Old English is an old form of the English language that was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants in parts of what are now England and south-eastern Scotland between at least the mid-5th century and the mid-12th century. An Examination of the words in an Old English dictionary shows that about 85 percent of them are no longer in use.
The English Language has undergone so many changes that one cannot read Old English without special study. Following are some important characteristics of Old English.
Spelling and Pronunciation:
Spellings and Pronunciation of Old English words commonly differs somewhat from that of their modern equivalents. In Old English the vowels were different from that of Modern English. Old English had six simple vowels, spelled a, æ, i, o, u and y, and probably a seventh, spelled ie. It also had two diphthongs; ea and eo. Each of these sounds came in short and long versions.
Long vowels are always marked with macrons (e.g. ā) in modern editions and also in some scholarly editions. However, vowels are never so marked in Old English manuscripts. Long vowels in particular have undergone considerable modification. The Old English word stān is the same word as Modern English stone. Some other examples are: rāp—rope, bāt — boat.
Other vowels have also undergone some changes for example; changes in fōt (foot), cēne (keen), metan (mete), but the identity of these words with their modern descendants is still readily apparent.
There was a difference of spellings in Old English as compared to Modern English. Old English made use of two characters to represent the sound of th: Þ and ð, as in the words wiÞ (with) or ðā (then). Old English represented the sounds of sh by sc, as in scēap (sheep) or scēotan (shoot), and the sound of k by c, as in cynn (kin) or nacod (naked).
The vocabulary of Old English is almost purely Germanic. A large part of this vocabulary, moreover has disappeared from the language. When the Norman Conquest brought French into England as the language of the higher classes, much of the Old English vocabulary appropriate to literature and learning died out and was displaced later by words borrowed from French and Latin. Many of these words were inherited by English together with some other Indo-European languages from the same common source.
Old English New English Latin Russian
modor mother mater мать
niht night nox ночь
neowe new novus новый
beran bear ferre брать
Some words were inherited by English and other Germanic languages from the same common Germanic source.
Old English New English German
eorQe earth Erde
land land Land
One of the important feature of the Old English that distinguishes it from Modern English is of its grammar. Inflectional languages falls into two classes: synthetic and analytic. A synthetic language is one which indicates the relation of words is a sentence largely my means of inflections while the languages which make extensive use of prepositions and auxiliary verbs and depend upon word order to show other relationships are known as analytic languages. Modern English is an analytic language and Old English is a synthetic language. Old English resembles Modern German in its grammar. Old English inflections can be illustrated as below:
The inflection of the Old English noun indicates distinctions of number (singular and plural) and case. There are four main grammatical cases in Old English, known by the Latin terms; Nominative, Accusative, Genitive and Dative. The Nominative is used for the Subject, the Accusative is used for the Direct Object, the Genitive is used to express possession and the Dative is used for the Indirect Object. Old English nouns had grammatical gender, singular and plural number, and were also classified as "strong" or "weak" according to the distinctness of their inflectional endings.
Nominative stān gief-u hunt-a
Accusative stān gief-e hunt-an
Genitive stān-es gief-e hunt-an
Dative stān-e gief-e hunt-an
Nominative stān-as gief-a hunt-an
Accusative stān-as gief-a hunt-an
Genitive stān-a gief-a hunt-ena
Dative stān-um gief-um hunt-um
It can be seen from these examples that the inflection of the noun was much more elaborate in Old English than it is today.
The gender of Old English is not dependent upon considerations of sex. Old English nouns belong to one of three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. stān is masculine, cwēn ‘queen’ is feminine and wīf ‘wife’ is a neuter.
One of the features that distinguish Germanic languages is the use of two sets of declension for adjectives; one the strong declension used with nouns when not accompanied by a definite article or similar word and the other the weak declension, used when the noun is preceded by such a word. Same is the case with the Old English for example we have in Old English gōd mann (good man) and sē gōda mann (the good man). We can have another example; the good kings, as opposed to Good kings, or the kings are good.
Old English possessed a fully inflected definite article just as in German Language which is its sister language of today. Following is an example of the definite article in Old English:
Masculine Feminine Neutral
Nominative sē sēo ðæt
The ordinary meaning of sē, sēo, ðæt is ‘the’, the word is really a demonstrative pronoun and survives in the Modern English demonstrative that.
In Old English Personal pronouns had first, second and third person forms; singular, dual, and plural numbers and were declined according to the standard cases i.e. nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative.
Singular Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
1st person ic mē mīn mē
2nd person þū þē þīn þē
3rd person masculine. hē hine his him
3rd person feminine. hēo hīe hire hire
3rd person neutral. hit hit his him
In the nominative case, the Old English forms are; ic ("I"), þū ("you" singular), hē ("he"), hēo ("she"), hit ("it"), we ("we"), gē ("you" plural), hie ("they"). Old English not only shows having tendency in distinctive forms for practically all genders, persons and cases but also in preserving in addition to the ordinary two numbers, singular and plural and a set of forms for two people or two things – the dual number for example in the nominative case, “wit” (we two).
· The Verb:
Old English verbs have only two tenses: present and past. The present tense was also used for the future, while the past perfect was signalled by the past tense with the adverb ǣr ‘formerly’: Ic lufode ‘I loved’, Ic lufode ǣr ‘I had loved’. However, Old English verbs also have three moods: the Indicative, used for statements of fact (I love him), the Imperative, used for commands (Love me!), and the Subjunctive, used for hypothetical statements (If I loved you) and reported speech (He said he loved me).
A peculiar feature of the Germanic Languages was the division of the verb into two great classes, the weak and the strong, often known in Modern English as regular and irregular verbs, the weak verbs are those that require 'ed' at the end but the vowel remain same, and strong verbs are those in which vowel is changed or modified. Example of weak verb is walk, walked, walked and the example of strong verb is sing, sang, sung.
- Self-explaining Compounds:
These are the compound words that are formed by combining two individual words having individual meanings, to form one new word, such as, railroad, steamboat and drying room etc. in Old English many words were formed on this pattern, Such as word lēohtfæt meaning lamp (lēoht=light + fæt = vessel). Similarly medu-heall(mead-hall), dægred(dawn). As a result of this pattern old English seemed to never have been at a loss for a word.
A part of the flexibility of the Old English vocabulary comes from the generous use made of prefixes and suffixes to form new words from old words or to modify or extend the root idea. In this respect it also resembles modern German. Some examples of Suffixes are –ig, –full, –lēas, –lice, –nes and –ung. Some adjective suffixes are: –sum (wynsum) and –wis (rihtwis).
Some prefixes that are frequently used in Old English are; ā_, be_, for_, fore_, ge_, mis_, of_, ofer_, etc. Thus with the help of prefix, the verb 'settan'(to set) can become 'āsettan'(place), besettan(appoint) etc.
Old English Language has many differences as compared to the Modern English Language. The main differences which we noticed between Old and Modern English concern spelling and pronunciation, the vocabulary and the grammar.