Old English

Academically, there is a distinction between Modern English and its ancestral forms, Old English and Middle English. Although these three could be roughly defined as types of the same language, English, being different according to the time each one belongs, it would not be easy to bridge directly between Old English, its oldest form, and Modern English, which is spoken today. For instance, in Old English the famous Lord’s Prayer looks like this:


Faeder ure,
pu pe eart on heofonum,
si pin nama gehalgod.
Tobecume pin rice.
Gewurpe din willa on ear dan swa swa on heofonum.
Urne gedaeghwamlican hlaf syle us to daeg.
And forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfa durum gyltendum.
And ne gelaed pu us on costnunge,
ac alys us of yfele. Soplice.

Then, how had this form of language developed from what kind of languages and where had it taken place? Following is a summarised history of English as a language:


‘The history of (English) language begins a little after A.D. 600. Everything before that is pre-history, which means that we can guess at it but can’t prove much. For a thousand years or so before the birth of Christ our linguistic ancestors were savages wandering through the forests of northern Europe. Their language was a part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European Family.

At the time of the Roman Empire—say, from the beginning of the Christian Era to around A.D. 400—the speakers of what was to become English were scattered along the northern coast of Europe. They spoke a dialect of Low German. More exactly, they spoke several different dialects, since they were several different tribes. The names given to the tribes who got to England are Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. For convenience, we can refer to them as Anglo-Saxons.

Their first contact with civilization was a rather thin acquaintance with the Roman Empire on whose borders they lived. Probably some of the Anglo-Saxons wandered into the Empire occasionally, and certainly Roman merchants and traders traveled among the tribes. At any rate, this period saw the first of our many borrowings from Latin. Such words as kettle, wine, cheese, butter, cheap, plum, gem, bishop, church were borrowed at this time… The Anglo-Saxons were learning, getting their first taste of civilization.

The Romans had been the ruling power in Britain since A.D. 43. They had subjugated the Celts whom they found living there and had succeeded in setting up a Roman administration. The Roman influence did not extend to the outlying parts of the British Isles. In Scotland, Wales, and Ireland the Celts remained free and wild, and they made periodic forays against the Romans in England…Even in England the Roman power was thin. Latin did not become the language of the country as it did in Gaul and Spain. The mass of people continued to speak Celtic, with Latin and the Roman civilization it contained in use as a top dressing.

In the fourth century, troubles multiplied for the Romans in Britain. Not only did the untamed tribes of Scotland and Wales grow more and more restive, but the Anglo-Saxons began to make pirate raids on the eastern coast. Furthermore, there was growing difficulty everywhere in the Empire, and the legions in Britain were siphoned off to fight elsewhere. Finally, in A.D. 410, the last Roman ruler in England, bent on becoming emperor, left the islands and took the last of the legions with him. The Celts were left in possession of Britain but almost defenseless against the impending Anglo-Saxon attack.

Not much is surely known about the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in England. According to the best early source, the eighth-century historian Bede, the Jutes came in 449… (and) settled permanently in Kent. Somewhat later the Angles established themselves in eastern England and the Saxons in the south and west. Bede’s account is plausible enough, and these were probably the main lines of the invasion. 

We do know, however, that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were a long time securing themselves in England. Fighting went on for as long as a hundred years before the Celts in England were all killed, driven into Wales, or reduced to slavery…By 550 or so the Anglo-Saxons were firmly established. English was in England.

All this is pre-history, so far as the language is concerned. We have no record of the English language until after 600, when the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and learned the Latin alphabet. The conversion began, to be precise, in the year 597 and was accomplished, within thirty or forty years.

It is customary to divide the history of the English language into three periods: Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. Old English runs from the earliest records—i.e., seventh century—to about 1100; Middle English from 1100 to 1450 or 1500; Modem English from 1500 to the present day. Sometimes Modern English is further divided into Early Modem, 1500-1700, and Late Modem, 1700 to the present.

When England came into history, it was divided into several more or less autonomous kingdoms, some of which at times exercised a certain amount of control over the others. In the century after the conversion the most advanced kingdom was Northumbria, the area between the Humber River and the Scottish border. By A.D. 700 the Northumbrians had developed a respectable civilization… It was in this period that the best of the Old English literature was written, including the epic poem Beowulf.

In the eighth century, Northumbrian power declined, and the center of influence moved southward to Mercia, the kingdom of the Midlands. A century later the center shifted again, and Wessex, the country of the West Saxons, became the leading power. The most famous king of the West Saxons was Alfred the Great, who reigned in the second half of the ninth century, dying in 901. He was famous not only as a military man and administrator but also as a champion of learning. He founded and supported schools and translated or caused to be translated many books from Latin into English. At this time also much of the Northumbrian literature of two centuries earlier was copied in West Saxon. Indeed, the great bulk of Old English writing which has come down to us in the West Saxon dialect of 900 or later.

In the military sphere, Alfred’s great accomplishment was his successful opposition to the Viking invasions. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Norsemen emerged in their ships from their homelands in Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula…After many years of hit-and-run raids, the Norsemen landed an army on the east coast of England in the year 866. There was nothing much to oppose them except the Wessex power led by Alfred. The long struggle ended in 877 with a treaty by which a line was drawn roughly from the northwest of England to the southeast. On the eastern side of the line Norse rule was to prevail. This was called the Danelaw. The western side was to be governed by Wessex.

The linguistic result of all this was a considerable injection of Norse into the English language. Norse was at this time not so different from English as Norwegian or Danish is now. Probably speakers of English could understand, more or less, the language of the newcomers who had moved into eastern England. At any rate, there was considerable interchange and word borrowing. Examples of Norse words in the English language are sky, give, law, egg, outlaw, leg, ugly, scant, sly, crawl, scowl, take, thrust. There are hundreds more. We have even borrowed some pronouns from Norse—-they, their, and them. These words were borrowed first by the eastern and northern dialects and then in the course of hundreds of years made their way into English generally.’ (http://www.sebsteph.com/Professional/Bart’s%20class/Readings/roberts.htm)


Roberts, Paul (year unstated), A Brief History of English, Welcome to the Synthesis Project – Reading Material (accessed 25/04/2010)


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