In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Old English

  • Introduction
  • Overviews
  • Reference Grammars
  • Pedagogical Grammars and Readers
  • Handbooks
  • Journals and Bibliographies
  • Electronic Data Resources
  • Regional Variation
  • Lexicon and Semantics
  • Orthography, Punctuation, and Manuscripts
  • Pragmatics, Discourse, and Information Structure

Linguistics Old English
Cynthia Allen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0288


The West Germanic language brought to England from northwestern Germany and southern Denmark in the early 5th century CE is known as Old English (sometimes Anglo-Saxon). All dates for periods in English are somewhat arbitrary, since there was no abrupt shift from one language to another at any time. However, by 1100 or 1150, enough changes had accumulated in the language that it would have been essentially a foreign language to the first speakers of English. The first English writings in Old English do not appear until c. 700, after missionaries from the Irish and Roman churches taught the English to write. The decision of early English religious leaders and kings to translate Christian writings into the vernacular from Latin to spread Christian teaching and to use traditional Germanic heroic poetry to present saints as heroes led to the preservation of extensive English records at an earlier date than with most European languages. Literary remains from Old English include poetry, most famously the epic Beowulf, as well as extensive prose writings including translations from the Vulgate Bible, homilies, lives of saints, letters between ecclesiastics, wills, charters, translations of medical and scientific treatises from Latin, rules for members of religious orders, and the first grammar of Latin written in a European language. Old English was already differentiated from its close relatives on the Continent by the time of the earliest writings by phonological and morphological changes, and the four broad dialects that can be recognized in these early writings probably had their seeds in differences in the language of the first Germanic migrants. One question of extensive current debate is the extent to which the characteristics of Old English are due to contact with the speakers of other languages, particularly speakers of Celtic languages who had to learn the language of their conquerors, and the Old Norse speakers who began settling in parts of England from the second half of the 9th century. Extensive and obvious changes took place in the phonology and morphology of the language between the early and late Old English periods, and less noticeable changes, particularly in the frequency of constructions, also took place to the syntax. The study of these changes in frequency, which herald the loss of certain constructions during the Early Middle English period, have become much easier to carry out with the development of digital resources.


These books all contain at least a basic sketch grammar of Old English but are broader in their scope than both pedagogical and reference grammars. They vary in the amount of detail they contain about Old English phonology and morphology. Ringe and Taylor 2014 has the most detail about these areas of the works listed here, presenting the findings of original research and evaluating the proposals of scholars in these fields. It is not a reference grammar of Old English because of the amount of material on phonological and morphological developments in Germanic generally and more specifically in West Germanic. Nielsen 1998 is like Ringe and Taylor 2014 in focusing on the development of Old English, but the discussion of this is considerably less detailed and aimed at a lower level while also containing more coverage of early settlement. Lass 1994 supplies the basic background that students need to bridge the gap between pedagogical grammars and reference grammars that assume that readers will be knowledgeable about Indo-European. The most basic of the books in this section are Robinson 1992, which also contains sketches of languages related to Old English, and Hogg 2002. These are both aimed at an audience of beginners, including people lacking a background in traditional grammar or linguistics, making them a good place to start before moving to grammars cited in Pedagogical Grammars and Readers for more detailed grammatical information or Mitchell and Robinson 2011 for both a pedagogical grammar and a fuller background to Anglo-Saxon society.

  • Hogg, Richard M. 2002. An introduction to Old English. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This introduction aimed at readers with no prior knowledge of Old English begins with a brief introduction to the Anglo-Saxon settlement and the origins of Old English along with the sources we have for learning about Old English, followed by chapters covering fundamental aspects of Old English morphology, lexicon, dialects, and syntax. A second edition with revisions by Rhona Alcorn was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2012.

  • Lass, Roger. 1994. Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511621000

    This book begins with an overview of the relevant aspects of Proto-Indo-European and Common Germanic before a detailed treatment of Old English phonology, including a chapter on suprasegmentals, and morphology. While the major focus of the book is phonology and morphology, it also contains a chapter on syntax that covers word order and the syntax of cases.

  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. 2011. A guide to Old English. 8th ed. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

    This introduction to Old English has more coverage of word formation and syntax than most and contains helpful hints including keys to identifying inflectional classes. It has chapters on archaeology and history giving background and presents both prose and poetic texts with explanatory introductions and footnotes as well as a glossary identifying each instance of a particular form of the readings published in the book.

  • Nielsen, Hans Frede. 1998. The continental backgrounds of English and its insular development until 1154. Odense, Denmark: Odense Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1075/nss.19

    This book begins with an account of the backgrounds of Old English and surveys the linguistics of the Old English period, with some discussion of language contact. Provides a useful list of selected features distinguishing the Old English dialects.

  • Ringe, Donald, and Ann Taylor. 2014. The development of Old English. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199207848.001.0001

    Four of the chapters of this large book cover the development of English from Germanic. The very detailed discussion of phonological and morphological changes both in these chapters and the chapters specifically on Old English identify areas of current agreement and controversy. Unusual in containing a handbook-style chapter on Old English syntax.

  • Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives: A survey of the earliest Germanic languages. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    An engagingly written introduction to the Germanic languages aimed at students with little knowledge of linguistics, this book provides useful historical background about the speakers of these languages as well as sketches. Suitable for a general audience as well as students.

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