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OLD ENGLISH

OLD ENGLISH1 Also Anglo-Saxon. Short forms AS, A.S. From one point of view, the earliest stage of the single continuously developing ENGLISH language; from another, the language from which two other more or less distinct languages successively evolved, first MIDDLE ENGLISH (ME), then Modern English (ModE); from a third point of view, the common ancestor of English and SCOTS, the two national GERMANIC LANGUAGES of Britain. OE was spoken and written in various forms for some eight centuries (5–12c). Although its texts are as unintelligible to present-day English speakers as LATIN to speakers of FRENCH, after even modest exposure they can begin to make progress, as with the following (from the OE version of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People):
Breten is gārsecges īegland, þæt wæs gēo geāra Albion hāten.

Translated word for word and with the same word order, this sentence runs:
Britain is sea's island, that was ago years Albion called.

Translated more freely, it is:
Britain is an island of the sea that was formerly called Albion.

In the original sentence, word order in the main clause is the same as in ModE, but in the subordinate clause differs markedly from it (with echoes of German). Some words are the same as or very like ModE words (is, Albion; Breten, wæs), some are further removed but easily identifiable after translation (ī egland island, geāra years), and some are alien (gārsecges of the sea, gēo formerly, hāten called).

Background

Old English consisted of several West Germanic DIALECTS taken to Britain from the north-western European mainland in the middle centuries of the first millennium AD. Germanic settlement was very limited during the late Roman period, but expanded greatly after the departure of the Romans in the early 5c. The language was never fully homogenized as a literary and administrative medium, but nonetheless made greater progress in this direction (despite the primacy of LATIN) than most other European vernaculars. Writing in Latin in the 8c, the Northumbrian historian Bede identified the settlers of three hundred years earlier as three peoples, the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons; the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE, written entirely in OE from the 9c to the 12c, described year by year, from the settlers' point of view, the progress of various leaders and groups as they overcame the resistance of the Romano-Celtic Britons from the 5c to the 7c.

By the 8c, OE-speakers held territories roughly equivalent in size and distribution to the later kingdom of England. Four major varieties of the language can be distinguished in surviving documents: Kentish, associated with the JUTES, who probably migrated from what is now Denmark; West Saxon, in the southern region called Wessex, ultimately the most powerful of the SAXON kingdoms, whose founders originated in northern Germany; Mercian, the Anglian dialect spoken in Mercia, a kingdom stretching from the Thames to the Humber; and Northumbrian, the northernmost of the Anglian dialects, spoken from the Humber to the Forth. The Angles (in OE Engle) appear to have originated in Angeln, now in Schleswig, and gave their name to the language, Englisc, but it was the Saxons of Wessex who brought their dialect closest to a standard literary medium: See ALFRED. The last document in OE, an annal of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dated 1154, shows features of early Middle English, which was strongly influenced by the impact on OE of DANISH during the 9–11c and NORMAN FRENCH from the 11c onward. The following sections, however, discuss OE without reference to such influences.

Pronunciation and spelling

OE had speech patterns similar to those of its fellow North Sea Germanic languages Old FRISIAN and Old DUTCH. It was written first in runic letters then in an adaptation of the Roman ALPHABET that incorporated several such letters to represent distinctive OE sounds (see below).

Stress.

In polysyllables, OE stress typically falls on the first syllable, as in ModE: mórgen morning, séttan to set. When the first syllable is a prefix, however, nouns and adjectives stress the prefix (ándswaru answer, ándward current, present), but verbs do not (forgī́efan to forgive, tōbérstan to burst). Two prefixes are never stressed, whatever the part of speech: be- (beswíllan to soak), and ge- (gefrémed done, from fremman to do; geþólian to tolerate, from þólian to endure; gerégnad ornamented).

Vowels.

The monophthongs of OE consist of seven pairs of short and long vowels: (1) Short, a, phonetically /a/, as in nama name; long ā /aː/, as in stān stone. (2) Short æ /æ/, as in glæd glad; long ǣ /æː/, as in dǣd deed. (3) Short e /ɛ/, as in etan eat; long ē /eː/, as in hē he. (4) Short i /I/, as in cwic alive; long ī /iː/, as in wīn wine. (5) Short o /ɔ/, as in god god; long ō /oː/, as in gōd good. (6) Short u /ʊ/, as in sunu son; long ū /uː/, as in nū now. (7) Short y /y/, as in cyning king; long y /yː/, as in ȳtmæst utmost: compare French tu and ruse. The diphthongs of OE consist of three pairs of short and long vowels in which the stress falls on the initial vowel: (1) Short ea /æa/, as in eald old; long ēa /æːa/, as in ēast east. (2) Short eo /ɛo/, as in eorl earl; long ēo /eːo/, as in dēop deep. (3) Short ie /ɪɛ/, as in ieldu age; long īe /iːɛ/, as in hīeran to hear.

