Old English and Anglo Saxon

The Origins of Modern English

The Exeter Book on display at Exeter Cathedral in Devon, England. The Exeter Book is the largest known collection of Old English literature still in existence. (RDImages/Epics/Getty Images)

Old English was the language spoken in England from roughly 500 to 1100 CE. It is one of the Germanic languages derived from a prehistoric Common Germanic originally spoken in southern Scandinavia and the northernmost parts of Germany. Old English is also known as Anglo-Saxon, which is derived from the names of two Germanic tribes that invaded England during the fifth century. The most famous work of Old English literature is the epic poem, "Beowulf."

Example of Old English

The Lord's Prayer (Our Father)
Fæder ure
ðu ðe eart on heofenum
si ðin nama gehalgod
to-becume ðin rice
geweorþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofenum.
Urne ge dæghwamlican hlaf syle us to-deag
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgifaþ urum gyltendum
ane ne gelæde ðu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfle.

On Old English Vocabulary

"The extent to which the Anglo-Saxons overwhelmed the native Britons is illustrated in their vocabulary... Old English (the name scholars give to the English of the Anglo-Saxons) contains barely a dozen Celtic words... It is impossible...to write a modern English sentence without using a feast of Anglo-Saxon words. Computer analysis of the language has shown that the 100 most common words in English are all of Anglo-Saxon origin. The basic building blocks of an English sentence—the, is, you and so on—are Anglo-Saxon. Some Old English words like mann, hus and drincan hardly need translation."—From "The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, William Cram, and Robert MacNeill
"It has been estimated that only about 3 percent of Old English vocabulary is taken from non-native sources and it is clear that the strong preference in Old English was to use its native resources in order to create new vocabulary. In this respect, therefore, and as elsewhere, Old English is typically Germanic."—From "An Introduction to Old English" by Richard M. Hogg and Rhona Alcorn
"Although contact with other languages has radically altered the nature of its vocabulary, English today remains a Germanic language at its core. The words that describe family relationships—father, mother, brother, son—are of Old English descent (compare Modern German Vater, Mutter, Bruder, Sohn), as are the terms for body parts, such as foot, finger, shoulder (German Fuß, Finger, Schulter), and numerals, one, two, three, four, five (German eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf) as well as its grammatical words, such as and, for, I (German und, für, Ich)."—From "How English Became English" by Simon Horobin 

​On Old English and Old Norse Grammar

"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, Old English a synthetic language. In its grammar, Old English resembles modern German. Theoretically, the noun and adjective are inflected for four cases in the singular and four in the plural, although the forms are not always distinctive, and in addition the adjective has separate forms for each of the three genders. The inflection of the verb is less elaborate than that of the Latin verb, but there are distinctive endings for the different persons, numbers, tenses, and moods."—From "A History of the English Language" by A. C. Baugh
"Even before the arrival of the Normans [in 1066], Old English was changing. In the Danelaw, the Old Norse of the Viking settlers was combining with the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons in new and interesting ways. In the poem, 'The Battle of Maldon,' grammatical confusion in the speech of one of the Viking characters has been interpreted by some commentators as an attempt to represent an Old Norse speaker struggling with Old English. The languages were closely related, and both relied very much on the endings of words—what we call 'inflections'—to signal grammatical information. Often these grammatical inflexions were the main thing that distinguished otherwise similar words in Old English and Old Norse.
"For example, the word 'worm' or 'serpent' used as the object of a sentence would have been orminn in Old Norse, and simply wyrm in Old English. The result was that as the two communities strove to communicate with each other, the inflexions became blurred and eventually disappeared. The grammatical information that they signaled had to be expressed using different resources, and so the nature of the English language began to change. New reliance was put on the order of words and on the meanings of little grammatical words like to, with, in, over, and around."—From "Beginning Old English" by Carole Hough and John Corbett

On Old English and the Alphabet

"The success of English was all the more surprising in that it was not really a written language, not at first. The Anglo-Saxons used a runic alphabet, the kind of writing J.R.R. Tolkien recreated for 'The Lord of the Rings,' and one more suitable for stone inscriptions than shopping lists. It took the arrival of Christianity to spread literacy and to produce the letters of an alphabet which, with a very few differences, is still in use today."—From "The Story of English" by Philip Gooden

Differences Between Old English and Modern English

"There is no point...in playing down the differences between Old and Modern English, for they are obvious at a glance. The rules for spelling Old English were different from the rules for spelling Modern English, and that accounts for some of the difference. But there are more substantial changes as well. The three vowels that appeared in the inflectional endings of Old English words were reduced to one in Middle English, and then most inflectional endings disappeared entirely. Most case distinctions were lost; so were most of the endings added to verbs, even while the verb system became more complex, adding such features as a future tense, a perfect and a pluperfect. While the number of endings was reduced, the order of elements within clauses and sentences became more fixed, so that (for example) it came to sound archaic and awkward to place an object before the verb, as Old English had frequently done."—From "Introduction to Old English" by Peter S. Baker

Celtic Influence on English

"In linguistic terms, obvious Celtic influence on English was minimal, except for place-and river-names... Latin influence was much more important, particularly for vocabulary... However, recent work has revived the suggestion that Celtic may have had considerable effect on low-status, spoken varieties of Old English, effects which only became evident in the morphology and syntax of written English after the Old English period... Advocates of this still-controversial approach variously provide some striking evidence of coincidence of forms between Celtic languages and English, a historical framework for contact, parallels from modern creole studies, and—sometimes—the suggestion that Celtic influence has been systematically downplayed because of a lingering Victorian concept of condescending English nationalism." —From "A History of the English Language" by David Denison and Richard Hogg

English Language History Resources


  • McCrum, Robert; Cram, William; MacNeill, Robert. "The Story of English." Viking. 1986
  • Hogg, Richard M.; Alcorn, Rhona. "An Introduction to Old English," Second Edition. Edinburgh University Press. 2012
  • Horobin, Simon. "How English Became English." Oxford University Press. 2016
  • Baugh, A. C. "A History of the English Language," Third Edition. Routledge. 1978
  • Hough, Carole; Corbett, John. "Beginning Old English," Second Edition. Palgrave Macmillan. 2013​
  • Gooden, Philip. "The Story of English." Quercus. 2009
  • Baker, Peter S. "Introduction to Old English." Wiley-Blackwell. 2003
  • Denison, David; Hogg, Richard. "Overview" in "A History of the English Language." Cambridge University Press. 2008.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Old English and Anglo Saxon." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/old-english-anglo-saxon-1691449. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Old English and Anglo Saxon. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/old-english-anglo-saxon-1691449 Nordquist, Richard. "Old English and Anglo Saxon." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/old-english-anglo-saxon-1691449 (accessed June 6, 2023).