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Old English Dialects



1. Old English Dialects:

In the 6th century, the gradual change from clans to feudalism began and the English settled down into a number of small kingdoms. There were seven kingdoms at the end of the 6th century: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex, Wessex.

Old English was not an entirely uniform language. On the one hand, there were differences between the language of the earliest written records (about 700 AD) and that of the later literary texts; on the other hand, the language differed from one locality to another.

The manuscripts that have been preserved enable us to establish the chief dialects. There were four dialects in Old English: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, West Saxon.

i. The Northumbrian Dialect extended from the Humber into the Lowlands of Scotland. It had been brought to Britain by Anglian tribes. The dialect is preserved mainly in charters¹, runic inscriptions, some translations of the Bible. The most important manuscripts written in the Northumbrian 343c27d dialect are Caedmon’s Hymn, Bede’s Death Song. Many manuscripts seem to belong to the 9th century. This dialect has a descendant in Lowland Scots.

ii. The Mercian Dialect, also brought by the Angles was spoken between the Humber and the Thames. As very few Mercian texts have been preserved, we know next to nothing about the Mercian dialect whose descendant was to become the basis of the national language in late Middle English.

iii. Kentish, the dialect of the Jutes, was spoken in the South - East (over an area slightly larger than the present county of Kent). This dialect is known from very few remains, a few glosses and charters.

iv. The West Saxon Dialect which was spoken south of the Thames (Wessex) had been brought to Britain by Saxon tribes.

Kent was the first to gain supremacy owing to the cultural superiority of its invaders and to the continuous contact with the continent. In the early part of the 7th century Northumbria enjoyed political and cultural supremacy over the other kingdoms. But in the 9th century this leadership passed to Wessex. Under King Alfred the Great, who ruled between 871 – 889, Wessex attained a high degree of prosperity and enlightenment. In the 9th century, the West Saxon dialect began to be used as a sort of common literary language owing to the hegemony established by King Alfred the Great and to the influence of his writings. The major part of Old English literature has survived in the West Saxon Dialect.

Old English Literature: The language of a past time is known by the quality of its literature. It is in literature that a language displays its full power, its ability to convey in vivid and memorable forms the thoughts and emotions of a people. The literature of the Anglo-Saxons is one of the richest and most significant of any literature preserved among the early Germanic peoples. The oldest are several glosses and glossaries belonging to the 8th and 9th centuries.

Old English Poetry is best represented by Beowulf. It is a long poem (some 3,000 lines) relating the life and death of a great hero Beowulf. It is at the same time a very important record of the language at that time.

Anglo-Saxon poets sang of the things that entered most deeply into their experience: they sang of war, of exile, the sea with its hardships and its fascination, of minstrel life.

Old English poetry also comprised verse paraphrases of the Scripture (such as Genesis and Exodus by Caedmon), sacred poems by Cynewulf, legends from the lives of the saints, didactic poems, elegies.

Old English Prose: In the development of literature, prose generally comes late. Verse is more effective for oral delivery because it is more easily retained in memory. It is, therefore, a rather remarkable fact that English preserved a large body of prose literature in the 9th century.

Old English prose is less interesting than Old English poetry. It is mostly a scholarly production written by monks and scholars. Still, we must mention the name of The Venerable Bede who left us many interesting data about the history of England down to 731 in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (written in Latin).

English preserved a considerable body of prose literature in the 9th century also due to King Alfred who made considerable efforts to promote learning. In order to spread culture among his people he translated (or had scholars translate) several Latin works into the West Saxon dialect. He translated historical works like Orosius’ Universal History or History of the World (Historia Mundi) and moral treatises like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (De Consolatione philosophiae) in order to popularize them.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, started by Alfred the Great and continued after his death up to 1154 is a valuable historical and linguistic document of the Old English period.

Another scholar who promoted learning was the abbot Alfric. His works comprise a collection of homilies, a translation of the first seven books of the Bible and religious treatises. He also compiled a Latin Grammar in the vernacular.

Present-day knowledge of Old English is rather limited; most texts are written in the West Saxon dialect. The vocabulary of the texts is either highly poetic or limited to religious terms. It hardly contained any everyday words or phrases (what we might call ‘colloquial English’). In the prose works, the construction of the sentence was very much influenced by the Latin sentence.

