The history of the English language – Old English syntax

Okay! We’ve done Old English morphology. We’ve done a bit of a syntactic primer.

Let’s get down to business and discuss Old English syntax!

Now, a word of warning: Old English syntax is rather complex. I won’t go into too much detail in my post, because this is not what this blog aims to do. However, I will, as always, provide you with my references and some further reading for those who are interested at the end of this post. I am also always open to questions, comments, queries and anything of the like – just give me a shout, either here on the blog, on Facebook, on Twitter @histlingchannel, or why not send me an email?

Right, that’s all I have to say on that topic, except… Enjoy!

Old English differs from the English that we are nowadays using in many ways. One of these things is in its syntax.

Being a significantly more morphologically inflected language than modern English, Old English syntax was more flexible than what we find today.

If we were to simplify matters, we could say that the general tendency in Old English main clauses is to show V2 order. As you might remember from last week, this means that the verb follows one constituent, regardless of what that constituent is. However, Old English word order appears quite free even from that restraint, which led some scholars to think that it was a free word order language1.

This may or may not be true – I won’t get into that debate here.

What I can say is that Old English often tended towards a V2 order in main clauses.

When I was reading up on things for this post, a lot of sources (usually in the framing of a class) from various universities ended up discussing Old English as an SVO-language. However, according to Kroch, while the subject-tensed.verb-object order was the most common word order in Old English, they were not SVO-sentences. They were merely V2-sentences, where the first element happened to be the subject.

At the same time, although this might have been a general tendency and the most common word order, it is not always consistent2, which of course leads to more discussion on the word order of main clauses in Old English.

Clearly, there are some things still to be worked out…
But, hey, what about subordinate clauses?

Well, here, the VF (Verb-Final) word order is the norm. This means that the finite verb comes at the very end of the sentence – like what you see in Dutch and German today.

Okay, great! We know something about Old English word order! Yay!


Yeah… except….

Old English consistently breaks these conventions. It allows, unlike modern German and Dutch, for V2 order in embedded clauses starting with a complementiser and, in the epic poem Beowulf, for example, subordinate clauses employing a V2 order can be found, as can main clauses with VF order. And, for that matter, V3 and V4 order!

So, what am I saying here? That we really know nothing about Old English word order?
Not quite.

We know that SVO is the most common order in Old English main clauses. We also know that subordinate clauses in Old English tend to be VF.

We also know that this topic requires more study before we can say anything “for sure” (or, at least, as sure as one ever is in studying historical linguistics).

But, for you, I hope that this little brief glance into Old English syntax was enlightening! I know I enjoyed reading through the accounts that I used for this post and I hope that you will too!

Join me again next week as we take a look at the continued development of English syntax in Middle English!



Anthony Kroch & Ann Taylor. 1996. Verb movement in Old and Middle English: Dialect variation and language contact. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania. Check it out here! (I’ve looked primarily at Chapter 3)

Benjamin Bruening. 2016. Old English Verb-Second-ish in a Typology of Verb-Second. Draft, Nov. 9. Check it out here.

Bettelou Los. 2015. A historical syntax of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Graeme Davis. 2006. Comparative syntax of Old English and Old Icelandic. Bern: Peter Lang.

Kristin Bech. 2012. Word Order, Information Structure, and Discourse Relations. In Anneli Meurman-Solin, Maria Jose Lopez-Couso, and Bettelou Los (eds.). Information Structure and Syntactic Change in the History of English. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199860210.003.0004, or check it out here.

Linda van Bergen. 2015. Pronouns and word order in Old English. 2nd ed. New York & London: Routledge.

Old English grammar

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 – Middle English morphology

Welcome back to HEL!
(History of the English Language –
and no, it is not intentionally close to H-E-double-hockey-sticks)

Last week, we did Old English morphology and, boy, that was a complex system! By comparison, Middle English morphology is easy.

The trickier (and perhaps more important) question might be:
why is it so easy?

First things first.

By the time we reach Middle English, we see a significant simplification of the complex Old English system.

While Old English had four distinct noun-endings for different cases (the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative), Middle English had only two such patterns:

 Old English: SingularOld English: PluralMiddle English: SingularMiddle English: Plural

The distinctive dative case – ending in -um – was lost during the early Middle English period. The genitive, however, survived, though only the strong ‘s ending was in use (and, like most things Middle English, variously spelt).

