WikiLang/Old English

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Old English or Anglo-Saxon was the West Germanic language spoken in England from about 500 AD, after the arrival of several Germanic tribes (mostly the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes) to southern Great Britain, until about 1100 AD, shortly after the Norman Conquest. It died by evolving into Middle English, which had a simpler declension and conjugation system and somewhat Frenchified orthography, and which also borrowed a significant number of Norman-French words due to Norman-French being the language of the aristocracy.

Technical Info[edit]

  • Language family: Indo-European languages/Germanic languages/West-Germanic languages
  • Region: Was spoken in southern Britain, approximately modern-day England (but also the south of modern-day Scotland, and probably not in the entirety of modern-day Cornwall)
  • Number of speakers: Currently probably thousands of (mostly?) academics with some knowledge; much fewer with any kind of fluency; no known native speakers
  • Scripts: Insular Latin alphabet (with the addition of ash, thorn, eth, and wynn to fill some gaps); small amount written in Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc runes
  • Majority language: Itself (languages of neighbouring nations included Old Welsh, Old Gaelic, Old Norse, and amongst scholars Latin)

Writing system[edit]

The vast majority of Old English manuscripts were written in a modified version of the Insular Latin script, with the additional letters ash (Æ, æ), eth (Ð, ð), thorn (Þ, þ), and wynn (Ƿ, ƿ) (the last two were borrowed from the fuþorc). Unlike most modern written Old English, most Old English texts did not have long vowels explicitly marked. There are a few examples of long vowels in Old English being represented with doubled letters and possibly also by having an accute-accent-like mark above the vowel (though the latter method was not clearly definitely used to mark long vowels). In modern editions of Old English texts, double-u is usually used instead of wynn, and long vowels are usually marked with macrons. Also, palatalization is sometimes marked (see paragraph below).

It is most likely that the Anglo-Saxons wrote very phonologically (as did most European languages that had a writing system at the time), which does help in attempts to reconstruct the language's phonology. However, their writing system seems to largely represent a pre-palatalization pronunciation, while we know that the palatalization phenomenon in Old English was already complete by the time Middle English came around (because they explicitly recognized palatalization in Middle English orthography). In other words, in the latter Old English stage at least, the writing did not necessarily recognize all significant features of the phonology (possibly because writing standards tend to lag behind spoken speech); but there is certainly some evidence in latter Old English writing that palatalization had already taken place or was taking place. But there are other, etymological reasons to believe that at least a "germ" of the palatalization phenomenon was present in Old English from the time of the first written records - perhaps the palatalized forms earlier on did not sound different enough to the Old English ear to be recognized as separate in writing.

Borrowed words[edit]

Before their arrival to Britain, various Germanic tribes had contact with the Roman empire, and borrowed a small few words into their own language or languages. After arrival, to Britain, they borrowed and adapted many Celtic place-names, but borrowed very few everyday words from the Celtic languages appart from that. After the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, quite a few (possibly several hundred) words were borrowed from Greco-Latin, especially for church-related areas.

Some Anglo-Saxon writers seem to show a tendency to calque words. For example, the word efenniht from "equinox" - "equal night". A few seemed to be particularly creative in translating foreign words with totally new neologisms, for example "Sundorhālgan" ("seperate holy people") for "Pharisee". In Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, as in other ancient Germanic languages, poets would regularly make up neologisms (called today "kennings") "on-the-fly" to help fit a particular idea into their poetic meter.

See Also[edit]