2. Old English Spelling and Pronunciation

Like all the Germanic tribes (of Germany and Scandinavia) at a very early stage, the English used certain angular letters called runes, for writing charms and inscriptions upon monuments. The runes were angular and rectangular avoiding curves because of the writing surface (stone, slips of wood, bark) and the writing instrument (knife).

After the introduction of Christianity (597), the English adopted a form of the Latin alphabet.

Spelling was phonetic in Old English, whereas nowadays it is etymological.

The main characteristics of the spelling system of Old English were the following:

i. The vowel sounds were represented by long and short monophthongs and long and short diphthongs: long vowels were marked by an acute accent (macron) placed above a letter: e.g. mētan (meet), hūs (house), bōc (book), stan (stone), (cow)

ii. The digraph æ was a letter, not a phonetic symbol as it is now; it represented the sound [æ], as in:

bæc (back), fæder (father)

iii. Consonants were much the same as they are in Modern English. Nevertheless, a few exceptions can be pointed out:

The letter c stood for two sounds:

- [k] before consonants or before back vowels (a, o),

- [t before front vowels (i, e)

e.g. cræft (craft), catt (cat), cōl (cool)

cīld (child), cēosan (choose)

The digraph sc stood for [ as represented by sh in Modern English: e.g. scip (ship), fisc (fish)

The letter h represented two different sounds:

- initially, before vowels, it was simply an aspirate, as it is now [h]: e.g. hūs (house)

- medially and finally (usually before consonants), it stood for the voiceless velar fricative sound [χ] which we still find now in the Scottish dialect, i.e. a harsh, guttural fricative (e.g. in the word loch):

e.g. rīht (right), lēoht (light), dohtor (daughter)

The letter ʒ corresponded to two sounds:

- [g] when it occurred initially and medially:

e.g. ʒ læd (glad), doʒʒ a (dog)

[i] when it occurred finally: dæʒ (day)

iv. Old English made use of two characters – T and δ to represent the sounds which are now represented by the digraph th: e.g. Tanc (thank), tōT (tooth), baδian (bathe)

By the year 900 these two characters had been replaced by means of the digraph th under he influence of the Latin spelling of the Greek letter θ (theta)

v. There were no silent consonants in Old English:

e.g. cniht (> knight)

vi. Double consonants usually occurred in the middle of the word: e.g. habban (have), tellan (tell), sittan (sit)

Old English Vocabulary

The Old English vocabulary is almost purely Germanic. An Old English dictionary contains about 20,000 words of which only a few hundred are not Germanic.

About 85 per cent of the Old English vocabulary have gone out of use now. Many of the Old English words that have disappeared were replaced in Middle English by other words (of French, Latin origin) or are now archaic, dialectal.

Nevertheless, the 15 per cent of the words that have been preserved constitute the basic word stock and this is of Germanic origin.

Nowadays, although more than half of the words to be found in an English dictionary are of Romance origin (French, Latin) the basic word stock of the English language has remained mostly Germanic. Indeed, despite large-scale borrowings, the native element (i.e. Germanic) forms the foundation of the Modern English vocabulary (it is at the core of the language). The native word stock stands for fundamental things dealing with everyday objects: names of the nearest family relationships, parts of the body, plants, animals, tools, colours, everyday activities, etc. The native word stock includes auxiliary and modal verbs, pronouns, most numerals, prepositions, and conjunctions, most verbs of the strong conjugation (irregular verbs).

Means of Enriching the Vocabulary in Old English

To one unfamiliar with Old English, it might seem that a language which lacked the large number of words borrowed from French and Latin, which now form such an important part of the English vocabulary, such a language would be somewhat limited in resources. This is, however, not so. The language at that early stage showed great flexibility, resourcefulness.

The principal means of enriching the vocabulary in Old English were word formation (building) and borrowing, the former device being much more frequent than the latter.

