Рефераты. The history of Old English and its development

The history of Old English and its development

The history of Old English and its development.

In 409 AD the last Roman legion left British shores, and in fifty

years the Islands became a victim of invaders. Germanic tribes from

Southern Scandinavia and Northern Germany, pushed from their densely

populated homelands, looked for a new land to settle. At that time the

British Isles were inhabited by the Celts and remaining Roman colonists,

who failed to organize any resistance against Germanic intruders, and so

had to let them settle here. This is how the Old English language was born.

Celtic tribes crossed the Channel and starting to settle in Britain

already in the 7th century BC. The very word "Britain" seems to be the name

given by the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the island, accepted by first Indo-

Europeans. The Celts quickly spread over the island, and only in the north

still existed non-Indo-European peoples which are sometimes called "Picts"

(the name given by Romans). Picts lived in Scotland and on Shetland Islands

and represented the most ancient population of the Isles, the origin of

which is unknown. Picts do not seem to leave any features of their language

to Indo-European population of Britain - the famous Irish and Welsh initial

mutations of consonants can be the only sign of the substratum left by

unknown nations of Britain. At the time the Celts reached Britain they

spoke the common language, close to Gaulish in France. But later, when

Celtic tribes occupied Ireland, Northern England, Wales, their tongues were

divided according to tribal divisions. These languages will later become

Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Cornish, but from that time no signs remained, because

the Celts did not invent writing yet. Not much is left from Celtic

languages in English. Though many place names and names for rivers are

surely Celtic (like Usk - from Celtic *usce "water", or Avon - from *awin

"river"), the morphology and phonetics are untouched by the Celtic

influence. Some linguists state that the word down comes from Celtic *dъn

"down"; other examples of Celtic influence in place names are tne


cothair (a fortress) - Carnarvon

uisge (water) - Exe, Usk, Esk

dun, dum (a hill) - Dumbarton, Dumfries, Dunedin

llan (church) - Llandaff, Llandovery, Llandudno

coil (forest) - Kilbrook, Killiemore

kil (church) - Kilbride, Kilmacolm

ceann (cape) - Kebadre, Kingussie

inis (island) - Innisfail

inver (mountain) - Inverness, Inverurie

bail (house) - Ballantrae, Ballyshannon,

and, certainly, the word whiskey which means the same as Irish uisge

"water". But this borrowing took place much later.

In the 1st century AD first Roman colonists begin to penetrate in

Britain; Roman legions built roads, camps, founded towns and castles. But

still they did not manage to assimilate the Celts, maybe because they lived

apart from each other and did not mix. Tens of Latin words in Britain

together with many towns, places and hills named by Romans make up the

Roman heritage in the Old English. Such cities as Dorchester, Winchester,

Lancaster, words like camp, castra, many terms of the Christian religion

and several words denoting armaments were borrowed at that time by Britons,

and automatically were transferred into the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon

language already when there was no Romans in the country.

In 449 the legendary leaders of two Germanic tribes, Hengist and

Horsa, achieved British shores on their ships. The Anglo-Saxon conquest,

however, lasted for several centuries, and all this period Celtic

aborigines moved farther and farther to the west of the island until they

manage to fortify in mountainous Wales, in Corwall, and preserved their

kingdoms in Scotland. Germanic tribes killed Celtic population, destroyed

Celtic and former Roman towns and roads. In the 5th century such cities as

Durovern in Kent, Virocon, Trimontii, Camulodunum, were abandoned by the


Angles settled around the present-day Noridge, and in Northern

England; Saxons, the most numerous of the tribes, occupied all Central

England, the south of the island and settled in London (Londinii at that

time). Jutes and Frises, who probably came to Britain a bit later, settled

on the island of White and in what is now Kent - the word Kent derives from

the name of the Celtic tribe Cantii. Soon all these tribes founded their

separate kingdoms, which was united after centuries of struggle only in 878

by Alfred, king of Wessex. Before that each of the tribes spoke its

language, they were similar to each other but had differences which later

became the dialectal peculiarities of Old English.

Now a little bit about the foreign influence in Old English. From the

6th century Christianity start activities in Britain, the Bible is

translated into Old English, and quite a lot of terms are borrowed from

Latin at that time: many bishops, missionaries and Pope's officials come

from Rome. The next group of foreign loanwords were taken from Scandinavian

dialects, after the Vikings occupied much of the country in the 9th - 11th

centuries. Scandinavian languages were close relatives with Old English, so

the mutual influence was strong enough to develop also the Old English

morphology, strengthening its analytic processes. Many words in the

language were either changed to sound more Scandinavian, or borrowed.

