Old English: The Anglo-Saxon Language









Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Language

(AD 449-1066)

Old English or Anglo-Saxon Language

  • the language of the Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) that invaded the British islands around 449 A.D. It continued to be used till the French Norman invasion of England in 1066 A.D.

Phonology (notice the sounds circled in the chart below were new in Old English and did not exist in Common Germanic)

Old English Consonants
examples: [ p ]: pat, [ b ]: bat, [ t ]: time, [ d ]: dime, [ k ]: came, [ g ]: game, [ tʃ ]: chump, []: jump, [ f ]: fat, [ θ ]: thigh [ s ]: sap, [ ʃ ]: sure/mash, [ h ]: ham, [ m ]: man, [ n ]: nun, [ l ]: lamp, [ r ]: ramp, [ w ]: world, [ y ]: yes/you

    The sounds [ ʃ ], [ tʃ ], [ dʒ ] did not exist in Common Germanic and were Old English innovations (derived from Common Germanic [sk], [k], [g]. Also [y] began to be used instead of Germanic [g] in certain situations. Examples:

      • The sound [k] in Common Germanic before a consonant or back vowel was preserved unchanged in Old English. Examples:

        • cyning ("king")
        • cniht ("knight")
        • claene ("clean")
        • corn ("corn")

      • Germanic [k] next to a front vowel was palatalized to [] :

        • cirice ("church")
        • ceaster ("castle")
        • ceap ("cheap")
        • cild ("child")

      • Germanic [sk] was palatalized to [ ʃ ] in all situations:

        • fisc ("fish")
        • sceotan ("to shoot")
        • scearp ("sharp")
        • scield ("shield")
        • wascan ("wash")

      • Germanic [g] before consonants and back vowels was preserved in Old English:

        • grimm ("fierce, savage ")
        • god ("god")
        • gōd ("good")

      • Germanic [g] in medial or final position was palatalized to [ ]:

        • brycg ("bridge")

      • Germanic [g] was palatalized to the semivowel [y] before or between front vowels:

        • gear ("year")
        • geoguþ ("youth")
        • giet ("yet")

    There were no phonemic voiced fricatives in Old English (i.e. these sounds did not exist yet in Old English: [v], [ð], [z], [ʒ])

    In Old English [h] was always pronounced. Examples:

    • hraefn ("raven")
    • hwael ("whale")
    • hand ("hand")
    • sihþ ("vision," "sight")
    • eahta ("eight")
    • heah ("high")
    • þurh ("through")

    Old English had distinctly pronounced consonant clusters ([hr], [hl], [hn], [hw], [kn], [gn]) (but they have been lost in modern English pronounciation). Examples:

    • hlaford ("lord")
    • hlaefdige ("lady")
    • hraefn, ("raven")
    • hlud ("loud")
    • hwaet ("what") (notice the original cluster is still spelled, in inverted order, but the [h] is not generally pronounced)
    • cneow ("knee") (notice the original cluster is still spelled but the first consonant is not pronounced)
    • gnaet: ("gnat") (notice the original cluster is still spelled but the first consonant is not pronounced)

Old English Vowels

The Old English vowels were [a], [æ], [ɛ], [i], [ɔ], [u]:

Old English Vowels

The [ə] likely existed as an allophone of other vowel sounds (mostly in unstressed positions) but was not phonemic in Old English.

Used as a vowel, in words like cyning ("king") the [y] was pronounced with rounding of the lips, as in German ü

Some phonological changes from Common Germanic to Old English:

    • FRONT MUTATION (also called i-umlaut,or i-mutation): if stressed syllable followed by unstressed syllable containing [i] or [y], the vowel in the stressed syllable was fronted or raised. Example:

      • In Germanic, the singular noun fōts ("foot") was fōtiz ("feet") in the plural. The [i] sound in the ending caused the ō in the root to be raised to ē in Old English, fēt, eventually resulting in Modern English feet. This also explains the singular/plural pairs: man/men, tooth/teeth, goose/geese, louse/lice


the root syllable took major stress e.g. mórgen ("morning"; compounds stressed on first element e.g. hwáelweg ("whale-way" "ocean")


At the beginning of Christian era, the alphabet employed by the Germanic peoples was the Futhark or Runic alphabet; the sixth-century Christianization of England led to the adoption of the Latin/Roman alphabet; handwriting in early Old English manuscripts was influenced by Irish scribes and is known as Insular hand. Example of Latin insular handwriting with Old English glosses:

Lindisfarne Gospels, Mark Incipit

Beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Lindisfarne Gospels (c. AD 715-720). Cotton Nero D.IV. British Library, London.