1. Word formation (Building)

The main devices of word formation (building) were affixation and composition. The two devices were sometimes intermingled.


a) Prefixes

The use of prefixes was particularly an important feature in the formation of verbs. There were about a dozen prefixes which occurred with great frequency, such as be-, for-, ʒe-, mis-, to-, wiT-.

i. The prefix for- indicated destruction: fordōn (kill, destroy), forsettan (obstruct). The prefix is still found in a few verbs: forgo (give up, manage without), forsake (desert), etc.

ii. The prefix mis- had a negative meaning as in mislīcian (dislike), mishyran (not to listen to, to disobey). The prefix survives, but it is not so productive as it was in Old English: mislead, misprint, mistake.

iii. The prefix to- has the same value as the German zer- (‘asunder’), e.g. tobrecan (destroy, break to pieces).

iv. The prefix wiT- entered into more than 50 Old English verbs where it had the meaning of ‘against’. Of the 50 verbs only a few are still in use now: withstand, withdraw, withhold (keep back, refuse to give).

A very striking difference between Old English and Modern English vocabulary is the fact that a large number of borrowings as well as Verb + adverbial particle combinations (‘phrasal verbs’) have replaced verbs which in Old English were derived from other verbs with the help of prefixes. Thus, the verb settan gave birth to besettan (appoint), forsettan (obstruct), unsettan (put down), wiTsettan (resist), etc.

b) Suffixes

Noun-forming suffixes were often closely linked with the grammatical category of gender. Thus, the suffix –ere was generally used to form masculine nouns denoting profession, e.g. fiscere (fisher), wrītere (writer).

The suffix –estre was used for feminine nouns denoting professions, e.g. spinnestre “woman who spins” (Modern English spinster ‘unmarried, single woman’).

Certain words came to be used as suffixes: thus, we find had (‘state’, ‘condition’) in words such as cīldhad (childhood). The word scipe (from the verb scipan ‘to shape’, ‘to create’) appears in words like freondscipe (friendship).

Adjective - forming suffixes:

The suffix -iʒ was used to form adjectives from nouns: mistiʒ (misty) from mist; -īsiʒ (“icy) from īs (ice).

With the help of the suffix –isc adjectives were formed from nouns: mannisc ‘human’, ‘mannish’), folcisc (popular), Anʒlisc (English).

The suffix –full was used to build adjectives from nouns: carefull (careful), synfull (sinful).

The suffix –leas from the adjective leas (‘devoid of’, ‘without’) served to form adjectives from nouns: slæpleas (sleepless), mōdleas (spiritless)

Composition: Word composition was extremely productive in Old English, being based on self-explaining compounds.

Self-explaining compounds are compounds of two or more native words whose meaning in combination is self-evident. In Modern English steamboat or railway are examples of such words. This type of composition was extremely prevalent in Old English as it is in Modern German. Where Modern English has resorted to borrowings made up of elements derived from Latin and Greek, Modern German still prefers self-explaining compounds. Thus, German uses the compound (das) Fernsehen (‘far-see’) for television, a word whose Greek and Latin elements mean just what the German word does.

Compound nouns were generally formed of two nouns:

e.g. eorTcræft (geometry), mōdTcræft (intelligence)

Sometimes the first word in the compound was in the Genitive case:

Anʒlaland, i.e ‘the land of the Angles’ >England;

Mōnandæʒ, i.e. ‘the day of the Moon’ > Monday

There was a close connection between derivation and composition. Quite a number of notions which are rendered in Modern English by means of Latin, French, Greek or other loan words, were expressed in Old English by compounds and derivatives, such as ʒiestliTnes (ʒiest = guest; liT = gracious; -nes = -ness) = ‘hospitality’.

2. Foreign influences on Old English (Borrowings)

Old English was not merely the product of the dialects brought to England by the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. These dialects formed its basis: the sole basis of its grammar and the source of the largest part of its vocabulary. But there were elements of other languages which entered into Old English vocabulary. In the course of its existence in England – 700 years - Old English vocabulary was brought into contact with three other languages, the languages of the Celts, the Romans and the Scandinavians. From each of these contacts, it shows certain effects, especially additions it its vocabulary.

Celtic loan words

From the fact that the original language of Britain was Celtic, it might be expected that numerous Celtic elements would have become absorbed into Old English, but actually very few were.

The relations between the Germanic invaders and the conquered Celts have been much debated by historians. As very few words of Celtic origin seem to have been traced in the English language, some historians assumed that the English invaders had killed all those Britons (i.e. Celts) who had not run away into the mountainous districts. In fact, the Celts were by no means exterminated except in certain areas and in most of England large numbers of Celts were gradually absorbed by their Saxon conquerors. The supposition of total extermination is ruled out from the distribution of Celtic place names: In the east, the bulk of the population was English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) and the Britons who survived in that area were enslaved. The further west we go (Wales, Cornwall), the greater becomes the number of Britons in the population.