The strong (e)s plural form of Old English survived even into Present-Day English, and even the weak form -en is still found in a few words (like children, oxen, brethren).

How about verbs?

Well, again, like most things Middle English, it is really hard to say anything that covers everything. You see, because there was no written standard, Middle English had so much variation that a word might be spelt differently even within one text, written by one author. It’d be like I suddenly started spelling the word “though” as þhou, or why not thawe or thaue. And then went back to though all of a sudden. You see the problem?

With that said, as a general rule, the first person singular of verbs tends to end in –e (ich here “I hear”), the second person in -(e)st (þou spekest “you speak”), and the third person in –or –eth (he comeþ/cometh) or –es (as today).

Again, general rules tend not to work well for Middle English and you should really not consider this a “rule” as such.

It’s more of a… guideline.

Alright, so, these changes may seem like pretty small changes, but it had a pretty massive effect on the language.

The simplification of morphology affected phonology, which affected orthography, which affected grammar, and round and round the wheel goes.

It’s kind of like the butterfly effect.

But why did it happen?

Well, we don’t really know. Perhaps a phonological weakening, causing the distinct forms of Old English to become less distinct, eventually causing a collapse of the system when people could no longer distinguish the forms? (I personally believe this theory)

Or, perhaps, the intense contact with Old Norse and/or Anglo-Norman led to Middle English becoming a creole? (We discuss that in more detail here)

What do you think?



I have double-checked some things in this post to make sure that I remember correctly. This is primarily done using this page to check some morphological patterning as well as getting some examples from Wikipedia.

Additionally, although I haven’t used it for this particular post, I highly recommend An Introduction to Middle English (2002) by Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith and An Introduction to Middle English (2012) by R.D. Fulk (both of which grace my bookshelf) for those who wish to get a brief, but well-written, introduction to the Middle English language.


The History of the English language – Old English morphology

Having looked at the dialects of Old English, Middle English, and Modern English, let’s return to Old English again!

Today, let’s look at morphology.

But first, what is morphology, really?

Well, in linguistics, morphology is the study of words. Specifically, morphological studies look at how words are formed and analyse a word’s structure – studying, for example, stems, root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

This may mean that you separate a word into its different morphemes to study how a word is constructed. Here is an example of how that might look, based on the word independently:

Created by Annie Yang (25 April 2017)
Got it? Great! Let’s move on to Old English morphology!

Now, when it comes to morphology, Old English is quite different from Modern English.

Being much closer in nature to Proto-Germanic than modern English is, Old English has a morphological system that is quite similar to its predecessor. If you want to have a modern language to compare with, Old English morphology might actually be closer to the system used in modern Icelandic than it is to modern English! (If you are unfamiliar with Icelandic, think a more conservative version of modern German).

What does that mean, though?

First, it means that Old English had retained five grammatical cases:

  1. Nominative
  2. Accusative
  3. Genitive
  4. Dative
  5. (Instrumental)

(The instrumental case is quite rare in Old English, so you could say that it really only retained four).

Three grammatical genders in nouns:

  1. Masculine
  2. Feminine
  3. Neuter

And two grammatical numbers:

  1. Singular
  2. Plural

In addition, Old English had dual pronouns, meaning pronouns that referred to, specifically, two people – no more, no less.

As you can probably see, this is quite different from what Modern English does.
If you can’t quite put your finger at exactly what is different…
  1. Modern English has retained the nominative, accusative and genitive case, but only in pronouns. So, we find differences in I/he (nominative), me/him (accusative), and mine/his (genitive), but not really anywhere else. In Old English, though, we would find a specific inflection following the nouns, verbs, etc. for this too (so a word like se cyning ‘the king’ in the nominative form becomes þæs cyninges ‘the king’s’ in the genitive and þǣm cyninge in the dative becomes ‘for/to the king’.
  2. English has not retained the grammatical genders (thank any almighty power that might be listening). This means that, unlike in German, there is no declension depending on whether the word is masculine, feminine or neuter (like the infamous German articles die, der, das).
  3. But, as I am sure you are already well aware, English has retained its grammatical numbers (singular and plural), though it has lost the dual function that Old English had.