Special characters in Old English writing:

    • þ called the " thorn"; stood for the sound [θ] and later came to be spelled "th"; itwas borrowed from the runic alphabet; example: þæt ("that")
    • ð called the "eth"; also stood for the sound [θ] and later came to be spelled "th"; example: ðeoden ("prince")
    • æ called the "ash"; it was pronounced [æ] as in "mat"; the name "ash" is derived from the ANSUZ/OS ("ash tree") runic character, , that stood for the sound [a]. Phonologically, the runic alphabet represented the sound [æ] with the EIWAZ ("yew tree") rune,. Example of the use of the ash in Old English: ælf ("elf")
    • called the "wen" or "wynn" ("hope"); stood for the sound [w]; it was borrowed from the runic alphabet character called the WUNJO ("joy"). Example; ᚹæpen ("weapon")
    • ʒ was the Old English graphic sign for "g". Example: daeʒ ("day")

Sample of Old English writing:


Beowulf, Cotton Vitellius A.XV, Folio 132r. 11th century. British Library, London.

Punctuation: raised point to indicate pause; semicolon and inverted semicolon (punctus elevatus) also indicated pause


Loss of inflections: reduction of vowels in unstressed inflectional endings, need for syntactical support (word order) and prepositions

Old English nouns had grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), singular and plural number, and were also classified as "strong" or "weak" according to the distinctness of their inflectional endings. All of these classifications called for specific inflectional endings in each of the cases used in Old English: nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative.

Strong Noun Declension

Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine  
Singular Nominative bāt ("boat") scip ("ship) lufu ("love")  
  Accusative bāt scip lufe  
  Genitive bātes scipes lufe  
  Dative bāte scipe lufe  
Plural Nominative bātas scipu lufa  
  Accusative bātas scipu lufa  
  Genitive bāta scipa lufa  
  Dative bātum scipum lufum  


Weak Noun Declension

Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine  
Singular Nominative nama ("name") eage ("eye") tunge ("tongue")  
  Accusative naman eage tungan  
  Genitive naman eagan tungan  
  Dative naman eagan tungan  
Plural Nominative naman eagan tungan  
  Accusative naman eagan tungan  
  Genitive namena eagena tungena  
  Dative namum eagum tungum  


Demonstrative pronouns/adjectives
Demonstrative pronouns are forms like se ("that," "the") and þes (" this"). They were inflected according to gender, number, and case and had some instrumental forms.Demonstratives had to agree with their referents and with any nouns or other adjectives when used adjectivally.

Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine  
Singular Nominative se ("the") þaet seo  
  Accusative þone þaet þa  
  Genitive þaes þaes þaere  
  Dative þaem þaem þaere  
  Instrumental þy þy þaere  
Plural Nominative þa þa þa  
  Accusative þa þa þa  
  Genitive þara þara þara  
  Dative þaem þaem þaem  
  Instrumental þaem þaem þaem  

examples (notice the noun used in this examples, cyning ("king"), is a strong masculine noun):

  • se cyning ("the king")
  • þaes cyninges ("of the king")
  • þaem cyninge ("to the king")
  • þara cyninga ("of the kings")


Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine  
Singular Nominative þes ("this") þis þeos  
  Accusative þisne þis þas  
  Genitive þisses þisses þisse  
  Dative þissum þissum þisse  
  Instrumental þys þys þisse  
Plural Nominative þas þas þas  
  Accusative þas þas þas  
  Genitive þissa þissa þissa  
  Dative þissum þissum þissum  
  Instrumental þissum þissum þissum  

examples (notice the noun used in this example, cwen ("queen," "woman") is a strong feminine noun):

  • þeos cwen ("this queen")
  • þisse cwene ("to this queen" or "of this queen")
  • þissa cwena ("of these queens")


A given adjective could be inflected in either of two ways: 1) weak (when accompanied by a demonstrative, numeral, or possessive pronoun), or 2) strong (when it was accompanied by no supporting words). An adjective had to agree with its noun in gender, number, and case. Some adjectives had instrumental case forms (in addition to nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative).

