The history of the English language – Middle English syntax

It’s Thursday and that means more of the History of the English Language! Today, we deal with Middle English syntax!

So, remember how we talked about Old English syntax in our last post? Well, a lot happens in the shift from Old English to Middle English.

As you know by now, English morphology changed quite a bit in this “shift” too. Particularly important for Middle English syntax was the weakening inflections on words. In Old English, the function of nouns, for example, was rather clear. If it was a nominative, it was the subject – accusative the object and so on. But, with the loss of these endings, a lot suddenly became rather ambiguous.

Suddenly, word order became quite important!

First, while Old English tended toward using V2 word order in main clauses and VF in sub-clauses, Middle English tends to be very similar to Present-Day English word order.

However, Modern English word order is quite.. rigid. It has to be, really, because the word order is what tells you about the subject and the object in a sentence. There is a world of difference between Jack ate the fish and The fish ate Jack, isn’t there?

But Middle English is a bit.. more flexible.

Typically, the verb is found in second position, preceded by the subject and followed by the object (that is, a typical SVO order). We find the same in Present-Day English (such as in John likes football).

Although the standard word order of Middle English is therefore rather similar to what we find in English today, we do see a few differences.

The V2 constraint (that we saw in Old English) continues to be quite common during the Middle English period. It had a sharp decline in use by 1600 and is today virtually extinct in English.

SOV was also still in use during Middle English, but it now became rather unusual. In the late Middle English period, it appears to have become very rare (though still occasionally occurring).

Except for these two, we also find that Middle English makes use of VSO order in questions and commands:

Gyf ye the chyld any thyng?
Give you the child any thing?
Bring ye the horse
Bring you the horse1

OSV and OVS are still found when emphasising the object:

This boke I haue mad and wretyn
This book I have made and written
Clothis have they none
Clothes have they none2

So there are still a few differences.

The changes in word order actually had a significant effect on the development of the English language. For example, an expressed subject became increasingly obligatory in Middle English and the so-called dummy it came to be used more and more (that is, It seems to me…). But subject-less constructions still occurred quite frequently (which is something to keep in mind when reading Middle English).

Generally, though, we are moving increasingly toward Present-Day English. As a result, it is my personal belief that most speakers of English today can likely read Middle English with some focused attention (syntactically speaking anyway – I won’t make promises about orthography).

Want to see if you can?

Check out this interlinear translation of some of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and test yourself!

(Let me know how it goes, will ya?)

Join me for a look into modern English syntax on February 27!

Until then, enjoy our Fun Etymologies!



Albert C. Baugh & Thomas Cable. 2002. A history of the English language. London: Routledge.

Carol Percy. n.d. ME Syntax. Find it here.

Elly van Gelderen. 2016. Old, Middle, and Early Modern Morphology and Syntax through texts. Find it here.

Olga Fisher. 1992. Syntax. In Norman Blake (ed.). The Cambridge history of the English language. Volume II: 1066-1476. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 207-408.

Olga Fischer. Ans van Kemenade. Willem Koopman. Wim van der Wurff. 2000. The syntax of early English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robert Stanton. Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary – a PPT-presentation “Middle English Syntax and Vocabulary”.

The history of the English language – Modern English phonology

We’ve seen Old English. We’ve seen Middle English.

Our last installment of this little series is
Modern English phonology!

For ease of reference, let me remind you – in a slightly easier form than our previous tables – the Old and Middle English consonant inventories:

Old English
Middle English

There are quite a few changes, just between Old English and Middle English.

This is Modern English
Stopp bt d tʃ dʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs z ʃ ʒ(x)h

There is a bit of a difference here – most noticeably, the addition of two consonants /ʒ/ and /w/, but the biggest difference between historical stages of the English language and the modern version is found in the vowels.

Let’s do a brief reminder.

So, in Old English, we have eight vowels: /i, e, æ, y, ø, ɑ, u, o/ and their long equivalents. In addition, we have three diphthongs: /iu̯, eo̯, æɑ̯/ and their long equivalents.

In Middle English, we still have eight short vowels: /i, e, a, y, ø, ə, u, o/ and their long equivalents (except for /ə/ which doesn’t have a long equivalent). However, in addition to these, we also find three new vowels that only exist as long vowels: /ɛː, œː, ɔː/. When it comes to diphthongs, Middle English had added another four by around the year 1400, giving a total of seven diphthongs: /ɛi, ɔi, ʊi, ɪu, ɛu, ɑu, ɔu/.