Celtic elements survive in place names, especially in the south - west, e.g. 80 per cent place names in Cornwall are of Celtic origin. Thus, Kent, Devon, Dover, Cornwall, London are of Celtic origin.

But the greatest number of Celtic names survives in the names of rivers and hills. Thus, the Thames is a Celtic river name, and various Celtic words for ‘river’ are preserved in the name Avon (e.g. Stratford on Avon), in the name Aber (meaning ‘the mouth of a river’) as found in Aberdeen (used as a prefix).

Apart from place names, the influence of Celtic upon Old English vocabulary was an extremely slight one, probably because the Germanic conquerors had enough terms to denote the various notions existing at the time.

Latin loan words

If the influence of Celtic upon Old English vocabulary was slight, it was doubtless because the relation of the Celts to the Anglo-Saxons was that of a subjugated race and because the Celts were not in a position to make any notable contribution to Anglo-Saxon civilization.

It was quite otherwise with the second great influence exerted upon English – that of Latin – and the circumstances under which they met. Latin was not the language of a conquered people. It was the language of a higher civilization, a civilization from which the English had much to learn. Contact with that civilization extended over many centuries: it began long before the Anglo-Saxons came to Britain and continued throughout the Old English period.

There were two distinct occasions on which borrowings from Latin occurred in the Old English period:

a) The first period of Latin borrowings – during the Roman occupation (43 AD until the middle of the 5th century). During the first period the contact was military and commercial.

b) The second period of Latin borrowings began with the introduction of Christianity into Britain in 597. The contact was religious and intellectual. This was the most important influence of Latin upon Old English. It lasted over 500 years and it brought a large number of new words into the English language.

Even after the Danish invasion Latin remained the language of learning. This fact was going to facilitate later Latin influences as well as French influences (in the Middle and Modern English period).

The words borrowed from Latin may be subdivided into several categories:

i. Terms connected with military life (introduced during the first period of Latin borrowings):

e.g. wæl (<L. vallum) ‘ wall’

stræt (<L. strata via) ‘street’, ‘road’

The Latin word castra (camp) acquired in Old English the meaning of ‘town’. It is to be found in various Old English place names ending in -cæster. In Modern English, in the North and East of England, the term became spelled –caster (as in Lancaster); in the Midlands it became respelled –cester (as in Leicester, Worcester); and in the South and West it became respelled chester (as in Manchester, Dorchester).

ii. Terms connected with domestic life, clothes, food:

e.g. cīese (<L. caseus) ‘cheese’; pipor ‘pepper’

butere (<L. butyrum) ‘butter’; wīn ‘wine’

disc (<L. discus) ‘dish’

iii. Terms connected with trade:

e.g. pund ‘pound’, cēap ‘cheap’, ‘bargain’

iv. Ecclesiastical, religious terms (introduced during the second period of Latin borrowings):

e.g. ælmese ‘alms’; abbod ‘abbot’; biscop ‘biscop’;

candel ‘candle’; deofol ‘devil’; munuc ‘monk’;

nunna ‘nun’; preost ‘priest’

v. Terms connected with education, learning:

e.g. scōl ‘school’; mæʒister ‘master’; fers ‘verse’

The extent of the Latin influence.

To be sure, the extent of a foreign influence is most readily seen in the number of words borrowed. The two periods of Latin borrowings introduced about 450 words into Old English. About 100 of these were purely learned, but the rest – about 350 – may be really considered part of the English vocabulary and most of them were fully accepted and assimilated. (The real test of a foreign influence is the degree to which a word is assimilated, i.e. how completely a word could be derived or could be converted, just like native words).

Most Latin borrowings could be converted into other parts of speech or could be combined with native affixes, giving many hybrid² derivatives. Thus, native suffixes such as -had, -dōm were used to turn a concrete noun (of Latin origin) into an abstract one: martyrhad, martyrdōm.

The Latin influence of the second period was not only extensive but thorough as well and marks the real beginning of the English habit of freely incorporating foreign elements into its vocabulary.

