Old English

Inglés antiguo # Structure of Linguistics. Features of grammar. Influence Christianism, German invasions. Syntax

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The most important changes in the English language happened in the 16th, but the spelling was not regularized until 18th century. Until that moment, we have some different spellings. For example, the group ck in the MidE (Middle English) came from the spelling qu of the French tongue. The final e existing in many words of the MidE was pronounced in that epoch. As this, we write calf (pronouncing /ka:f/) because in MidE that l was pronounced. Some of these changes have reached us thanks to Caxton, a printer who preferred the `old way' of spelling: some words are written close to the old form, but pronounced in the modern way. Another example of change is the word nigh, represented:

MidE /niç/ > ModE /ni:/ > /na/

We note that originally the vowel i was pronounced /i:/, instead of /a/. Another peculiar cases are the changes between u and v: if you have an u in the middle of the word, no matter how to pronounce it, but if it's placed at the beginning it was written like an v.

The case of yeeres is representative. In the spelling regularization it was decided that the correct form was yeares, which have developed into years.

About hath we have a difference in morphology: when we use s to indicate 3rd person singular, in the 17th century was used th.

We are now looking at the text about the Prodigal Son that are in four versions, from OE (Old English) to PrE (Present-day English). In the OE version we find many new letters, as the thorn (here represented as th), the yogh (), the ash (æ), taken from Latin, and the eth (ð); many new words such as mynystralcye (which develop into minstrel and came from the French), perishid (from the same source as the Spanish perecer), ny (which means near), and so on. We also find many strange signs such as the macron () that marked that a vowel was long, some consonants that have a dot above them that implied a change in pronunciation ( pronounced //,  //, s // and  //).

In OE we find that the pronunciation is much closer to the spelling than in PrE, once you know some `tricks' to pronounce correctly. If they needed to change the pronunciation, simply they added a new element, changing the spelling somehow. An exception of this is letter h, that can be pronounced in two ways depending on the sound that goes before: if the sound is palatal, then we have /ç/, the palatalised form, and if it is velar, the velarized form /x/. Also, the group hw (like in hwat) is pronounced //.

OE is a difficult language for us because there are almost no Latin words. All the vocabulary comes from Germanic origin. We find many reasons to explain why a language changes. One is the phenomenon languages in contact, that consists on the mixing of two languages, resulting that two languages, each one influenced by the other. Another reason is because of the printers: they were the people that `left' their language for us, influencing the latter generations. Also, new elements that appear and that need a name are other reason for linguistic change, always influenced by the needs of the people. The development of a language is slow but it never stops. It is related with the inner way of speaking of each member of the linguistic community. By means of all this, we have two ways of studying a language, a synchronic and a diachronic study. The first is related with one single period of time whereas the second attends many periods of time. The diachronic study is more problematic, because we do not have any rule to explain why changes happen, so we tend to study two or more different patterns and compare them.


Three main branches:

  • Practical linguistics: grammars of particular languages.

  • Theoretical linguistics: syntax, semantics and phonetics/phonology.

  • Historical linguistics: several branches, depending on the way you focus it. Investigation and description of the way languages change throughout the time. Diachronic study. We can only analyse written texts, which are of different types. There are also dialectal texts, that are not using RP. Unless there can be many changes in the same period, we will have to generalize and talk about the same characteristics in the same period. Sociolinguistics and dialectal studies are the studies of these different varieties of language. To know how ancients pronounce their language, we have a helpful element: rhyme in poems, and also alliteration. Since 15th century we also have grammars and dictionaries.

We have seen that before 20th century we have to trust in written texts. The only way to make a description of the changes of a particular language is to make an abstraction in each different time. Some scholars have told that is important to see the changes of the language to understand its development. Causes that lead to a change:

1.- Geographic and climatic causes: for example, a theory says that Latin f disappears in Spanish because in northern Spain people lost their front teeth and couldn't pronounce /f/.

2.- Biological or racial causes: it is an old-fashioned theory, based on the idea that the vocal organs were different between races.

3.- Languages in contact: two languages are in contact specially in bilingual communities, like in Catalonia or the Basque Country. When these people have this situation, it is common that they mix words of the two languages.

4.- People from different generations would speak in a different way. Scholars try to explain this `sudden' change, and say that the vocal organs may be different in children than in adults, and this provokes the change. This theory had been proved as true, with the problem that if this feature is enough to cause that change. But we know that children have to imitate as closely as possible what they listen, and because of that this theory is weak.

5.- The principle of ease or the minimization of effort: we tend to be lazy, to make things as easy as possible. For example, declinations in Latin disappeared because of their complexity, and this caused several changes, specially in pronunciation. In MidE we have a verb pronounced /ba:kn/, and in ModE we tend to avoid that final position elements: /bek/. Another example is MidE /kastl/ > ModE /ka:sl/. The main problem to understand this is in the way we need to make ourselves understandable, so these changes end where communication is possible without losing information. Here appears the redundancy, i.e., the repetition of certain things to avoid ambiguity.

Changes in syntax are less obvious than changes in spelling, and it is more difficult for a language to change the syntax.

The first scholars in historical linguistics discovered that there were cognated languages, languages with similar words, some similar ways of pronounce certain groups, etc. For example, OE is too similar to German:

OE Stn c Hlf

Stone Oak Loaf

G Stein Eih Leib

We can see how ei in German becomes  in OE, and /u/ in ModE. The study of historical linguistics was divided into two branches. The first studied the language tree (for example, OE and German will come of the Pregermanic language). The second branch is something that can be easily seen, the branch of the phonetic change, as we have seen above. This branch tries to find the laws that rule the phonetic change. Some of them are universal. These laws are:

  • Assimilation: one element changes by adapting itself to another element close to it. We could have some forms, sometimes partial, sometimes complete, sometimes regressive, sometimes progressive:

PrimitOE wifmonn > wimmon > womman

  • Dissimilation: two similar sounds become alike when placed one near the other. We find this phenomenon specially in words taken from Latin:

Lat peregrinus > PrE pilgrim

  • Metathesis: the change of place of two sounds. Quite common in some words of OE that have had this process many times.