A bit different, clearly.

To add to the above, Old English also separated between its verbs: all verbs were divided into the categories strong or weak.

Strong verbs formed the past tense by changing a vowel – like in sing, sang, sung, while weak verbs formed it by adding an ending – like walk – walked. As you can see, Modern English has retained some of this division though we nowadays call strong verbs that have retained this feature irregular verbs while weak verbs, interestingly, are referred to as regular verbs.

Sounds easy, right? Yeah, we’re not done.

In Old English, you see, the strong verbs were divided into seven (!) different classes, each depending on how the verb’s stem changed to show past tense. I will not go through them all here – it is simply a bit too much for this blog, but check out my sources if you want to know more.

Point is, that means that there were seven different ways a verb could change to indicate past tense + the weak verbs.

Now, the weak verbs also had classes. Three, to be specific. I won’t go through those either (trust me, it’s for your benefit because you’d be stuck here all day).

So, we have two main categories and ten sub-categories.
That’s a lot to keep track of.

And that is not even considering the changing patterns of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, etc., etc., or the numbers, or context.

Gosh, and I keep getting stuck at concord in Modern English! (Swedish doesn’t use something equivalent to the s on verbs in third-person singular, and it is one of my more commonly made mistakes when writing in English).

Old English morphology is obviously very different from Modern English! And, although this is obviously just a very brief glance, I’m going to stop there. This is the very broad strokes of some of the major differences between Old English and Modern English, but we’ll explore more how it went from this:

Se cyning het hie feohtan ongean Peohtas

Extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 449

to this:

The king commanded them to fight against [the] Picts

Translation of the extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, anno 449

next week, when we take a look at the changing system of Middle English morphology and experience the loss of many of the inherited morphological systems! Join me then!



For this post, I’ve relied on my own previous studies of Old English Grammar by Alistair Campbell (1959); An introduction to Old English by Richard M. Hogg (2002) and Old English: A historical linguistic companion by Roger Lass (1994).

However, I’ll admit to having refreshed my knowledge of Old English morphology by having a look at Wikipedia, as well as comparing it with modern English morphology in the same place.

The text from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, both in Old English and in Modern, is retrieved from here.

The History of the English Language – Old English dialects

Welcome to a new series at the HLC!

I know that we’ve talked quite a bit about English and its history. (You’ll have to excuse me, but the topic is what I’ve studied for years after all.)

I also know that it’s been a bit disjointed. One week, we’ve been talking about English and the next week about something else entirely. That’s what happens when you’re several people working on the same thing (and it’s a good thing too!).

However, now, it’s just little old me. So, I’d thought we’d run through a standard little “course” on the topic and go through it a bit more systematically (don’t worry, we’ll do something similar with other languages following this one).

Originally, we were supposed to start with Old English phonology today, but, I went back and had a look at our previous posts of Old English. Doing so, I suddenly realised that we never really talked specifically about the Old English dialects.

So let’s do that! But first…

I think I need to give you a very brief reminder about what Old English actually is. As you know, English is usually divided into time periods (and if you want all of them at once, take a look at Rebekah’s earlier post here. Otherwise, get back to me next week when I’ll talk about Middle English).

Old English is the English language as it looked until roughly 1066. This is not from the very beginning of the world, so to speak, but from roughly the time that we start getting written records of English (ca. 450 AD – before that, we usually talk about “Proto-English”).

That’s it (for now).

Now, next step: when I say Old English, what I am actually saying is the West Saxon dialect of Old English.

But it was not the only Old English dialect.

I’ve shown you this map before in my Early Germanic Dialects series:

But, while I warned you about how Old English tends to equal the dialects of West Saxon, I didn’t actually say anything about the other dialects.

Let me fix that!

So. Old English had four commonly recognised dialects: West Saxon, Kentish, Mercian, and Northumbrian. Each of these dialects* was associated with an independent kingdom in the British Isles.

Of these dialects, we know most about West Saxon. However, the earliest surviving Old English materials are actually written in Northumbrian.

Spoken from the Humber (now in England) to the Firth of Forth (now in Scotland), the Northumbrian dialect is recorded in texts like Cædmon’s Hymn, a short poem composed between 658 and 680. It is the oldest surviving Old English poem and one of the oldest surviving samples of Germanic alliterative verse. This is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was, supposedly, composed by an illiterate cow-herder.

