ᛖᚪᛚᛞ ᛖᚾᚷᛚᛁᛋᚳ (Eald Englisc)

Old English

What is it?

Old English is the ancestor of the language we speak and read now, yourself included since you arrived here. Also known as Anglo-Saxon and spoken by the people of the same name, whom inhabited the region known as England today. It was used up until around the 12th century, at which point the Norman invasion saw its deprecation and later mutation into Middle English [1]. Being that it is our language's ancestor by roughly two steps, it stands to reason much of it isn't recognizable. The title above being an example of a phrase that is, but many more are not. An example of that can be observed below in one of the most recognizable phrases in the world: The first chunk of the Lord's Prayer.

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,

si þin nama gehalgod.

Our father which art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name.

Interestingly, much of it sounds closer to Modern English than it looks. "Heofonum" is pronounced hay-oh-fohn-um. Much like "heaven", even if the spelling obscures its descendant today. Note that the eo in this example is a diphthong, of which Old English has many. Words like fæder you may recognize as similar in both spelling and sound to vater in German. Indeed, the language's Germanic roots are far more heavily expressed than it is today.

Besides the differences in the words themselves, order mattered very little in Old English. I would call it similar to Latin in this regard, the endings of words tell you what case or form it takes rather than where it is. In turn, you can put them pretty much wherever you want. To translate it literally:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,

si þin nama gehalgod.

Father our you the are in heavens,

is your name hallowed.

Sometimes it comes out more-or-less correct, but still strange, as in the second clause. It might well sound like something you'd hear in an old-time play, not coincidentally. Then you have the first, which appears to us to be an arbitrary mish-mash. Like today, they had cases for what words were doing what in a sentence. Nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative, which work basically as they do now. Then they had the instrumentive, which we have since lost. Just the same, it appears rather infrequently in those texts that survive, as far I can tell in my own studies.

Still, from this you can get the idea of what has changed since.

There is considered something of a 'correct' word order, but to be honest, I haven't mastered it yet. Something about it really trips me up. I'm still a student studying this in isolation, as most of us that study the language are. Don't expect what I write to be perfectly analogous to the texts. Nobody begins as an expert, after all.

The Alphabet

Runes were still in some use at the time of Old English, but it wasn't very common. From what I gather, they were mostly used for titles and other important words that were meant to stand out, or in more creative works like poetry. This trend I adopted, as you can see above.

The runic alphabet was called Futhorc, and it is itself an acronym of the first six runes [2]. Not all of them, mind you, and note that 'th' had a single letter back then. It's very similar to Futhark, the Norse runes.

ᚠ - Feoh
ᚢ - Ur
ᚦ - Thorn
ᚩ - Os
ᚱ - Rad
ᚳ - Cin

Otherwise, it primarily used the Latin alphabet by the point at which books started to be written en masse. Several exceptions exist. The rune Thorn (Þ/þ) was held over to represent 'th', as in "the" or "things". It had a counterpart Eth (Ð/ð), which was adapted from Latin to make the same sound. They could be used interchangeably. If you read Icelandic you'll recognize these letters, they remain in use there; they were, in fact, used in Old Norse as well.

The issue of the 'double-u' is an interesting topic in language. The Old English didn't have an issue with it the way other cultures did, they brought forward the rune Wynn to represent w as well - (Ƿ/ƿ).

The most notable example would probably be Ash (Æ/æ), which is the one most people are familiar with since it still sees stylistic use in terms like encyclopædia. It made the same sound as the 'a' in "apple".

Finally, we have Yogh/Yoch (Ȝ/ȝ), which was in a strange place. Representing at times the 'y' sound as in year, and others the 'gh' sound as in cough. This is born somewhat from the fact that many words with a 'g' in them in Old English made the 'y' sound. "Dæg" is pronounced pretty much the same way we pronounce "day" now. It came into effect later in Old English's life and was more prominent in Middle English. That information only comes from secondhand sources, I've never actually seen it in a text from the appropriate era, so I mention it more for completion's sake.

The printing press is what lead to the death of most of these. Most of them were produced in continental Europe, which lacked the particular type faces that Old English would have required. Economics won over linguistic integrity, laying low most of them. As an interesting tidbit, this is how "thou/þou" became "you", since 'y' was rarely used on its own back then it was substituted in place of the missing thorn/eth letter in texts; though that shift didn't really take place until the era of Middle English, wherein "þu" changed to "thou". This is also where the phrase "Ye Olde Shoppe" comes into play, and why those who claim to be in the know tell you that it's actually pronounced "The Old Shop" [3]. It would have been, back then. Over time the correct spelling and pronunciation drifted, as is so often the case.

Beyond letters that have gone missing, there are also several that hadn't come into prominence until after the tongue's decline. Those would be J, K, Q, V, and Z. Other letters, or combinations thereof, were used for those sounds or similar ones instead; consider the Lord's Prayer above, with heofon/heaven.

In total, the alphabet the Anglo-Saxons used looked like this:

a æ b c d ð e f g h i l m n o p r s t þ u ƿ x y

Why Study It?

Language is the primary way that we preserve our thoughts, feelings, and knowledge for future generations. In these modern days, it's also a very important means of communication.

It goes without saying that it's much harder to define and describe something if no word exists for it. It's even harder still to do so in a way that others can accurately understand. A popular topic going around lately is the discussion of the color blue not existing until relatively recently in history. That isn't the case, but a video on it here gives a very brief insight into how language affects the way one perceives, categorizes, and thinks about the world [4].

As language mutates, words change in meaning, or die completely, and new ones begin take their place. Anyone who's familiar with translation work knows that they're almost never exact 1:1 deals, that's true even in different versions of the same language. Take the more 'common' translation of the Lord's Prayer above, then compare it with my personal translation into Modern English below. I kept it strict, the author of the first decided to make it a bit more faithful in word choice. It is inevitable that as this happens, what we pass on blurs, and things will be lost to the march of time.

By understanding what came before, we can better predict how it will change in the future, and perhaps comb back over the texts of yesteryear and pick up crumbs of knowledge that had otherwise been overlooked.

One can not claim to understand something until they know where it came from. This is what drives man to study the fossils and relics of civilizations and creatures that came before. Our language should not be neglected either in this pursuit.

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