Old English (Ænglisc, Anglisc, Englisc), or Anglo-Saxon, is the
earliest historical form of the English language, spoken in England
and southern and eastern
Scotland in the early Middle Ages. It was
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
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
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, 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
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
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. 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
4 Influence of other languages
5.1 Sound changes
8.2 The Lord's Prayer
8.3 Charter of Cnut
10 See also
13 External links
Englisc, which the term English is derived from, means 'pertaining to
the Angles'. In Old English, this word was derived from
of the Germanic tribes who conquered parts of
Great Britain in the 5th
century). 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
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'.
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. The semantic link is the fishing hook,
which is curved or bent at an angle. In any case, the
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'.
Further information: History of the English language
The approximate extent of
Germanic languages in the early 10th
Old West Norse
Old East Norse
Old English (West Germanic)
Germanic languages (Old Frisian, Old
Saxon, Old Dutch, Old High German).
Crimean Gothic (East Germanic)
Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of 700
years, from the
Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain
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. 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.
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
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
Old English literature is
Cædmon's Hymn, composed between 658 and 680. 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
Old English Latin alphabet was introduced around the
Alfred the Great
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
With the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (outside the Danelaw)
Alfred the Great
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
Alfred the Great (871 to 901) chiefly inspired the
growth of prose.
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
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. 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
The history of
Old English can be subdivided into:
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
Old English or Anglo-Saxon, has also been called
Primitive Old English.
Old English (c. 650 to 900), the period of the oldest manuscript
traditions, with authors such as Cædmon, Bede,
Cynewulf and Aldhelm.
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.
Old English period is followed by
Middle English (12th to 15th
Early Modern English
Early Modern English (c. 1480 to 1650) and finally Modern
English (after 1650).
"Her swutelað seo gecwydrædnes ðe" ('Here is manifested the Word to
Old English inscription over the arch of the south porticus in
the 10th-century St Mary's parish church, Breamore, Hampshire
Old English should not be regarded as a single monolithic entity, just
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. Even then, Old
English continued to exhibit much local and regional variation,
remnants of which remain in
Modern English dialects.
The four main dialectal forms of
Old English were Mercian,
Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. 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
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
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
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
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.
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. 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.
For details of the sound differences between the dialects, see
Phonological history of Old English
Phonological history of Old English (dialects).
Influence of other languages
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, 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
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
continental Europe for Britain. More entered the language when the
Saxons were converted to Christianity and Latin-speaking priests
became influential. It was also through Irish Christian missionaries
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
Old English via the Scandinavian rulers and settlers in the
Danelaw from the late 9th century, and during the rule of
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.
The influence of
Old Norse certainly helped move English from a
synthetic language along the continuum to a more analytic word order,
Old Norse most likely made a greater impact on the English
language than any other language. The eagerness of
Danelaw to communicate with their southern Anglo-Saxon neighbours
produced a friction that led to the erosion of the complicated
inflectional word-endings. 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."
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
Old Norse was substantive, pervasive, and of a democratic
Old Norse and
Old English resembled each other
closely like cousins and with some words in common, they roughly
understood each other; in time the inflections melted away and the
analytic pattern emerged. 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
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
[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/.
Vowels – monophthongs
The mid front rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ had merged into unrounded
/e(ː)/ before the
Late West Saxon
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.
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
For more on dialectal differences, see Phonological history of Old
Main article: Phonological history of Old English
Some of the principal sound changes occurring in the pre-history and
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
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
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.
Old English grammar
Nouns decline 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-person personal pronouns occasionally
distinguish dual-number forms. The definite article sē 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
Verbs conjugate for three persons: first, second, and third; two
numbers: singular, plural; two tenses: present, and past; three moods:
indicative, subjunctive, and imperative; 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
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.
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. 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.
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
No do-support in questions and negatives. Questions were usually
formed by inverting subject 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
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.
Anglo-Saxon runes and
The runic alphabet used to write
Old English before the introduction
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. 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.
Latin alphabet of the time still lacked the letters ⟨j⟩ and
⟨w⟩, and there was no ⟨v⟩ as distinct from ⟨u⟩; moreover
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
conjunction and, 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,
or as abbreviations for a following m or n.
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
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.
Description and notes
Spelling variations like ⟨land⟩ ~ ⟨lond⟩ ("land") suggest the
short vowel may have had a rounded allophone [ɒ] before [n] in some
Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /ɑ/.
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.
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.
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.
[ddʒ] (the phonetic realization of geminate /jj/)
In the earliest texts it also represented /θ/ (see þ).
/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.
A modern editorial substitution for the modified Kentish form of
⟨æ⟩ (see æ). Compare e caudata, ę.
Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /e/.
Sometimes stands for /æ/, /æː/ or /ɑ/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩
(see palatal diphthongization).
Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /æɑ/. Sometimes
stands for /æː/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩.
Sometimes stands for /o/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩ (see palatal
Used in modern editions, to distinguish from short /eo/.
