Languages

Old English

Fact corner

Introduction

Old English is an early form of the English language that was spoken and written in parts of what are now England and southern Scotland between the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. What survives through writing represents primarily the literary register of Anglo-Saxon. It is a West Germanic language and is closely related to Old Frisian. It also experienced heavy influence from Old Norse, a member of the related North Germanic group of languages.

Old English dialects

The map shows the Old-English main dialects around AD 900. These areas contained further sub-dialects. Celtic languages were spoken on the white areas.

Though we inherited most of our Modern English spelling from the Mercian dialect (because of the location of London), the vast majority of surviving Old English literature was written in the West Saxon dialect. This was due to Wessex dominating the rest of Anglo-Saxon England both culturally and politically from King Alfred's reign (871-899) until the Norman Conquest in 1066.

The Old English verb

Old English verbs were grouped in two major groups: weak verbs and strong verbs. A third group contains some verbs not belonging to either of those groups.

Weak verbs

Weak verbs form the majority of Old English verbs. They are divided in three classes according to the endings in the preterite:

Class I

  • temman (to tame), cf. Swedish 'tämja'.
  • dēman(to judge, to deem), cf. Swedish 'döma'.
  • sellan (to sell), cf. Swedish 'sälja', Gothic 'saljan'.

Class II

  • lofian (to praise), cf. Swedish 'lova', German 'loben'.

Class III

  • habban (to have), cf. Swedish 'ha', German 'haben', Dutch 'hebben'.
  • libban (to live), cf. Swedish 'leva', German 'leben', Dutch 'leven'.
  • secgan (to say), cf. Swedish 'säga', German 'sagen', Dutch 'zeggen'.
  • hycgan (to think)

Sample verb: lofian

Weak verb, class II

INDICATIVE SUBJUNCTIVE IMPERATIVE
Present Preterite Present Preterite
Sg.1 lofie lofode lofie lofode -
Sg.2 lofas / lofast lofodes / lofodest lofa!
Sg.3 lofaþ lofode -
Pl.1 lofiaþ lofodon lofien lofoden -
Pl.2 lofiaþ!
Pl.3 -

Click verbs to conjugate them in the table above!

Strong verbs

The denominative for strong verbs were that there was a vowel shift called 'ablaut' in the root of the verb. Due to different vowel shifts, strong verbs were grouped in 6 categories. An additional category was used for reduplicated verbs.

I group (ī - ā - i - ī)

  • bītan (to bite), cf. Swedish 'bita', German 'beissen', Dutch 'bijten'.
  • līþan (to go), cf. Swedish 'lida' (to pass 'time', to suffer).

II group (ēo - ēa - u - ēo)

  • bēodan(to offer), cf. Swedish 'bjuda', German 'bieten'.
  • cēosan (to choose), cf. Icelandic 'kjósa', Dutch 'kiezen'.

III group (i, e - a - u -u)

  • helpan (to help), cf. Swedish 'hjälpa', German 'helfen', Dutch 'helpen'.
  • weorðan (to become), cf. German 'werden', Dutch 'worden'.
  • bindan (to bind), cf. Swedish 'binda', German 'binden', Dutch 'binden'.

IV group (e - æ - ǣ -o)

  • stelan (to steal), cf. Swedish 'stjäla', German 'stehlen', Dutch 'stelen'.

V group (e - æ - ǣ -e)

  • metan (to measure), cf. Swedish 'mäta', German 'messen', Dutch 'meten'.

VI group (a - ō - ō - a)

  • faran (to go), cf. Swedish 'fara', German 'fahren', Dutch 'faren'.

VII group

  • lætan (to let, allow), cf. Swedish 'låta', German 'lassen', Dutch 'laten'.

Preterite present

  • witan (to know), cf. Swedish 'veta', German 'wissen', Dutch 'weten'.
  • þurfan (to need), cf. German 'dürfen', Dutch 'durven'.
  • mōtan (may), cf. German 'müssen', Dutch 'moeten'.
  • dōn (to do), cf. German 'tun', Dutch 'doen'.

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