We also find surviving examples of Northumbrian in Bede’s Deathsong (a five-line poem that supposedly is the final words of the Venerable Bede), the runes on the Ruthwell Cross from the Dream of the Rood, the Leiden Riddle, and the famous mid-10th-century gloss of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Northumbria was, however, overrun by the Vikings during the 9th century. As a result, most of the written records of the dialect have been lost.

The same is the case for Mercian.

The Mercian dialect was spoken as far east as the border of East Anglia, as far west as Offa’s Dyke (bordering Wales), as far north as Staffordshire and as far south as South Oxfordshire or Gloucestershire – basically, it was a pretty huge dialect.

But then came those pesky Vikings… And Mercian goes the same way as its sister dialect, Northumbrian. (The two dialects together are often talked about as Anglian.)

As with Northumbrian, we do have some surviving textual records of Mercian, but very few. These include the Old English martyrology, which contains 230 stories about the lives of saints and was probably compiled in Mercia – or by someone who wrote in the Mercian dialect anyway. We also have six hymns in the Vespasian Psalter that are written in Mercian, but that’s really pretty much it.

And then, we have Kentish.

Now, Kentish didn’t quite suffer the same fate as Mercian and Northumbrian. Despite that, according to Baugh and Cable, even less material from Kentish survives than from the other two dialects. We could speculate as to why, but that is an exercise in futility – it happens sometimes, unfortunately.

Kentish, as the name tells us, was spoken in the county of Kent. It was eventually submerged in the West Saxon dialect. Most of our surviving textual records are early law texts, for example from the Kentish kings Hlothere and Eadric. However, the surviving materials were late 12th century copies and studies have shown that they have been altered and “modernised”. That means, unfortunately, that little of what survives of the dialect is truly representative of the dialect itself.

And thus, we are left with West Saxon.

Originally spoken in the kingdom of Wessex, West Saxon is typically divided into two: Early West Saxon and Late West Saxon.

Now, Early West Saxon is the language used by Alfred the Great. Aside from keeping the Vikings at bay, Alfred avidly encouraged education. He even translated some things himself. However, this is not the dialect we mean when we say Old English.

What we mean is the Late West Saxon dialect – yes, I know this is getting confusing. But, following the Athewoldian language reform, started by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, Late West Saxon emerged. Some even argue that Late West Saxon is not a direct descendant of early West Saxon! This is the dialect we talk about when we say Old English.

We have quite a bit of surviving evidence from Late West Saxon – if I were to try to count them up, we’d probably be here ’til New Years. So I won’t. But I will say that this was the first standardised written language in England, sometimes referred to as the “Winchester standard” (as it was primarily used in and around the monastery at Winchester). This is the language that you find in evidence in the Old English poem Beowulf (though it is worth mentioning that you also find some Anglian features in the poem).

And those are our four Old English dialects!


Next week, we’ll continue with something else tricky: the Middle English dialects. Join me then (if you dare)!


*This post actually triggered a very interesting discussion – are the Old English dialects really dialects or languages? As you know by now, the separation between language and dialect is a tricky one (linguistically) (and if you can’t remember why, check out Lisa’s post on this topic here), but play with the thought for a bit: should the language/dialect of an independent kingdom be considered a dialect in this instance – or is it a language, regardless of the close similarity to another nearby kingdom’s language?



On the dialect of Beowulf

On the Old English dialects (and links therein for each dialect) and this book by Ishtla Singh (primarily page 75).

On Kentish and its surviving texts (page 69)

Early Germanic Dialects – Old Frisian

It’s time for our second language in the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic languages! Let’s take a look at Old Frisian!

Now, though I usually start these posts with a history lesson, this one I’m going to start off a bit differently: with a word of caution.

You see, we say Old Frisian, but in fact, the surviving texts that we have are from periods which would qualify as the middle periods for most Germanic languages (e.g. Middle English). The oldest surviving Old Frisian texts are actually from the middle of the 13th century, a very late “start”. Why? Well, for that, we need our history lesson!

Very little has actually been said about the history of Frisia…

In fact, we have gaps of a few centuries in which they are barely mentioned at all.

