General name for the range of dialects spoken by Germanic settlers in England between the 5th and 12th centuries AD, also known as Anglo-Saxon. The literature of the period includes Beowulf, an epic in West Saxon dialect. See also Old English literature and English language.
Dialects Old English written records may be divided into three or four dialectal groups: the southern English dialects and the Anglian dialects, divided into Northumbrian (dialects of the Angles north of the Humber) and Mercian (the dialects of the Angles of the Midlands). There were probably also East Anglian dialects, but nothing is known of their early form. Of the southern dialects the most important by far is that of Wessex, or West Saxon, which became dominant for literary purposes during the early 10th century and maintained its supremacy until the close of the Old English period. Another form of Old English is known as southern patois (of the Blickling Homilies and the Harleian Glosses). Kentish and the Anglian dialects are mainly known in charters, glossaries, glosses, or paraphrases of the Gospels and the Psalms. Therefore the study of literary Old English is mainly based on West Saxon.
Grammar Like German, Latin, and Greek, and unlike modern English, West Saxon was a highly inflected language (see inflection). Nouns could be masculine, feminine, or neuter; and they had four cases in the singular and plural. Pronouns had dual forms (special forms used for referring to two people or things, in addition to the usual singular and plural forms), which have disappeared in all modern Germanic languages except Icelandic. Adjectives agreed with nouns, and were declined with them. In the conjugation of the verbs there were two main types, as in German: the ‘strong’, in which changes in tense were indicated by internal vowel change (some Modern English words still show the basic similarity of pattern, for example, write, wrote, written), and a second larger group of verbs called ‘weak’, which used a different method for forming tenses, a suffix, consisting of a syllable containing a dental consonant (-de, -ode, -te). The verb had a special infinitive form (-ian, -an, -n), and a past participle (prefix ge-).
The Development of the English Language
Modern English to Old English Vocabulary
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