Consonants.

The consonants of OE are mostly the same as those of ModE. Differences include: (1) The pronunciation of all consonants in all written positions, notably /r/ and initial /g/ as in gnagan to gnaw, initial /k/ as in cnēo knee, initial /h/ as in hlāf bread, and initial /w/ as in wrītan to write. (2) Double letters represent geminated sounds (as in Italian): for example, OE biden and biddan differ phonetically in the same way as ModE ‘bidden’ and ‘bid Den’. (3) Two consonants are absent from present-day mainstream English. The sound represented by non-initial h, as in niht night, is a voiceless palatal fricative (compare GERMAN ich) or a voiceless velar fricative (compare German ach, ScoE loch, Scots nicht). The sound represented by g after or between back vowels is a voiced velar fricative (compare one pronunciation of German sagen to say). Initial h has the same pronunciation as in present-day general English; g in other positions is as shown below in point 7. (4) There are several distinctive letters: ASH (æ), ETH (ð), THORN (þ), WYNN (ƿ), YOGH (Ʒ). For details, see the entries for each. (5) The letters f and s each have voiceless and voiced values, the letters v and z not normally being used. Such words as OE fæt (fat) and fæt (vat) are therefore pronounced as homophones with either /f/ or /v/, according to dialect: compare present-day WEST COUNTRY speech in England. Similarly, thorn may represent either a voiceless /ɵ/ or a voiced /ð/: compare the current use of the digraph th in three and these. (6) The letter c is used as follows: before the ‘hard’ vowels a, o, u, y and all consonants, it has the value /k/, as in cald cold, clipian to summon, cwic alive, cyning king; before the ‘soft’ vowels e, i, it generally has the value /tʃ/, as in ceaster (‘chester’) town, cirice church. (7) Similarly, g is pronounced /g/ before a, æ, o, u and before consonants, as in gāst spirit, god god, grim fierce, and /j/ (as in ModE yet) before e and i, as in gēac cuckoo, gif if. (8) The letter combinations sc and cg are pronounced like sh and dge in present day shed and sedge respectively: scip ship, bricg bridge.

Grammar

Textbooks of OE grammar distinguish eight parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Unlike ModE, OE is highly inflected; the major aspects of its morphology are traditionally set out in paradigms, much as in textbooks of Latin, with declensions for nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and conjugations for verbs. Its morphology and syntax are too extensive and complex to cover here; the following sections present only highlights.

Declensions.

To discuss nouns, pronouns, and adjectives, grammarians of OE use the three categories number, gender, and CASE, with three subcategories for number (singular, sometimes dual, and plural), three for gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and four or five for case (nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative, the last serving an instrumental function for nouns, while there is a distinct instrumental case in certain parts of the declensions of adjectives and pronouns).

The paradigm given in Table 1 shows the declension of nouns ending in -an (generally referred to as ‘weak’ nouns). In this case, the noun (nama name) is masculine. Table 2 shows the declension of a ‘strong’ noun (stān stone) in effect, any form other than with -an endings. Here, for convenience of comparison, the noun is also masculine.

Table 3 gives the declension for the singular only of the definite article (a subclass of pronoun also translated as that). In ModE, the definite article is invariable (only the), while the demonstrative pronoun has two forms (that/those); in OE, however, the forms varied through three genders, two numbers, and five cases. The plural forms are simpler: nominative and accusative þā for all genders; genitive þāra; and dative þǣm. The OE for ‘the/that name’ as subject of a sentence is sē nama, as object is þone naman; ‘the/those stones’, as both subject and object, is þā stānas.

Table 1. Declension of masculine weak noun nama

Singular

Plural

Nom.

nama (name: subject)

naman (names: subject)

Acc.

naman (name: object)

naman (names: object)

Gen.

naman (of a name, name's)

namena (of names, names')

Dat.

naman (to/for/with a name)

namum (to/for/with names)

Table 2. Declension of masculine strong noun stān

Singular

Plural

Nom.

stān

stānas

Acc.

stān

stānas

Gen.

stānes

stāna

Dat.

stāne

stānum

Table 3. Declension of definite article sē (singular only)

Masculine

Feminine

Neuter

Nom.

sēo

þæt

Acc.