Okay, so there is a number of changes.

But what about Modern English?


In Modern English, we have fourteen vowels and eight diphthongs 1.


The Modern English vowels are: /ɪ, i:, e, e:, ɛ:, æ, ʊ, u:, ə, ʌ, ɜː, ɒ, ɔː, ɑː/. And its diphthongs are: /eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, ʊə/. Additionally, Modern English also has some so-called triphthongs. Although minor in comparison to the monophthongs (single vowels) and diphthongs, they do exist and are: /eɪə, aɪə, ɔɪə, aʊə, əʊə/.

Wow, that’s a lot of vowels.

And I think that might be enough for you for one blog post. If you are intrigued to learn how we got from Middle English to Modern English, though, check out my notes below!

If not (no judgment here), I hope this was enlightening for you. Check back next week, when we’ll once again back up and look at Old English syntax!


Notes and references

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out our previous blog post on the Great (English) Vowel Shift.

Already know all that?

Alright. In that case, here is what I would suggest:

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for both Old and Middle English, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and is a great book to have a look at if you’re interested in the phonological development of English).

Philip Carr. 2013. English phonetics and phonology. (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. (A pretty standard textbook that works well as an introduction to modern English phonology)

Heinz J. Giegerich. 1992. English Phonology: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press (Another, very informative, phonology textbook)

Want to go more deeply into phonological theory and haven’t read The sound patterns of English (Chomsky & Halle, 1968) yet? Start there – it’s a classic (but not for someone to read for leisure as it gets reasonably complex rather quickly).

For this post, I’ll admit to having taken the overview photos from Wikipedia. This is simply because they provide a slightly more condensed view than my previous tables.

For Modern English, I have taken a look at Wiki‘s condensed info but also at this article.

The history of the English language – Old English phonology

Welcome to a new year (and decade) with HLC!

I am very happy to be here with all of you, my dear followers, and I hope that HLC will continue to grow during this new decade! In order to do that, please let me know if there is anything you’re missing from the HLC and I will do my best to provide it!

In the meantime, while you contemplate what you would like to see more of here at the HLC, let’s get back to HEL!

Today, let’s have a look at Old English phonology!

As I am sure you know, the HLC has done some work on this before (like here), but today, let’s have a closer look, shall we?

First, two words of warning: First, Old English underwent a lot of changes. It’d be a very long blog post if I tried to cover them all! Therefore, this will merely provide a bit of an inkling, outlining the sound system of Old English. On the topic of phonological changes that Old English underwent, Wikipedia has an abundance of interesting information – do check it (and my other sources) out!

Second, Old English phonology is, of course, somewhat speculative. This is necessarily the case because, obviously, we can’t exactly ask the speakers of the language how they would pronounce this or that, or listen to recordings of speakers.

But (!) there is a relatively large corpus of the language (check out the Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus, which consists of at least one copy of every surviving Old English text 1 – isn’t that remarkable?!). This means that we can look at orthography, which is deemed to be quite faithful to pronunciation, to draw some tentative conclusions about how words were pronounced.

Now, let’s start with something fairly simple: a consonant sound inventory of Old English, which looks something like this:

Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

(Want to hear how they sound? Check out this amazing interactive IPA chart!)

Now, I won’t go into detail about allophonic variations and when they occur, simply because a blog post can only be so long. However, there are numerous, great books listed in my notes below if you want to take a closer peek at Old English phonology.

Alright, so we have the consonants. But what kind of vowels did Old English have?

Well, they had seven or eight vowels, depending on dialect:

Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

The front mid rounded vowel [ø] appears in the Northumbrian dialect (remember the Old English dialects?) but corresponds to [e] in late West Saxon, which is why it’s in parenthesis here in our table.

What about diphthongs, though? Surely, Old English had diphthongs!

It did! And here they are!
First elementShortLongSpelling (Old English)Spelling (modern)
Highiu̯iːu̯ioio, īo
Mideo̯eːo̯eoeo, ēo
Lowæɑ̯æːɑ̯eaea, ēa

*These are representative of the diphthongs that occur in the Anglian dialects of Old English – the high diphthongs io and īo had merged into eo and ēo in Late West Saxon.

And that is a very brief outline of the sound system of Old English!