The first we hear about it is in Tacitus’ account of the Roman general Drusus crossing the lower Rhine in 12 B.C. There, he apparently encountered a tribe named the Frisii. Now, because he was Roman and that is what Romans did, Drusus immediately subjugated the Frisii. And, for the next three hundred years or so, the Frisii were under the yoke of the Roman Empire.

It may seem obvious that these people called the Frisii were the ancestors of the later Frisians. However, there are actually some conflicting opinions on this matter. Some scholars have suggested that the Frisii might actually have been a non-Germanic group. This group merged with Germanic groups, lending their name to the final result.

The etymology of the word Frisii or Frisian doesn’t really help. There are some potential Germanic roots, but there are also some non-Germanic ones. Ideas range from meanings like friends or free men to edge dwellers or curly-haired ones.

Where exactly the Frisii lived is also a bit unclear. Their homeland might have stretched as far down as the Old Rhine (which flows into the North Sea at Katwijk in the Netherlands) and as far northeast as the Ems, or potentially only as far as the Lauwers.

So what do we know?

Well, we know that the early Frisii were herders rather than farmers. We also know that they supplied provisions and soldiers to the Roman army. Likely, they were also a part of the Roman garrisoning of Britain.

We know that they successfully cast off the Roman yoke in a revolution in A.D. 28 but that, 19 years later, they were back under the yoke. After that, we, again, hear very little about the Frisii.

However, even though we don’t hear anything, we know that a lot of things must have happened.

For one thing, the beginning of the 5th century marked the start of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. This was followed by the great migration (that is, when the Saxons and Angles actually moved to Britain). Suddenly, there was a lot of land no longer in use and the Frisians spread out over the area.

Until the 7th century, when they made the mistake of trying to retain Frisia Magna despite increased Frankish pressure. Most Germanic groups appear to have had some or another difficulty with the Franks, and Frisians were no different. Although valiantly attempting to defend their territory, their most famous defender, King Redbad or Redbod, was defeated in 719. During the following decades, the Frisians were gradually annexed by the Frankish empire, but they remained in its periphery.

This may actually have been considered a blessing for a long time.

You see, it allowed the Frisians more independence than most annexed areas. But, it also meant that the Frisians received less protection from the mighty Frankish empire. This likely became unpleasantly obvious for the Frisians with the arrivals of the Vikings in the 9th century.

It is always the Vikings, isn’t it?

Anyway, Charlemagne’s grandson didn’t really want the hassle of a Viking invasion. So, he simply ceded parts of Frisia to the war-crazed people from the North. It was basically a, “Here, take this for not invading us. Also, it’s your responsibility now, have fun with the other Vikings!”

It didn’t last very long and appears to have had no direct influence on the history or culture of the area; however, it did lead to an increase in power for the Frankish counts in Holland. They eventually pressed a special claim on West Friesland, and the area fell to them in 1289.

That wasn’t the end of it. In 1464, German East Friesland was given to the Low German-speaking counts of Cirksema. As a result, the Frisian language came under immense pressure. Eventually, the northern areas of Groningen also went over to using Low German. In Germany today, Frisian is only spoken in an area known as the Saterland.

Similarly, in Holland, the Frisian language is under heavy pressure from the Dutch standard language.

The prognosis for the continued survival of Frisian is not good, Robinson noted in 1992. And it hasn’t gotten better since.

According to the Endangered Languages Project, Frisian (also known as Saterfriesiesch) has roughly 5,000 native speakers. Compare that with a “strong” Germanic language, like Swedish with its roughly 9.2 million native speakers. Its survival is thus qualified as “Threatened”.

So, if you, after this post decide to learn Frisian, and teach it to your kids and so on… Go for it!

With that said, let’s look at the language (or its historical ancestor anyway).

Old Frisian and Old English are pretty closely related, so it is unsurprising that they share a number of features. One example is palatalization:

For example, we find the combination [ts] or [ tʃ] in church, a sound that came to be written in many different ways in Old Frisian (e.g. tsyurka, szurka, tszurka). We also find palatalization in Old Frisian g, which can be pronounced as [g], [ɣ] or even [x] or [ç] in certain dialects (I’ll take this opportunity of loads of IPA characters to remind you of Rebekah’s previous post on consonants).

