Principal Features of Old English Language


Old English, a variant of West Germanic, was spoken by certain Germanic peoples (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) of the regions comprising present-day southern Denmark and northern Germany who invaded Britain in the 5th century ad.  They gradually settle in England and regional dialects developed. Old English major dialects had four divisions– Northumbrain, dialect of  Northumberland, Mercian, subdivisions of the dialects spoken by the Angles, West Saxons , 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. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of Alfred, king of the West Saxons and the first ruler of all England, West Saxons became prevalent in prose literature. A Mercian mixed dialect, however, was primarily used for the greatest poetry, such as the anonymous 8th-century epic poem Beowulf and the contemporary elegiac poems.


Grammatically, Old English was a synthetic language and was a much more inflected language than contemporary English. 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. Again, it was characterized by strong and weak verbs; a dual number for pronouns, two different declensions of adjectives; four declensions of nouns; and grammatical distinctions of gender.

In vocabulary, Old English, rich in word-building possibilities, 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 root. 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 i.e. Beowulf.


The Old English period is a multilingual period – a period with several languages being used simultaneously. Their contact inevitably produced a rich system of communication. 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. Outside place names there are no more than about twenty words of Celtic Origin in modern English.  Aberdeen (“mouth of the Dee”) and Inchcape (“island cape”) that describe geographical features cart, down, and clock etc belong to Celtic origin. However, most Modern English words of Celtic origin, that is, those derived from Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Irish, are comparatively recent borrowings. As against this the Latin influence has been very strong on English, perhaps the most pervasive of all influences. The number of Latin words, most of them derived via the Greek, list more than 100s. And during Christianization many ecclesiastical terms creep in —i.e. altar, mass, priest, psalm, temple etc. The third influences are the Scandinavian influence. The Scandinavian (the Norsemen, or Vikings) 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 thoroughly parsed –From the sea and battle to the social and administrative system: i.e. law, take, cut, both, ill, and ugly. It even extended to matters of grammar and syntax as well. This of course was facilitated by the close racial kinship between the Norsemen and the English, by the fact of their subsequent assimilation and by the fact that the Danes accepted Christianity fairly early. 


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