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).
BackgroundOld 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 spellingOE 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.
GrammarTextbooks 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.
nama (name: subject)
naman (names: subject)
naman (name: object)
naman (names: object)
naman (of a name, name's)
namena (of names, names')
naman (to/for/with a name)
namum (to/for/with names)
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).
Preterite (with vowel change)
Preterite (with d-element)
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 TEXTSThe 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 710–13þa 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
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.
The Old English comprised those whose ancestors had settled in Ireland since the twelfth century. They preserved an English lifestyle, incorporating the common law, the English language, and English political and civil institutions. Members of the community served as officials in the colonial administration and also acted as officers in local governments.
The quandary for the Old English community of Ireland originated in the late middle ages: Although very conscious of their English roots, the members were tightly enmeshed in social, political, and economic networks throughout the country. Yet their sense of themselves as separate from the rest of the island's population is symbolized by the evolution of the English Pale, a defended area with defined boundaries, consisting of the English parts of the counties around Dublin (viz. Dublin, Kildare, Meath, and Houth), in the eastern counties of Ireland. For members of the community, the ascendancy of the Fitzgeralds of Kildare up until the 1530s represented the nub of their dilemma: the emphasis on self-governance was welcome, but not the compromising of English mores and identity in which the earls indulged.
The closer engagement of the English monarchy with its Irish domain after 1534 had far-reaching implications for the community of Old English. An English-born governor was not unwelcome as an impartial arbiter among the political factions, but the appointment by Thomas Cromwell of New English officials to the principal offices of state was ominous. Also unsettling were the ecclesiastical changes: while reform of religious life might be acceptable to most, the implications of the change in management from pope to king were problematic because the usual role of Old English clergy as upholders of the papal bull Laudabiliter (which gave Anglo-Norman involvement in the Irish polity and church its charter) was threatened. Royal supremacy stressed the Anglicanism (English centeredness) of the Irish church, whereas the Old English clergy saw themselves as successors of generations of reform-minded personnel who had established a characteristically Irish church. While grants of dissolved monastic lands may have assuaged lay leaders, ecclesiastics were perturbed about the future.
On the face of it, the constitutional and political initiatives of the mid-Tudor period were consonant with Old English aspirations. The declaration by Henry VIII of the kingship of Ireland in 1541 created an all-island entity in which the two long-standing communities, Gaelic and English, were to be equal partners. An acknowledgment of the de facto political position, it represented a cessation of the conquest initiated in the twelfth century. The arrangements under the "surrender and regrant" scheme—a policy whereby the principal Gaelic and gaelicized lords surrendered their lands and titles to the Crown and received new grants of those lands and titles to be held directly from the Crown—were meant to assimilate the Gaelic lordships into the institutions of the Englishry. Within this new framework the Old English would apparently have a part to play as agents of reform among the Gaelic population. It appeared that the English viceroy who presided over the program, Sir Anthony Saint Leger, was complaisant in this agenda. He also managed the ecclesiastical changes of the 1540s in an adroit manner, using persuasive—rather than coercive—methods to push ahead with monastic closures and the imposition of royal supremacy.
The removal of Saint Leger and his replacement with governors whose methods were more rigorous presaged a change in the relationship of the Old English with the state government. The alienation of Archbishop George Dowdall of Armagh, an Old English representative, by the enforcement of Protestant dogma in the early 1550s was also significant. Although Dowdall returned under the Catholic reign of Queen Mary, he and a number of local politicians were at odds with the governor, the earl of Sussex, in the later 1550s over his failure to consult with them regarding Old English interests. As the weight of administration became greater, the expenditure involved in maintaining the political and military establishment mounted. Sussex and successive governors resorted to innovative and unpopular forms of taxation, involving levying of goods, services, and money, which collectively became known among the Old English by the pejorative term cess.
The fusing of the cess campaign with the intensification of recusancy (religious dissent) created a cause to which the Old English would rally in the 1570s and 1580s. Essentially, their aim was the conservation of their old constitution whereby they were consulted in parliament, particularly in the matter of taxation, and also the preservation of the older church institutions in which they had a vested interest. The growing burden of cess and the sporadic imposition of religious penalties galvanized the community into a campaign of passive resistance and constitutional lobbying at court. This campaign was headed by leading gentlemen such as the barons of Delvin and Howth.