Join me next week as we watch this vital part of a language change quite a bit in Middle English!


Notes and references

If you want to have a closer look at Old English phonology (or Old English generally), there are a number of really great books for you. Here are some of my favorites, with my own thoughts on the source in parenthesis 2 !

Alistair Campbell. 1959. Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (This is a classic – you won’t be disappointed.)

Roger Lass. 1994. Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (I will personally always recommend pretty much anything written by Roger Lass. The works are always filled with great information, written in an engaging and interesting way.)

Bruce Mitchell & Fred Robinson. A guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. (A very good overview with a lot of information.)

Richard Hogg. 2002. An introduction to Old English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (A thin volume, with easy access to a lot of difficult matters!)

Richard Hogg. 1992. Chapter 3: Phonology and Morphology (in The Cambridge History of the English language, vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 67-168. (Again, just as above, easy access to a lot of information – definitely worth a read.)

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (This is one of my absolute favorites – I used it extensively for my master’s thesis and found it extremely useful, not just regarding Old English but generally about the phonology of English.)

The history of the English language – Modern English morphology

Welcome back! I hope everyone (who celebrates) had a lovely Christmas!

Let’s get back to morphology!

Today, we’re not really doing historical linguistics, because, today, we’re looking at Modern English morphology.

Although Modern English is usually further divided into Early Modern English and Late Modern English and, by some, also into Present-Day English, we’ll do a general overview of this entire period – which stretches from 1500 to present day.


Well, because, honestly, English morphology really hasn’t changed all that much since Middle English (that is not to say that it hasn’t changed at all, just that it hasn’t changed so much that it would add to your knowledge to divide it into its “typical” divisions).

Up to this point, we’ve mostly focused on inflectional morphology.

Inflectional morphology refers to something that is added to a word for grammatical reasons – like case, gender, number, etc.

In this, English really hasn’t changed all that much. Like in Middle English, Present-Day English has three cases: nominative, accusative, and genitive. In any other word than a pronoun, the genitive is expressed by the apostrophe (as in “My dog‘s toy“), while in pronouns, we see a bit more of a difference:

WeUs Ours
This is not really all that different from Middle English.

In Middle English (as we talked about last week), the case system underwent a weakening and lost the distinctive dative case by the early Middle English period. And since then, this is pretty much the system that has been used.

Modern English has no real grammatical gender system left – that is, it has a system that is mostly based on natural gender. What that means is that it makes no difference to an English speaker whether a word is technically a masculine, feminine or neuter because there is no distinction between the forms (or their modifiers) anyway. Even dictionaries in English (like Merriam-Webster) do not attribute a gender to an English word.

Instead, the word, if necessary, coincides with the subject’s natural gender. That is, if you’re talking about a woman, you’ll say she, while, if you’re talking about a man, you’ll say he.

This is really not all that different from Middle English either.

Grammatical gender started to disappear from English during the Middle English period and by the late 14th century, it is pretty much gone (at least in London English). So, not all that different.

Last: technically, we have eight inflectional morphemes in modern English:

MorphemeFunctionAttaches toExample
'sGenitive (possessive)NounsThe child's book
(e)sPluralNounsThe books
The wishes
(e)dPast tenseVerbsBaked (from bake)
Played (from play)
-ingPresent participleVerbsI'm thinking
-en (also expressed by -ed, -d, -t, -n)Past participleVerbsThe boy taken to the hospital is getting better
-s Third person singularVerbsThe girl eats
-erComparativeAdjectivesHe is smarter than most boys his age
-estSuperlativeAdjectivesShe is the smartest girl in our class

Though we might also want to add -en as a possible way to show plural (i.e. oxen, children). Again, this is not very different from what we find in Middle English.

However, there is another form of morphology:
derivational morphology.

We haven’t really talked about derivational morphology (which is actually rather interesting since I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to account for a specific derivational morpheme).

Anyway, morphological derivation is the process by which you create a new word by taking an existing word and adding a prefix or a suffix to it. (There are a number of other affixes, such as infix and circumfix, but they are less commonly used.)

Basically, you take a word, like child. Then you add a suffix to your word; let’s add -hood – and, suddenly, you got childhood! (-hood and its sister suffix –head just happens to be the suffixes I’ve spent a loooong time looking into).

I haven’t really focused on this but derivational morphology has been an active part of English morphology since Old English, and thus, we find cildhad (childhood) in Old English.

