Characteristics of Old English

By Old English we mean the language (by some persons called ‘Anglo Saxon”) spoken by Englishmen down to about 1150 A.D. Dr. Sweet has called the period lasting down to A.D. 1200 the period of full inflexions since during this period the endings of the noun, the adjective and the verb are preserved more or less unimpaired. Again Old English means mainly the West Saxon (Southern) dialect, and not other dialects (e.g. Northumbrian, Mercian etc.). It will be interesting to note here that Modern Standard English (written and spoken) has not descended from Old English (West Saxon). Modern English emerged in the fifteenth century from a completely different dialect the East Midland dialect, particularly the dialect of the metropolis, London.

A.C. Baugh has very finely said that the English language has undergone such a change in the course of time that one cannot read Old English without special study. To speak the truth, a page of Old English text presents a look of greater strangeness than a page of another foreign language, which is due to the employment of certain characters which no longer form a part of the English alphabet. Old English used a digraph x to express the sound of a in hat, bat, cat and since this sound is of very frequent occurrence, the character contributes much to making an Old English page wear an unfamiliar appearance. Likewise Old English represented the sound of sh by sc, as in scéap (sheep) or scotan (shoot), k sound was represented by as in cynn (kin) or nacod (naked).

Old English Vocabulary

Old English was a very resourceful language. The notion that a language which lacked the large number of words borrowed from Latin and French, which now constitute an important part of the English vocabulary must be somewhat limited in resources is not correct. The contrary is rather true, because Old English possessed the wonderful power of utilizing its native resources to provide expressions for new ideas and objects that came along its way. This character of Old English is in sharp contrast to that of Modern English which culls foreign words whenever occasion arises to express new ideas and objects for which it has no words. Old English had a great flexibility, a capacity for bending old words to new uses. Old English made liberal use of suffixes and prefixes to form new words from old words or to modify or extend the root idea. It also specialised in forming self-explaining compounds. To describe the scribes and Pharisees of the New Testament the Anglo-Saxon used the words baceras and sundorhalgan. The first word is derived from böc ‘book’ by the addition of the common Old English suffix- ere (Modern English- er), and the second word is a compound of sundor apart and halga ‘saint’ ‘holy one’.

Similar methods were applied to loan words. When, after the conversion to Christianity, biscop was borrowed other words such as ‘biscoplic’ ‘episcopal’, biscopscir ‘diocese’ and biscopian ‘to confirm’ were formed from it.

Old English, thus, was a very resourceful language like Modern German. The manner in which it managed to provide natural and expressive terms even for such a new world of concrete things and abstract ideas as Christianity meant for the Anglo-Saxons is a great testimony to its resourcefulness.

Jespersen has rightly said that the Old English language “was rich in possibilities, and its speakers were fortunate enough to possess a language that might with very little exertion on their part be made to express everything that human speech can be called upon to express.” There is no denying the fact that Old English prose is clumsy and cumbrous, but “that is”, as Jespersen says, “more the fault of the literature than of the language itself.” A good prose style is everywhere a late development and the work of whole generations of good authors is necessary for bringing about the easy flow of written prose. Again, the subjects treated in OE, prose were not suitable for drawing out the highest literary quality. In prose of the latest Old English period, as in Wulfstan homilies, many artistic means and measures were resorted to make the style rhythmic and effective

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If OE prose is undeveloped, there is a very rich and characteristic poetic literature. OE poetry treated of all sorts of subjects ranging from powerful pictures of battles and of fights with mythical monsters to religious poems, idyllic description of an ideal country and sad ones of moods of melancholy. OE poetry is full of narrative, descriptive and reflective verses revealing “unique power of the beauty of the language. The wealth of synonyms found in Old English poetry is really astonishing. These synonyms “impress us artistically and work upon our emotions very much like repetitions and variations in music.” (Jespersen). For battle’ or ‘light’ we have in Beowulf at least twelve synonyms (according to Jespersen) Beowulf has, says Jespersen, seventeen expressions for the ‘sea’ to which thirteen more should be added from other poems.

The charm of the language of OE poetry is its slow and leisurely movement. The measure of the verse invites us not to hurry on rapidly, but to linger deliberately on each line and pause before we go on to the next. The external form of Old English poetry was in the main the same as that of Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German poetry. Beside definite rules of stress and quantity, the chief words of each line were tied together by alliteration.

Old English Grammar

Old English was a synthetic language in contrast with Modern English which is a highly analytic language. It, like Latin and Sanskrit, indicated the relation of words in a sentence largely by means of inflections with the result that no harm would have been done to the meaning of a sentence if the subject and the object exchanged their position. The Old English sentences Se cyning pas word gehiende can be translated into the king heard these words in Modern English. It will mean the same thing if we arrange the words in any other order, such as pas word gehlerde se cyning. However, Old English arrangement of words conformed to certain patterns, specially in subordinate clauses. Nevertheless subject and predicate might change places in principal clauses with considerable freedom. It has been calculated, says Simcon Potter that subject precedes object in less than half of King Alfred’s sentences.

Old English had all the grammatical complexity which exists in Modern German, and indeed, a little more. In Old English the gender was grammatical and not natural, that is, the gender depended on the form of a word, and not upon the consideration of sex or absence of sex (unlike in Modern English which has natural gender system). Thus in Old English hand was feminine fot (foot) stan (stone), mõna (moon) were masculine. Words like mxgden (girl), Wif (wife) and cild (child) which we should have expected to be feminine or masculine were neuter, while wifmann (woman) was masculine. This irrational gender system of Old English is comparable with that of German where sonne (sun) is feminine, Mond (moon) is masculine, but kind (child), Madchen (maiden) and weib (wife) are neuter.

The Old English noun had four cases and there was no ablative or locative or instrumental case, these having been merged with the dative (But H. Bradley says that OE. nouns had five cases). The system of declensions of nouns was intricate to a degree which modern German does not nearly rival. Some nouns made their genitive singular in -es, others in -e, others in -a and others in –an; and in a few nouns the genitive case had the same form as the nominative. The endings which marked the nominative plural were –as, -, -u, -e, -an. Moreover, many plural nominatives coincided in form with the singular, some plural nominatives were again made by changing the vowel (like modern teeth and mice).

Old English adjective had a two-fold declension – one the weak declension, used when the noun was preceded by a definite article or similar word (such as a demonstrative or possessive pronoun), another the strong one used when the noun was not preceded by such a word. We have in Old English d xt gode mixgden (the good girl), but god magden (good girl). Like nouns adjectives had four (live) cases with singular and plural forms for each and all these had again different forms for masculine feminine and neuter gender. Thus an Old English adjective had 42 forms where as we have only one form in Modern English. Like modern German Old English possessed a fully inflected definite article.

Like other parts of speech the OE verbal system was complicated. OE verbs had only two tenses, a past and a present like other Teutonic languages,  and there were no inflectional forms for the passive as in Latin e Greek. Verbs were divided into two great classes, the weak and the strong as in Modern English. So far as the conjugation of the verbs is concerned there were twice as many different forms as there are in Modern English. Verbs had different forms for singular and plural in different persons. While we now conjugate I sing We sing- We sing/ I sang- We sang, but Anglo Saxons conjugated ic singe- we singath/ ic sang- we sungo. The subjunctive mood of which there are only a few traces left in modern English, occupied as prominent a place in Old English grammar as it does in modern German.

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