Not all of the Old English activists were prepared to restrict their methods to constitutional agitation in support of ancient liberties. Throughout the provinces, members of old Norman families such as the Butlers, the Fitzgeralds of Desmond, and the Burkes of Clanricard rose up in arms against the curtailment of autonomy and the threat of new English colonization of lands. In the cases of James Fitzmaurice and James Eustace, Viscount Baltinglass, secular grievances merged with religious ones, and Fitzmaurice's own death and those of both his and Baltinglass's followers forged a sharper Old English consciousness of collective identity. Then, when in the 1590s Hugh O'Neill emerged as a champion of Catholic restoration as well as a defender of the political status quo, the Old English community faced an acute dilemma: Should their deep-seated loyalty to the English monarchy override the imperative to engage in militancy in order to bring about the restoration of their faith? They resolved it by sometimes siding with the forces of the state against the rebellious confederates, and by sometimes maintaining a precarious neutrality.
With the Stuart accession in 1603, a number of demonstrations in favor of a Catholic restoration took place in the Old English boroughs (excluding, notably, Dublin). The new regime made it clear that freedom of worship was not contemplated, and furthermore there were bouts of repression of recusancy, especially in 1604 to 1605 and 1611 to 1612. Thereafter, the Old English attempted to maintain the delicate balance of dual loyalty—to London in politics and to Rome in religion. The fragility of the position was demonstrated by the perceived subversion by the state of the Old English majority in parliament in 1613 to 1615, but the possibility of a Stuart marriage into the Spanish royal house revived hopes of official toleration for Catholics. Then Charles I was moved to negotiate a series of concessions to the Old English, including religious and landed rights, in return for military and monetary assistance; these concessions wre known as the "Graces." The governorship of Thomas Wentworth in the 1630s, however, succeeded in antagonizing the Old English (among others). When rebellion broke out in 1641, the Old English leadership committed itself to arms in support of its religious and political aims while claiming loyalty to the monarchy. The confederation of Kilkenny in the 1640s was the constitutional expression of its campaign for religious toleration and political recognition.
With the Cromwellian conquest in 1649 to 1650, the campaign of the Old English was irreparably damaged. After the Restoration in 1660, there was little recognition by the monarchy of the community's loyalty, and the gains of New English were consolidated. The position of the Old English in town and county was irrevocably undermined as they were replaced by a new Protestant elite. The fragile tolerance extended to Catholic activity could not now be guaranteed by Old English patronage. With the accession of James II in 1685 the expectation of Catholic restoration buoyed the hopes of the Old English as Tyrconnell, one of their number, became chief governor. But the defeat of the Jacobite campaign in Ireland marked the end of the aspiration of the Old English for recognition of their ambiguous position. Although the next ascendant elite in Ireland, the New English, soon began to feel a similar political alienation, their Protestant identity inhibited their isolation.
Brady, Ciaran. "Conservative Subversives: The Community of the Pale and the Dublin Administration, 1556–86." In Radicals, Rebels and Establishments, edited by Patrick J. Corish. Historical Studies 15 (1985): 11–32.
Canny, Nicholas. The Formation of an Old English Elite in Ireland. 1975.
Clarke, Aidan. The Old English in Ireland, 1625–1642. 1966.
Clarke, Aidan. The Graces, 1625–1641. 1968.
Corish, Patrick J. "Ormond, Rinuccini, and the Confederates, 1645–9." In Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691. Vol. 3 of A New History of Ireland, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976. Reprint, 1991.
Corish, Patrick J. "The Rising of 1641 and the Catholic Confederacy, 1641–5." In Early Modern Ireland 1534–1691. Vol. 3 of A New History of Ireland, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976. Reprint, 1991.
Lennon, Colm. "Richard Stanihurst (1547–1618) and Old English Identity." Irish Historical Studies 21 (1978–1979): 121–143.
Ó Siochrú, Micheál. Confederate Ireland, 1642–9: A Constitutional and Political Analysis. 1999.