And there you have it, a brief overview of modern English morphology! 

As you can see, in this very brief overview, there isn’t all that much that has changed from the Middle English period. That will soon change as we will, next week, start having a look at the development of English phonology! Check back then!



For this post, I’ve had a look at:

The Dictionary of Old English

Morphemes in English

Gender in English

Morphological derivation

The History of the English language – LAEME and eLALME

Welcome back!

While I would normally move on to modern English dialects at this point, I did promise you a treat. So allow me to introduce you briefly to two marvelous sources in the study of Middle English dialectology: LAEME and eLALME.

The abbreviations stand for A linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English 1150 to 1325 (LAEME) and An electronic version of a linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English (eLALME). There is also a LALME, which stands for A linguistic atlas of Late Mediaeval English, and is the print version of eLALME (the latter was created years after the study itself was conducted and LALME printed).

Before I dig into these marvelous things, I can hear you asking “what is a linguistic atlas?”, so let’s start there!

A linguistic atlas is basically what you’d expect: a collection of maps. In this case, it is a collection of linguistic maps, which show the geographic distribution of speakers of a language. It can also show isoglosses, which separate areas that have a particular linguistic feature, of a dialect continuum.

Okay, so, what is a dialect continuum, you ask?

A dialect continuum is a situation in which a dialect spoken in one area differs only slightly from the dialect in the neighboring area. The further away we go though, the more differences we will find. Eventually, the varieties might be so widely separated that they are no longer mutually intelligible.

Both LAEME and eLALME are linguistic atlases, as their titles tell us. Specifically, though, they are linguistic atlases of Middle English, not modern. Their mapping of dialects concerns the dialects of Middle English, which we took a look at in last week’s post.

Now, obviously, when working with historical dialects, you’re in much more troublesome circumstances than when working with modern dialects. Why? Well, the introduction of LALME (reprinted in eLALME, of course) describes it pretty succinctly:

“It is rather as if the compilers of a modern dialect atlas had access to any number of speakers, all willing to be interviewed but very few of whom divulged where they came from”

§2.3.1. from A linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, Volume 1, General introduction
Can you imagine what that’s like? Sounds hard, right?

Well, I’ll wager that creating these tools was very hard. But they managed! How, you ask?

With the use of so-called anchor texts.

An anchor text is a text that can be localised to a specific place, or near it, on non-linguistic grounds. This may be letters that, for example, were written by a nobleman whom we know lived in East Anglia for all of his life. It could perhaps be records of courts, or manors, or legal instruments, and so on.

Once you’ve done that, you can start looking for linguistic features in those texts. Let’s say that an anchor text in Middle English uses a specific spelling for a word. Okay, so that spelling might then be characteristic of the dialect in that area.

And then, you look at another text from another place. That text shows a different spelling for that same word. And then you look at a third text, from somewhere between those first two areas. That text uses a spelling with some characteristics of both the first spellings.

Brilliant, you have a dialect continuum!

Alright, so that was ridiculously over-simplified, but you get the idea.

Anyway, my over-simplified explanation (kind of) describes what they did for LALME. They used a questionnaire, consisting of many words, looked in the manuscripts for those words, and voilà! There you are, a dialect continuum of the late Middle English dialects.

Alright, again, that was ridiculously over-simplified.

LAEME took a slightly different approach. It kind of had to as there are so few documents left from early Middle English. So LAEME used a corpus-method instead. They transcribed all early Middle English texts (or long passages from the really long ones) and put them into a database.

This allowed them to elicit all variations from the surviving manuscripts, meaning that they weren’t limited to particular words. Having done so, it is then possible to look for linguistic features that are used in one text and compare them to another, thus seeing dialect variation (see LAEME’s Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.5. for more info).

Now, one last amazing thing about these tools: the fit-technique.

Basically, what this means is that you take features of a dialect and, as more linguistic features are added, the area from which the person comes becomes more and more constricted.

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have two Swedish speakers. You ask them to pronounce the word “räka”.

One of them says “räka” with a fairly open mouth, producing [æː]. The other, on the other hand, pronounces it more like “reka”, with a reasonably closed mouth, producing something more like [e:]. Okay, there is something different here, so you ask them some more questions, and hear the same thing. So you go to your “anchor person”, who you know for a fact is from Stockholm. You ask him/her to pronounce “räka” and your other words, and you get “reka” in reply.