The Old English language, which has quite a lot of literature

monuments, came to the end after the Norman conquest in 1066. The new

period was called Middle English.

The Old English Substantive.

The substantive in Indo-European has always three main categories

which change its forms: the number, the case, the gender. It ias known that

the general trend of the Indo-European family is to decrease the number of

numbers, cases and genders from the Proto-Indo-European stage to modern

languages. Some groups are more conservative and therefore keep many forms,

preserving archaic language traits; some are more progressive and lose

forms or transform them very quickly. The Old English language, as well as

practically all Germanic tongues, is not conservative at all: it generated

quite a lot of analytic forms instead of older inflections, and lost many

other of them.

Of eight Proto-Indo-European cases, Old English keeps just four which

were inherited from the Common Germanic language. In fact, several of

original Indo-European noun cases were weak enough to be lost practically

in all branches of the family, coinciding with other, stronger cases. The

ablative case often was assimilated by the genitive (in Greek, Slavic,

Baltic, and Germanic), locative usually merged with dative (Italic, Celtic,

Greek), and so did the instrumental case. That is how four cases appeared

in Germanic and later in Old English - nominative, genitive, accusative and

dative. These four were the most ancient and therefore stable in the system

of the Indo-European morphology.

The problem of the Old English instrumental case is rather strange -

this case arises quite all of a sudden among Germanic tongues and in some

forms is used quite regularly (like in demonstrative pronouns). In Gothic

the traces of instrumental and locative though can be found, but are

considered as not more than relics. But the Old English must have

"recalled" this archaic instrumental, which existed, however, not for too

long and disappeared already in the 10th century, even before the Norman

conquest and transformation of the English language into its Middle stage.

As for other cases, here is a little pattern of their usage in the Old

English syntax.

1. Genitive - expresses the possessive menaing: whose? of what?

Also after the expression meaning full of , free of , worthy of ,

guilty of, etc.

2. Dative - expresses the object towards which the action is directed.

After the after the verbs like "say to smb", "send smb", "give to

smb"; "known to smb", "necessary for smth / smb", "close to smb",

"peculiar for smth".

Also in the expressions like from the enemy, against the wind, on the


3. Accusative - expresses the object immediately affected by the

action (what?), the direct object.

Three genders were strong enough, and only northern dialects could

sometimes lose their distinction. But in fact the lose of genders in Middle

English happened due to the drop of the case inflections, when words could

no longer be distinguished by its endings. As for the numbers, the Old

English noun completely lost the dual, which was preserved only in personal

pronouns (see later).

All Old English nouns were divided into strong and weak ones, the same

as verbs in Germanic. While the first had a branched declension, special

endings for different numbers and cases, the weak declension was

represented by nouns which were already starting to lose their declension

system. The majority of noun stems in Old English should be referred to the

strong type. Here are the tables for each stems with some comments - the

best way of explaining the grammar.



Nom. stбn (stone) scip (ship) bбn (bone) reced (house) nнeten (ox)

Gen. stбnes scipes bбnes recedes


Dat. stбne scipe bбne recede


Acc. stбn scip bбn reced



Nom. stбnas scipu bбn reced


Gen. stбna scipa bбna receda


Dat. stбnum scipum bбnum recedum nнetenum

Acc. stбnas scipu bбn reced


This type of stems derived from masculine and neuter noun o-stems in Proto-

Indo-European. First when I started studying Old English I was irritated

all the time because I couldn't get why normal Indo-European o-stems are

called a-stems in all books on Old English. I found it a silly and

unforgivable mistake until I understood that in Germanic the Indo-European

short o became a, and therefore the stem marker was also changed the same

way. So the first word here, stбn, is masculine, the rest are neuter. The

only difference in declension is the plural nominative-accusative, where

neuter words lost their endings or have -u, while masculine preserved -as.

A little peculiarity of those words who have the sound [ж] in the stem and

say farewell to it in the plural:

Masculine Neuter

Sing. Pl. Sing. Pl.

N dжg (day) dagas fжt (vessel) fatu

G dжges daga fжtes fata

D dжge dagum fжte fatum

A dжg dagas fжt fatu

Examples of a-stems: earm (an arm), eorl, helm (a helmet), hring (a

ring), mъю (a mouth); neuter ones - dor (a gate), hof (a courtyard), geoc

(a yoke), word, dйor (an animal), bearn (a child), gйar (a year).



