Old English

Old English (abbreviated as OE), sometimes known as Anglo-Saxon, is the language spoken in England during the early Middle Ages, i.e., from around the sixth century through the eleventh, more or less. With the Norman Invasion in 1066, the French influence on English increased, and by around 1100 it had evolved into Middle English. Be especially careful to limit the term "Old English" to this period from around 600 to 1100. Shakespeare, who wrote around 1600, wrote in early Modern English, not Old English. "Thee" and "dost" lasted well into the Modern English period.

Although it's an ancestor of Modern English, to twentieth-century eyes Old English looks less like English than like its German origins, as this extract from "Cædmon's Hymn," the earliest surviving English poem, demonstrates:

Nu sculon herigean heofonrices Weard
Meotodes meahte and his modgethanc
weorc Wuldor-Fæder....

(A translation literal enough to let you see the relationship with some Modern English words: "Now [nu] we shall [sculon, pronounced shoolon] praise the ward [Weard] of the kingdom of Heaven [heofonrices; the ric is related to German Reich], the Creator's might [meahte] and the plans of his mind, the work [weorc] of the Father of Glory [Wuldor-Fæder].)

Old English had a number of letters which no longer appear in our language, and some of which cannot easily be represented in HTML. The thorn looks like "þ," and had a "th" sound. The lowercase eth looks like a rounded lowercase d with a slash through the ascender — ð -- and also stood for a "th" sound. (Sometimes the thorn sounded like the "th" in "thick," and the eth sounded like the "th" in "that," but not always.) The yogh looks something like a 3, a little lower on the line, with a flat top, and sounded like a back-of-the-throat "gh." Finally, the ash is an a-e ligature ("æ"), and had the "a" sound of "that."

OE was a more heavily inflected language than Modern English: like German, nouns took different forms depending on their grammatical function. (In Modern English, only a few pronouns change their form that way: I, me, my.)

A characteristic of much OE verse is the heavy use of alliteration. In the extract from "Cædmon's Hymn" above, the "h" sound is repeated in the first line, the "m" sound in the second, and the "w" sound in the third.

The most famous work of Old English literature is the anonymous Beowulf.


From the Guide to Literary Terms by Jack Lynch.
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Note: This guide is still in the early stages of development.
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