Old English

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.

Fuþorc

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.

Rune Name Meaning Transliteration IPA Notes
Feoh Wealth, cattle F [f], [v]
Ūr Aurochs U [u(:)]
Þorn Thorn Þ, Ð [θ], [ð]
Ōs God O [o(:)]
Rād Ride, journey R [r]
Cēn Torch C [k], [tʃ]
Giefu Gift G [g], [ɣ], [j] Typically named gyfu or gifu, which are not the standardised West Saxon form.
Wynn Joy W [w]
Hægl Hail H [h], [x], [ç]
Nīed Need, hardship N [n] Typically named nȳd, which is not the standardised West Saxon form.
Īs Ice I [i(:)]
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.
Ēoh Yew Eo [e(:)o] More properly īw, but this would hurt the sound association for learners. Not to be confused with eoh.
Peorþ Unknown P [p]
Eolh Elk-sedge? X [ks]? Many variants of this name exist. Meaning is unclear.
Sigel Sun S [s], [z]
Tīr Tīw, glory? T [t] The associated rune poem has tīr “glory” written alongside the rune. The rune is elsewhere associated with the god.
Beorc Birch B [b]
Eoh Horse E [e(:)] Frequently written as eh in order to distinguish it from ēoh above. Vowel length is important.
Mann Man M [m]
Lagu Lake L [l]
Ing Ing Ŋ [ŋg], [ŋ] Never appears at the start of a syllable.
Ēþel Estate, land, country Œ [ø(:)] Would not exist in the West Saxon dialect, as Œ was not used there.
Dæg Day D [d]
Āc Oak A [ɑ(:)]
Æsc Ash (tree) Æ [æ(:)]
Ȳr Bow? Y [y(:)] The meaning is speculative.
Īor Eel? Io [jo] Would not exist in the West Saxon dialect, as that letter combination was not used there.
Ēar Grave? Ea [æ(:)ɑ]
Cweorþ Unknown Cw [kw] Unused in all surviving runic objects. Variant of ᛈ, whose meaning is also unknown.
Calc Shoe, sandal? K [k] Variant of ᚳ, but never has the phonetic value of [tʃ]. Rare.
Stān Stone St [st] Rare.
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.

Grammatical Cases

Nominative

The nominative case is used for the subject of a sentence, the subject complement, and direct address.

Accusative

The accusative case is used for direct objects of transitive verbs, the object of certain prepositions, and in some expressions relating to time.

Dative

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.

Genitive

The genitive case is used for possession predominantly, but may also be used for subsets of groups, to describe things, and for some prepositions.

Instrumental

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.

Grammatical Number

Singular

Exactly as in Modern English, the singular form represents a single instance of something.

Dual

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.

Plural

Exactly as in Modern English, the plural form represents more than one instance of something.

Pronouns

Old English had a much more complex array of pronouns than Modern English.

Nominative Accusative Dative Genitive
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”
Neuter hit “it”
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!

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