/f/, including its allophone [v] (but see b).
/ɡ/, including its allophone [ɣ]; or /j/, including its allophone
[dʒ], which occurs after ⟨n⟩.
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
Old English § Palatalization.)
/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.
Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /i/.
Only occurs sometimes in this sense and appears after ⟨ċ⟩,
⟨ġ⟩ (see palatal diphthongization).
Used in modern editions, to distinguish from short /iy/. Sometimes
stands for /eː/ after ⟨ċ⟩, ⟨ġ⟩ .
Occurs in dialects that had such diphthongs. Not present in Late West
Saxon. The long variant may be shown in modern editions as īo.
Rarely used; this sound is normally represented by ⟨c⟩.
Probably velarised [ɫ] (as in Modern English) when in coda position.
/n/, including its allophone [ŋ] (before /k/, /g/).
See also a.
Used in modern editions, to distinguish from short /o/.
/ø/, /øː/ (in dialects having that sound).
Used in modern editions, to distinguish from short /ø/.
A rare spelling of /kw/, which was usually written as ⟨cƿ⟩
(⟨cw⟩ in modern editions).
The exact nature of
Old English /r/ is not known; it may have been an
alveolar approximant [ɹ] as in most modern English, an alveolar flap
[ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r].
/s/, including its allophone [z].
/ʃ/ or occasionally /sk/.
Represented /θ/ in the earliest texts (see þ).
/θ/, including its allophone [ð]
Called thorn and derived from the rune of the same name. In the
earliest texts ⟨d⟩ or ⟨th⟩ was used for this phoneme, but
these were later replaced in this function by eth ⟨ð⟩ and thorn
Eth was first attested (in definitely dated materials) in
the 7th century, and thorn in the 8th.
Eth was more common than thorn
before Alfred's time. From then onward, thorn was used increasingly
often at the start of words, while eth was normal in the middle and at
the end of words, although usage varied in both cases. Some modern
editions use only thorn. See also Pronunciation of English ⟨th⟩.
/u/, /uː/. Also sometimes /w/ (see ƿ, below).
Sometimes used for /w/ (see ƿ, below).
Used for /uː/ in modern editions, to distinguish from short /u/.
A modern substitution for ⟨ƿ⟩.
Called wynn and derived from the rune of the same name. In earlier
texts by continental scribes, and also later in the north, /w/ was
represented by ⟨u⟩ or ⟨uu⟩. In modern editions, wynn is
replaced by ⟨w⟩, to prevent confusion with ⟨p⟩.
/ks/ ([xs ~ çs] according to some authors[which?]).
Used in modern editions to distinguish from short /y/.
A rare spelling for /ts/; e.g. betst ("best") is occasionally spelt
Doubled consonants are geminated; the geminate fricatives
⟨ðð⟩/⟨þþ⟩, ⟨ff⟩ and ⟨ss⟩ cannot be voiced.
The first page of the
Beowulf manuscript with its opening
Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge
"Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the
glory of the folk-kings..."
Old English literature
Old English literature, though more abundant than literature of the
continent before AD 1000, is nonetheless scant. The
pagan and Christian streams mingle in Old English, one of the richest
and most significant bodies of literature preserved among the early
Germanic peoples. In his supplementary article to the 1935
posthumous edition of Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader, Dr. James Hulbert
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 catalogues 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
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; the Franks Casket, an inscribed early whalebone
artefact; and Cædmon'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 Cædmon.
Cædmon, the earliest English poet we know by name, served as a lay
brother in the monastery at Whitby.
The first example is taken from the opening lines of the folk-epic
Beowulf, a poem of some 3,000 lines and the single greatest work of
Old English. This passage describes how Hrothgar's legendary
Scyld was found as a baby, washed ashore, and adopted by a
noble family. The translation is 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
The words in brackets are implied in the
Old English by noun case and
the bold words in brackets 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.
English poetry is based on stress and alliteration. In alliteration,
the first consonant in a word alliterates with the same consonant at
the beginning of another word, as with Gār-Dena and ġeār-dagum.
Vowels alliterate with any other vowel, as with æþelingas and ellen.
In the text below, the letters that alliterate are bolded.
Hƿæt! ƿē Gār-Dena in ġeār-dagum,
What! We of Gare-Danes (lit. Spear-Danes) in yore-days,
þēod-cyninga, þrym ġefrūnon,
of thede (nation/people)-kings, did thrum (glory) frayne (learn about
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
how those athelings (noblemen) did ellen (fortitude/courage/zeal)
Scyld Scēfing sceaþena þrēatum,
Scyld Scefing of scather threats (troops),
monegum mǣġþum, meodosetla oftēah,
of many maegths (clans; cf. Irish cognate Mac-), of mead-settees atee
egsode eorlas. Syððan ǣrest ƿearð
[and] ugg (induce loathing in, terrify; related to "ugly") earls. Sith
(since, as of when) erst (first) [he] worthed (became)
fēasceaft funden, hē þæs frōfre ġebād,
[in] fewship (destitute) found, he of this frover (comfort) abode,
ƿēox under ƿolcnum, ƿeorðmyndum þāh,
[and] waxed under welkin (firmament/clouds), [and amid] worthmint
(honour/worship) threed (throve/prospered)
oðþæt him ǣġhƿylc þāra ymbsittendra
oth that (until that) him each of those umsitters (those "sitting" or
ofer hronrāde hȳran scolde,
over whale-road (kenning for "sea") hear should,
gomban gyldan. Þæt ƿæs gōd cyning!