Scandinavian loan words

Near the end of the old English period, the English language underwent another foreign influence – the result of the contact with another important language – the Scandinavian (Danish).

The Scandinavians were the Germanic inhabitants of the Scandinavian Peninsula and Denmark, so they were closely related to the Anglo-Saxons in language and blood. For centuries, the Scandinavians had lived quietly in their northern homes, but in the 8th century some changes – possibly economic and possibly political ones – occurred in that area ad provoked among them a spirit of unrest and adventurous enterprise. They began a series of attacks upon all the lands adjacent to the North Sea. The incursions of the Scandinavians or Norsemen – commonly known as Vikings – started in the year 787, gradually developing from pirate raids to campaigns of armies attempting to conquer territories and settle down. King Alfred put up a brave struggle against them and in 878 an agreement was reached by which England was divided into two halves. The north and the East were occupied by the Danes – a region which came to be known as Danelaw, that is, the country under the law of the Danes. The South and West remained occupied by the Anglo-Saxons – region known as Saxon England. The Danes reached the peak of their conquest and achievement in 1016 when the Danish king Canute became king of England. As he had also conquered Norway, from his English capital, he ruled the whole Scandinavian world.

All these events had as an important consequence the settlement of numerous Scandinavians (Danes and Norwegians) in England, which exerted a powerful influence and left a lasting imprint on the Old English language.

The settlement of numerous Scandinavians accounts for the large number of places bearing Scandinavian names. In England there are more than 1400 places bearing Scandinavian names:

a) Thus, there are about 600 place names ending in –by (the Danish word for ‘town’) such as Derby, Whitby. There are also place names ending in –bury (the Danish word for ‘borough’) such as Canterbury; also in –wich (the Danish term for ‘creek’) such as Ipswich, Greenwich. Most of these places are, naturally, in the North and East of England, for it was here that the majority of the invaders settled.

Besides place names, Scandinavian loan-words refer to:

b) War and especially to navy: most of the loan words have not been preserved in the language because they were replaced by French words in Middle English after the Norman Conquest.

c) Law: most Danish law terms were later replaced by French words. Some words which have been preserved are: laʒu (law), Træl (thrall).

d) The greatest number of Scandinavian loan-words refer to everyday life: commonplace objects, customs, actions, feelings, etc. (examples in Modern English): anger, crop, guess, scale, scar, skill, skin, want, window, happy, ill, wrong, law, ugly, to call, to die, to scare, to scream, to take, etc.

In order to estimate the Scandinavian influence, it is important to remember how great the similarity between Old English (abbreviated to OE) and Old Norse (abbreviated to ON) was. The English and the Scandinavians were able to understand one another without the help of interpreters because a large number of words were almost identical in form and meaning. A very large number of words had the same root, only their endings were different, e.g. OE. dōm – ON dōmr; OE. oxa - ON. oxe, etc.

Many Scandinavian words that have been introduced into the language were in use side by side with the corresponding English words. Eventually, one of the following phenomena occurred:

a) In some cases, it was the Scandinavian word that prevailed; e.g. the Scandinavian word syster (> sister) replaced the OE form sweostor. Also, the Scandinavian taka (> take) replaced the OE nīman (G.: nehmen); the Scandinavian angr (> anger) replaced the OE irre, etc.

b) In other cases, it was the English word that survived, while the Scandinavian word finally disappeared or subsists only dialectally, e.g. O.N. kirk subsists as the dialectal Scottish equivalent of church.

c) Sometimes, both the English and the Scandinavian word were retained, developing a difference in meaning and / or use:

e.g. O.E. craft / O.N. skill; O.E. from / O.N. fro (in ‘to and fro’)

no / nay; whole / hale (hale and hearty);

blossom / bloom; hide / skin; evil / ill

The influence of Scandinavian was not confined to nouns, adjectives, verbs, but it extended to pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs and even a part of the frequently used verb be. Such parts of speech are not often transferred from one language to another. Thus, the pronouns Teir (they), Teirra (their), Teim (them) replaced the native forms hie, hiera, him probably because of the ambiguity of these forms (they might have been confused with forms of singular). The pronouns both and same are of Scandinavian origin, the preposition fro, the conjunction though.

