November 26, 2021
When people think of “Old” English, they typically think of Shakespeare and speeches laced with words like thou, thee & thy. With a little bit of work, this language, known as Shakespearean English or Middle English, is highly intelligible with modern English. Before Middle English was around, there was Old English. If you put a modern speaker of English into a room with someone who spoke Old English, they would be completely unable to have a conversation as the languages are very different.
Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxons present in England from the 5th century CE until it slowly declined after the 1066 invasion of William the Conqueror. It had its own runic alphabet known as futhorc until the 8th century when they transitioned to the use of the Latin alphabet with the use of two modified letters (æ known as ash & ð known as eth) and two runic letters (þ known as thorn and ƿ known as wynn).
Furthermore, the Latin alphabet at the time lacked the letters j and w, and v and u were not distinct from each other. Old English spellings also didn’t use the letters k, q, or z.
To make things even more complicated, old English was morphologically different from modern English, with three genders for nouns and adjectives instead of the modern natural gender. It was also a highly inflected language, with its verbs, nouns, adjectives, and pronouns being inflected. This means that all of these parts of speech included changes in words, usually the endings, to indicate a variety of characteristics that could express tense, person, number, case, gender, or mood.
The greatest surviving text of Old English known is the epic poem Beowulf, with over 3000 lines. This opening line from Beowulf shows how different the spelling was between Old English and the modern English spoken today: “Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon” is completely unintelligible to modern English. So how did this shift happen and English become the language spoken today?
In 1066, the Normans invaded England under William The Conqueror. The Normans were a French-speaking group descended from Norse invaders in the North of France, and they introduced their language as the language of the elite, law, and administration.
This is where a lot of English words gained their French influence as Anglo-French and Old English began to combine throughout the 12th to 15th centuries. Furthermore, Old English was influenced by the Norse as many Norse invaders settled in northern parts of the isles from the 8th to 11th centuries, bringing their language with them.
Sometimes the Anglo-French spoken by Normans would coincide with words learned from the Norse invaders, as the Normans were originally a proto-Norse group, this is seen through the word ‘Mug’, which was introduced to Northern dialects of Old English by Viking settlement and the Normans carried the word ‘Mug’ from the Norse they originally spoke into their French, which further reinforced its use in the English language, showing the close relation of European languages.
Latin also gained influence as it became the language of education and the church. These languages intermingled with one another throughout the centuries and became Middle English.
This Middle English period is when the English language began to become more readily documented, as many literary works were written and printed as William Caxton brought the printing press from Europe into Britain. The spelling of English was still irregular but it was intelligible across a wide geographic range.
The biggest factor that changed Middle English into Modern English, however, was the great vowel shift from the 1400s to the 1700s. The reason is unknown as to why the vowel shift happened, but the most common theory has to do with the idea of anti-French sentiment, prestige, French loanwords, and population migration. The pronunciation of long vowels changed and some consonants were also affected, with some becoming silent, leading to the modern pronunciations found in English.
Standardization started to happen in the 1700s. Samuel Johnson published the first comprehensive English dictionary in 1755, as people were simultaneously becoming more educated and the advancements in printing and bookbinding meant that books were available to the public at a reasonable cost. Printers needed a standardized pattern of grammar, definitions, and spelling. Johnson’s work would be expanded upon in the 1800s with the Oxford dictionary, when we entered the late stage of Modern English, the one we are currently in and the latest stage of development of the English language.
So that is how Old English evolved into Modern English. The Norman invasion brought a French influence and the church brought a Latin influence into the originally West Germanic language, and they merged over time as the trilingual population began to mix and become Middle English. Middle English then evolved into Modern English through the introduction of more well-documented works, printing technology, and a marked shift in vowels and standardization.
Liam is the digital marketing apprentice working for Lingua Fonica. He speaks English fluently and has studied English language for his A-Level qualification, providing him with knowledge surrounding the formation of words and the origins of the English language.