Adjective Indefinite or Strong Declension

Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine  
Singular Nominative dol ("foolish") dol dolu  
  Accusative dolne dol dole  
  Genitive doles doles dolre  
  Dative dolum dolum dolre  
  Instrumental dole dole dolre  
Plural Nominative dole dolu dola  
  Accusative dole dolu dola  
  Genitive dolra dolra dolra  
  Dative dolum dolum dolum  

examples (notice cyning is a strong masculine noun):

  • dol cyning ("foolish king")
  • doles cyninges ("of the foolish king")
  • dolum cyninge "to the foolish king"

Adjective Definite or Weak Declension

Number Case Masculine Neuter Feminine  
Singular Nominative dola ("foolish") dole dole  
  Accusative dolan dole dolan  
  Genitive dolan dolan dolan  
  Dative dolan dolan dolan  
  Instrumental dolan dolan dolan  
Plural Nominative dolan dolan dolan  
  Accusative dolan dolan dolan  
  Genitive dolra dolra dolra  
  Dative dolum dolum dolum  


  • se dola cyning ("the foolish king")
  • þissa dolra cyninga ("of these foolish kings")
  • seo dole cwen ("the foolish queen")

Personal Pronouns
Personal pronouns had first, second and third person forms; singular, dual, and plural numbers; and were declined according to the standard cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative).

Number Case 1st Person 2nd Person 3rd Person m. 3rd Person n. 3rd Person f.
Singular Nominative ic ("I") þu ("you") he ("he") hit ("it") heo ("she")
  Accusative me þe hine hit hie
  Genitive min þin his his hiere
  Dative me þe him him hiere
Plural Nominative we ge hie hie hie
  Accusative us eow hie hie hie
  Genitive ure eower hiera hiera hiera
  Dative us eow him him him


  • ic lufie þe ("I love you") (notice the accusative case of "þe")

Interrogative pronouns

Case Masculine and Feminine Neuter  
Nominative hwa hwaet  
Accusative hwone hwaet  
Genitive hwaes hwaes  
Dative hwaem hwaem  
Instrumental hwy hwy  

example: hwa eart þu ("who are you?")

Other pronouns

Forms like þe (used as a relative pronoun, "the one that"), indefinite pronouns: aelc ("each"), hwilc ("which"), aenig ("any", eall ("all"), nan ("none"), swilc ("such"), sum ("some"), man ("one")


The infinitive forms of verbs end in the suffix -an (example, faran "to travel"); verbs are inflected for tense, person, number, and mood; two tenses: present and preterite; the verbs were classified into strong and weak according to how they formed their past tenses (strong verbs changed their root vowel and weak verbs added [d] to the ending to signify past tense.

Verb Conjugations

      Weak Verb Strong Verb Irregular Verb
    Infinitive baernan "to burn" singan "to sing" wesan "to be"
Present Tense          
  Indicative Mood        
    1st person singular baerne ("I burn") singe eom
    2nd person singular baernst singst eart
    3rd person singular baernþ singþ is
    1st person plural baernaþ singaþ sindon
    2nd person plural baernaþ singaþ sindon
    3rd person plural baernaþ singaþ sindon
  Subjunctive Mood        
    singular baerne singe sy
    plural baernen singen syn
  Imperative Mood        
    2nd person singular baern sing wes
    2nd person plural baernaþ singaþ wesaþ
  Present Participle   baernende singende wesende
Past (Preterite) Tense          
  Indicative Mood        
    1st person singular baernde sang waes
    2nd person singular baerndest sunge waere
    3rd person singular baernde sang waes
    1st person plural baerndon sungon waeron
    2nd person plural baerndon sungon waeron
    3rd person plural baerndon sungon waeron
  Subjunctive Mood        
    singular baernde sunge waere
    plural baernden sungen waeren
  Past Participle   baerned (ge)sungen beon

