Glossary Home Definition

Old English

Old English is the earliest recorded version of the English language spoken in England and Scotland during the Middle ages.

Old English was spoken throughout England and the southeastern parts of Scotland during the Middle ages. It was used during the Germanic invasions, after the collapse of Roman Britain, through the Norman Conquest of 1066, and into Norman Rule in England. It is considered the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Before its use, the population spoke Celtic languages. 

Old English pronunciation: ohl-d En-glesh

Old English - Poem Analysis


Definition and Explanation of Old English 

Old English is distinguished from later versions through the use of more inflections in verbs, adjectives, and pronouns. The word order was less fixed than it is today. If a contemporary English speaker were to come across a passage of Old English text, they would be incapable of reading it. It appears like an entirely different language.


History of Old English 

Old English developed from Anglo-Frisian, and Ingvaeonic dialects spoke by Germanic tribes. It had four main dialects as it developed: Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. The latter became the most important in the development of the language later on. Old English was first written in runes, a specific rule set known as the futhorc, derived from the Germanic elder futhark. It was transformed with the use of the Latin alphabet introduced by Irish Christian missionaries. Old English words contain letters that are no longer used today, such as ðæt (called eth today) æ, æsc, and þ (also known as thorn). They also lacked several letters that are in the contemporary English alphabet. 

Today, it is thought that around 85% of Old English words are no longer in use. Those that survived have been incorporated into the Middle, Modern, and Contemporary English vocabulary. 


Why is Old English Important? 

Old English is worth studying due to the influence it had on the way we speak today. Without an understanding of the rich and complex history that led to the creation of contemporary English, lovers of language would be at a loss in regards to where certain sounds, letters, and entire words originated. Old English provides contemporary readers with a line into the past, a way to understand how men and women lived, thought, and wrote hundreds of years ago. 


Examples of Old English 


Beowulf is the most famous of all Old English poems. It is 3,182 alliterative lines long and dates between 975 and 1025. It tells the story of a hero, Beowulf, who comes to the aid of King Hrothgar, whose hall has been under attack by a monster named Grendel. Beowulf kills him and then kills Grendel’s mother as well. The text survived in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex. It is without a title, as are all the poems listed in this article, but the main character’s name has been adopted as a title. Today, Beowulf is studied in school around the world. The original manuscript can be found in the British Library. 


The Wife’s Lament

The Wife’s Lament is only 53 lines long, found in the Exeter Book. It’s usually considered an elegy, often also categorized under the genre “women’s song” or the German “frauenlied.” It describes a woman’s grief over unknown events and sorrows. There are several different interpretations of what the female speaker was upset about, but none have been decided upon. 


The Seafarer 

The Seafarer is a first-person depiction of a man’s life. He describes how he’s spent the majority of his life at sea, wandering from place to place. While there, he’s often wracked by loneliness and desire for the sounds of his friend’s voices. But, instead, he only hears the birds. By the end, the poet appears to be crafting a religious narrative. 


The Wanderer  

The Wanderer, like almost all Old English works, does not have a clear author. It was preserved thanks to the Exeter Book. The Wanderer tells the story of a lonely man looking back on his past in much of the same way that the speaker in The Seafarer looks back on how he’s spent his life. It’s 115 lines long, written in alliterative verse, and is today considered an elegy.  


Periods of the English Language 

  • Old English (450 AD- 1100 AD)
  • Middle English (1100 AD-1500 AD)
  • Modern English ( from 1500 AD till present day)


Examples of Old, Middle, and Modern English 

Here are the first two lines of The Lord’s Prayer from the Bible written in Old, Middle, and Early Modern English. 

  • Old English: Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod
  • Middle English: Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halewid be thi name;
  • Early Modern English: Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.


What are Middle English and Modern English? 

Due to Norman conquests in England, Old English underwent several important changes that led to the development of what is known today as Middle English. One of the best examples of Middle English, and its new similarities to Modern English, is Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is possible to read the text without a translation but it is not an easy task. Early Modern English words include Shakespeare’s plays, which are more and less difficult, depending on who is speaking and what is being spoken about. 


Old English Synonyms 

Early English, OE, Anglo-Saxon language.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Ambiguity: a statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
  • Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
  • Epic: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
  • Formal Diction: is used when the setting is sophisticated. This could be anything from a speech to a paper submitted to a journal.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms.


Other Resources

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap