Old English is a Germanic language that was spoken in what is today England roughly between the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. Its closest relatives are Old Frisian and Old Saxon, which, with Frankish, Old Dutch, and Old High German, are West Germanic languages. These in turn are related to the North Germanic and East Germanic languages and are descended from Proto-Germanic, an Indo-European language.
The language had five grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, and instrumental, although the instrumental case was greatly diminished and dying out. Nouns, adjectives, and pronouns were declined in singular and plural numbers, while first person and second person pronouns also had a dual number. All nouns had grammatical gender, as opposed to natural gender, and were male, female, or neuter. Like Modern English, the default word order is SVO (subject-verb-object), although this wasn’t always so and was more flexible due to the availability of grammatical cases.
The Anglo-Saxon fuþorc has 33 characters in all, of which the first 29 are frequently seen. Of these, two have no use in standardised West Saxon and one is not used at the start of syllables.
|ᚠ||Feoh||Wealth, cattle||F||[f], [v]|
|ᚦ||Þorn||Thorn||Þ, Ð||[θ], [ð]|
|ᚷ||Giefu||Gift||G||[g], [ɣ], [j]||Typically named gyfu or gifu, which are not the standardised West Saxon form.|
|ᚻ||Hægl||Hail||H||[h], [x], [ç]|
|ᚾ||Nīed||Need, hardship||N||[n]||Typically named nȳd, which is not the standardised West Saxon form.|
|ᛄ||Gēar||Year||J||[j]||Some sources will state that it means “harvest” as well, but it does not. Largely redundant because of ᚷ and thus is used to resolve ambiguity.|
|ᛇ||Ēoh||Yew||Eo||[e(:)o]||More properly īw, but this would hurt the sound association for learners. Not to be confused with eoh.|
|ᛉ||Eolh||Elk-sedge?||X||[ks]?||Many variants of this name exist. Meaning is unclear.|
|ᛏ||Tīr||Tīw, glory?||T||[t]||The associated rune poem has tīr “glory” written alongside the rune. The rune is elsewhere associated with the god.|
|ᛖ||Eoh||Horse||E||[e(:)]||Frequently written as eh in order to distinguish it from ēoh above. Vowel length is important.|
|ᛝ||Ing||Ing||Ŋ||[ŋg], [ŋ]||Never appears at the start of a syllable.|
|ᛟ||Ēþel||Estate, land, country||Œ||[ø(:)]||Would not exist in the West Saxon dialect, as Œ was not used there.|
|ᚣ||Ȳr||Bow?||Y||[y(:)]||The meaning is speculative.|
|ᛡ||Īor||Eel?||Io||[jo]||Would not exist in the West Saxon dialect, as that letter combination was not used there.|
|ᛢ||Cweorþ||Unknown||Cw||[kw]||Unused in all surviving runic objects. Variant of ᛈ, whose meaning is also unknown.|
|ᛣ||Calc||Shoe, sandal?||K||[k]||Variant of ᚳ, but never has the phonetic value of [tʃ]. Rare.|
|ᚸ||Gār||Spear||G||[g]||Variant of ᚷ, but never has the phonetic value of [ɣ] or [j]. Rare.|
It should be understood that the runes were not seen as being intertwined with polytheism or magic, as they were used frequently in Christian contexts. It was a writing system and used for mundane things.
The nominative case is used for the subject of a sentence, the subject complement, and direct address.
The accusative case is used for direct objects of transitive verbs, the object of certain prepositions, and in some expressions relating to time.
The dative case covers a large area, but is most simply for indirect objects of verbs. It may also be used to express possession, comparison, and the manner by which something happens.
The genitive case is used for possession predominantly, but may also be used for subsets of groups, to describe things, and for some prepositions.
The instrumental case was dying during this stage of English. It is used to express the instrument by which something happens, accompaniment, and some fixed expressions of time.
Exactly as in Modern English, the singular form represents a single instance of something.
The dual form only existed in the first and second person pronouns. It represented exactly two of something. Its usage was not required and a plural form could just as easily be used when there are only two of something.
This form would use plural verb endings, as there were no dual verb endings by the time of Old English.
Exactly as in Modern English, the plural form represents more than one instance of something.
Old English had a much more complex array of pronouns than Modern English.
|First Person||Singular||ic “I”||mec, mē “me”||mē “me”||mīn “my”|
|Dual||wit “we two”||uncit, unc “us two”||unc “us two”||uncer “of us two”|
|Plural||wē “we”||ūsic, ūs “us”||ūs “us”||ūre “our”|
|Second Person||Singular||þū “thou”||þec, þē “thee”||þē “thee”||þīn “thy”|
|Dual||git “we two”||incit, inc “us two”||inc “us two”||incer “of us two”|
|Plural||gē “you”||ēowic, ēow “you”||ēow “you”||ēower “your”|
|Third Person||Singular||Masculine||hē “he”||hine “him”||him “him”||his “his”|
|Feminine||hēo “she”||hīe “her”||hire “her”|
|Plural||hīe “they”||him “them”||hiera, heora “their”|
Learning Old English
There are many places from which to learn Old English!
- Introduction to Old English by Peter Baker is fantastically useful.
- Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary is the best database available online.
- Woruldhord is a database for the teaching and study of the Anglo-Saxons and Old English.
- The Wikipedia article on Old English is extensive and descriptive.
- A Guide to Old English by Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson.