ARTS1691 - Old English (Issues With Studying a Dead Language)


Dealing with the history and origins of Old English, we have a number of issues working out the sound system. These issues are explored following.
Old English came from Germanic origins.
Old English is defined as being from around the 5th century to the 12th century, give or take a couple of hundred years.

Issue 1: When dealing with Old English we’re trying to figure out the sound system of a long dead language with only writing to help us.

Development of the Writing System

Runes were used as an early writing system, but not a well-developed one.
Old English was first written in a well-developed system within 200 years of landing on British Shores.
This is in some ways a blessing, as it meant the writing system had to be developed from scratch to suit a partially developed language, rather than just altering an existing system.

Reasons For Lack of Written Development:

  • Lack of papyrus (paper) to write on – wood or stone were much harder to carve into.
  • Lack of wealth – illiteracy, lack of ability to purchase materials
  • Lack of need – only very important documents needed to be transcribed

Written By Ear

Roman scribes adapted the Latin Alphabet to the phonology of English, and in doing so wrote them just as they sounded when speaking.
We can confirm that they wrote by ear because of the consistent dialectical differences between spelling in translations done in different regions.

Dialectical Differences

Synchronically : Different dialects in the same time period
Diachronically: The same dialect in different time periods
We can look at the above differences and work backwards to work out sounds (and general shifts) in the system.
E.g. Hlaf -> Laf -> Loaf -> Bread (H dropping, vowel change, word change)
E.g. Meat changing from food -> animal flesh

Sound Features Known From Translations

Latin -> Old English translations lead us to believe that:

  • Metathesis (transposition of sounds) was common
  • Voiceless /w/ was common (as in [hwi] for ‘why’)

Issue 2: How representative is our material? How faithful to reality?

We have to trust that the writings we have are close to the spoken language. We can infer from later scholarly attempts to write Old English like Latin that originally they wrote simply as they spoke.

Word For Word Translations

Early Latin translations were word-for-word, and didn’t take syntax into account. Hence early English versions of the ‘pater noster’ went to ‘father our’ not ‘our father’.
This means that syntax of translations is not indicative of Old English syntax.

Viking Destruction of Culture

The Vikings destroyed lots of Northern English culture, meaning most texts that we have access to are 10th century copies made in Alfredian Wessex.

Texts We Do Have

Caedmon’s Hymn
Caedmon’s Hymn is the oldest Old English text we have. It tells us of culture as well as being available to us in both the original Northumbrian and the translated Wessex.

Pater Noster
We have the Pater Noster in both the Northumbrian and Wessex transcriptions, as well as different time periods within each dialogue. From this we can trace morphemes, the progression of syntax, phonemes, the addition of new letters from French and other changes.

The result of this is that they are all written in the same dialectical formal register, rather than the standard English spoken there or in the North.

Not Everything Was Written Down

Writing was more difficult and expensive back within Old English, so there was a limited variety of material/registers that was actually recorded:

  • Heroic Poetry
  • Biblical Material
  • Legal Documents
  • Moral Writings
  • Historical Documents

Issue 3: Language Changes, at different rates and for different reasons.

New Words From Specific Events

Sometimes words are traceable to a specific utterance; e.g. sputnik on 03/10/1958

New Words From Spontaneous Creation

Sometimes words are added to fill a gap, pulled from lexical gaps to have new meaning.
E.g. blurb from 1907 (to mean Publisher’s Recommendation)

New Words Borrowed From Other Languages

Most commonly words get introduced to our lexicon because of ‘borrowing’ from another language.

Words can be borrowed for a number of reasons:

  • Fashion
  • Prestige
  • Education
  • Political identity
  • Solidarity with a group


Pidgins are created to allow communication between two different groups. They usually have the grammar of the native language combined with the lexicon of the superstratum language.