One of the most significant adoptions is the Present Tense plural form of the verb to be: are, which replaced the native forms sind, sindon.

A certain number of inflectional elements have been attributed to Scandinavian influence, among others the –s of the 3rd person singular Present Tense, Indicative Mood.

The Scandinavian settlers, mainly Danes and Norwegians, came to live close together with the English. The resulting mixture seems to have shed much of Old English morphology. They also helped to speed up the process of wearing away and levelling the intricate system of inflectional endings Old English had shared with the other West Germanic dialects.

Inflectional endings could become redundant because they had been losing their force and significance, which had gradually been taken over by (fixed) word order and other syntactic features, innovations (D. Giering, 1979: 12)

In syntax, the omission of the relative pronoun in Relative Clauses and the omission of the conjunction that is in conformity with Danish usage. Also, the use of the preposition in postposition is not to be found in the other Germanic languages, except in Danish.

e.g. The man I talked to.

4. Old English Grammar

Grammar is the most fundamental feature that distinguishes Old English from Modern English. Old English was a synthetic language whereas Modern English is an analytic language.

A synthetic language is one which indicates the relations of words in a sentence largely by means of inflections. In its grammar, Old English resembles modern German: Old English had a very rich inflectional system: the noun, the pronoun, the adjective were declined; the verb had distinctive endings for different persons, numbers, tenses and moods; the adjective had distinctive endings for each of the three genders.

Since, during the Old English period, the endings of the noun, the adjective and the verb were preserved, Old English is generally referred to as the period of full endings or full inflections. Middle English is referred to as the period of levelled endings, and Modern English the period of lost endings.

We shall illustrate the nature of the Old English inflections in the following paragraphs.

4.1. The Noun

Number and case

The inflection of the Old English noun indicated distinctions of number (singular and plural) and case (the Old English noun had four cases). The endings of these cases fall into certain broad categories or declensions. There is a vowel declension (also called strong declension) and a consonant declension (or weak declension) according to whether the stem ended in a vowel or a consonant in Common Germanic and within each of these types there are certain subdivisions. The stems of nouns belonging to the vowel declension ended in one of four vowels: a, o, i or u and the inflection varies accordingly.

It is impossible here to present the inflections of the Old English noun in detail. Their nature may be gathered from two examples of the strong declension: stan ‘stone’ (masculine) and word ‘word’ (neuter):

Sg. N. stan (masculine) word (neuter):

G. stanes wordes

D. stane worde

A. stan word

Pl. N. stanas word

G. stana worda

D. stanum wordum

A. stanas word

It is apparent from these examples that the inflection of the noun was much more elaborate in Old English than it is today. Even these few paradigms clearly illustrate the marked synthetic character of English in its earliest stage.

The declension to which neuter nouns belonged in Old English differed from the declension of masculine nouns only in the Nominative and Accusative plural (zero ending). Old English nouns such as deer, swine, sheep have the same form for the singular and the plural because in Old English they were neuter.

Some nouns formed their Nominative and Accusative plurals in Old English by changing the vowel of the stem. Not very many Old English nouns belonged to this declension but about half of them have kept this method of forming the plural until the present day, with the result that we have the plural forms men(n) (sg. man(n)), fēt (sg. fōt), tēT (sg. tōT) etc.


Just as in Indo-European languages generally, the gender of Old English noun was not dependent upon meaning or considerations of sex. While animate nouns designating males were generally masculine (man(n), fæder) and females were generally feminine (modor, dohtor), those indicating objects (inanimate) were not necessarily neuter. Stan (stone) was masculine (< G. der Stein), mōna (moon) was masculine but sunne (sun) was feminine as in German (in German (der) Mond (moon) is masculine, (die) Sonne (sun) is feminine.

Quite often the gender of Old English nouns was illogical. Words like mæʒden (maiden, girl), wīf (wife), cīld (child) which we should expect to be feminine or masculine, were in fact neuter, while wīfman (woman) was masculine because the second element of the compound was masculine.

The simplicity of Modern English gender is one of the chief assets of the language. Gender in Modern English is determined by meaning: all nouns naming living creatures (beings) belong to the masculine or feminine gender, according to the sex of the individual and all other nouns (inanimate) are neuter.

Attributive gender, as when we speak of a ship as feminine or the sun and moon as masculine or feminine is personification and a matter of rhetoric not grammar.