OE ascian / axian MidE bird / brid

  • Folk etymology: the trial to assign a meaning to an object by its name:

Sp esparadrapo / esparatrapo

  • Epenthesis: a change that would take the introduction of a new sound in a word, usually to help pronunciation:

OE dofles (genitive singular) > dofol (Nominative)

  • Analogy: is a process by which one element is changed in order to become similar to what would be the general rule:

OE dæ (nominative singular) ……………………… day

Dagum (dative plural)

Daga (nominative plural) .……………………… days

This rule also affects lexicon. In English we have the word townscape, formed in analogy with the word landscape.

Other changes are caused by external influences. The most clearly seen is that of the loanwords, words from other languages adapted into English. They are very easily found, and can be three main situations in which they appear:

  • Substratum: in a place we have language A, but before they spoke that language, they spoke language B. Some B elements appear in the newest language A. We find an example of this with some Latin words adapted into Celtic in Britain.

  • Superstratum: a group of people speaks language C, and they come in touch with people speaking language D. People speaking language C keep speaking that language, but they take some words of D. We find an example of this with some words taken from the Germanic language spoken by Gods (Godos) by Spanish.

  • Adstratum: usually in bilingual groups of speakers. There is a mutuous influence in each language.

Scholars in the 19th century realised that there were languages with some elements in common, so they created comparative reconstruction, that tries to discover the families of languages seeing what in common have two different languages, for example, OE and German, and `rediscover' the mother language of the two. Let us look it in an example:

OE stn

G stein

It is supposed that most of the western languages had a common origin. The language would be called Indoeuropean. From it there would be two branches, a Western and an Eastern. In the Western branch we would have mainly two branches:

  • West European (the most interesting for us)

  • Tocharian

  • Hellenic languages

  • Anatolic languages

In the Eastern branch we would also find four branches:

  • Baltic and Slavonic

  • Albanian

  • Armenian

  • Aryan (subdivided into Indian (Sanscrit) and Iranian)

West European languages are formed mainly by two different families: Celtic Italic and Germanic. Celtic Italic would be formed by Celtic (Irish, Gaelic, …) and Italic (Latin, and then the romance languages). The Germanic family would be formed by East and West Germanic.

This sort of studies trying to find all changes from Indoeuropean to our languages was started from German scholars, called neogrammarians (or junggrammatiker in their language), who tried to prove that there were some changes that happened regularly, and to describe them. Those laws could be applied to all languages, and they could also foresee the changes that might also happen in the future. Grimm discovered that there are some connected languages, and he discovered the changes between Latin group languages and Germanic group languages. It was the Grimm's Law. For example, when we find a voiceless plosive in Latin languages, there is a fricative in Germanic languages:

p/f Lat Pes > PrE Foot

t/// Lat Tres > PrE Three

/k///h/ Lat Centum > PrE Hundred

In Latin language voiced plosives were voiceless plosives in Germanic languages:

B / p Lat dubus > PrE deep

D / t Lat dens > PrE Teeth

G / k Lat Granum > PrE corn

Aspirated plosives in Latin will be voiced plosives in Germanic group:

Bh / b Sanscrit Bháhari > PrE Bear

Dh / d

Gh / g Lat Hostis > PrE guest

Neogrammarians began to think that there were some regularities in the change from Indoeuropean to the different languages. This law doesn't work in all contexts and some scholars could see the differences between Germanic and non-germanic languages. This Grimm's Law has exceptions. Verner tried to describe a new law to see how these changes were. Neogrammarian studies were applied to phonetics.

The problem appeared when they studied dialectology: it is difficult to give laws for these changes. They asked people to pronounce different words and then they wrote lines in maps, seeing how gradually the pronunciation changed. Those lines weren't clear because in some areas different speakers could pronounce with more than one accent, so they could establish borderlines. In most cases it is proved that the lack of borderlines is the origin of the linguistic change, so changes do not happen regularly, there are periods of variability and places with mixtures of different pronunciations.

When this was discovered, a new linguistic trend appeared, the structuralism, that affected the ideas of linguistic change. They considered that there were two ways of studying a language:

  • diachronic study is the study of languages throughout time.

  • Synchronic study is the study of a language in a point of time. They were interested in this study because they considered that language was a system which means the language was a closed amount of features in which everything is consistent with all the other elements. In a language every element is necessary and all of the elements make the system consistent; if some elements disappear, the system does not function. For them language was a system and linguistic change meant that something had changed in it.

Pronunciation: phonetic changes happened because there was a change in the whole system. There could be three changes:

1.1 Increase: a new element appears in the phonetic system:

OE /f/ had an allophon, /v/, that appeared in voiced contexts:

OE Hlford /'la:vord/

In ModE, /v/ is a distinctive sound

1.2 Reduction: when one element disappears, the system has to be balanced:

Lat /b-v/ were pronounced differently, but not in Spanish:

Lat /b-v/ > Sp /b/

1.3 Modification: one sound changes in the way it is pronounced to create a new sound or phoneme:

Sp Mexico /meiko/ > /meiko/

Structuralists considered that there were causes for the linguistic change:

1.- Extralinguistic causes: social or political reasons are considered as causes today, but for them were languages in contact.

2.- Sintagmatic causes (which are not the same as paradigmatic causes): cut has a paradigmatic relation with but. The difference is between b and c. They prevent the language from changing.

Sintagmatic relationship appears in close elements, for example, in hlford, the f is pronounced /v/ because of the presence of an a and an o.

Paradigmatic uses means that when we use one element is by contrast to another one. They are important from the phonetic point of view because they help to maintain the phonetic distinction. The problem is that sometimes the phonetic distinctiveness is not always a reason to stop linguistic change. For example, in sounds /ð/-// we find that there are few words in which using either of them we have two meanings, those two sounds do not help to distinguish between words so, why are they still used?

The idea was a problem to develop structuralists historical linguistics but they tried to explain other changes such as chain changes: when a change brings another changes in the whole system. A chain change is a sequence of changes in which one change is claimed to be dependant on another. There are two main chain changes, that depend on the way you look at the change:

    • Drag chain

    • Push chain

For example, we have a row with five people and five chairs. One person goes, and the other moves from chair to chair: drag-chain (one sound changes and the other change also, but accordingly with the sound that firstly changed).

