I recently spent the weekend in London for an intensive Old English course at the British Library. I became interested in Old English some time ago after reading historical documents and attending an Anglo-Saxon Exhibition also held at the British Library.

Old English is the name given to the earliest recorded stage of the English language, up to approximately 1150 AD when the language is then known as Middle English. Before explaining more about the course, I will describe some history behind the Old English language.

The British Library holds all the Old English books.

Before the arrival of Old English in England, the languages spoken in England were Brythonic or early Celtic languages. In the 5th century AD after the Romans left, the Angles arrived in Northumbria (North-East England) from the Germany/Denmark area. Around the same time period there were other tribes who settled further south in England, the Jutes and Saxons, again both from the Denmark/Germany region and the Frisians from the north of the Netherlands. The arrival of these tribes meant there were variations of a Western Germanic language being spoken, all believed to have been mutually intelligible. Over time, the new settlers established permanent bases and began to displace the native Celts. The Celts were pushed further west and as we know today, the Celtic languages in Britain still survive in the western areas.

Over time, the Saxons became the strongest of these groups who settled in England and the country became known as Anglaland. We don’t know for sure when English became a separate language from the languages the settlers arrived with. However, by around the year 600 AD, written documents show that it began to develop its own distinctive features. As various tribes had settled in England, there were four major dialects discovered from written sources: Northumbrian (north), Mercian (midlands), West Saxon (south and west), and Kentish (south-east). To find out how the Scots language evolved from these early settlers, please read my other article about Scots.

The Lord’s Prayer in Old English.

The early records of Old English were written using the Runic alphabet. This gradually changed to the Roman alphabet after the arrival of Christian missionaries from Rome in the 6th century.  After adopting the new alphabet, Anglo-Saxon scribes added two consonants to the Latin alphabet to represent th sounds: first the runic thorn (þ), and later eth (ð). Another additional letter was ash (æ), used to represent the broad vowel sound  ‘a’ e.g., in the word ‘cat’. A letter wynn was also added, to represent the English w sound, but it originally resembled the ‘thorn’ letter so much that modern transcriptions replace it with the more familiar ‘w’ to avoid confusion. 

Old English had only a little influence from Latin words in this period, particularly with regards to vocabulary used within the church. In addition, more Old English literature began to appear in the period after the arrival of the Christian missionaries from Rome. Bilingual documents appeared, written in Old English and Latin. However, the earliest written document in Old English is Cædmon’s Hymn” dating from the late 7th century although the first great period of literature was in the 9th century under the reign of King Alfred the Great.

After the Vikings arrived in England in the 9th and 10th centuries, many Old Norse loan words entered the language, although Old Norse was already a related (Germanic) language and many placenames came from Old Norse too.

In the year 878 AD, the various Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms were unified by King Alfred the Great and a treaty was agreed with the Vikings to split the country giving the Vikings control of the north and east. Although there is a variation of regional dialects in surviving written sources, the West Saxon dialect seemed to dominate after the unification in 878 AD. King Alfred brought in scribes from other regions and also made an effort to translate many Latin religious materials into English. He was keen to spread the spoken language throughout his kingdom.

Following the Norman invasion in the year 1066, a huge amount of Norman French words entered regular use in the English language and the language gradually changed into what we call Middle English.

Old English Runic Alphabet

Now, onto the course. This course was a combination of language, translation and history. Some features of Old English we no longer use in Modern English include the dual, cases and three genders. It was therefore very helpful to have studied at least one other language with these characteristics before starting the course. The course was not a typical beginners’ language course with role plays and basic questions like “What is your name? How are you?”, etc. We began by looking at a Middle English document as it resembled Modern English more than Old English so it was slightly easier for beginners.  We then moved on to Old English manuscripts and we started looking at simple sentences from a text from the Book of Genesis. We looked at how inflection worked in the language and it was very interesting for the German and Dutch speakers to be able to make good guesses at some of the meanings of the vocabulary. Inflection began to disappear by the Middle English period.

On the second day, we began to look at translating the inscriptions of Old English runes on various ancient objects. For example, we looked at Franks Casket which dates from the 8th century. The inscription is a riddle about the whalebone used to make the casket.

The text on one side of the casket was this: 

ᛖᚾᛒᛖᚱᛁᚷ. ᚹᚪᚱᚦᚷᚪ᛬ᛋᚱᛁᚳᚷᚱᚩᚱᚾᚦᚫᚱᚻᛖᚩᚾᚷᚱᛖᚢᛏᚷᛁᛋᚹᚩᛗ. ᚻᚱᚩᚾᚫᛋᛒᚪᚾ.ᛗᚫᚷᛁ. 

The runes translated to this in Old English: Fisc flodu ahof on fergenberig; warþ gasric grorn, þær he on greut giswom. Hronæs ban. Mægi.

And this in Modern English: The flood lifted up the fish on to the cliff-bank;
the whale became sad, where he swam on the shingle. Whale’s bone. Magi.

Franks Casket image from the British Museum website.

In the final afternoon we looked at Anglo-Saxon riddles, an important genre in literature of this period. It was a lot of fun to first try and translate the riddles and then try and work out their meaning! At the bottom of this article, I have included a link to our tutor’s blog where she writes about many of these riddles and their meanings. Apparently, some are even too obscene to be presented in class!

Finally, we looked at what is now known as a great literary piece of work from the Anglo-Saxon period, the poem named Beowulf originally written between the 8th and 11th century. It exists in a single manuscript dating from around the year 1000 AD, although it may have been copied from an earlier manuscript which has now been lost (many were lost in a fire in 1731). Beowulf is a poem with 3,000 lines. Only 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survives and Beowulf is the longest surviving Old English poem. Set in Scandinavia, Beowulf is a hero in the poem as he kills the enemy monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother and 50 years later when he is king, he kills the dragon but is fatally wounded himself. The poem ends with a fabulous funeral in his honour.

This was my first time studying a dead language. It has been very different to my other language learning journeys. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in history, medieval England and languages to read more about the mysterious and fascinating language of Old English.

Further Information:

British Library Digitised Manuscripts Online  – You can now view all the Old English

manuscripts held by the British Library for free.

British Library Courses  – Including the weekend Old English course which runs a couple of times per year.

The Riddle Ages Blog  – One of the course tutors writes about some of the riddles on this blog.

Old English Aerobics  – Another site showing translations and explanations of various Anglo-Saxon riddles


Teach Yourself Old English

“Learn Old English with Leofwin” and there is free audio for the book on this website.

Introduction to Old English by Peter Baker.