Medieval Studies Old English Language
Thomas Cable
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 December 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 December 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0064


As the English language changed after the Norman Conquest, documents and literary texts written in Old English (from the late 7th century to the mid-12th century) became increasingly inaccessible even to scholars. It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that investigations into the earliest stages of the English language were undertaken. Because studies of Old English informed by classical scholarship preceded the great discoveries in historical linguistics of the 19th century, not to mention the explosion of linguistic theory in the 20th, “philological” and “linguistic” approaches to the subject have often proceeded on parallel tracks, sometimes antagonistic, sometimes fruitfully complementary. Although insights from linguistic theory have sharpened some descriptions, for the most part the grammars, dictionaries, and specialized studies are quite traditional.

General Overviews

For placing Old English in its cultural setting and in the broader context of what follows, histories of the language are useful. Baugh and Cable 2002 is one of the standard texts among the many available. Szarmach, et al. 1998 and Momma and Matto 2008 take up specific topics in various degrees of detail, and Hogg 1992–2001 is especially helpful in identifying the scholarly traditions. Robinson 1992 makes use of comparative linguistics to draw out similarities among the Germanic languages.

  • Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2002.

    Ever since the original edition was published by Baugh in 1935, the two chapters on Old English have displayed both grammatical paradigms and “external” history.

  • Hogg, Richard M., ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. 6 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992–2001.

    Volume 1, The Beginnings to 1066, published in 1992, divides the labor on the major topics among the general editor Hogg, Alfred Bammesberger, Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Dieter Kastovsky, Thomas E. Toon, Cecily Clark, and Malcolm R. Godden.

  • Momma, Haruko, and Michael Matto, eds. A Companion to the History of the English Language. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444302851

    Six of the fifty-nine entries treat topics in Old English, especially those in the sections “Pre-History of English” and “Old English in History (c. 450–1066).”

  • Robinson, Orrin W. Old English and Its Closest Relatives: A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

    Useful for showing similarities between Old English and Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Low Franconian, and Old High German—comparisons that surprisingly few works display.

  • Szarmach, Paul E., M. Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, eds. Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.

    See, for example, “Alfred the Great,” “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” “Anglo-Saxon Invasions,” “Bede,” “History of the Language,” and “Literary Influences, Scandinavian.”

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