But if nobody goes and one person comes, pushing another that is sat in the chair, and the other do the same, we have a push-chain change.

The Great Vowel Shift is supposed to be a drag-chain change. This is a phonetic change. There are also changes in lexicon.

Structuralists and Neogrammarians have been the main trend of historical linguistics until very recent times. Generative grammar was not centred in the linguistic changes but in grammar changes. They say that linguistic changes take place in the competence and when they study linguistic change they pay attention to the syntax and the grammatical rules.

It is said that English belongs to Germanic branch, and this belongs to West European branch in the Indoeuropean.

There are some elements in common between English, German, Dutch… In spite of this elements we don't know we have no record of the Germanic languages. We only know some references given by some latin authors. We have to be careful with these records. The 1st real Germanic text date of the 2nd century A.D. It was written in runic characters. Runic was the only alphabet used by Germanic people. Three centuries later Germanic people started to use the Latin alphabet, but some runes were still maintained. From the 15th most of the Germanic languages that had been in touch with Latin used its alphabet.

Grimm's Law presents the differences between Germanic languages and other languages: M, N, L, R, W, J could be used as consonants or as vowels depending on the text. W and J are semivowels. The other consonants are nasal and liquid and in some contexts they develop some vocalic element: bottle /botl/. The vowel system is very similar to the one we have nowadays.

Ablaut is the systematic variation of vowels in the same root, usually cost by morphological variation. In most of the irregular verbs the root suffers some variation depending on the tense:

Write - wrote - written root: writ

In general, vowels and diphthongs are similar in all the Germanic languages. The stress in Germanic languages is also peculiar. The stress of the word usually goes on the 1st syllable of the root:

`brother a'rise (a is a prefix)


The Germanic languages are inflected languages. The inflection is the change of form that words undergo to mark the distinctions for gender, number, tense, case, mood, voice and person. In Spanish there are inflections in verbs, nouns (gender and number), in adjectives (gender and number). This inflection affects several elements. If it affects nouns, adjectives or pronouns then we call it conjugation. The case is a specific form that marks the function of a word in a sentence. In the Germanic and Indoeuropean languages we have nominative for the subject and attributive functions. Vocative is used to call someone; this form was declining in use when Germanic languages appeared. Accusative is the case marking the direct object basically and when there is a movement to a place. Genitive is to mark the possessive. Dative is used to mark usually an adverbial function, but also for indirect object. Dative can also appear with prepositions. Instrumental case disappeared before Germanic languages appeared. Ablative don't appear in all languages. In Latin we have a division of the uses of dative: it is used with an adverbial function and ablative for indirect object. It is important to study inflections in adjectives, nouns and verbs.

Number is difficult to study. Dual number appeared in the Indoeuropean language. In OE we find some examples of dual number, because it is old fashioned.

The adjectives are declining according to the cases, the gender and the number, but besides the adjective can be declined with two different declensions: they are strong and weak declension. The difference is in the use. Weak is used when we use an article or a demonstrative, that is, when we define a specific form of the adjective.

The verbs have some differential features from the verb we use nowadays:

  • moods: indicative, subjunctive, imperative, injunctive and optative.

  • Voices: active and passive.

  • Three persons

  • Three numbers: singular, plural and dual, which was disappearing.

There is also the distinction between strong and weak verbs: strong are irregular verbs, and weak are regular verbs. In Germanic languages the majority of verbs are strong. Weak verbs form the past, and the past participle, with a dental suffix. The main feature of the strong verbs is to create the past form with the ablaut (change of the root vowel). Regular and irregular verbs were not always weak and strong verbs. Originally, learn is a weak verb because in the past and the past participle it has a dental suffix. Another example is the verb think, but this is more complicated.


Celtic languages were related also with the Latin languages. They develop in a different way and when the Romans came there were several Celtic languages: Gaelic, Irish, Manx, Cambric, Pict… Some of them have survived until nowadays, some died in the 19th century and some were lost. It is difficult to know the geographic situation of these languages, because there are many connections between some of them. Written records about these languages.

When the Romans came to England the invasion was not the same as in other countries of Europe. The relationship between languages was not the same, as the cultural and linguistic invasion. Speakers of Latin in England were not learners of Latin, because Latin was only needed for administration. They founded schools, but teachers were not Roman teachers, most of them were French, so they didn't teach classical Latin. Some of the Celtic languages were reserved, and we have a situation of diglossia: Latin was the high language, but for everyday uses they had Celtic languages. Their Latin was that spoken by Roman soldiers and French people.

There are some words in OE like win that are supposed to have come of Latin (vinus). Latin languages could have influences from the Celtic languages. OE munuk came from the Lat monacus. Some words appeared before christianism came to England.

Until the 5th century, in spite of this situation it seems that not so many words remained from Latin:

Lat castra > Celtic -chester

Lat vicus > Celtic -wich

The main periods in the influence of Latin in England:

  • 1st: Latin came with soldiers and it was imposed just for administrative purposes.

  • 2nd: A general romanization. Latin was used by most people. Celtic languages were still spoken.

  • 3rd: by the 5th century, romans leave Britain and Latin decays little by little, although it is still used. There are specific features of the Latin spoke in England, such as special spellings found in descriptions. The Latin used until 5th century wasn't a learned Latin.

Christianism came to England

When St. Augustine of Canterbury came to England, Christianism was expanded and churches became the centres of culture. Latin was used for religious purposes. Some of these religious words began to be used by people.

Influence of Rome

The idea of an organised state and the Roman's laws. Some sorts of fortifications, etc. People went to cities, the roman idea of centralisation.

German invasions

By the beginnings of the 5th century, Roman writing began a period of declining. All the armies had to go to the continent to fight with the German too. They couldn't defend themselves. Problems with Picts. German invasion did not take place until mid 5th century, the official date is 449. Other invasions had appeared before that year. We don't have historical records about this period.

Venerable Bede Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

There were three main groups of invaders:

  • Angles

  • Saxons

  • Jutes

The Angles would be settled in Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Humbershire. The Saxons in Essex, Sussex and the north of Humbershire. The Jutes in Kent and the isle of Wight.

