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THE HISTORY OF OLD ENGLISH Sanabria 1

Marilyn Sanabria
Florida State University
LAE4332

Abstract: Old English, spanning from 450-1100 A.D. was an oral language in its origins,
but after the Benedictine Reform it became a literacy language. It stems from Germanic roots
and was first written in Runes, but later the Latin and Roman alphabets took over. The Norman
conquest led Old English into Middle English, and King Alfred the Great wanted to standardize
the spelling and grammatical rules of Old English, but it was constantly changing.













THE HISTORY OF OLD ENGLISH Sanabria 2

Old English spans the time period between 450 and 1100 A.D. The invasion of Britain in
the 450s A.D. by Germanic people became the group of people we know as the Anglo-Saxons
(41). Bedes Ecclesiastical History, a monk from the 8
th
century, describes the arrival in Britain
of Germanic tribes in 449 A.D. and the Christian invasion (41). Old English is an Anglo-
Saxon/Germanic language that is more like Latin rather than modern English. Old English was
originally an oral language only and the transition from orality to literacy began to appear during
the early 8
th
century. Benedictine Reform in the second half of the 10
th
century led to the
establishment of Old English as a literacy language. Old English was first written with a version
of the runic alphabet known as Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Frisian Runes. There were 26-33 letters in
the Elder Futhark alphabet (50).
Caedmons Hymn is the earliest documented oral poem in Old English, composed
between 658 and 680 (47). The 5
th
century to the 11
th
century is mainly seen on stone,
manuscripts, and coins in Runes. The most interesting runic inscriptions are those found carved
on the Ruthwell Cross, dating from the 7
th
-8
th
century, in Dumfriesshire; it parallels with parts of
the Old English poem The Dream of the Road which is found in the Vercelli booka manuscript
from the 10
th
century (51). The best known examples of Runes in Old English manuscripts are
those found in the Exeter Book riddles, in the Rune Poem, and in the Anglo-Saxon poet,
Cynewulfs, signature in four poems (53). But the majority of Old English was written in the
Roman alphabet.
Christianity was brought to Anglo-Saxon England by Augustine and fellow missionaries
in 597 A.D. and made the Roman alphabet available (41, 49). Runes also started to be replaced
by the Latin alphabet from the 7
th
century onward. Runes ceased to exist after the Norman
conquest in 1066; this also prompted Old English toward Middle English (66-67). French and
THE HISTORY OF OLD ENGLISH Sanabria 3

Latin words were adopted after 1066 when the Anglo-Saxon line of English kings came to an
end.
West Saxon was one of the Old English dialects, along with Kentish, and Anglian which
was broken up into Mercian and Northumbrian. West Saxon was the language of the King Alfred
the Great (871-901, Slocum & Lehmann) and therefore was the most popular. The reign of King
Alfred the Great made Old English a language of prestige and status. Early West Saxon to late
West Saxon shifted in the 10
th
century when English monasteries underwent reform and a
renewed interest in texts for teaching purposes (59). The School of Bishop AEthelwold at
Winchester was the most significant focus.
King Alfred attempted to regularize spelling in the 9
th
century, but by the 11
th
century it
changed again. Aelfricthe most prolific writer of the periodtried to achieve linguistic
standardization and a consistent grammatical system, as well. Boethius Consolation of
Philosophy, from the 6
th
century, like Gregorys Pastoral Care, were undertaken for translation
by King Alfred. Scribal monks had discrepancies in spelling since it was phonetical. No letters
were silent and the word order was free; mainly it was subject-verb-object which is what we use
now, but sometimes it was so convoluted that others could not make sense of it. Over 50% of the
thousand most common words in Old English survive today, and more than 75% of the top 100
(Slocum & Lehmann).
I am not entirely sure how my findings of Old English will help my teaching or my
students. Working through subject-verb-object sentence structures will help because they were
first developed in this time period, as well as certain words we still use today from Old English. I
could definitely pair up with a history teacher and discuss the background of Old English and
how it came to be.
THE HISTORY OF OLD ENGLISH Sanabria 4


References
Mugglestone, L. (2006). Beginnings and Transitions: Old English. The Oxford History of
English. (39-72). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Slocum, J., & Lehmann, W.P. (2014). Old English Online. Retrieved from
http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/eieol/engol-0-X.html