The Origins of Old English

Old English is one of the Germanic group of Indo-European languages. It was spoken, and written, in England before about 1100AD. It is sometimes referred to as Anglo-Saxon.

There were four distinct dialects of Old English: Northumbrian, Mercia, Kentish and West-Saxon. This is known through differences in spelling. After 900AD West-Saxon became widely used as a standard written language, and is sometimes referred to as 'Classic West-Saxon'.

Two stages of the West-Saxon dialect can be distinguished - early West Saxon (eWS), which is the language of the time of King Alfred (c. 900), and late West Saxon (lWS), which is seen in the works of Ælfric (c. 1000). The most important difference is that in eWS ie and īe appear in lWS texts as y and ŷ (for example, eWS fierd becomes fyrd in lWS). Another is that ea may be spelt e in lWS (for example, eWS scēap becomes scēp in lWS).

Within the Germanic group the family tree looks something like this:

[Family Treee of Old English]

According to Tacitus the West Germanic people were divided into three major tribal groups: Ingvaeones, Istvaeones, Erminones. It is not clear what these groups corresponded to, but they mark out some important geographical distributions that correspond to later dialect groups.

Borrowings in Old English

This whole issue of word origins is very difficult as Latin, the Germanic tongues, Old English (derived from Germanic), and the Celtic tongues are all ultimately derived from a common Indo-European root, and are cognates (related). This can easily be demonstrated by looking (for example) at the words I, me, is, brother, ten.

English      I      me      is     mother  brother      ten

Sanskrit aham ma asti matar bhratar daca Iranian azem me asti matar bratar dasa Greek ego me esti meter phrater deka Latin ego me est mater frater decem Old English ic me is moder brothor tien Old Irish me is mathir brathir deich Lithuanian asz mi esti mote broterelis deszimtis Russian ia menya jest' mat' brat' desiat'

I hope that this clearly shows that these tongues are related! It is similarly easy to demonstrate that the "Romance" languages are 'derived' from Latin.

The picture for English is even more complicated. Old English is cognate with Latin, but also borrowed a few words from Latin; even more words got borrowed in the 7th century. Then with the Norman conquest, there was a large influx of Norman French (and yet more Latin) words.

Consequently, English is in places cognate with Latin, and in places derived from Latin. For instance "brother" is cognate with the Latin frater but "fraternal" is derived from frater. Other examples:

English        Latin cognate        English derivative

mother mater maternal two duo dual, duet tooth dens, stem dent- dental foot pes, stem ped- pedal heart cor, stem cord- cordial bear fero fertile

Generally, when a word entered the language can be discovered but it's not always easy!

Returning to Old English, borrowings come from a number of different places, at different times. These are discussed below.

1. Borrowings into proto-West-Germanic

Borrowings from non-Germanic Indo-European (IE) into the proto-WestGermanic stock which evolved via Anglo-Frisian to become Old English. It is known that these words had already been borrowed before Old English (OE) appeared as a separate language because they appear, fully integrated, in the entire West Germanic family of languages.

These fully integrated loans are mainly from Celtic and Latin, with Latin loans being the more important. There are very few (2-3) well attested non-Latin loans from this period:

proto-Celtic */ri:k-/ "king" appears in Old English as rice "kingdom". Note: the "*" means the word is a reconstruction -- a word that is not found in any surviving document, but who's existance has been deduced from the linguistic features found in other words.

Gaulish ambactos "servant" appears in Old English as ambeht "servant"

In contrast, the influence of Latin on Old English cannot be overstated. A large fraction of the population -- monks, clerics, and even some laymen will have had some competence in this international language. This does not just start in the Insular period but extends back to the continental origins of the Anglo-Saxons.

During the continental period a number of words were borrowed, most are terms of war, trade, agriculture and household. A few typical examples are:

Old English             Latin

win "wine" < winum (< means derived from) ċēap "goods" < caupo pund "pound" < pondo camp "battle" cāsere "emperor"

[Aside: an interesting point is that wine and vine in English both have the same root--Latin winum --but were borrowed at different times. What has happened is that between the two borrowings the pronunciation of the Latin changed and this is mirrored in the two borrowings].

2. Latin

Latin influence on Old English during the Insular period is divided into two periods: early settlement (450-600), and post-Christian (650+). Among early loans, during the pagan period, are:

Old English             Latin

stropp "strop" < stroppus forca "fork" < furca mægester "master" < magister.

Later, with the introduction of Christianity, many more words were introduced. Most of these are of a "technical" nature and are concerned with Christianity and its institutions.

culpe      "guilt"      <     culpa
abbod      "abbot"
prēost     "priest"
mæsse      "mass"

A few of these words like cirice "church", and bisceop "bishop" may have been in use before Christianisation.

Many more Latin words were borrowed in the tenth century as a result of the Benedictine reformation, and these often gave rise to doublets with earlier forms, like:

Old English              Latin         Older Form

corōna "crown" < corona. coren magister "master" < magister. mægester

Unlike the earlier borrowings, these Latin words were borroed from written rather than spoken Latin. As a consequence they often retain their original form, and sometimes even their inflexional endings.

Approx 3% of OE is borrowed from Latin (in modern English roughly 70% of words are borrowed!).

3. Scandinavian

While most of the loanwords from Latin are of a technical nature, or express new concepts (like Christianity), the Scandinavian loanwords that survive into Modern English are mostly everyday words. These must have been borrowed as a result of the Scandinavian settlements in the North and East of the country. However, identification of these is quite difficult (they are from NorthGermanic languages which are closely related).

Old English is largely known through the work of tenth and eleventh century scribes, working in the South and West of the country. These scribes would be unlikely to use loanwords that were in use in the Scandinavian settlement area, thus of the 900 attested North Germanic loans into English, only 150 appear in Old English sources. The rest only manifest themselves in the 12th and 13th centuries in Middle English texts even though they must have been around earlier.

The words that do appear -- mostly in late texts -- are mostly concerned with the administrative and social systems of the Danelaw, for example:

hūsbonda    "householder"
wǽpentæc    "wapentake" a subdivision of a shire
hūsting     "court, tribunal"
ūtlaga      "outlaw"

4. Celtic

There are about 12 secure Celtic loans in OE; most of these are from Brythonic (P) Celtic - the dialect group spoken by the larger number of British inhabitants.

They are: binn "bin", bannoc "bit", dunn "dun, grey", broc "badger", bratt "cloak", carr "rock", luh "lake", torr "rock", cumb "deep valley".

A very small number came from Goidelic (q) Celtic, and are associated with the church (apparently borrowed from Irish missionaries):

Old English             Celtic

dry "magician" < Old Irish drui ancor "hermit" < anchara stær "story" < stoir

Another word apparently borrowed from Irish missionaries is cros(s) which only appears in place names. The usual OE is rōd.

Further Reading

Old English: a historical linguistic companion
Roger Lass, 1994. ISBN 0 521 45848 X

Tony Jebson <> 14th May 2001