Scholars consider that it is not easy to separate these three groups, they were mixing. There were also some other groups of Germans coming as Frisians. When they went to England they were called Saxons and however in the continent they were recognised as English. During the 6th century more people came to England and they were invading some parts of the Celtic Britain. Britain had a difficult political situation and they fought each other.

The myth of Arthur probably comes from a soldier who stopped the Germans in the battle of Mt Badon. All the legends, as that, tried to recover the origin of Anglo-saxons. Some people were going again to the continent. From the mid 6th century Germans came and settled themselves and occupied most of Ireland. Then a period called as heptarchy started (i.e., seven kingdoms). These seven kingdoms were the most important and, of them, the most important was Northumbria, then Anglia, next Mercia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. There are areas that are not in a specified place, the borders changed. One of the kingdoms predominated.

In the 7th century Northumberland was the predominating kingdom, but in the 8th it was Mercia. In 9th and 10th centuries the most important kingdom was Wessex.

Some infrastructures from Romans had no importance to Germans. Some kingdoms became very rich thanks to some things found in the kingdom. Some Christians appeared and disappeared with romans. Most rites were no Christian rites. With Germans the religion was the original German religion. In 579 St. Augustine went to Kent and rechristianized it.

Some of the Catholic names came from Germanic gods:

  • Easter: it comes from the name of a German godess, Eastra.

  • Wednesday comes from Wodan.

  • Thursday comes from Thor

  • Friday comes from Frig

  • Tuesday comes from Tiw.

Christianization had two main branches:

1.- The north of England was christianised by Irish monks.

2.- The influence of St. Augustine was preserved in the south of Northumbria.

This led to some problems between the two churches. A synod took place in 664 and the two churches were unified.

The cultural effect of christianism

The continental culture was changed. They used runes and now they started to use the roman alphabet. Loanwords appeared, and are words of scientific knowledge, religious knowledge, and other areas.

Intellectual developments took place in England. Alcuin of York was working in a monastery. He had a sort of cultural program. He wrote about religion or rethoric or other things. In the late 9th century, after the Viking invasion, king Alfred tried to recover the cultural situation in England. He tried to put some texts into anglo-saxon, and promoted translations from Latin. He tried to make a cultural program for his people. He and his grandson Edgar reached a revival of learning at the end of the 10th century. This king tried to renovate some religious rules and he founded schools, churches, and tried to educate the clergy. He promoted the copy of Latin and English manuscripts. Dunstan, Æthelwald and Oswald were three important bishops in this period.

The Viking invasion

From the late 8th century, Vikings began to approach the island, for example, on 787 in Dorset. Those first attacks were raids with the purpose of getting easy money. Other important raid was 793 in Lindisfarne, a monastery in the north of England where rich manuscripts were copied, so the library was destroyed. In these incursions they tried to burn things related to religion, an they also discovered that England was a rich bad-protected place. By this they settled firstly in part of Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia. The Heptarchy, and mainly king Alfred, tried to defeat the invaders. In 871, the battle of Ashdown took place, and stopped them for a moment. Vikings were finally defeated at Edington in 878; with the treaty signed, Alfred get the conversion to christianism of the Danish leader and their living only in the Danelaw. The problem begin when they wanted to invade southern zones.

The Viking invasions also concerns religious matters. Danish destroyed monasteries, books and so on, hurting the cultural development. King Alfred attempted a cultural revival:

  • texts copied in monasteries should also be translated into anglo-saxon. They are very important texts of the early period.

  • Make compilation of texts to prevent their loss, as happened with other important texts.

  • Found schools for `everyone'.

  • Institute the Anglo-saxon Chronicle, a record of the important historical events. It is a very important source because it compiles most changes of the OE language, because it finishes with the beginnings of the MidE period.

In spite of Alfred's efforts in this revival, the effect of it was not all he expected. For example, there were no boom in literacy, or in texts copied. So, a century later, it decreased.

Thanks to Alfred, Danes were kept out of the Heptarchy. But in the 11th century they will come back with renewed forces, and Cnut became the king of England and Denmark in 1016. His son was not too strong and lost his kingdom in favour of a person of Alfred's lineage, Edward the Confessor. When he died, in 1066, with no heir, there is a problem, because there were three possibilities:

  • Harold Godwineson: Edward's brother-in-law.

  • Harold Haardraade: king of Norway.

  • William of Normandy: Edward told him that he would be the king.

There is a fight between the two Harolds, in which Haardraade was killed, and William of Normandy came to England to fight Godwineson. In the battle of Hastings, in 1066, William killed Godwineson and became king of England. 1066 is the official end of the OE period, because, as William is French, he brought with himself many French cultural elements.

Anglo-saxon society

Divided into three main classes:

  • nobles (thane)

  • peasants (ceorl)

  • Slaves

Only nobles and peasants were free people, and had a personal value in money, the wergild, that depended on their possessions. To be a noble, one might worth about 1200 sh, and 200 sh to be a peasant. Slaves had no wergild.

Nobles had military duties and were responsible of building some infrastructures and to support the king. They also could decide who inherit their goods, no matter who. They lived in wooden houses, sometimes stony, with this structure:


Room Entrance

Chair Rooms

Depending on the importance of the person, the chair would be higher or lower. The most important pleasure for nobles was haunting.

Peasants were mainly workers in the land, of which there were four classes:

  • freeholders: they own a piece of land

  • tenants: they had a loaned piece of land

  • crafts: devoted to some handworking apart from the land. They weren't completely independent

  • workmen: usually they worked the land. They work for other people and receive a salary.

In the peasant organization there is the possibility of promoting to an upper class. This promotion would depend not only on the wergild, but also on the services they were keeping to the king. We also find two types of land: common land, owned by a village, and meadows and woods. There is also a special land devoted to the growing of cereals, the plowland. The amusement of these people is mainly tournaments and riddles.

Slaves had no wergild. They had no legal entity, they were cattle to buy and sell. They could be slaves by inherited condition or because they were criminals, a sort of punishment.

Relationships between people

There is a clear relation between lords and their servants, for example, if your lord dies in a battle, then you could not return alive, it was a dishonour to survive your lord. Treason is one of the most punished faults: a servant and his lord have to protect each other in relation with their possibilities.