Great, one of your participants is probably from Stockholm (obviously, though, one shared feature is not enough). Then you look around, and you find someone who you know is from Gothenburg. You ask the same of him/her and get “räka” in response. And there you are!

That, though again grossly over-simplified, is the fit-technique. You take an un-localised text and compare it to the variations you find in texts that you can place. The more features you add, the more you can constrict the area that text is likely to come from! Isn’t that quite amazing?!

Before I get to the “warnings” of this post, I’d like to encourage all my readers to check these resources out. Truly, they are quite amazing!

You can find LAEME here and eLALME here. Do take a minute, really.

Right, so on to the warnings.

The most important thing first:

While we might be able to say that this text was written in the northern dialect, it does not mean that it was actually written in the north.

For example, the text you are looking at was written in a dialect from southwest Yorkshire according to LAEME or eLALME. That does not mean that it was actually written in southwest Yorkshire.

Neither LAEME or LALME are geographical atlases, they are linguistic ones. Your results simply mean that the person who wrote this text was likely from southwest Yorkshire (or at least wrote in that dialect). The text itself, however, might have been composed in London. Or in Sussex. Or in Worcestershire.

You get the drift. Point is, you cannot conclude with certainty that a text was written in a specific area, only that the person writing the text wrote in the dialect from that area. Obviously, it could have been written there, but you can’t say for sure.

That’s probably the most important thing to remember here but one more little thing: the fit-technique works somewhat better for eLALME than for LAEME. This is simply because we do not have as much data from the early Middle English period as we do for the late period. In the introduction to LAEME, Margaret Laing (LAEME’s compiler) and Roger Lass write:

For much of LAEME, the display of linguistic data in map form at all is a convenient but highly generalised abstraction.

LAEME, Introduction, Chapter 1, §1.5.3.

and this must be kept in mind when using the resource.

Did I get carried away? I did, right?

Well, I’m done now, but again: Check these resources out!

(and while you’re at it, also check out the Corpus of Narrative Etymologies, another fantastic tool for the study of English historical linguistics).



For some more information on these fantastic resources, check them out by following the links in the post (or here: LAEME and eLALME). You can also have a look at the Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics introductory remarks (with, in the case of LAEME, a link to Rhona Alcorn’s beginners guide to LAEME) to the resources.

Click here for AMC’s introduction to LAEME
and here for AMC’s introduction to eLALME
(and here for AMC’s introduction to CoNE)

Laing, Margaret. 2013– A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, 1150–1325, Version 3.2 []. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Benskin, Michael. Laing, Margaret. Karaiskos, Vasilis and Williamson, Keith. 2013-. An Electronic Version of A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English []
(Edinburgh: © 2013- The Authors and The University of Edinburgh).

McIntosh, Angus. Samuels, M.L. Benskin, Michael. 1986. A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English. Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

Lass, Roger. Laing, Margaret. Alcorn, Rhona. Williamson, Keith. 2013- 
A Corpus of Narrative Etymologies from Proto-Old English to Early Middle English and accompanying Corpus of Changes, Version 1.1 []. Edinburgh: © The University of Edinburgh.

Early Germanic Dialects: Old English

And EGD is back! Today, we’re going to be talking about something close to my own heart: English! This is Early Germanic Dialects thought, so, naturally, we won’t be talking about modern English, but, Old English.

Now, before we start, let’s make one thing very clear: Shakespeare is not Old English. Nope, nope, not even close. In fact, some native speakers of English (and I’ve experimented on this with friends), don’t even recognise Old English as English. Let’s compare, just so you can see the differences. These are the first two lines of the epic poem Beowulf:

Old EnglishModern English
Hwæt! Wé Gárdena in géardagum
þéodcyninga þrym gefrúnon
Listen! We of the Spear-Danes in the days of yore
of those clan-kings heard
of their glory

A bit different, wouldn’t you say? And now, of course, you’re wondering how it went from that to this? Well, that’s a different story (but we’ve told it in bits and pieces before).

Let’s today simply focus on Old English, shall we?

Right, so as per usual, let’s start with a bit of a history lesson!

As you might know, while English is today the dominant language of the British Isles, this was certainly not always the case. In fact, the tribes that we eventually consider “English” were all invaders or immigrants: Saxons, Angles and (maybe) Jutes! The native population of the British Isles were, the stories tell us, treated rather horridly – primarily thanks to the Celtic king, Vortigern, who ruled there during the mid-fifth century, who made a really bad call.

