Main Features of Old English Language

Old English, a variant of West Germanic, was spoken by Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In Ecclesiastical History of the English People(Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), completed in A.D. 731, the Northumbrian cleric Bede reported that the Germanic settlers of Anglo-Saxon England came from "three very powerful Germanic tribes, the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes." According to tradition, the Jutes were the first to arrive, in 449. Settling in Britain, the invaders drove the indigenous Celtic-speaking peoples, notably the Britons, to the north and west. As time went on, Old English evolved further from the original Continental form, and regional dialects developed.

 Old English had four dialects –Northumbrian and Mercian , subdivisions of the dialects spoken by the Angles; West Saxon, a branch of the dialect spoken by the Saxons;  and Kentish, originally the dialect spoken by the Jutes. West Saxon gradually gained ascendancy and the documents, which enable us to study Old English, are documents of West Saxon. This period is estimated to be c. AD 475–900 consisting the split between Old English and Old Frisian (c. AD 475) up through historic early West Saxon of AD 900. Grammatically, Old English is an inflected and synthetic language: Theoretically the noun and adjectives are inflected for four cases in the singular and four in the plural and in addition the adjective has separates forms for each of the three genders. The nouns are inflected for number (singular and plural) and case (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative): the verbs show two tenses by inflection (present and past), three moods (indicative, subjunctive, and imperative), two numbers and three persons; adjectives have a strong and a weak declension.

                               Indo- European family of language
          In vocabulary, Old English was very resourceful in the formation of words by means of prefixes and suffixes. It was possible to form more than a hundred words from the same roet. Some of the most commonly employed suffixes were – dom, -end, -ere, -nes, -ung, -scipe to form nouns, and –sun, -wis to form adjectives. This feature was most widely used to form verbs with about twelve common prefixes to form verbs: be-, for-, fore-, ge-, mis-, of-, on- etc. another notable feature was the large number of self explaining compounds, that is compounds of two or more native words whose meaning is self evident such as gimmwyrhta ( gem-worker) (geweller). This capacity for forming new words by combining the existing ones and by deriving them with the help of prefixes and suffixes gave a remarkable variety and flexibility to Old English. This is evident in its literature, which is distinguished for its poetry rich in synonyms and metaphors e.g. Beowulf.

                     Old English was characterized by strong and weak verbs; a dual number for pronouns (for example, a form for we two as well as for we); two different declensions of adjectives; four declensions of nouns; and grammatical distinctions of gender. In Old English phonology, the distinctive features are -- the breaking of front vowels most in the cases, before /x/, /w/, /r/ and consonant, /l/; shortening of Vowels when falling immediately before either three consonances or the combination of two consonants and two additional syllables in the word.

                   The Old English period is a multi-lingual period – a period with several languages being used simultaneously. Their contact inevitably produced a rich system of communication. Although rich in word-building possibilities, Old English was sparse in vocabulary.  To begin with, English interacted with Celtic, the language of the conquered people, itself another branches of Indo European tree. The Celtic influence is not strong and is most evident in place – names: Kent, London, Cornwall, and York go back to Celtic sources: Primarily those such as Aberdeen (“mouth of the Dee”) and Inchcape (“island cape”) that describe geographical features. Outside place names there are no more than about twenty words of Celtic Origin in modern English. Scholars believe that ten common nouns in Old English are of Celtic origin; among these are cart, down, and clock.As against this the Latin influence has been very strong on English, perhaps the most pervasive of all influences. Most Latin words were introduced as a result of the spread of Christianity. Such words included not only ecclesiastical terms—for example, altar, mass, priest, psalm, temple—but also many others of less specialized significance, such as cheese, wine, and street.  The third influences are the Scandinavian influence. The Scandinavian plundering raids began, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, in A.D. 787 and continued with interruptions for more than 250 years until from 1014 to 1039 A.D. The Scandinavian influence was through – it extended to matters of grammar and syntax as well. About 40 Scandinavian (Old Norse) words were introduced into Old English by the Norsemen, or Vikings, who invaded Britain periodically from the late 8th century on. For example, the word law—entered the language, as well as the verb form are and such widely used words as take, cut, both, ill, and ugly. This of course was facilitated by the close racial kinship between the Norman and the English, by the fact of their subsequent assimilation and by the fact that the Danes accepted Christianity fairly early. 

Ardhendu De


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

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