Family is one of the basis of anglo-saxon society. Revenge is an important concept, a key in this society. It was essential to revenge any harm done to one's family, until the harm is done to a murderer, a burglar or a rapist, because those people shouldn't be avenged. That revenge tradition is considered a dangerous one by the church, that proposes the solution of the problems through different ways, not killing.

Political organization

The anglo-saxon kingdoms were monarchies. Kings were chosen normally by inheritance, but also a group of wisemen can decide who was going to be the next king. They were war-like people, so they normally kept a professional army. In justice, a sort of law, the customary, is kept nowadays: the law is created from a sentence applied to a crime. To apply all them, they had a person who knew by heart all these laws, who was the responsible of the judgement of a person. They had slightest sentences and the strongest is death penalty, in all the forms you could imagine. If you are found guilty of one crime once, you will be condemned to death the next time you are caught for the same crime.


It was of Germanic origin with all the legends about gods and goddesses, who represented forces of nature. Eastra was the goddess of spring, of dawn, and from her feast we have our Easter, probably because both dates were near. Wooden was the god of gods, similar to Jupiter or Zeus. He also regarded to war, and was considered as the inventor of letters for writing. Thor is the god of the air, the storm, the thunder and the rain. Frig is a goddess, also known as Freia, goddess of happiness, crops… Tiw is the god of death.


The OE period begins in the 5th century and ends in year 1066. The first OE texts are dated on 7th century. There are subdivisions:

  • Primitive OE: 5th to 7th century.

  • OE period: late 7th to 1066.

There are also four dialects in OE. Differences in the way of speaking seem to be related to the kingdoms, so it seems that a different dialect was spoken in each kingdom, but we have to note that we have not enough information, only written texts, and not so many.

When anglo-saxon became the principal language, it's supposed that most important texts were written in that language, as if it were a standard. The four main dialects correspond basically to the main kingdoms:

  • Northumbrian dialect.

  • Mercian dialect: it also includes East Anglia.

  • Kentish dialect: with Essex, Kent and Sussex.

  • West Saxon dialect.

The importance of each dialect had to do with that of the kingdom. Some scholars consider first two dialects as a single one, and call it anglian:

Anglian wold wella

W. Saxon weald wiella

Last example shows us that there is a tendency to make diphthongs in the southern dialects. From linguistic and literary point of view we see that Northumbrian is important because it is the one used for cultural matters in the 7th century: Bede wrote in northumbrian. There were also many monasteries where we have important texts written in this dialect, i.e., Caedmon's hymn, Frank's casket or Ruthwell cross, last who wrote in runes. Another source of Northumbrian dialect is Lindisfarne abbey.

Mercian dialect was important during the 8th century, mainly thanks to king Alfred, who ordered the translation into OE of some texts.

Kentish dialect was not so important as the two above, but during part of the 8th and the 9th centuries it was so important. Some of its features were important to the development of MidE.

West Saxon dialect has the most important amount of OE texts. Some of the translations ordered by king Alfred were in this dialect, what means that it became the cultural one: we find, for example, the chronicles in this dialect.


It was not the same as nowadays. They used some symbols, the runes. Their origin is not clear, but it is the spelling system used by Germanic people in northern Europe. Some scholars say that these letters are similar to the Greek alphabet, that could be an influence. Another theory say that by the 2nd and 3rd centuries b.C. there was a similar writing system used by people in actual Italy, from Celtic origin probably, the Etruscan.

Runes were angular and straight-lined letters. There were three main varieties in their usage:

  • Common Germanic, called futharc, because those were the 6 first letters. It appeared in northern Europe some centuries before our era, but the first signs date from the 7th century b.C.. It consists on 24 letters.

  • English runic alphabet or futhorc, which are the 6 first letters, too. It have more letters than the common Germanic because they had more distinctive sounds. It was used from 5th-6th century until the MidE period.

  • Nordic or Scandinavian group last from 5th-6th century until 13th century. It adapted runes to symbolize new sounds by putting two runes together.

These letters had also a magic value, so they were used as a secret code or in magical texts. The Ruthwell cross is one of the most important examples of runic writing.

With the Christian conversion, the Latin alphabet was quickly spread by European monks which went to the island and began to write and teach with it.

Spelling features of OE

We are hardly using runic texts. Texts using the roman alphabet are influenced by Irish. It is quite uncommon to find capital letters in these texts: after stop there is no need to write down a capital letter.

There are some long letters such as s, r, and other peculiar like , … There are also some runic letters like wynn or thorn or yogh. Thorn was pronounced // or /ð/. Close to it we find the eth (ð/, that was not a rune but was pronounced like a thorn, and came from the Irish tradition. Usage between thorn or eth was interchangeable, you could use one or the other when you wanted to.

The second rune used in OE was wynn ( ). It corresponds with the PrE letter w, but that letter did not exist in OE, that is why we use that rune or letters u or v.

The yogh is the Irish g, and corresponds usually with the velar g, and the palatalised g, i.e., /g/ or //. Another letter taken from the Latin was the ash (Æ). It is used to represent the same sound we have nowadays. The tyronian symbol (& or ) is used to mark the word and.

There are also some non-existing letters in OE, for example, letter b was only used in Latin texts, and it is considered an allophone of f. Letter k and letter w did not exist in OE, but they could be used, for example, in names.

The macron is used to mark long vowels.

To identify the palatalised sounds we usually mark a dot above the consonants, like in consonants , , , and S. They are pronounced //, //, // and // respectively.

One important thing to take into account is that in OE all the letters are pronounced, including double consonants.

The vocalic system in OE

/i:/ /y:/ /u:/

/i/ /y/ /u/




/æ:/ /a:/ //

/æ/ /a/ //

A /a/


Æ /æ/


E //, not /e/


I /i/


O, A + nasal consonant (n,m) //

O //


U /u/


Y /y/

Y /y:/

º diphthongs

They had two elements, one strong and the other weak. In some cases, the 2nd element had been transcribed by some scholars as a schwa. By 2nd element we mean the weak element:

EO // EA // IE /i/

The problem begins when we see that by that method the two first diphthongs are the same, and in MidE they develop to different sounds, so they were probably pronounced in a different way one from the other:

EO // EA /a/ IE /i/

We have to note that if we have e followed by o or a, even if o or a is followed by a nasal sound, that is the pronunciation.