Example: þaet leoð waes gesungen ("the song was sung")

The weak verbs were a Germanic innovation (they did not exist in Proto-Indo-European). Weak verbs are also called "dental preterite" verbs because they form their past tense by means of a dental sound [d] or [t] at the end of the word. These are the regular verbs in Modern English, example: seglan ("to sail"), ic segle ("I sail"), ic seglode ("I sailed")

The strong verbs were divided into seven classes defined by the patterns of their root vowel changes in their four principal parts (the infinitive, the past singular, the past plural, and the past participle):

Strong Verb Classes

Verb Class Infinitive Past singular Past Plural Past Participle

Class 1: i-a-i-i

scinan ("to shine") scan scinon (ge)scinen
Class 2: eo-ea-u-o ceosan ("to choose") ceas curon (ge)coren
Class 3: i-a-u-u singan ("to sing") sang sungon (ge)sungen
Class 4: e-ae-ae-o stelan ("to steal") stael staelon (ge)stolen
Class 5: e-ae-ae-e sprecan ("to speak") spraec spraecon (ge)sprecen
Class 6: a-o-o-a faran ("to travel") for foron (ge)faran
Class 7: x-e-e-x fon ("to seize") feng fengon (ge)fongen
  raedan ("to counsel") red redon (ge)raeden

Other verbs:

    • irregular verbs:
      • don ("to do"), ic do ("I do"), ic dyde ("I did"), we dydon ("we did")
      • willan ("to will"), ic wille ("I will"), ic wolde (I willed), we woldon ("we willed")
      • gan ("to go"), ic ga ("I go"), ic eode ("I went"), we eodon ("we went")
      • beon is an alternative form of the verb "to be"

    • preterite-present verbs:
      • their present tense forms used to be past tenses in earlier stages of the language (examples: sculan, cunnan, magan, agan, dearr, durfan). Some of these verbs are the ancestors of Present Day English modal auxiliaries (shall, can, may, ought, dare, must). Notice the evolution of meaning in the following:

        • magan ("to be able"), ic mæg ( "I am able") > "I may", ic meahte ("I was able") > "I might"
        • sculan ("to be obliged"), ic sceal ("I am obliged") > " I shall", ic sceolde ("I was obliged") > " I should"
        • cunnan ("to know"), ic cann ("I know") > "I can", ic cuþe ("I knew") > "I could"
        • motan ("to be permitted"), ic moste ("I was permitted") > "I must"


Prepositions themselves are not inflected but the words that follow in the prepositional phrase must be inflected according to the case required by each specific preposition. Examples:

  • to (with dative means "to, towards, at "): to midre nihte ("toward the middle of the night");
  • þurh (with accusative means "through," "by means of"): þurh reaflac and mansliht ("through robbery and manslaughter")
  • wiþ (with accusative, "against"): wiþ þone here ("against the enemy army")
  • be (with dative means "by," "alongside"): be þaem saeriman ("by the coast," "along the coast")
  • mid (with dative means "with"): mid him ("with him")
  • on (with dative means "in," "on"): on þissum geare ("on this year")
  • geond (with accusative, "throughout"): geond lagulade ("throughout the water-way")
  • for (with dative or accusative, "for" "before" "in front of"): þeos giefu is for us ("this gift is for us")
  • under (with accusative and dative, "under"): se fisc swam under þaet scip ("the fish swam under the ship")
  • ofer (accusative and dative, "over"): ofer waþema gebind ("over the turmoil of the waves")
  • fram (dative, "from" "by"): Suðhamtun waes forhergod fram scipherige ("Southampton was raided by a fleet of enemy ships")
  • ymb (accusative or dative, "about" "around" "concerning"): ymb þa gatu ("around the gates")
  • of (with dative, "from" "of"): þaet wif genam þa of þaes treowes waestme and geaet ("the woman took then from the fruit of the tree and ate")


Conjunctions act as logical connectors. Examples:

  • and/ond ("and")
  • ac ("but")
  • gif ("if")
  • þeah ("although")
  • forþæm ("because")


modifiers are placed close to the modified word

prepositions precede objects

interrogative formed by inverting the subject and the verb

Subject-Verb-Object order in main declarative clauses, Verb-Subject-Object in interrogative and imperative clauses

Parataxis: phrases strung together by means of simple coordinating conjunctions like and ("and"), ac ("but"), þa ("then"). Example:

seamannan waeron meðe and scipu ne seglodon ("the sailors were tired and the ships did not sail")

Hypotaxis: more complex linking of thoughts by means of subordinating conjunctions like þa ("because of"), gif ("if"), forþan ("because"). Example:

    forþan seamannan meðe waeron, scipu ne seglodon ("because the sailors were tired, the ship did not sail")


Basic words inherited from Indo-European or Germanic, such as 1-10 numerals (an, twegen, þrie, feower, fif, syx, seofon, eahta, nigon, tyn), kinship terms (modor, faeder); some words found only in Germanic/West Germanic languages (not present in other Indo-European languages: baec ("back"), ban ("bone"), folc ("folk"), grund ("ground"), rotian ("to rot"), seoc ("sick"), swellan ("to swell"), werig ("weary"), wif ("wife"), blod ("blood"), cniht ("young man," "knight")

miscellaneous vocabulary:

cyning ("king")

fierd ("English army")

here ("Viking army")

scop ("poet")

scyppend ("Shaper," "Creator," "God")

meotod ("Measurer," "God")

rice ("kingdom")

wig ("battle")

wiga ("warrior")

feond ("enemy")

A few Celtic borrowings: some place names (Thames, Dover, London, Cornwall, Carlisle, Avon), others: dunn ("dun"), binn ("bin," "basket), hogg ("hog")

Some Scandinavian influence: e.g. ran ("rapine"), ha ("rowlock"), cnearr ("small ship"), orrest ("battle")

Major Latin influence

    • words for religious, intellectual concepts/activities, plants: e.g. abbod ("abbot"), engel ("angel"), candle ("candle"), martir ("martyr"), scol ("school") peru ("pear"), persic ("peach"), lilie ("lily")

    • calques or loan translations: Latin unicornis, OE anhorn ("unicorn"); Latin evangelium, Old English gōdspell ("gospel")

formation of new words:

    • compounding: noun+noun, e.g. sunbeam ("sunbeam," "sunshine"), adjective+noun, e.g. yfelweorc ("evil-work," "wrongdoing")), adverb+noun, e.g. innefeoh ("inside-treasure," "household property"), compound adjectives, e.g. isceald ("ice-cold"), wishydig ("wise-thinking"), some compound adverbs, eg. neafre (ne-aefre, "not-ever," "never"), eallmaest (eall-maest, "all-most," "almost"), compound verbs, e.g. goldhordian (gold-hordian, "to hoard gold")
    • ge-, a very frequently used prefix; employed to create new words from existing ones (nouns and verbs) and to denote some past participles:
      • broðor (brother), gebroðor (member of a religious community)
      • nipan (to grow dark), genip (darkness)
      • sprecan ("to speak"), gesprecen ("spoken")
    • abstract nouns constructed with suffixes like -nes, -ung, -dom, -scipe, etc.; examples: wis ("wise"), wisdom ("wisdom"); freond ("friend"), freondscipe ("friendship"); leornian ("to learn"), leornung ("learning"); heah ("high"), heahnes ("highness")
    • agent nouns constructed with with suffixes like -ere, -end, -a, -bora; examples: ridan ("to ride"), ridere ("rider"); beran ("to carry," "to bear," "to support"), berend ("carrier"); wig ("battle"), wiga ("warrior"); mund ("trust, "protection"), mundbora ("protector")
    • adjective suffixes: -ig, -lic, -ful, -leas, -ed, -isc, -sum, etc.; examples: freond ("friend"), freondlic ("friendly"), freondleas ("friendless"); miht ("might," "power," "strength"), mihtig ("mighty," "powerful")
    • adverbs often formed in Old English by adding -e or -lice to an adjective. Example: the adjective riht (right") is the origin of the adverbs rihte, rihtlice ("rightly")
    • other prefixes often used: un-, in-, ofer-, æfter-, fore-, mis-, under-, etc. examples: unraed ("without wisdom," "un-ready"); ingangan ("to go in"); ofermod ("over-mood," "pride"); misdon ("to do evil"); understandan ("to understand")


