Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #5


Hello and welcome to the last part of this series.

I know that I’ve said that this series was going to have six parts, but I’ve decided that it was best to just keep the language part in one piece. For this part of the series I’ll mostly use information from: Introduction to Old English by Peter. S. Baker. As usual: if I find any other relevant information, I will give the link in the text.


History of the Old English language

Old English

  • Pronunciation and Sound changes
  • Cases
  • Gender, pronouns and nouns
  • Adjectives and Adverbs
  • Verbs, moods and negation

Poetry and Prose

P.S. it might come in handy to take a peek at my post about phonetics. If you read this you can understand my talk about pronunciation and sound changes in Old English. Also, I might occasionally replace Old English with OE, and Present Day English with PDE.

History of the Old English language

Old English was a part of the Indo-European languages.
This language group is named so because of geographical reasons, and is a large and well defined linguistic family. Most languages in Europe are part of this family, but languages spoken around Iran, Afghanistan and the northern half of the Indian subcontinent are a part of this language group as well. It is safe to assume that these languages descent from a common ancestor (which is called genetic filiation). This link will redirect you to a website, which will give the definition, branches and historical linguistics of Indo-European.

(But, of course, even though we have the same common ancestor…Dutch has to be different…)

As you can see in the image above, Old English was a part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. Back in the day, OE was divided into four major dialects: Northumbrian, Mercian, West-Saxon and Kentish. Most written sources from the early medieval England were written in the West-Saxon dialect. (Mercian became the basis for Middle English). But, before Old English was written in the adapted Roman alphabet, OE was written in the runes of the Futhorc alphabet. After the Roman alphabet was introduced, the runes didn’t disappear entirely. As you will see later on that the ‘eth’ (ð), ‘thorn’ (þ) (and ‘wynn’ ƿ) still appeared in manuscripts.

This is The Franks Casket, from the early 8th century. It is a rectangular box made of whale-bone, carved on the sides and top in relief with scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. (Find more about in on

Old English

Pronunciation and Sound changes
It is good to know that what I am going to say here about the pronunciation and writing of OE, is about the West-Saxon dialect. So, it might be that what I’ll be saying here is not at all true for any of the other dialects.

This link will redirect you to a blog that will give you a nice overview of the vowels, consonants and pronunciation in OE. Do take a look at the blog, it’s very useful.

This image is from another website, this time about consonants. Just to be safe: vowels y and u are pronounced differently in OE than in PDE. y= u and u=oe. Also, the consonant cg = dƷ.
Because of the Great Vowel Shift, OE long vowels have changed over time. It is because of that change, that the following occurred:
– i: -> ai
– ɑ: -> əu (this vowel already changed before the great vowel shift. a: in OE o: in ME)
– e: -> i:
– o: -> u:
– u: -> au
– ǣ: -> i:

There are multiple sound changes that occur in the early Middle Ages. Some of these changes occur on their own, while other are triggered by each other. (Here, again, it might be of use to read my post on phonetics about vowels and consonants).

  1. I-mutation:i-mutation
    This is a dependent sound change and only occurs when there is an i or j in the next syllable. The vowel in the first syllable, if originally a back vowel, becomes a front vowel and a front vowel in the first syllable will be raised. The i or j would then disappear, so there are no real traces left. Typically one syllable nouns would receive I-mutation in plural, so that fót becomes fét. (long vowels).
  2. Fronting:
    This is an independent sound change and can only be blocked when there is a back vowel in the next syllable. When fronting can happen, it will happen. In this case /a/ becomes /æ/.
  3. Breaking:
    This is also a dependent sound change. Short /æ/ followed by h, l with a consonant or r followed by another consonant will become diphthong /ea/. Short /e/ will become /eo/.
  4. Palatalization:
    This is also a dependent sound change. When /g/ or /k/ is preceded or followed by front vowels, they become /j/ or /t∫/. If this is to happen the front vowel must be in the same syllable.

If you know German, you might already be familiar with cases. If not, or if you just want to be sure, I will explain the OE case system here.

In OE there were five cases (eventually four, but that’s another matter). I will name the cases and the functions that they can have in a sentence. However, before I give a list, I want to say that some functions of these cases overlap, but when there is any doubt about the case you can look at the inflection. This link will redirect you to a website with a sheet that can help you determine the case of a word in a text.

  1. Nominative: subject, complement (always after to be) or direct address (name/title of the addressed is in the nominative).
  2. Accusative: direct object of a transitive verb (which is a verb that demands an object), object of a preposition (indicates motion as in: I walk with my dog. With is the preposition and my dog is the object). Accusative is also used for time and duration.
  3. Genitive: possessive (indicates possession or association), partitive (there is a whole and that what is described it part of that whole. Like best of men. There are a lot of men, but he is the best of them), descriptive (attributes a quality to a thing) and expressions of time.
  4. Dative: object of a preposition, indirect object (and possibly direct object), comparison (express likeness or quality), instrument/means/manner (indicated with mid and fram) /place (indicated with in).
  5. Instrumental: just masculine and neuter singular adjectives and pronouns can be in the instrumental, all other are in the dative. Indicates accompaniment, instrument, means, manner and expression of time and fixed expressions.

(Tip: prepositions determine the case of the object).

