Old English (characteristics)

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This page forms part of an etymology course that gives an outline of the development of English. It is written in a sequence that you may want to follow. The best place to start, if you want to follow the whole course, is Etymology course, or, if you are only interested in English, Development of English. You may also arrive at any of these articles from other links. For more information about the history of English, you should of course read a good history of the language, such as Baugh (1993), Strang (1970), or Crystal (2005)

The Old English language spoken, in enormous variety both chronological and geographic, between the sixth and (in some remoter areas) the thirteenth centuries, is a West Germanic language. (There is more detail about its development at Old English (History).) Like modern German, it had a strong system of inflections to convey grammatical relationships between words. Word order was thus less important in constructing meaning than in modern English.

  • Every noun, pronoun and adjective belonged to one of three genders, one of two numbers and was placed in one of five cases. They were inflected to different patterns according to whether they were strong or weak nouns. Every adjective had to agree with the noun it qualified - in other words, had to match it in number, gender and case.
  • Verbs had four endings in each of the present and past indicative tenses, and two in each of the subjunctive tenses. These inflections were shown by suffixes. Verbs were divided into two main groups.
    • Strong verbs inflected for tense by changing the vowels of the stem (as in the modern 'swim' - 'swam' - swum'). (This phenomenon is known as 'ablaut', and is common in Germanic languages.) There were seven classes of strong verbs, each of which had its own pattern of vowel changes.
    • Weak verbs formed their past tenses in the same way as that followed by most verbs in modern English, by adding a suffix formed with a dental consonant - either a '-t-' or a '-d-'.
    • There were a few other classes of verbs in Old English. Their number and nature changed over the some 700 years during which the language developed.

It is the number of inflections that made it less important to give words in a particular order. In Modern English, the two sentences "The dog bit the man" and "The man bit the dog" are only different because of the order of the words: there is no change in their shapes. In Old English, on the other hand, the Subject and the Object of each sentence were marked as such by the word-endings, and, no matter in what order the words were placed, the sentences were recognisable as being either quite an expected event - or a most unusual one!

To see what Old English looked like, you can go to Project Gutenberg's on-line version at [[1]]. There is also an on-line dual-language version at [[2]]. To hear a reconstruction of the sound of the language, try [[3]].