Masculine Neuter

N hrycg (back) here (army) ende (end) cynn (kind) rнce (realm)

G hrycges heriges endes cynnes rнces

D hrycge herige ende cynne rнce

A hrycg here ende cynn rнce


N hrycgeas herigeas endas cynn rнciu

G hrycgea herigea enda cynna rнcea

D hrycgium herigum endum cynnum rнcium

A hrycgeas herigeas endas cynn rнciu

Again the descendant of Indo-European jo-stem type, known only in

masculine and neuter. In fact it is a subbranch of o-stems, complicated by

the i before the ending: like Latin lupus and filius. Examples of this

type: masculine - wecg (a wedge), bуcere (a scholar), fiscere (a fisher);

neuter - net, bed, wнte (a punishment).


Singular Plural

Masc. Neut. Masc. Neut.

N bearu (wood) bealu (evil) bearwas bealu (-o)

G bearwes bealwes bearwa bealwa

D bearwe bealwe bearwum bealwum

A bearu (-o) bealu (-o) bearwas bealu (-o)

Just to mention. This is one more peculiarity of good old a-stems with the

touch of w in declension. Interesting that the majority of this kind of

stems make abstract nouns. Examples: masculine - snбw (snow), юйaw (a

custom); neuter - searu (armour), trйow (a tree), cnйw (a knee)



N swaюu (trace) fуr (journey) tigol (brick)

G swaюe fуre tigole

D swaюe fуre tigole

A swaюe fуre tigole


N swaюa fуra tigola

G swaюa fуra tigola

D swaюum fуrum tigolum

A swaюa fуra tigola

Another major group of Old English nouns consists only of feminine nouns.

Funny but in Indo-European they are called a-stems. But Germanic turned

vowels sometimes upside down, and this long a became long o. However,

practically no word of this type ends in -o, which was lost or transformed.

The special variants of у-stems are jo- and wo-stems which have practically

the same declension but with the corresponding sounds between the root and

the ending.

Examples of у-stems: caru (care), sceamu (shame), onswaru (worry), lufu

(love), lбr (an instruction), sorg (sorrow), юrбg (a season), ides (a


Examples of jу-stems: sibb (peace), ecg (a blade), secg (a sword), hild (a

fight), жx (an axe).

Examples of wу-stems: beadu (a battle), nearu (need), lжs (a beam).


Masc. Neut.


N sige (victory) hyll (hill) sife (sieve)

G siges hylles sifes

D sige hylle sife

A sige hyll sife


N sigeas hyllas sifu

G sigea hylla sifa

D sigum hyllum sifum

A sigeas hyllas sifu

The tribes and nations were usually of this very type, and were used always

in plural: Engle (the Angles), Seaxe (the Saxons), Mierce (the Mercians),

Norюymbre (the Northumbrians), Dene (the Danish)

N Dene

G Dena (Miercna, Seaxna)

D Denum

A Dene


Sg. Pl.

N hyd (hide) hэde, hэda

G hэde hэda

D hэde hэdum

A hэd hэde, hэda

This kind of stems included all three genders and derived from the same

type of Indo-European stems, frequent also in other branches and languages

of the family.

Examples: masculine - mere (a sea), mete (food), dжl (a part), giest (a

guest), drync (a drink); neuter - spere (a spear); feminine - cwйn (a

woman), wiht (a thing).


Masc. Fem.


N sunu (son)feld (field) duru (door) hand (hand)

G suna felda dura handa

D suna felda dura handa

A sunu feld duru hand


N suna felda dura handa

G suna felda dura handa

D sunum feldum durum handum

A suna felda dura handa

They can be either masculine or feminine. Here it is seen clearly how

Old English lost its final -s in endings: Gothic had sunus and handus,

while Old English has already sunu and hand respectively. Interesting that

dropping final consonants is also a general trend of almost all Indo-

European languages. Ancient tongues still keep them everywhere - Greek,

Latin, Gothic, Old Prussian, Sanskrit, Old Irish; but later, no matter

where a language is situated and what processes it undergoes, final

consonants (namely -s, -t, often -m, -n) disappear, remaining nowadays only

in the two Baltic languages and in New Greek.

Examples: masculine - wudu (wood), medu (honey), weald (forest), sumor (a

summer); fem. - nosu (a nose), flуr (a floor).

The other type of nouns according to their declension was the group of

Weak nouns, derived from n-nouns is Common Germanic. Their declension is

simple and stable, having special endings:

Masc. Fem. Neut.


N nama (name) cwene (woman) йage (eye)

G naman cwenan йagan

D naman cwenan йagan

A naman cwenan йage


N naman cwenan йagan

G namena cwenena йagena

D namum cwenum йagum

A naman cwenan йagan

Examples: masc. - guma (a man), wita (a wizard), steorra (a star), mуna

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