuter noun referring to a female person.

In Old English's verbal compound constructions are the beginnings of the compound tenses of Modern English.[28] Old English verbs include strong verbs, which form the past tense by altering the root vowel, and weak verbs, which use a suffix such as -de.[27] As in Modern English, and peculiar to the Germanic languages, the verbs formed two great classes: weak (regular), and strong (irregular). Like today, Old English had fewer strong verbs, and many of these have over time decayed into weak forms. Then, as now, dental suffixes indicated the past tense of the weak verbs, as in work and worked.[3]


Old English syntax is similar to that of modern English. Some differences are consequences of the greater level of nominal and verbal inflection, allowing freer word order.

  • Default word order is verb-second in main clauses, and verb-final in subordinate clauses, being more like modern German than modern English.
  • No do-support in questions and negatives. Questions were usually formed by invertingsubject and finite verb, and negatives by placing ne before the finite verb, regardless what verb.
  • Multiple negatives can stack up in a sentence intensifying each other (negative concord).
  • Sentences with subordinate clauses of the type "when X, Y" (e.g. "When I got home, I ate dinner") don't use a wh-type conjunction, but rather a th-type correlative conjunction such as þā, otherwise meaning "then" (e.g. þā X, þā Y in place of "when X, Y"). The wh-words are used only as interrogatives and as indefinite pronouns.
  • Similarly, wh- forms were not used as relative pronouns. Instead, the indeclinable word þe is used, often preceded by (or replaced by) the appropriate form of the article/demonstrative se.


Main articles: Anglo-Saxon runes and Old English Latin alphabet

Old English was first written in runes, using the futhorc – a rune set derived from the Germanic 24-character elder futhark, extended by five more runes used to represent Anglo-Saxon vowel sounds, and sometimes by several more additional characters. From around the 9th century, the runic system came to be supplanted by a (minuscule) half-uncial script of the Latin alphabet introduced by Irish Christian missionaries.[29] 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 Latin alphabet of the time still lacked the letters ⟨j⟩ and ⟨w⟩, and there was no ⟨v⟩ as distinct from ⟨u⟩; moreover native Old English spellings did not use ⟨k⟩, ⟨q⟩ or ⟨z⟩. The remaining 20 Latin letters were supplemented by four more: ⟨æ⟩ (æsc, modern ash) and ⟨ð⟩ (ðæt, now called eth or edh), which were modified Latin letters, and thorn ⟨þ⟩ and wynn ⟨ƿ⟩, which are borrowings from the futhorc. A few letter pairs were used as digraphs, representing a single sound. Also used was the Tironian note ⟨⁊⟩ (a character similar to the digit 7) for the conjunctionand, and a thorn with a crossbar through the ascender for the pronoun þæt. Macrons over vowels were originally used not to mark long vowels (as in modern editions), but to indicate stress,[30] or as abbreviations for a following m or n.[31]

Modern editions of Old English manuscripts generally introduce some additional conventions. The modern forms of Latin letters are used, including ⟨g⟩ in place of the insular G, ⟨s⟩ for long S, and others which may differ considerably from the insular script, notably ⟨e⟩, ⟨f⟩ and ⟨r⟩. Macrons are used to indicate long vowels, where usually no distinction was made between long and short vowels in the originals. (In some older editions an acute accent mark was used for consistency with Old Norse conventions.) Additionally, modern editions often distinguish between velar and palatal ⟨c⟩ and ⟨g⟩ by placing dots above the palatals: ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩. The letter wynn ⟨ƿ⟩ is usually replaced with ⟨w⟩, but æsc, eth and thorn are normally retained (except when eth is replaced by thorn).

In contrast with Modern English orthography, that of Old English was reasonably regular, with a mostly predictable correspondence between letters and phonemes. There were not usually any silent letters—in the word cniht, for example, both the ⟨c⟩ and ⟨h⟩ were pronounced, unlike the ⟨k⟩ and ⟨gh⟩ in the modern knight. The following table lists the Old English letters and digraphs together with the phonemes they represent, using the same notation as in the Phonology section above.