Some other things that Old Frisian has in common with Old English are:

  1. No evidence of sharpening – that is, the general sound development in Gothic by which Proto-Germanic *ww becomes ggw (as seen in Gothic)
  2. Rhotacism has taken place – that is, Proto-Germanic *z has become r
  3. Evidence of metathesis of the sequence CrV to CVr – that one might be tricky because I did not mention it in my post on Old English. Basically, what it means is that in words like Old Saxon brennian, where a consonant precedes the <r> and a vowel follows it, the vowel and the <r> trades places. Hence, Old Saxon brennian ‘burn’, becomes Old Frisian berna (Old English beornan ‘be on fire’ or bærnan ‘to kindle’).

This list is by no means exhaustive!

Let’s move on from the things Old English and Old Frisian share and look at how they are different!

Unlike Old English, <k> is much more common in Old Frisian. In fact, <k> was required before the letters i and e.

Also unlike Old English, there is some variation in the reflexes of the Proto-Germanic diphthong /ai/. In Old English, this diphthong invariably becomes [a:], but in Old Frisian, it can also become [ē] (e.g. mēn ‘false’ vs. Old English mān).

Similarly, the Proto-Germanic diphthong /au/ becomes ā in all circumstances. For example, Old Frisian rād ‘red’ but Old English rēad.

And… well, in terms of what my primary source has to say, that’s pretty much it.

However, again, the lists (both here and in my sources) are not exhaustive. I’m sure you can find plenty more differences between Old Frisian and Old English! Why don’t you tell me some of the ones that you can spot?

Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this little bit on Old Frisian! Next week, we’ll start to check out our last group: the Proto-German languages, starting with *drumroll* Old Low Franconian!



As always, I direct you to our primary source: Robinson, Orrin W. 1992. Old English and its closest relatives.

In addition, I have been using:

The Endangered Languages Project

The article “How Many People Speak Swedish, And Where Is It Spoken?” by Steph Koyfman in +Babbel Magazine.

Omniglot’s pronunciation charts of Frisian


Etymonline’s entry on the development of ‘burn’ in English.

Early Germanic Dialects – A reminder

And we’re back!

Gosh, long time no see!

As I am sure that you are aware, the HLC is undergoing some changes. I do hope you enjoy the ones that I’ve done so far! If not (or if something could be done better), just contact me under “Contact” and tell me!

We’re back on track now though, and I am taking you back to my Early Germanic Dialects series!

However, as you haven’t heard anything about EGDs since this spring, and summer offering all those lovely distractions, a recap might be in order.

During spring, we talked about Gothic, Old Norse, Old English and Old Saxon. We also went through the relationship between the Germanic languages, and that is where I am going to start!

As you might (or might not – I don’t judge) remember, we talked about the Germanic language family. I tried my best to explain that there are three distinct branches of Germanic (and hope I succeeded reasonably well!)

These branches are: East Germanic, North Germanic and West Germanic.

East Germanic had only one known descendant: Gothic.

Gothic, of course, is now extinct, meaning that this particular branch of Germanic is, unfortunately, lost. But not completely, thanks to surviving materials and hard-working historical linguists!

The most famous work written in Gothic is the Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Bible. If you find yourself close to Uppsala, Sweden, go by the Exhibition Hall at Carolina Rediviva and check it out. It truly is a marvel (and entrance is free of charge!).

While you’re there, check for some of the unique traits of the Gothic language – like the use of reduplication and the lack of rhotacism! (If you can’t remember what that is, check out our original post here!)

Let’s move on, shall we?

The next branch of Germanic is slightly larger than its sibling: let’s talk about North Germanic.

The surviving daughters of North Germanic are all found in the northern parts of the world (surprise, surprise…). They are Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. The languages are usually divided into West Scandinavian Languages (Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese) and East Scandinavian Languages(Swedish and Danish).

The sub-division is simply because the languages hail from different dialect groups of Old Norse. They therefore differ a bit from each other.

Among the notable features of Old Norse, we find some assimilatory phenomena that, collectively, are quite unique. I won’t go over them all here, but, as an example, the Gothic consonant cluster [nþ] becomes [nn], as in Gothic finþan ‘find’, which becomes finna in Old Norse.

