Old English

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Old English is the earliest written form of the English language. English is derived from dialects of North Sea Germanic spoken around the coasts of the North Sea prior to the fifth century AD. Tribes speaking these dialects included the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, who later settled in Britain. Once established on the island of Britain, the language gradually diverged from its continental neighbors. It appears to have been called "English" right from the outset (spelt Englisc in Old English), from the name of the Angles.

Letters used in Old English that have not survived in Modern English are: æ ("ash"), an amalgamated letter roughly representing a sound between "a" and "e"; þ ("thorn") and ƿ ("wynn"), borrowed from the runic alphabet; and ð ("eth"), adapted from the Latin alphabet.[1]

English was the first European language after the Classical period to develop its own native literature. The most famous literary work in Old English is the epic poem Beowulf.

Old English is drastically different from Modern English and requires special training to be read today, as demonstrated by the following sample, the Lord's Prayer (11th century):[2]

Old English Modern English
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum Our Father, you who are in heaven,
Si þin nama gehalgod Be your name hallowed.
to becume þin rice Come your kingdom,
gewurþe ðin willa be done your will,
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum on earth just as in heaven.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg Our daily bread (loaf) give us today,
and forgyf us ure gyltas and forgive us our sins (guilts)
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum just as we forgive our sinners (i.e., sinners against us),
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge and do not lead us into temptation,
ac alys us of yfele soþlice. but release us from evil. Amen.

The Old English period is conventionally regarded as coming to an end after the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD, when many French loan words entered the language. This new phase is called Middle English.

Some works in Old English


  • "The Battle of Maldon"
  • Beowulf
  • "Cædmon's Hymn" (dating from the 7th century, the oldest known work in English)
  • "The Dream of the Rood"
  • "Judith"
  • "Juliana"
  • "The Seafarer"
  • "The Wanderer"
  • "The Wife's Lament"


  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • The Blickling Homilies
  • Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos


Further reading

Labyrinth Library: Old English Literature