KATY DODD explains what Old English really looks like and how a string of invasions sparked a linguistic revolution
What do you think when you hear the term ‘Old English’? Does your mind conjure up Shakespeare’s sonnets, the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’ that you heard at GCSE or A-Level?
If your mind first went to Shakespeare, unfortunately, you’re thinking too far ahead. Shakespeare’s English, while revolutionary, was in many ways fairly similar to Present Day English, as seen in the following quote, taken from Romeo and Juliet.
“I take thee at thy word: Call me but love, and I'll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2, Lines 52-54)
Shakespeare’s plays are believed to have been written between the years 1592 to 1616, during what scholars such as Britain (2009, p.10) identify as the Early Modern English period - that is, the years around 1500 to 1700.
Hwæt! Is this actually English?
Old English, in contrast to the above, looks something like this excerpt taken from the opening three lines to Beowulf, an Old English epic.
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
(R. M. Liuzza, 2000)
So actual ‘Old English’, from a linguistic perspective is, to the uninitiated, almost unrecognisable from the English we use today, and indeed Shakespeare plays.
For those of you who aren’t naturally gifted at Old English translation, the present-day translation is as follows:
“What! We of the Spear-Danes in days-of-yore
of the people-kings glory heard,
how the noblemen valor did.”
With this in mind, it's important to note that not a lot is known about written Old English. Barely anybody could write, there was no one form of standardised writing, and stories were transmitted largely through word of mouth, instead of being written down and preserved. Smith (2005, p.48) notes that “[o]ur knowledge of OE usage derives from the analysis of spelling” in a handful of preserved texts as seen in the texts mentioned above that have been preserved throughout the ages.
Speaking Old English
Now, it would probably help to introduce you to some of the finer points of Old English, so that you can get a feel for the language and to see if you can identify any words that look similar to those we use today.
It may help to keep in mind that it is generally understood that Old English was written in a way that accurately reflects the pronunciation of the time, so each letter mostly represented a consistent sound – there were no silent letters or confusing vowel combinations like ‘ough’.
When I first started to learn about Old English, I struggled to get my head around these differences, whilst also having to learn how to use ‘macrons’ (the little dashes above letters), which means that the vowel needs to be elongated. This also means I spent quite a long time making myself laugh when I over-enunciated vowels, but that’s all part of the joy of learning Old English!
So, in the case of the sentence below, the words ‘wīsa’, ‘hūs’ and ‘stān’ are pronounced as ‘ee’, ‘oo’, and ‘a’ is in ‘father’ respectively.
“Se wīsa wer timbrode his hūs ofer stān.”
“The wise man built his house on stone.”
(See the overly-smug fellow on the right!)
Having read these two sentences, you should be able to recognise elements of the Old English words such as ‘wisa’, ‘his’, ‘hus’, ‘ofer’ and ‘stan’, and maybe even ‘Se’ which mirror their present-day counterparts, thus highlighting how Old English really did lay the foundations for Present Day English (PDE) as we know it!
Keeping this new information in the forefront of your mind, now it’s time to introduce you to some more of the history of this rich language, a history that’s full of invasions and inflections alike.
Angling for a fight!
The roots of English as we know it began to take hold during what scholars refer to as the Old English period (Britain, 2009, p.10), which spans the years from 450 to 1100 A.D. These dates are based on the first invasion of the Anglo-Saxons and the invasion of the Normans in 1066, and the French influence resulted in the transition of the language into the Middle English period.
The original Brits are often cited as being the Celtic tribes who were colonised by the Roman Empire in 44 A.D. Their language and culture was highly influential in what we now called Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but had minimal influence on the development of Old English - also referred to as ‘Anglo Saxon’ - apart from a few words, such as the river and place names, ‘Avon’, ‘Exe’, ‘Dover’ and ‘Wye’.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 A.D., the Germanic tribes of the Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes migrated to England, and this is what marked the beginnings of English as a distinct language. However, it took until the 9th century before the language was referred to as English or ‘englisc’, as it was spelt then (Milroy, 2007, p.10). The name ‘England’ literally means ‘land of the Angles’.
Christianity - and along with it, Latin - was introduced to the Anglo-Saxon people in 597 A.D., thus playing an important role in the conservation and content of the earliest written forms of the English language. This is because, along with Christianity came the monks, who took on the role of compiling information in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a text which details important events from 890 A.D. until the mid-1100s, and who also wrote poetry such as Caedmon’s Hymn (presumably written during around 670 A.D.) and The Dream of the Cross.
The invasion of the Scandinavians – more commonly known as the Vikings - in the 870s was also largely influential on the Old English language, as it is the Old Norse language that was used by the monks for academic, writing purposes. Evidence of this can be seen when looking at the grammar of the language, with the most noteworthy (and influential) addition to the language being the introduction of the third person plural pronouns ‘they/them/their’ and lots of harsh monosyllabic words beginning with /sk/ - ‘sky’, ‘scrape’, ‘skid’, ‘scale’, ‘skid’, ‘skip’ and ‘skin’. Other additions to the language came in the form of place names, which can still be seen today in places around England which contain the ‘-by’ suffix (of which there are over 600 – see Burnby ('farm by a stream') and Westerby ('western farm')
So, if this short introduction to Old English has left you wanting more, I’d recommend having a look at Thijs Porck’s WordPress blog post on ‘Composing Old English: A Do-It-Yourself Guide’, as he offers further examples of how to translate Present Day English into Old English.
Gōde wyrde! Or as we say in Present Day English: Good Luck!
Britain, D. (2007). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge Univ. Press.
Crystal, D. (2018). Old English. Bl.uk. Retrieved from https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons/articles/old-english.
Cædmon's Hymn: a Modern English Translation of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Poem (Retrieved from http://thehypertexts.com/C%C3%A6dmon%27s%20Hymn%20Translation.htm).
Florman, B. Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 2 Translation | Shakescleare, by LitCharts. LitCharts. Retrieved from https://www.litcharts.com/shakescleare/shakespeare-translations/romeo-and-juliet/act-2-scene-2.
Koivisto-Kokko, V. (2021). Old English Online - Advanced Pronunciation Guide. Oldenglish.info. https://oldenglish.info/advpronunciationguide.html.
Liuzza, R. M. (2000). Beowulf: A new verse translation. Broadview Press.
The Dream of the Rood, Old English Version (http://www.apocalyptic-theories.com/literature/dor/oeodora1.html).
Porck, Thijs. (2019, November 1) Composing Old English: A Do-It-Yourself Guide. THIJS PORCK. https://thijsporck.com/2019/11/01/composing-old-english-a-do-it-yourself-guide/.
Timeline of Shakespeare's plays | Royal Shakespeare Company. Rsc.org.uk. Retrieved from https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeares-plays/histories-timeline/timeline.
Smith, J. (2005). Essentials of early English. Taylor and Francis Group.
Written by Katy Dodd