You see, Vortigern had a problem: the Picts and Scots kept attacking him and he simply couldn’t deal with these vicious barbarians on his own! So, he called in reinforcements! That means, he invited Saxons to come over to deal with the problem.

And they did. Then, I suppose, they were chatting amongst themselves, and with their buddies who were already living there, and thought “wait… If he can’t deal with these people… How would he possibly be able to deal with all of us?”. After, I imagine, a bit of snickering and laughing, they went off and told Vortigern – pleased with himself after the Picts and Scots had been pushed back – that they weren’t intending to leave. I imagine that left him less pleased.

It is actually from this period in time (or somewhat later), around the year 500, that we get the legendary myth of King Arthur. During this time, a great battle was fought at someplace called Mount Badon (which we can’t really place), and the British people succeeded in stopping the Anglo-Saxon expansion for a little while, and they may (possibly, maybe, we don’t really know) have been led by a king called Arthur (kinda little historical evidence for one of the most widespread myths out there, right?). Despite this success, a great deal of southern Britain was in the hands of the Anglo-Saxons by the year 600, and the areas under British rule had been reduced to distant corners of the west, such as Wales and Cornwall. What we end up with, is a geographical division that looks something like this:

Now, naturally, when people come together in close quarters and multiple leader-types, what follows is about 300 years of squabble about the ‘overlordship’ of this green area. Then… Then, they had other things to worry about – the Vikings had arrived.

But we’re not gonna talk about that today, so check it out here if you want!

So, the Vikings arrived, and this led to a long war. Eventually, King Alfred the Great of Wessex forced the Vikings to peace-talks (mostly because he kept beating them, though he might have been pretty much the only Anglo-Saxon king who could boast about that), and the Danelaw was formed.

The descendents of Alfred managed to keep things pretty smooth for a while. Specifically, until 978, when King Edward was murdered. Enter: Æthelred the Unready (and no, that is not a nickname that history added: his own contemporaries called him unræd, loosely translated as ‘ill counsel’). Basically, he did most things wrong (even attempting to order the death of all Danes in the country). The, probably, largest mistake that Ætheldred did though, was the decision to kill the sister of King Swein of Denmark.

Bildresultat för swein of denmark
King Swein (or Sweyn) Forkbeard from a 13th century miniature (pic from Wikipedia)

Riled Vikings? Really, that’s a bad idea.

And in 1013, Æthelred was shown just how much of a bad idea that was, when a pissed-off Viking army landed on his beaches. The army of Danes met little resistance and Æthelred was forced to flee to Normandy. However, Swein died just a couple of months after that, and Æthelred returned to England – only to be re-invaded by Canute the Great, son of Swein, in 1015. Æthelred eventually died in 1016, and his oldest surviving son Edmund died soon after, leaving Canute the ruler of England.  

Canute’s sons, Harald Harefoot and Hardecanute, ruled after his death, until 1042, when the son of Æthelred and Emma of Normandy (Hardecanute’s adoptive heir) Edward took the throne, which he held onto until his death in 1066. And we all know what happened after that… Enter the Norman invasion. Though Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was acclaimed king after Edward, he held the throne for only nine months before he fell at the Battle of Hastings, thus putting a bloody end to the (fairly bloody) Anglo-Saxon state.

Alright, let’s talk language!

Though we have a number of surviving texts from Old English (a lot more than many other of the EGDs that we’ve been talking about), a lot is, of course, lost to us. What does survive, and what we really mean when we say “Old English”, is the late West Saxon dialect. The reason for that is simple: most surviving texts are written in that dialect. But, when studying Old English, it’s worth keeping this in mind: we’re not (necessarily) talking about a unified language; we’re talking about a dialect that happens to be primary in the surviving materials.

Anyway, first, as per usual, let’s look at some phonology!

Most letters of the Old English alphabet are fairly uncomplicated for a speaker of modern English. Some, however, have surprises in store.

One of those letters is the letter <g>. This letter is pronounced as in modern English ‘good’ only when it follows [ŋ] or when it’s doubled:

cyning ‘king’
frogga ‘frog’

Before the front vowels i and e, after them at the end of a syllable, and also in a few instances where <j> or <i> originally followed but has since disappeared, <g> is pronounced like the first consonant in modern ‘yes’. Before back vowels, though, <g> was pronounced [g].