þone

þā

þæt

Gen.

þæs

þǣre

þæs

Dat.

þæm

þǣre

þæm

Inst.

þȳ

þǣre

þȳ

Conjugations.

The tenses of the verb in OE are comparable to those of ModE, which contains remnants of the major distinction in OE verbs: between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms. The main difference lies in the formation of the preterite (the simple past tense). The preterite of STRONG VERBS is formed by changing the vowel of the root according to a series known as ‘vowel gradation’ (in ModE, for example, the change from swim to swam). The preterite of weak verbs is formed by adding a suffix containing d (as in ModE walk to walked). There are seven conjugations or classes of strong verbs and three of weak verbs. In Tables 4 and 5, the present and preterite paradigms of the indicative mood of the strong verb bindan (to bind) and of the weak verb hīeran (to hear) are set out for comparison.

Basic word order.

(1) In phrases, adjectives and genitives generally precede nouns: micel flōd a great flood: Westseaxna cyning king of the West Saxons. Two coordinate adjectives are usually separated, one preceding and the other following the noun, after and: gōda þēow and getrē owa (good servant and faithful), good, faithful servant. Compare the fossilized ModE idiom ‘twelve good men and true’. A title follows a proper name, the opposite of ModE: Æþelred cyning King Ethelred. (2) In sentences, inflection for case allows a certain freedom of word order, more or less as in Latin. There are, however, three common orderings in OE prose and verse: SV (Subject–Verb) and SVO (Subject–Verb–Object), as in hēo beswāc hine She betrayed him; S … V, especially in subordinate clauses, as in the clause which appeared above, þæt wæs gēo geāra Albion hāten (that was formerly called Albion); VS, which is used for both questions (Hwǣr eart þū nū? Where art thou now?) and statements, whether positive or negative (Ne cōm se here Not came the army: The army did not come).

Table 4. Conjugation of strong verb bindan, indicative mood

Person

Singular

Plural

Present

1st

binde

bindaþ

2nd

bindest/bintst

bindaþ

3rd

bindeþ/bint

bindaþ

Preterite (with vowel change)

1st

band

bundon

2nd

bunde

bundon

3rd

band

bundon

Table 5. Conjugation of weak verb hīeran, indicative mood

Person

Singular

Plural

Present

1st

hīere

hīeraþ

2nd

hīerst

hīeraþ

3rd

hīerþ

hīeraþ

Preterite (with d-element)

1st

hīerde

hīerdon

2nd

hīerdest

hīerdon

3rd

hīerde

hīerdon

Vocabulary

(1) The core OE wordstock was shared with the other West Germanic languages and like theirs was subject to the sound changes of GRIMM'S LAW and Verner's Law. (2) Borrowing from non-Germanic languages was relatively rare, but there were significant LOANWORDS from LATIN and GREEK. Some Latin words were acquired before the Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain, such as strǣt street (from strata via paved way) and w(e)all wall (from vallum rampart); others were borrowed afterwards, such as fēfor fever (from febris) and mægister master (from magister). Greek loans usually came through Latin, as with biscop (from episcopus from epískopos) and scōl(u) school (from schola from skholḗ). (3) Because of inflection, the structure of OE nouns, adjectives, and verbs differs greatly from that of ModE; for example, whereas ModE has one form drink for both noun and verb, OE has two, the noun drinc and the verb drincan. (4) Compound words were common, including as personal names: Ælfred Elf Council (original form of Alfred), Ætheldreda Noble Strength (original form of Audrey), bretwalda ruler of Britain (a title for the foremost king of his time), ealdormann nobleman (ancestral form of alderman), eallwealda or ælwalda ruler of all, Edwin Prosperous Friend, hēahgerēfa high reeve (an official), sǣweall sea wall, stormsǣ stormy sea, sweordbora sword-bearer, synnfull sinful. (5) DERIVATION was also common: for example, with the prefix be- around, as in berīdan to ride around; with for- as an intensifier, as in forlorenness utter lostness, perdition; with on- un-, as in onlūcan to unlock; the suffix -end for an agent, as in hælend healer, saviour, wīgend warrior; -ing son of, as in Ælfred Æþelwulfing Alfred son of Ethelwulf, hōring son of a whore, fornicator; and -ig, as in cræftig strong (the ancestral form of crafty), hālig holy. (6) A range of compounds and derivatives was created as loan translations of Latin terms, such as tōcyme (to-come) to match adventus (advent), gōdspel (good news: the ancestral form of gospel) to match evangelium, and þrīnnys (threeness) to match trinitas (trinity). See AELFRIC, BARNES, BEOWULF, CELTIC LANGUAGES, DANELAW, DORSET, HISTORY OF ENGLISH, NORSE, NORTHERN ENGLISH, NORTHUMBRIA, PLAIN ENGLISH, PURE, RUNE, SAXONISM, SCANDINAVIAN LANGUAGES, Y.

