History: Language: Old English


So, we all shout 'wes hal!' when we see one another, but why? It's actually Old English (Englisc) for 'hello' or 'good health.' Old English is the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. It's a Germanic language which lacks the post-Conquest French additions we use in modern English and which has a grammar system more like modern German than modern English (it is inflected). If you speak German or Dutch, you will probably find you can get the gist of many texts written in Old English with a dictionary and not too much difficulty. Old English was spoken from the mid 5th to the mid 12th Century, by which time it had mutated into Middle English. It was mutually comprehensible with Old Norse, and some linguists suggest that it was contact between Anglo-Saxons and incoming Old Norse speakers that necessitated the shift from an inflected language to a non-inflected one.

England was pretty unique at this time in history in using the vernacular (i.e. not Latin) in many written documents - both secular and religious - so we actually know a great deal about how the language worked. The man to thank for this is probably Alfred the Great. If you're interested in finding out more, the following resources should help you. It should be noted that most people who learn OE aim to learn to read historical documents, therefore most courses and books are geared towards this. Learning to speak OE will be more difficult to achieve, but the University of Virginia course page is probably the best place to start.

General websites

Online courses and learning materials

Dictionaries, glossaries and grammar

Exercises and courses

Things to read in Old English

Facsimiles of manuscripts

Recordings and pronunciation

  • Old English Phonology What might OE have sounded like? An explanation of how its possible phonology has been reconstructed, from Barry Rawling at York St John University
  • Anglo-Saxon Aloud A daily reading of the entire Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records,which includes all poems written in Old English. By Michael D. C. Drout. (You can subscribe to his podcast via iTunes).
  • The Ruin Stuart Lee (ex-Wychwooder and member of the English faculty at Oxford) recites the poem while wandering around a more modern type of ruin.
  • Unlocked Wordhoard is the blog of Richard Noakes, a professor from Alabama who teaches OE. Includes video clips of various students reciting OE texts.
  • ASNC Spoken Word has recordings of two extracts from the Battle of Maldon.
  • Also check out the iTunes store for more OE podcasts - there are a number of readings from contemporary texts and a few lectures available.

Fun stuff



Language and reenactment

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