O /e:/ A /e:a/ E /i:/

Specific features of OE vocalic system

From the Germanic languages to the beginning of OE, there were some vocalic changes, for example, the umlaut, that is a change in the pronunciation of the back vowels because of the influence of, usually, another vowel, normally a palatal one. So, the original Germanic system had not /y/ or /æ/, these are product of the umlaut. That leads to the irregular plural man/men, for example, that happened, we suppose, because a palatal sound affected the a, and the result was that the e took place and that palatal sound disappeared.

OE hearjan > OE heran (hear)

Ger dohtri > PrOE doehter (daughter)

This feature also appears when we have a noun and a verb with the same root (for example, food/feed).

Ger fdian > PrOE fdan > OE fdan

Other changes produced in the development of vowels during the OE period are, for example, lengthening, which is produced for example in monosyllabic words ending in a vowel.

OE hwa > hw (who)

There is also a lengthening of vowels when they are followed by groups /ld, mb, nd, g/.

OE ild /ild/ > /i:ld/ (child)

There are also other possibilities of lengthening, specially if consonants are lost. We have loss of consonant, for example, when they are declined.

OE mearh > mares

Consonants in OE

B /b/

C /k/

CN- /kn/ cnwan /kna:wn/



D /d/

F /f/ or /v/

G /g/ or //


H /h/ or // or / //

HW // if it's at the beginning of a syllable.

HL, HN, HR the h is marking that the following consonant is devoiced, a voiceless sound that has lost his voice.

L /l/

M /m/

N /n/ or //

P /p/

R /r/

S /s/ or /z/

S //

T /t/

Or ð /ð/ or //

W /w/

X /ks/


In some cases consonants are simplified. In 9th century some consonants are the result of some morphological changes.

OE Nom.Sing. gylden + ne > Acc.Sing. gyldene

OE sendan > send + de > sende

Simplification can also affect vowels. It is quite common for the verbs in present indicative 2nd and 3rd person singular.

OE drfan > drf + ist > drfst

Sometimes the h is simplified. Mainly also in morphological changes when it appears between vowels and between l, r and a vowel.

OE feoh > feoh + es (Gen.Sing.) > fos (money)

In OE we find that in some words there are pairs of consonantic sounds that can be alternated in one word. These pairs are S-R, -D and H-G.

OE cosan (infinitive) > curon (past plural)

OE cwedan (infinitive) > cwdon


When we have morphological changes there is a tendency to assimilate, the stem, the root of the word or the morphin that has been added.

OE cyssan + de > cyssde > cysste > cyste


It is the change in the order of two sounds.

OE askian > aksian

R is one of the sounds usually used in metathesis. In some cases, we do not have the RP. Metathesis is common not only in OE but also in MidE.


The stress of the word appeared in the first syllable of the root of the word. This is also applied to words taken from Latin and adapted to the anglo-saxon.

Prefixes are not stressed, but there are some exceptions in nouns and adjectives that are monosyllabic. Another possibility is when we have compound nouns and both words are stressed. These stresses appear where they would appear if they were two different words: the first word has a primary stress and the second word has a secondary stress.

There are some words that are always unstressed, such as prepositions, articles and demonstratives and possessives. In poetry, some of them have stronger accent than the others.

In the glossary, prefixes usually appear separated by a dot, whereas compound words appear separated by a dash. Palatalization does not appear in the glossary we have.


Nominative case is used for the subject, attribute and apposition.

Sum mann (nominat) mæfde (v) tween sunna (accusative)

Accusative case is used for the direct object, directions (movement towards a place), time and subject for the infinitive.

H (Nom.Sing., subj) mine (Acc.Sing., direct obj.) eseah (v)

Genitive is used for noun complement or modifier, partitive, adverb of time and after some prepositions.

On (prep) mnes fæder (Gen.Sing, noun modif) hse (Dat)

Feowerti sipa (Gen.Pl., partitive)

Dative is used for the indirect object. It also appears after prepositions.

Ð (adv) dlde (v) h (sub) him (Dat, IO) his hta (Acc, DO)

Instrumental case can only be found in demonstrative. It is the case that tries to present the functions of means and manner. It can also have the function of time.

In a phrase, cases, number and gender must agree in the words.

Noun inflections

There are two main classes of nouns in OE: weak and strong. Weak usually ends in n, whereas strong use any other morpheme for the different cases. Usually, most of the OE genders were natural genders (mann would be masculine), but non-animate things are more difficult. We must also find that some living beings have a neutral gender.

There are some general rules to discern the gender according to the ending:

  • Nouns ending in a in the nominative are masculine, as those ending in -dm, in -hd ir in -sipe.

  • Feminine nouns are those ending in -ness, - u, -rdon, -u or -ung in the nominative.

  • Abstract nouns are usually feminine.

  • If in a compound we have two words of different gender, the gender of the compound is the gender of the last word.

Weak declension

Nominative masculine ends in -a

Nominative feminine ends in -e

Nominative neuter ends in -e

Neuter words do not change in nominative and accusative singular. There are some contractive nouns: lo, when the form is declined, instead of lo + an, we have lon. The other cases are lona, lom.

Strong declension

The morphemes are not ended in -n. the endings of the cases are the same for masculine. The only change is in the root engel-englas.

Some nouns whose root ends in h:

Walh + es > wales (Gen), wale (Dat)...

Some nouns in dative singular have an ending in a, instead of e.

Feld (field), weald (forest), sumor (summer), winter

Some masculine nouns end in vowel, usually e. some plural nouns referring to groups of people appeared in plural and they are strong nouns masculine, but there are some changes in some cases. Exceptions in miere and seaxe, whose genitive ends in -na.

Neuter nouns (strong declension)

They are not so different from masculine nouns. In sip we have a short vowel and in hs we have a long vowel.

When we have a 2-syllable word such as dofol-dofles, and the word ends in -en or -et, it doubles the final consonant.