If you would like to read up more about the Old Norse language, check out our original post here. And don’t forget to check out some of the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas! (Like the Codex Regius, meaning “Royal Book” or “Kings’ Book”. The manuscript has been photographed and is available here.)

And now, we reach the final, and largest, branch of Germanic: West Germanic.

Now, West Germanic, in comparison to what we’ve just looked at, is huge. It consists, at the first level, of the Proto-German and Anglo-Frisian languages.

Let’s take a look at the Proto-German (not to be confused with Proto-Germanic) languages first.

The Proto-German languages are the ancestors of German, Yiddish, Low German, Dutch, and Afrikaans. Here, we also find Old Saxon, which we’ve briefly talked about before.

Our most famous source of the Old Saxon language is the Heliand, an alliterative poem of some 6000 lines. Surviving evidence of Old Saxon indicates several unique, or mostly unique, features, such as the unconditional change of the Proto-Germanic diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ to [e:] and [o:].  For example:

Old Saxonstên
Old Norsesteinn
Old High Germanstein

However, the poem isn’t interesting only for its linguistic features but also for how it was written. The poem itself is, or should have been, a pretty standard retelling of the life of Jesus. But the Heliand actually changes the setting!

Instead of describing some far-off Holy Land, the story is set on the marches and plains of Northern Germany! Worth checking out just for that, isn’t it? Well, if you feel up to the challenge – check out the British Library’s manuscript (Cotton MS Caligula A VII) here.

Finally, the Anglo-Frisian languages.

As I’m sure you’re expecting by now, this is where we find the ancestor of English and Frisian. We haven’t actually talked about Old Frisian yet, but we have covered Old English!

Remember: surviving texts of Old English are mostly written in the West Saxon dialect. What we mean when we say “Old English” is really “Late West Saxon Old English”. You should keep that in mind if you want to study, say, dialectal variation in Old English.

We have many surviving texts of Old English. Beowulf is the typical example (check it out here). But we also find The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Cædmon’s Hymn and many others.

Linguistically, Old English underwent a process, shared among its siblings only by Old Frisian, known as palatalization of the stops k and g – meaning that these become [tʃ] (as in church) and [dʒ] (as in drudge) respectively.  This is the process by which we get corresponding pairs like skirt/shirt, where shirt is the palatalized Old English form, while skirt was borrowed from Old Norse, which didn’t undergo this process and thus retained the hard [k] sound.

Of course, that is not the only thing that is interesting with Old English. To learn more, check out the original post here.

And that’s our recap (with some additional links to some great manuscripts!).
Join me again next week when we continue our trip down memory lane and dive into Old Frisian!
Until then!



You’ll find most references for this post in the links that are provided throughout the post. In addition, I refer you to Robinson’s Old English and its closest relatives (1992).

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.

What’s with WH?

In many varieties of English, a W is a W. In these varieties, W sounds like [w] like in ‘wise’ and ‘wonderful’ and ‘wowza’ (unless it’s at the end like in ‘draw’ or ‘stow’, in which case it’s quiet as a mouse.)

However, in Scottish, Irish, New Zealand, and certain American dialects, wh-words are pronounced a little different. In words like ‘which’ and ‘whale’, the H makes the W kind of…H-y.

Why is that? Why are those words even spelled with an H to begin with? As with many questions about the bitter rivalry between English pronunciation and English spelling, we have to look to the distant past…

Or, you know, the fairly old past—the Old English-y one. Old English inherited from Indo-European (with a few twists and turns through Grimm’s Law) a sound we linguists like to call a voiceless labiovelar approximant1. In IPA, [ʍ]. That’s fancy language-people talk for a kind of voiceless W. In OE, this sound was spelled ‘hw’. ‘Which’ was ‘hwilc’ and ‘whale’ was ‘hwæl’. Perhaps the real poster child for this phenomenon is the first word of Beowulf: Hwæt! (ModE ‘what’)

During the Middle English period, the spelling of this sound was flipped to our modern ‘wh’, most likely due to the influence of French scribes who came to England with the Normans. It was also sometime during this period that some dialects began to see a merger between the pronunciation of ‘wh’ and plain old ‘w’. For a while, the merger was seen as uncouth, and educated speakers deliberately maintained the [ʍ] pronunciation of ‘wh’. Now, we find more dialects than not where the merger is complete and both spellings are pronounced [w]. But as mentioned before, there are several varieties of English where the original [ʍ] is hanging in there.

