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What is Old English?

Diana Bocco
Updated May 23, 2024
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Old English, also known as Englisc or Anglo-Saxon, is an early version of the English spoken today in Britain. In use for approximately 700 years, starting in the mid-5th century, it varies widely from the language we know today. Throughout the centuries, it experienced influence from Germanic dialects and Celtic languages. Later on, Latin also became a powerful influence, particularly around the time when a new alphabet was adopted. Because Latin was considered the language of the educated population, it became important at one point to adopt a new alphabet. Old English originally used the runic alphabet, so when the Latin alphabet was adopted, words were written as pronounced, and there were no silent letters.

The language was divided into four dialects, each of them spoken in a different area or kingdom. By the 9th century, the process of unification was well underway, which meant that dialects fell into disuse, as the government favored the use of Wessex, the most widely spoken of the four. Eventually, Wessex became Winchester standard, moving away from Old English and closer and closer to the language that English speakers use today.

There are very few surviving texts written in Old English. The most famous are the epic poem Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of chronicles covering the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Some translations, especially religious, are also available, but most of the original manuscripts have long been lost to time. Because it is now a dead language, only scholars can access the full interpretation of the manuscripts preserved.

The Old English language should not be confused with other early versions of the English language spoken today. While the English spoken by Shakespeare differs greatly from modern English, it's still considered the same. Old English, on the other hand, is a completely different language, with a variety of letters not currently in existence. Examples can now be found on the Internet, and some websites even offer an introductory course for those interested in learning the basics of the language. The grammar is rather difficult, as all nouns have number, case, and gender. People who speak Germanic languages may have an easier time understanding it than modern English speakers.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various businesses. With a data-focused approach and a talent for sharing engaging stories, Diana’s written work gets noticed and drives results.
Discussion Comments
By Proxy414 — On Dec 11, 2010

Throughout much of the world, and to this very day, languages which are surprisingly close to each other have continued to diverge in different directions, which is the case in Papua New Guinea. The origins and mutuality of these languages is almost nonexistent after centuries of change. Luckily for us, English has established a mutuality which has enabled it to evolve as a whole, and accents and dialects are usually mutually intelligible.

By arod2b42 — On Dec 09, 2010

Even within dialects there were subdialects which varied depending on which town one was from. Sometimes, when visiting a neighboring town, communication could be difficult. Over time, authorities recognized the importance of educating people in a common tongue to empower them to trade and interact better. With a good mutual understanding, war and conflict could be more easily avoided.

By TrogJoe19 — On Jul 19, 2010

The accent of Old English was more similar to the modern American accent than to the modern British RP (received pronunciation) accent. This is because the prestige form of London evolved to sound more like French, dropping the final 'r,' whereas the country, western, and Irish dialects -from which the American "rhoticized" accents are descended- are descended directly from the earlier pre-French sound of English.

Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco, a versatile writer with a distinct voice, creates compelling long-form and short-form content for various...
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