CharacterIPA transcriptionDescription and notes
a/ɑ/, /ɑː/Spelling variations like ⟨land⟩ ~ ⟨lond⟩ ("land") suggest the short vowel may have had a rounded allophone[ɒ] before [n] in some cases.
ā/ɑː/Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /ɑ/.
æ/æ/, /æː/Formerly the digraph ⟨ae⟩ was used; ⟨æ⟩ became more common during the 8th century, and was standard after 800. In 9th-century Kentish manuscripts, a form of ⟨æ⟩ that was missing the upper hook of the ⟨a⟩ part was used; it is not clear whether this represented /æ/ or /e/. See also ę.
ǣ/æː/Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /æ/.
[v] (an allophone of /f/)Used in this way in early texts (before 800). For example, the word "sheaves" is spelled scēabas in an early text, but later (and more commonly) as scēafas.
/tʃ/The /tʃ/ pronunciation is sometimes written with a diacritic by modern editors: most commonly ⟨ċ⟩, sometimes ⟨č⟩ or ⟨ç⟩. Before a consonant letter the pronunciation is always /k/; word-finally after ⟨i⟩ it is always /tʃ/. Otherwise, a knowledge of the history of the word is needed to predict the pronunciation. (For details, see Phonological history of Old English § Palatalization.) See also the digraphs cg, sc.
cg[ddʒ] (the phonetic realization of geminate/jj/)
/ɡɡ/ (occasionally)
d/d/In the earliest texts it also represented /θ/ (see þ).
ð/θ/, including its allophone [ð]Called ðæt in Old English; now called eth or edh. Derived from the insular form of ⟨d⟩ with the addition of a cross-bar. See also þ.
e/e/, /eː/
ęA modern editorial substitution for the modified Kentish form of ⟨æ⟩ (see æ). Compare e caudata, ę.
ē/eː/Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /e/.
ea/æɑ/, /æːɑ/Sometimes stands for /æ/, /æː/ or /ɑ/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩ (see palatal diphthongization).
ēa/æːɑ/Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /æɑ/. Sometimes stands for /æː/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩.
eo/eo/, /eːo/Sometimes stands for /o/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩ (see palatal diphthongization).
ēo/eːo/Used in modern editions, to distinguish from short /eo/.
f/f/, including its allophone [v] (but see b).
g/ɡ/, including its allophone [ɣ]; or /j/, including its allophone [dʒ], which occurs after ⟨n⟩.In Old English manuscripts, this letter usually took its insular form ⟨ᵹ⟩ (see also: yogh). The [j] and [dʒ] pronunciations are sometimes written ⟨ġ⟩ in modern editions. Before a consonant letter the pronunciation is always [ɡ] (word-initially) or [ɣ] (after a vowel). Word-finally after ⟨i⟩ it is always [j]. Otherwise a knowledge of the history of the word in question is needed to predict the pronunciation. (For details, see Phonological history of Old English § Palatalization.)
h/h/, including its allophones [ç, x]In the combinations ⟨hl⟩, ⟨hr⟩, ⟨hn⟩, ⟨hw⟩, the realization may have been a devoiced version of the second consonant.
i/ɪ/, /iː/
ī/iː/Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /i/.
ie/iy/, /iːy/
/e/, /eː/Only occurs sometimes in this sense and appears after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩ (see palatal diphthongization).
īe/iːy/Used in modern editions, to distinguish from short /iy/. Sometimes stands for /eː/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩ .
io/iu/, /iːu/Occurs in dialects that had such diphthongs. Not present in Late West Saxon. The long variant may be shown in modern editions as īo.
Alfred the Great statue in Winchester, Hampshire. The 9th-century English King proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin.

Old English - Anglo Saxon Period

The Old English Language also known as Anglo Saxon was the earliest form of English. It was spoken from about 600 A.D. to 1100 A.D. Special studies is needed to read Old English since is completely different from the modern English. Anglo-Saxon literature was in oral form and later in the seventh century, it appeared in the written form. In old English poetry descriptions of sad events and cruel situation are commoner than those of happiness.


The greatest old English poem is Beowulf. This first English epic was written in the seventh century and the name of the author is still unknown. It is a story about the heroic adventures of a hero, Beowulf, in about 3000 lines. The story takes place in Denmark. Beowulf was a young warrior form southern Sweden who went to Denmark to help King Hrothgar. Hrothgar’s great hall, Heorot, was troubled by a lake monster called Grendel. Beowulf fought with Grendel bare handed and killed it. Grendel’s mother came to take revenge, but Beowulf killed her in her home in a lake.

Later, Beowulf became the king and ruled his country peacefully for fifty years. In the end, he died of wounds that he had received while fighting against a dragon.

Though Beowulf is an old English poem, it has achieved a special position in old English literature. This poem gives an interesting picture of life and the attitude of people in those old days. It tells about the heroic deeds and fierce fights and the sufferings of people. It describes about the life of the hall and the terrible creatures with which Beowulf has to fight and defeat. This poem has alliterative and stressed poetic lines without rhyme. Each half line has two main beats. Things are being described indirectly and in a combination of words.

Many of the Old English poems are related to religion and the Bible. Genesis A and Genesis B are related to the creation of the world and the fall of the angels. Exodus and Daniel are related to the Bible stories. Christ and Satan deal with events in Christ’s life. Other Old English poems are Andreas and Guthlac. The second of these is in two parts, and may have been written by two men. Guthlac was a holy man who was tempted in the desert. Another of the better poems is The Dream of the Rood (the rood in Christ's cross) is considered as one of the best English poems.

Caedmon and Cynewulf are the two important Old English poets. Caedmon was a poor peasant who was asked by an angel to sing the praise of God. Only a part of his songs remain. Cynewulf’s poems are religious and were written in the eighth century. He wrote Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Christ and Elene.

Old English lyrics include Deor's Complaint, The Husband's Message, The Wanderer and The Wife's Complaint. Deor is a singer who has lost his lord's favour. So he complains, but tries to comfort himself by remembering other sorrows of the world. On each one he says 'That passed over; this may do so also.

There are many other poems in Old English. One of the better ones is a late poem called The Battle of Maldon. The battle was fought against the Danes in 991 and probably the poem was written soon after that. It has been highly praised for the words of courage which the leader uses.


Prose developed later than poetry. The development of prose took place wholly in England as a result of Christianization. The oldest examples of Old English prose are Laws written at the beginning of the seventh century and Anglo Saxon Chronicle, which is a collection of the early history of the country. King Alfred was an important prose writer of Old English. He gave a great contribution to the development of old English prose. He brought learning in England, and educated the people after he translated a number of Latin books into English. Another important prose writer was Aelfric, the writer of Homilies and Lives of Saints. His works were mostly religious. His style is known as the best because he uses alliteration to join his sentences together.

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