Like other Germanic languages, Old English had many terms for kinship; ego- and nuclear-family-oriented culture; little distinction beyond immediate family circle; no separate terms for marriage relationship; distinction between paternal and maternal relatives; special emphasis given to the relationship between maternal uncle and nephew

uncommon reference to color (e.g. readnes "redness") but frequent reference to light (leoht), brightness (beorhtnes), darkness (heolstor, genip, sceadu), shine (scinan)

samples of semantic change:

    • generalization: OE gesund (healthy), Modern English "sound"
    • narrowing: OE wæd (garment), Modern English "weed" (mourning clothes)
    • amelioration (improvement of meaning): OE prættig (tricky, sly), Modern English "pretty"
    • pejoration (worsening of meaning): OE sælig (happy), Modern English "silly"
    • shift in denotation: OE dwellan (to deceive), Modern English "dwell"


Old English had several dialects spoken in the various regions of the land: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, Kentish; northern dialects lost inflectional endings earlier than those of the south; heavier use of diphthongs and extensive palatalization of velar consonants in West Saxon areas.


literacy among the clergy; use of vellum/parchment for manuscripts; hand copying; command of Latin, English and Irish/Gaelic by the literate; anonymity of texts; religious and didactic literature, translations from Latin works and the Bible, sermons, lives of saints; historical annals, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, beginning in the days of Alfred the Great (late 9th century); heroic poetry, e.g. Beowulf (early 11th century); elegies (mournful poems lamenting the passing away of life, wealth, and glory): The Wanderer, The Seafarer (late 10th century)

earliest literary works: Widsith (a short narrative poem telling of the travels of a poet named Widsith) and "Caedmon's Hymn" (a short religious lyric telling of the creation of the world) (both of the 7th century)

some distinguished authors and thinkers: the Venerable Bede (8th century), Cynewulf (9th century), Aelfric, Wulfstan (late 10th-early 11th century)

Old English verse was characterized by four-stress alliterative line with mid-line pause (caesura); formulaic style; interlacing of motifs; recurring images (eagle, wolf, ice, snow); use of apposition (parallel variations on a phrase or motif);

kennings or metaphorical poetic compounds, examples:

hwaelweg ("whale-way," i.e. "the ocean")

hranrad ["whale-road," also “the sea”]

Miscellaneous Old English Expressions

Ic grete þe [I greet you]

Wes ðu hal [be you well/whole/healthy!]
Hal wes þu [be healthy!]
Sy ðu hal [may you be healthy!]
Wes gesund [be sound/well/healthy!]
Beoð ge gesunde [be you (plural) well!]

Wilcume [Welcome!]

Broðor min [My brother]

Sweostor min [My sister]

Lareow [Teacher]

Leornere [Student]

Hlaford min [My lord]

Hlæfdige min [My lady]

Leof  [Dear one]

Men ða leofestan [Dearest men]

Leofe broðra [Dear brothers]

Hwa eart þu? [Who are you ?]

Beowulf is min nama [My name is Beowulf]


wa me  [Woe is me!]

eala  [Alas!]

la [Lo!]

wa la wa [emphatic expression of woe]

hwæt ("what!" "ah!" "behold!")

giese [yes]
gea [yes]

nese [no]
ne [no]

ic þancie þe [Thank you]
ic þancie eow
ic þe þancas do
ic sæcge eow þancas

Wel ðu spricst [You speak well]

Wel ðu writst [You write well ]

Ic wat [I know]

Ic nat [I don't know}


Recommended texts and useful links:

Celia M. Millward, A Biography of the English Language (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988)

Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable, A History of the English Languag, (Prentice Hall, 2002)

Thomas Pyles & John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993)

Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

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Last updated: October 4, 2018 12:29


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