The Adjective

The adjective was fully declined in Old English, having three genders, two numbers and four cases (sometimes also a fifth case: the Instrumental).

There were two types of adjective declension; the strong and the weak declension. The strong declension was used with nouns that were not accompanied by a determiner. The weak declension was used with nouns that were preceded by a determiner, such as a definite article, a demonstrative or a possessive adjective.

Strong declension ʒōd man(n) ‘good man’

Weak declension se ʒōda man(n) ‘the good man’

The declension of the adjective ʒōd (good) in the singular:

Strong declension Weak declension


N. ʒōd ʒōd ʒōd ʒōda ʒōde ʒōde

G. ʒōdes ʒōdre ʒōdes ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdan

D. ʒōdum ʒōdre ʒōdum ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōdan

Ac. ʒōdne ʒōde ʒōd ʒōdan ʒōdan ʒōde

I. ʒōde ʒōde

As far as the comparison of adjectives was concerned, adjectives were compared by adding –ra for the comparative of superiority and est /-ost for the relative superlative: ʒlæd -ʒlædra -ʒlædost

As in other Indo-European languages the comparison of certain adjectives was based on different roots, forming suppletive systems:

e.g. ʒōd – betra –betst (good –better – best)

yfel – wyrsa –wyrst (evil/bad – worse – worst)

micel – maramæst (much – more – most)

The Pronoun: The Pronoun comprised several categories in Old English: personal, possessive, demonstrative, relative, interrogative, indefinite.

The personal pronouns: The personal pronouns in Old English had distinctive forms for persons, cases, gender (for the third person singular) and number. Besides the ordinary two numbers – singular and the plural – there was a third number, the dual used for two persons or two things (first and second person). The forms of the first person personal pronoun:

sg. N. ic (I) Pl. N. (we)

G. mīn (mine) G. ūre (ours)

Obj. (me) Obj. us (us’)

Dual N. wit (we two)

G. uncer

Obj. unc

From the frequency if its use and the necessity for specific reference when used, the personal pronoun has preserved the system of inflections in Modern English. The distinction between the dual and the plural, which was an unnecessary complication in language, has disappeared in Modern English.

The demonstrative pronoun: There were two fully developed demonstrative pronouns in Old English: the Simple demonstrative and the Emphasized demonstrative.

a) The Simple demonstrative originally meant ‘that’. Its meaning was often weakened expressing the function of the definite article. The forms of the Simple demonstrative for the Nominative case were the following:

singular . plural

M. F. N. (all genders)

sē sēo Tæt Ta

For example: se grund ‘the ground’; sēo eorTe ‘the earth’; Tæt land ‘the land’.

b) The Emphasized demonstrative corresponds to ‘this’. Its forms for the Nominative case were the following:

singular plural

M. F. N. (all genders)

Tes Teos Tis Tas

The Verb

As in all Germanic languages, there were two large classes of verbs: the strong and the weak verbs. These two classes of verbs were distinguished in the following way:

a) The Past Tense in strong verbs was formed by vowel gradation/change, while in weak verbs was formed by adding a dental suffix (-de, -te) to the stem of the present.

e.g. strong verb: drincan – dranc (drink – drank)

weak verb: hælan – hælde (heal –healed)

b) The Past Participle of strong verbs was formed by adding –on / -en, and that of weak verbs by adding -ed.

e.g. strong verb: drincan – drancdruncon (drink – drank - drunk)

weak verb: hælan – hældehæled (heal – healed - healed)

c) The Past Tense, second person singular in strong verbs was marked by the ending –e, while in weak verbs it was marked by adding est:

e.g. strong verb: Tu name (you took)

weak verb: Tu dēmdest (you judged / thought)

In Modern English these characteristics partly persist:

a) The first one (Past Tense) has been preserved, but the final –e of weak verbs has disappeared, leaving no difference between the Past Tense and the Past Participle (both ended in –d).

b) The second characteristic (Past Participle) has been preserved, except that many of the strong verbs have lost the ending –on/-en.

c) The third characteristic (second person singular) no longer exists.


In Old English there were three finite moods (the Indicative, the Subjunctive and the Imperative) and three non-finite moods (the Infinitive, the Present Participle and the Past Participle).