EXCERPTS FROM TWO OLD ENGLISH TEXTS

The literary and other texts of OE are among the oldest specimens of vernacular writing in Europe. Below are two brief specimens, with modern translations. The verse was committed to writing c. AD 1000 but was composed much earlier; its layout shows the typical OE metrical unit, the half-line. The prose represents the style of 10c Saxon annalists.

1. Verse: Beowulf, lines 710–13

þa cōm of mōre under misthleoþum
Grendel gongan; Godes yrre bær;
mynte se mānscaþa manna cynnes
sumne besyrwan in sele þām hēan.
Wōd under wolcnum to þæs þe hē wīnreced,
goldsele gumena gearwost wisse
fǣttum fāhne.
A CLOSE TRANSLATIONThen came out of the moorlands beneath the mist-slopes
Grendel stalking; he bore God's ire;
The evil one meant of human kind
Someone to snare in the high hall.
He went on under the clouds till their wine-hall,
The gold-hall of men he could clearly make out plated in gold.
A FREE TRANSLATION

Down off the moorlands' misting fells came Grendel stalking; God's brand was on him. The spoiler meant to snatch away from the high hall some of the human race. He came on under the clouds, clearly saw at last the gold-hall of men, the mead-drinking place nailed with gold plates.( Michael Alexander , Beowulf, Penguin Classics, 1973)

2. Prose: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (years 981, 982)



981. Hēr on þìs gēare wæs Sancte Patroces stōw forhergod, and þȳ ilcan gēare wæs micel hearm gedōn gehwǣ be þām scæriman æþber ge on Defenum ge on Wēalum.

982. Hēr on þȳs gēare cōmon ūpp on Dorsætum iii scypu wīcinga and hergodon on Portlande. þȳ ilcan gēare forbarn Lundenbyrig. And on þām ylcan gēare forþfērdon twēgen ealdormenn, Æþelmær on Hamtūnscīre and Eadwine on Sūþseaxum.

A CLOSE MODERN RENDERING

981. [Here in this year] St. Petroc's, Padstow, was ravaged, and in the same year much harm done everywhere along the sea-coasts, in both Devon and Cornwall.

982. [Here in this year] Three ships of vikings came up into Dorset, and ravaged in Portland the same year. Also that year, London was burnt, and [in that same year] two ealdormen passed away, Aethelmaer in Hampshire and Eadwine in Sussex.

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Old English

Old English. Architectural style involving the revival of vernacular elements from Sussex and the Kent Weald, essentially one of the threads of the C19 Domestic Revival, Queen Anne style, and the Arts-and-Crafts movement. It was characterized by tile-hung walls (often in patterns), diaper patterns on brickwork, leaded windows of the casement type, timber-framing (sometimes not real, but merely decorative) of elements (often gables and jetties), barge-boards cut with fretwork, rubbed brick dressings, steep tiled roofs, and tall ornamental chimney-stacks of moulded brick or terracotta. Planning was informal and additive, while composition was Picturesque. In the USA the Colonial Revival had similar trends, and led to the Shingle style.

Bibliography

D&M (1985)

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OLD ENGLISH

OLD ENGLISH2. The first English settlers in Ireland, dating from the late 12c, and their language; in Irish GAELIC, they were known as Na Sean Ghaill (The Old Foreigners). The term Old English was applied to them by later settlers, from the 16c onward: ‘Howbeit to this day, the dregs of the old auncient Chaucer English are kept as well there [in Wexford]’ (Holinshed's Chronicle, 1586); ‘Their advice was always prefaced by profuse professions of the traditional loyalty of the Old English community to the Crown’ ( R. F. Foster, Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, 1989, p. 117). See HISTORY OF ENGLISH, IRISH ENGLISH.

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Old English

Old Eng·lish • n. the language of the Anglo-Saxons (up to about 1150), a highly inflected language with a largely Germanic vocabulary, very different from modern English. Also called Anglo-Saxon.

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Old English

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