[and] yeme (heed/obedience; related to "gormless") yield. That was [a]
A semi-fluent translation in
Modern English would be:
Lo! We have heard of majesty of the Spear-Danes, of those nation-kings
in the days of yore, and how those noblemen promoted zeal. Scyld
Scefing took away mead-benches from bands of enemies, from many
tribes; he terrified earls. Since he was first found destitute (he
gained consolation for that) he grew under the heavens, prospered in
honours, until each of those who lived around him over the sea had to
obey him, give him tribute. That was a good king!
The Lord's Prayer
A recording of how the
Lord's Prayer probably sounded in Old English,
This text of the
Lord's Prayer is presented in the standardised West
Saxon literary dialect, with added macrons for vowel length, markings
for probable palatalised consonants, modern punctuation, and the
replacement of the letter wynn with w.
Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
/ˈfæ.der ˈuː.re θuː θe æɑrt on ˈheo.vo.num/
Father of ours, thou who art in heavens,
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
/siː θiːn ˈnɑ.mɑ je.ˈhɑɫ.ɡod/
Be thy name hallowed.
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
/toː.be.ˈku.me θiːn ˈriːt͡ʃe/
Come thy riche (kingdom),
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
/je.ˈwur.ðe θiːn ˈwi.lːɑ on ˈeor.ðan swɑː swɑː on
Worth (manifest) thy will, on earth as also in heaven.
Ūre ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
/ˈuː.re je.ˈdæj.ʍɑːm.ˌliː.kɑn l̥ɑːf ˈsy.le ˈuːs
Our daily loaf do sell (give) to us today,
and forġyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forġyfað ūrum gyltendum.
/ɑnd for.ˈjyf uːs ˈuː.re ɡyl.ˈtɑs swɑː swɑː weː
for.ˈjy.fɑθ uː.rum ɡyl.ˈten.dum/
And forgive us our guilts as also we forgive our guilters
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.
/ɑnd ne je.læːd θuː uːs on kost.ˈnuŋ.ɡe ɑk ɑː.ˈlyːs uːs
And do not lead thou us into temptation, but alese (release/deliver)
us of (from) evil.
Charter of Cnut
This is a proclamation from King
Cnut 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.
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 lede'(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
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
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
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
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.
Like other historical languages,
Old English has been used by scholars
and enthusiasts of later periods to create texts either imitating
Anglo-Saxon literature or deliberately transferring it to a different
cultural context. Examples include Alistair Campbell and J. R. R.
Tolkien. A number of websites devoted to
Modern Paganism and
historical reenactment offer reference material and forums promoting
the active use of Old English. There is also an
Old English version of
Wikipedia. However, one investigation found that many Neo-Old English
texts published online bear little resemblance to the historical
language and have many basic grammatical mistakes.
History of the Scots language
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law Anglo-Frisian nasal spirant law
List of generic forms in place names in the United Kingdom and Ireland
List of Germanic and Latinate equivalents in English
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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.)
Old English edition of, the free encyclopedia
For a list of words relating to Old English, see the Old English
language category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader/An Outline of Anglo-Saxon Grammar
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Old English.
Old English Lessons (free online through the Linguistics Research
Center at UT Austin)
Modern English Translator
The Electronic Introduction to Old English
Old English with Leofwin
Old English (Anglo-Saxon) alphabet
Bosworth and Toller, An Anglo-Saxon dictionary
Downloadable Bosworth and Toller, An Anglo-Saxon dictionary
Old English Made Easy
Old English –
Modern English dictionary
Old English Glossary
Old English Letters
Shakespeare's English vs Old English
Old English keyboard for Windows and Mac
Another downloadable keyboard for Windows computers
Guide to using
Old English computer characters (Unicode, HTML
The Germanic Lexicon Project
An overview of the grammar of Old English
Lord's Prayer in
Old English from the 11th century (video link)
Dictionary of Old English
History of English
Early Modern English
low unrounded vowels
low back vowels
high back vowels
high front vowels
changes before historic /l/
changes before historic /r/
Philology of Germanic languages
Germanic parent language
Middle Low German
Old High German
Middle High German
Mennonite Low German
Germanic substrate hypothesis
West Germanic gemination
High German consonant shift
Germanic spirant law
Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law
Germanic strong verb
Germanic weak verb