By Kamil Wiśniewski Sep 10th, 2007

The Old English language was used in parts of the British isles till the end of the eleventh century. As it was a very tempestuous period of time characterized by numerous wars and invasions the language at that time undergone various changes and was influenced by several other tongues. The facts that Old English used a runic alphabet and that there are not many clear inscriptions which could be analyzed make it difficult for linguists to describe that period of the history of language with certainty. However, there are many findings by and large accepted as conclusive.

The first important impact on the English language was made by the Celtic languages and the words borrowed from them to English. Because of the Roman invasion, however, only a few words originating in Celtic still remain in the Modern English, but there are also several Celtic-based place names, such as Dover, London, Kent, and names for rivers: Thames, Avon, Exe.

Much bigger influence on the English lexis was made by Latin, as Romans who invaded the British isles and settled there for about half a century introduces new laws using their language, which necessarily had to impact the local tongue. Latin exerted its influence on the English language not only during the Roman rule in Britain, but also long afterwards, therefore its borrowings differed depending on the time in which they entered English. Before the year 1000 there was a tendency to borrow words relating to everyday issues, while after the year 1000 more words from written sources were borrowed and those related to scholarly and technical matters. Throughout the Latin influence also many words relating to Christianity were borrowed: altar, monk, sacrifice, Mass, demon, paradise and so on. Among the general words borrowed before 1000 there are: letter, plant, rose; and after the 1000: philosopher, dish, grammar.

In the period of Old English usage there were no unified rules of writing. Capitalization, spaces between words, punctuation as well as line division were absent. There were some symbols in the alphabet that are no longer used. Other signs such as e, f, s had a bit different shape. Yet the majority of symbols are very similar to the ones used in contemporary English. The Old English alphabet had 24 letters.

The analysis of the Old English is made on the basis of the few pieces of literary works created at that time which survived to our times. Although such writings need translation because of changing meanings of words, the grammar of Old English has been thoroughly described. It is now clear that there are many similarities between Old and Modern Englishes, such as placing articles and prepositions before nouns. But there are also numerous differences as in the word order which due to the inflection in Old English was more flexible than it is now.

Thanks to the Old English literature and poems, such as The battle of Maldon, the sounds of Old English could be reconstructed and accounted for. Although there are not any writings devoted solely to the Old English phonetic system created at the time it was used scholars found some evidence thanks to which the sound values were deducted. It is assumed that there were not too many changes in the pronunciation of consonants, although w (as in writan – the ancestor of write) for example was always pronounced unlike in Modern English, but it is more difficult to state anything certain about the vowels.

Crystal D. 2005, The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language – 2nd edition. Cambridge: CUP.

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