The Subjunctive Mood, of which there are only a few traces left in Modern English, was widely used in Old English, especially in subordinate clauses. The underlying principle, which determined the use of the Subjunctive in Subordinate clauses in Old English, was that the Subjunctive was required in all dependent statements which do not express a fact:

e.g. ic ascode hine hwæt 3æt wære

‘I asked him what that were (= was)’.

The Infinitive. There were two Infinitive forms in Old English:

a)      The Simple Infinitive ending in –an:

e.g. hē onʒan sinʒan ‘he began to sing’

b) The Prepositional Infinitive was formed with the preposition to and the dative case of a verbal noun ending in anne:

e.g. sele us flæsc to etanne ‘give us meat to eat’

Both the –an and the anne inflections were later levelled and lost and the preposition to came to be used very frequently with the infinitive, gradually losing its initial meaning (direction, purpose, intention). Eventually, to was no longer felt as a preposition, but as a particle, a part of the so-called Long Infinitive. The Simple infinitive is still used with shall, can, may, let, make, see, etc.

As far as tenses are concerned, the situation was rather different from what it is nowadays. Thus, the Past Tense indicated a past action having no connection with the present (i.e. corresponding to the Past Tense of Modern English), or a past action related to the present (i.e. corresponding to the Present Perfect of Modern English).

On the other hand, a construction corresponding to the Present Perfect in later English was sometimes used for expressing a past action that had no relation with the present. It was formed with habban when the verb was transitive and with beon when the verb was intransitive.

e.g. Hē is ʒecumen. (“He is come”)

In Old English there existed no special tense for denoting a past action completed before another past action, i.e. there was no Past Perfect. The simple Past Tense was generally resorted to, the context indicating the time of the action. Sometimes the construction hæfde + Past Participle was used to express a past action accomplished before another past action, but the process was completed only in Middle English, when the construction became the Past Perfect.

There was no Future Tense and the notion of futurity was either expressed by the Present Tense, sometimes together with an adverbial modifier of time or, rather infrequently, by means of the verbs sculan and willan in association with the Infinitive. The former verb – sculan - expressed the idea of obligation, the latter – willan – expressed the idea of wish or intention.

e.g. se ʒast Te ic eow asendan wille (‘the spirit that I to you to send intend’ – the spirit

that I intend to send to you)

The conjugation of the verb in Old English had twice as many forms as there are in Modern English, owing to the well developed Subjunctive and especially to the fact that the forms of the plural differed from those of the singular.

4.5. Syntax

In Old English, syntax was based on inflection. Very few grammatical relationships depended on form words and none depended on word order.

In Old English word order was not very important as a means of denoting syntactic relations, owing to the rich inflectional system of the language. As in Latin, the place of words could be changed according to rhetorical purposes. It was equally possible to say:

Se man nam Ta bōc. (‘The man took the book’); Se man Ta bōc nam; Ta bōc nam se man.

The only difference between the sentences consists in the emphasis conferred on the words in front position.

Sometimes the Object preceded the Subject followed by the predicate:

e.g. Fela worda spræc se enʒel. (‘Many words spoke the angel’)

The order of the main parts of the sentence (Subject and Predicate) depended on the presence and absence of a secondary part of speech at the beginning of the sentence. When the sentence did not start with a secondary part of speech, the usual order was subject + predicate.

When the sentence began with a secondary part of speech such as Ta (“then”),(“now”), ne (“not”), etc. the order was usually inverted.

e.g. Ne can ic nōht sinʒan. (‘Cannot I nought sing > I cannot sing anything’)


¹ charter: a formal written statement made by a ruler (R. carta ,hrisov)

² hybrid: a word formed from parts of words belonging to different languages, e.g. monorail is a hybrid because mono- is Greek, rail is English.

³ suppletive: it is the grammar’s use of an unrelated form i.e. with a different root) to complete a paradigm, as in the present – past – Tense relationship of go – went, or the comparative form better in relation to good.


1. What letters, formerly used in the English writing system have passed out of common use?

2. Explain the relative paucity of Celtic loan - words in English.

What was the influence of the Scandinavian settlement on the English language?

4. Which dialect of Old English was the standard language and from which dialect has Modern English descended?

5. What are the main differences in word order between Old English and Modern English?

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