A Short Note on Old English – Its Characteristics, Features

This short-note is very important for a language/ literature student. For convenience sake, English has been divided in to Three Englishes – Old English/ Middle English/ Modern English.

In this article, we shall focus on Old English along with its characteristics.

ReadImportance of English in India

Old English & Characteristics –

The Old English Period extends from AD 450 to AD 1150 and may be further divided into early Old English and Late English periods. Old English or Anglo-Saxon period covers the span of time from the earliest written records and documents about the end of the 7th century to the beginning of the 12th century.

Old English was almost a pure, unmixed language with very little foreign element in it. A very significant fact about Old English is that it is nearer the modern German than the Modern English.

Pronunciation in Old English –

The most significant feature of Old English is its pronunciation of words differing from the ones that exist today. In the words of A.C. Baugh,” The pronunciation of Old English words commonly differs somewhat from that of their modern equivalents.

The long vowels in particular have gone a considerable modification. Thus the Old English word ‘ stan’ is the same word as Modern word ‘stone’, but the vowel is different.” In Old English script there are seven vowels symbols – a, e, i, o, u and y and the digraph ‘ae’ which is called ‘ash’.

All the seven vowels represent either short or long sounds. The Old English consonants have mostly the same sounds as in Modern English, but some need special comment. The letter ‘h’ was more strongly pronounced than it is in Modern English. The Old English script does not have the letter ‘v’, ‘f’ serves for the sounds of both ‘f’ and ‘v’.

The Old English also had differences in spelling which baffle the modern readers.

Grammar in Old English –

The second characteristic feature of Old English, which is most fundamental and distinguishes it from Modern English, is its grammar. It is an inflected language though not so highly inflected as the classical languages such as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek. Old English indicates the relation of words in a sentence largely by the means of inflections.

Old English nouns have two numbers – singular and plural. It has three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter. The system of gender is irrational because it is not dependent upon the consideration of sex. In Modern English all males are said to  be masculine, females feminine and inanimate things neuter.

Thus in Old English stan ( stone ) is masculine, German words like maegolon ( girl), wif ( wife), bearn ( child, son) which we expect to be feminine or masculine are in fact neuter. The word wifmann ( woman) is masculine because the second element of the compound is masculine.

Another feature of Old English is that the adjectives like nouns have gender. The adjective takes the gender of the noun with which it is associated.

There are four cases namely Nominative, Genitive, Dative and Accusative. The system of declension is very complex. In the Old English, noun gets inflected according to its number and case. It has chiefly four cases and the endings of these vary with different nouns. There are two chief declensions – vowel declension and consonant declension. Vowel declension is called strong declension and consonant one is weak declension.

Vocabulary in Old English –

The Old English was pure and unmixed. Except for a few Latin Words relating to the Church and its rituals, and sprinkling of Celtic and Old Norse words, its vocabulary with the exception of five hundred loan words consisted of about thirty thousand words inherited from the common Teutonic stock.

Many thousands of these words survived a number of historic and linguistic upheavals and are still in daily use, however a lot meanings, functions and forms may have been modified. These words throw light on the condition of life, occupations, culture and civilization of the English race at that stage.

The Old English writers preferred coining compound words and derivatives from native words. This resourcefulness is characteristic of Old English.

So, Old English vocabulary is pure and unmixed. Yet, it is a rich and picturesque one, capable of expressing new ideas.

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Latest Comments

  1. Very concise and understandable.


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