Elsewhere, <g> is pronounced as a back fricative (remember Rebekah’s phonology lesson on consonants?), unless it is a sequence of <cg>, in which case it is pronounced as the first sound in modern English ‘giant’.

Another sequence that has a surprise in store is the letter sequence <sc>. Although a modern English speaker might expect that <c> here actually corresponds to [sk], it doesn’t. Instead, it would have been pronounced something like [ʃ], that is, the first sound in modern English ‘ship’ (as, indeed, also Old English scip).

Last, in this part, we have the letter <h>. While seemingly simple enough, <h> is pronounced [h] only in initial position and before vowels:

her ‘here’

But before consonants, and when occurring in word-final position, <h> is pronounced as [x], a sound today found in German nacht or Scottish loch:

feohtan ‘fight’, here pronounced with [x].

In the vowels, Old English shows a number of changes that are not found in the languages discussed so far in our little EGD series. For example:

Like most other Germanic languages (except Gothic), Old English originally changed the vowel [æː] into [aː], yet under most circumstances (though especially before w), it changes back to æ:

Old EnglishGothicModern English
frǣtonfrêtun'ate' (pl.)

Similarly, in most cases, the change of short [a] (which usually also changes into [æ]) systematically fails to take place when <a> is followed by a single consonant, plus <a>, <o>, or <u>:

gæt (sg.)butgatu (pl.)'gate'
dæg (sg.)butdaga (dat. sg.)'day'

Except before nasal consonants, where long and short <a> instead becomes long and short <o>:

Old English GothicModern English

Now, something rather interesting before we move on: in Old English, we find evidence of a process known as assibilation. This process, which is shared only with Old Frisian of the Germanic dialects, means that the stops k and g becomes [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively. This process is also the one responsible for correspondences like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the assibilated Old English form, while skirt is borrowed from Old Norse, which did not undergo this process, and thus retains a hard [k] sound. Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, I’m going to break tradition a bit and not really talk about morphology. Instead, I want to say a few words on syntax, that is, word order. Why? Because the syntax of Old English is not quite the same as the syntax of modern English. In fact, it’s rather markedly different.

Most notably, Old English is significantly more inflected than modern English: it inflected for five grammatical classes, two grammatical numbers and three grammatical genders, much like modern German. While this may be frustrating to students of the language, it did mean that reliance on word order was significantly less than it is today because the morphological form would tell you who was the subject, object, etc. This means that Old English word order was a bit less rigid than in modern English (in which, it is the only thing that shows you that there is a difference between the dog bit the man and the man bit the dog).

Generally speaking, the standard rule for Old English is that it has a verb-second word order, that is, the finite verb takes the second position in the sentence regardless of what comes before it. So it really doesn’t matter if the first element is the subject or the object, the verb holds its second position (in which case, the declension of the words become important for understanding the sentence correctly).

However, this holds true only for main clauses. In subclauses, Old English is (generally speaking) verb-final, that is, the verb winds up at the end of the sentence. Students of modern German (such as myself in fact), may recognise this kind of word order.

On the topic of syntax, I would like to wrap this post up with a cautionary note.

If you’re reading Old English poetry (and sometimes even when you’re reading prose): chuck these ‘rules’ of Old English syntax out the window. They won’t do you any good: in Beowulf, for example, main clauses frequently have verb-initial or verb-final order while verb-second is often found in subordinate clauses. So heads-up!

Right, that’s all I had for today, though, obviously, this is a very small appetizer in a huuuge buffet. If you’d like to learn more, we, as always, refer you to Robinson’s great book but, to be quite honest, the chapter on Old English is quite dense and even I had to refer a couple of times to Wikipedia and other sources just to make things clear. However, it is a good starting point so do enjoy!


As always in our EGD-series, our main source is Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

For this post, we’ve also taken a look at:

The passage of Beowulf, with its translation, is by Benjamin Slade: you’ll find it – and the rest of the translation of Beowulf – here



Etymologiæ (where you can find the original version of the map we’ve used here)

For the last picture, we’ve used the one found here

Our thanks to Kristin Bech for valuable comments on Old English syntax and the pronunciation of <g> on our Facebook-page. The HLC always welcome comments and we have updated the post accordingly.