Gender, pronouns and nouns
It is important to know that the modified nouns get inflexions (this also occurs with verbs etc). This link will redirect you to a website with a sheet that can help you determine the case of a word in a text. Always remember that there must be agreement between number (if it is singular or plural), gender (masculine feminine or neuter) and case (see above). This is called concord. The one exception is the 3rd person plural, the plural is not decided by gender but by the case, the case decides the plural.
All the inflexions and the like are on the sheet, so really, take a good look at it!

There is one pronoun that is not on the magic sheet and that is the relative pronoun ðe (or þe, whatever makes you happy), which means who, which that etc. This pronoun connects the noun and clause/pronoun that modifies it.
Apart from this, all demonstrative, interrogative and personal pronouns are on the sheet. Again: take a good look at the magic sheet if you have any ambition of wanting to translate an OE text. (Here is a nice translation trick: any form of beon + wesan = translated as to be. Scullan/sceal is, by the way, not translated as shall, but must. This is the same as in Middle English).

Something else that is good to know, yes because making it easy is for the weak, is that nouns (and you’ll see the same with adjectives and verbs later on) are divided into weak and strong (and then the strong nouns are divided into short or long if the noun is neuter or feminine. This is because of the stem vowel, so if it is long or short). Easy to remember is this: -an ending = weak noun, no -an ending is often strong noun. Bear in mind that the strong nouns have to agree in gender and number.

Adjectives and adverbs
I already mentioned that adjectives can also be weak or strong. If an adjective follows a demonstrative pronoun/possessive adjective/genitive noun or noun phrase, the adjective receives a weak ending, otherwise it will be strong.
Baker also mentions that comparative adjectives and ordinal numbers (except for oðer, meaning second) are always declined weak, even though the context in strong.

(Translation tip: þonne and þá. Both can mean when or then. It will mean when, when there is a conjunction (links two clauses), coordinating conjunction (links two independent clauses) or when it subordinates (links clauses, dependent and independent, to each other). In this case there will be þonne/þá + subject +verb. It means then (an adverb) when there is þonne/þá + verb +subject).

Adverbs are made by adding an -e to the end or adding case endings to nouns (as in dæges hwilum).
Adverbs are there to tell when, where, why and the conditions of what is happening. They modify verbs (so that the verbs end with -ly), adjectives (by adding a degree adverb like very), other adverbs and sentences/clauses

Verbs, moods and negation
OE verbs only have past or present tense, luckily for us, but as we have seen with nouns and adjectives, there are strong verbs and weak verbs. Strong verbs have a stem vowel change and no dental suffix in the past tense, while weak verbs do have a dental suffix in the past tense.
When you take a look at the magic sheet you can also see that the strong verbs are divided into classes (I will not go into this. There are only differences in the amount of consonants in the words and the vowels. Take a good look and the magic sheet, and click the link here,  you will figure it out quite easily).
The weak verbs are divided into 2 classes: weak 1 and weak 2. These two are quite easy to distinguish. Class 1 weak verbs tend to have I-mutation, while class 2 lacks I-mutation and gets an i syllable where the classical gemination (doubling of consonants at the end of the stem) gets an a/o before endings that don’t start with a dental suffix. Also, the infinitive of weak 1 ends in -an while weak 2 infinitives end in -ian.
What is not on the sheet, however, is the third class weak verbs. This class only contains the following four verbs: habban, secgan, libban and hycgan. There are also anomalous verbs, these are béon, gán (éode), dón and willan.

If this is not enough, verbs also have moods. There are three moods that are used in OE:

  1. Indicative: fact
  2. Subjunctive: non-fact/ wish. Often introduced by concessive clauses þeah or þeah þe.
  3. Imperative: command/order.

(Translation tip: Mæge doesn’t mean may, but can).

There is also something called an: impersonal verb construction. This constructions lacks and explicit subject and has often a dummy/placeholder it. Me sceamað is then translated into: it seems to me. The pronoun me is in this case not the subject and is often dative or accusative.

Negation doesn’t necessarily have to do with verbs, but it has to be mentioned. There can be more negatives in an OE sentence than in a PDE sentence. The more negatives, the more the emphasis is put on the negativity of the thing that is negated. Ne comes in front of what has to be negated and can also be contracted with other verbs.

Poetry and Prose

There are multiple differences between the language used for poetry and prose. Most importantly (I think) the language for poetry is often more archaic of has dialectal forms (often the northern dialect). Prose is usually written in the West-Saxon dialect.
Another difference is the accusative singular pronouns. In poetry these are þec and mec, instead of þé and mé that are used in prose.
There is also lack of I-mutation in poetry and even though both have a fixed word order, poetry is able to go around it by mixing multiple orders. Poetry also differs from prose by having omission of the subject/object, one subject can belong to two predicates and prepositions can also be omitted.
Adjectives are also used differently in poetry than in prose. In poetry, adjectives can switched, so that there is a strong adjective in poetry where there in a weak adjective in prose and vice versa. Adjectives can also be used as nouns in poetry.

book of kells 42

I hope that this series has been useful. If you have any feedback, or just something nice to say, don’t hesitate to leave a comment!











4 thoughts on “Medieval England: History, Society and the Old English Language #5

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