Generally, the strong and the steam vowels are stronger than the other vowels. When we have disyllabic words, the unstressed vowel is usually retrained.

Werod (troop) > werodes

Feminine nouns

The only difference is the first syllable of the root. The group of the short stem vowel has an u and the other case has nothing in the nominative.

There are some feminine nouns that double their last consonant when declined. When the word has the suffix -nes we have to double the s. Some nouns have to add an w between the root and the ending, except in the dative plural.

Minor declensions

-u declension

There are two paradigms:

1st group 2nd group

wudu (wood) flr

duru (door)

sunu (son)

-mutations plurals

In dative singular and nominative and accusative plural an umlaut, i.e., a vowel shift, takes place. We can have an umlaut also in the genitive singular.

-r nouns

Nouns referring to familiar relationships. We find a natural gender. Two paradigms.

The first group has a mutation in dative singular and in plural. We can have no inflection or add an u but we lose the medium vowel, and in genitive and dative we also lose the medium vowel.

Mdor > mder

Dohtor > dehter

Sweostor > swester

In the second group there is no mutation. Strong declension (masculine).

-nd nouns

They could be ****** in a verb. 2 paradigms:

  • 1st group: we have a mutation in some cases

  • 2nd group: genitive plural is the same than in adjectives ending in -ra.

Proper nouns

For anglo-saxon nouns they follow the usual declensions. Non-anglosaxon names are more difficult.

  • they could be adapted to the anglo-saxon declensions

    • crist cristes - criste

  • they could retain the Latin inflections

    • crist cristus - cristum - cristi - cristo

  • they could be a melture of both declensions

    • crist cristus - cristum - cristes

We may find some proper names referring to countries or people. England comes from the anglo-saxon enga-land (the land of the English). This is one form to name countries. Another form is not declining the first element: scots-land. Another way is using the name of its inhabitants, but this name would be declined: eastanglum. Finally, the last form of naming countries is with the Latin name, that usually appeared uninflected: Hierusalem.

The article and the demonstrative

This system is not exactly the same as in PrE. In OE there is no article in any of its two actual forms (the or a). however, the system of the demonstratives is very similar, the functions we have for the article the are also performed in OE by that, the does not exist in OE.

A could appear in OE as different words: sm, meaning a certain or n, this meaning one.

The first demonstrative is se. We have also an instrumental case, but nouns do not have this case. It is also used as a relative conjunction, and also as an article, as seen above. It appears by itself or with a personal pronoun.

SE MONDRYHTEN (Nom.Sing, noun phrase) SE (nom, relat.conj, subj) EOW (P.pron, IO)  MA MAS(Nom/Acc.Pl, noun phrase, DO) EAF (verb) (The lord who gave the treasures)

This usage can also appear with an uninflected particle, THE (following the demonstrative).

The inflection of adjectives

Almost any adjective can be inflected as weak or strong, depending on the context.

Strong declension is applied when the adjective is possessive, with the adjective is  er, and when the weak is not used. Weak declension is used when the adjective is placed after the definite article, in some cases after the possessive adjective, as a general rule, when we have a noun phrase in vocative form and with comparative adjectives and ordinal numbers.

  • strong declension

When we have adjectives ending in the suffix -li, -sum, they are inflected as described for the short vowel root adjectives, in the photocopies.

When we have disyllabic adjectives with a long vowel first syllable, they generally lose the medial syllable vowel.

Hli > hlgum

Some adjectives have an ash in the root syllable. That ash turns into a before the morpheme that begins with a vowel.

Glæd > glæd + es > glades

In adjectives whose root ends in u, then we have two changes in the inflection. When the morpheme begins by a vowel, u becomes w.

earu > earu + es > earwes

But if it is followed by a consonantic morpheme, then the u changes into o.

earu > earu + ra > earora

These changes affects only short vowel root adjectives, but in weak and strong declensions either. Special cases are:

Heah + um > ham

Fa > fara (G.Pl) > fam (D.pl)

Fela (many) is kept in all cases, genders and numbers

  • weak declension

The weak declension for adjectives is similar to that for the nouns. There are some different endings for NomSing and GPl which can have two forms. There is no instrumental case for the weak declension. The changes are the same as those we have seen for the strong declension.

  • comparison

In OE there is only one form for the 18 comparative adjectives, adding to the adjective the ending -ra. They are declined as weak.

The ending for the superlative is -ost.

There are some specific cases in which the ending for the comparative and the superlative forms have suffered some mutation. They are explained in photocopy number three.

The positive form is unusual but the comparative or the superlative can be used with the meaning of the positive.

  • equal comparison

The connector is: sw …. sw.

Al sw (also or as)

  • comparison of superiority

There is no periphrasis, we have the ending -ost. The second element could appear with two different forms:

  • In dative: STRENGRA EALLUM (Stranger than all)

  • With the particle onne (than):

  • STRENGRA THONNE TH OTHRU (Stranger than the others)

    The more … the more: sw + comp. adj. + sw + comp. adj.

    The repetition of the word sw is very common in OE (even sw sw, together). It could have a sort of emphatic meaning. If we are not sure that the author wants to emphasize, we have just to consider one of the elements, but it does not have necessarily the meaning of emphasizing.

    Personal pronoun

    The most important difference is that in 1st and 2nd person besides the singular and plural we have the dual number (two people) . It is not too usual. The rest of the system is very similar to the PrE.

    Genitive can be used as an adjective or as genitive.

    His bc (his book) Hises bces (whatever of his book)

    In the second example we see that his is inflected as an adjective.


    They are very similar to the numbers we have in PrE.

    n (one) is declined as an adjective with both inflections. In the weak declension it has the meaning of alone.

    Masculine Feminine Neutre

    N/Ac twen tw tw - t

    G t w   r a / t w   (e) a

    D t w  m / t w  m

    Been (both) is declined as twen - tw - tw/t (two).

    Numbers are explained in photocopy number 4.

    From number 19, they would be inflected as neuter nouns. They can also be uninflected or inflected as adjectives.

    For hnd and send: they can be inflected as neuter nouns of uninflected. They must be followed by a partitive genitive plural.

    Hnd / thsend sipa (a hundred / thousand ships)

    When we have units and tense (decenas), the unit appears before the tense.

    21: n and twenti

    749: seofon hnd and nigon and fowerti

    Ordinals are inflected as weak adjectives. They also appear in photocopy number 4, some of them are:

    1st: forma 2nd: ther 3rd: thridda…

    Sometimes we have compounds:

    Cardinal number + feald = throfeald (three times)


    There are strong and weak verbs. In the first group, the preterite is formed by changing the 1st vowel of the root of the verb:

    Bindan = band

    In weak verbs the preterite is formed by adding a dental suffix to the root of the verb:

    Freman > freman + de > fremede

    There are only two tenses in OE: present and preterite. Future time is expressed with a verb in present form and the idea of future that appears in adverbs or in the context.

    There is not a passive voice form. The passive voice is formed by a periphrasis:


    Weorthan + past participle


    The present participle and the past participle can be used as verbal forms but they can also be used as adjectives and in this case they are inflected as adjectives. The past participle usually goes with the prefix e-. The infinitive could be a noun and it could be inflected as a noun.

    • vowel gradation

    It refers to the changes in the root vowel of the strong verbs depending on tense and number. The infinitive is used for all the present tenses. We have a form called preterite singular for 1st and 3rd person singular and another form called preterite plural for 2nd person singular and all the plural persons, and also the subjunctive. Finally, there is a past participle.

    There are seven classes of strong verbs depending on the changes.

    • weak verbs

    They are the result of some sort of derivation from nouns:

    Fd (n) > fdan (vb)

    Or from other verbs:

    Lidan (vb, lie) > lean (lay)

    There are three main groups. In the present tense, the morphemes are almost the same we have for strong verbs. The past tense is formed by the dental suffix. Differences between these three groups:

    • The 1st group has the regular forms of the weak verbs while the 2nd group has -od + morphemes. The 1st group has -ed + morphemes.

      • FREMMAN (to perform, to do, to commit)

    Past: root of the verb + ed + morpheme

    The past participle ends in -ed.

    In most of the present forms there is a double m with the exception of:

    2nd person singular, present indicative

    3rd person singular, present indicative

    2nd person singular, present imperative

    in the preterite there is not any double consonant.

    • The infinitive in the 1st group is -an, while in the 2nd group the infinitive is -ian.

      • LUFIAN (to love)

     could appear in most of the verbs of this group in all the subjunctive, 1st person singular, present indicative.

    Differences with the 1st group:

        • Imperative: 2nd person singular -a; plural -iath.

        • Present (indicative): 2nd , 3rd person singular, and plural, -ast, -ath, iath.

        • Infinitive: -ian, ienne.

        • Partitive: -iende.

    • The 3rd group is a mixture of the two former groups, with suffixes of one and the other. There are only 4 verbs in this group.

      • There is a change in the ending of the root:

        • To f in some forms:

          • Libban

          • Habban

        • To  in some forms:

          • Hyan

          • Sean

    The paradigm for those verbs is the same as for the 1st group verbs: all the forms have double consonant except

    • 2nd person singular imperative

    • 2nd and 3rd person singular present indicative

    • preterite

    Preterite present verbs

    Most of them are auxiliary verbs that went to some special development before the beginning of the OE period. These verbs were strong verbs, but their usage in present was very uncommon. Little by little their present usage disappeared.

    The past form took up a present meaning. But if they had a present meaning, they needed a form for the past, so they created a form for it. These forms for the past were created as weak.

    Most of these verbs are auxiliary and due to this usage and something to their own meaning, they don't have all the verbal forms.

    Witan (to know)

    Uses the same paradigm

    gan (to possess)

    There is a negative form for the verb witan:

    Ne + wt = nt

    Ne + habban = nabban

    These verbs don't have preterite subjunctive:

    Dugan sulan

    Cunnan emunan

    Unnan mtan

    Thurfan magan


    Anomalous verbs

    They are a mixture of some irregular verbs. Some of them have a usage of two or three different indoeuropean verbs (like to be, that has three different meanings).

    • In some cases the verb beon/wesan (when it begins with w or a single vowel) we have the contraction of the negative.

    Neom (1st person singular, present indicative)

    Wæs (3rd person singular, preterite indicative)

    • In the case of the verb to do, the main change is that in the past we have dy-.

    • Gn (to go) has a form for the present and another for the preterite forms.

    • Willan

    Will- present

    The change in the vowel is not because it is a strong verb.

    Wold- preterite


    In most words we have semantic and grammatical information and concrete order in PrE, but in OE this changes and we have to discover the elements that form, for example, a phrase and we can discover them thanks to agreement. Some elements must agree in the grammatical markers:

    • Subject and verb must agree in number and person.

    • Noun adjective and demonstrative must agree in number, gender and case, when they belong to the same main phrase. We can also have a noun modifier that appear before the noun, usually in genitive, so there is no agreement with the noun.

    • Noun and its apposition must agree just in case.

    • Pronouns must agree in gender, number and case with any element modifying them and with the words they are substituting.

    This is an example of a complete and regressive assimilation.


    We find that final s in days because French words used it for the plural, and some English words ended in as, so words like day had this plural ending in s in analogy to these words.

    We have two words from different languages that mean the same, but with three letters in common, so, probably, the mother language of the two languages had those three letters for the same word.

    No es un ejemplo que yo haya entendido muy bien, vamos, que lo que he entendido es que no tiene nada que ver con el tema, pero bueno, a mí tampoco se me ocurre ahora mismo otro (ni mejor ni peor).

    This vowel appears to make pronunciation possible, it's an epenthetic vowel.

    When the f is in extreme positions or it's in medial position but in a voiceless context. In voiced context and medial position, the pronunciation will be /v/.

    The pronunciation will be // when the g is placed between two velar vowels (a, o or u)

    At the beginning of a syllable /h/. At the end of a syllable, after palatal vowel //, and after velar vowel or consonant //.

    // only if followed by a velar consonant, i.e., g or k.

    The pronunciation /z/ only occurs in voiced contexts.

    /ð/ only in voiced contexts.

    Last e disappears because there are no triphthongs in OE. We also observe the change in the length of the first e.