English has its share of strange, purely historic spellings, but this isn’t one of them. Your [ʍ] dropping friend isn’t mispronouncing ‘white’ or being pedantic; they’re just kicking it old school.


1This sound is sometimes traditionally/erroneously called a labiovelar fricative.

Let’s get together and talk about languages getting together

Historical linguistics is often synonymous with the study of language change over time, and investigating what the reasons for that change are; are the changes being triggered by processes internal to the language, or did they come about through influence from another language? We know that English has changed significantly in its history – I recommend going back to Rebekah’s post about the English periods for a recap. Exactly what mechanisms are behind some of these changes are still under debate, but we do know that English has been greatly influenced by the languages it has been in contact with throughout history and in particular the contact with Old Norse and French. (Read also Sabina’s post about the creolization hypothesis for more about these contact situations)

Looking at these two contact situations, they had quite different effects. This can partly be explained by the different relationships these language had with English during the time of contact. Let’s investigate:

Old Norse

Remember the Vikings and their language, which Sabina taught us about two weeks ago? This language first became introduced to Britain through Viking raids in the 8th-9th centuries. The very earliest evidence of influence from Old Norse is from this period, and it shows up through loan words which have to do with seafaring and similar themes. The Norsemen eventually started settling in the British Isles, however, and in England, this meant some drastic political changes: wars between the Danes and Anglo-Saxons led to the establishment of the Danelaw, an area covering most of the East and North-East of England, which was under Danish rule for some time (although, the power shifted between Anglo-Saxon and Danish for the duration of the Danelaw). The relationship between Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon English (Old English) thus changed in the Danelaw, in that Old Norse became the language of the rulers. In this period we see many Old Norse words to do with law and government entering English.

Another effect of this time is that speakers of Old Norse and Old English lived side-by-side and dealt with everyday communication. If you’ve paid attention during Sabina’s Early Germanic Dialects series, you will know that Old Norse and Old English are quite closely related languages, both being descendants of Proto-Germanic. In fact, these two languages had not been developing separately for very long before they came into contact in England again (only about 4-500 years or so, quite a short time in the grand scheme of things). This fact, along with some evidence in records from the time, suggests to us that speakers of these languages could understand each other, with help from some accommodation from each side. I imagine this to be something like when I, as a Swedish speaker, am talking to a Norwegian speaker and end up speaking something we jokingly call ‘Svorska’, a combination of Svenska (=Swedish) and Norska (=Norwegian).

It is through this close relationship between the languages in the Danelaw that we see some of the deeper effects of Old Norse influence in English. First of all, the type of loan words that enter English in this period is the type of words that are most reluctant to change or influence, such as the verb take, or the noun sister; words that are used so frequently and are so fundamental to the language that they rarely get replaced by innovations. There are also some grammatical changes that have been suggested to be triggered by contact with Old Norse, such as changes in word order and simplification of the case and gender system on nouns. While some suggest that these grammatical changes were directly influenced by Old Norse, others argue that the changes were already underway before the contact, but that the contact triggered them to happen quicker.

How does contact with another language affect the grammar, if it’s not a direct transfer? Well, this can partly be due to grammar becoming compromised when people accommodate to a closely related language – people taking “shortcuts” to make themselves understood, kind of. It can also be due to that children learning their first language become presented with a mixed-but-similar-enough input that the grammar they learn as a first language is slightly different from what came before.

This Danelaw way of speaking came to influence the other English dialects, and Scots as well, through large enough numbers of people bringing their dialect with them from the Danelaw to other parts of Britain, even after the Norman conquest (immigration from the North to London is of particular importance for the Northern dialect forms entering standard English).

So what about that Norman conquest?



Well, in short: the Norman army conquered England in 1066. English nobles were replaced by French ones, and Norman French as well as Parisian French became the language of rulers across England. This contact situation was in some respects similar to the situation in the Danelaw, in that French, like Old Norse, became a language of invading rulers, but the situations differ in one very important way: French never became the language of the people. The French-speaking nobility were always in a position of power, and often had to speak English in order for their subordinates to understand them. Furthermore, the French-speakers were much fewer in numbers than the Old Norse-speakers were. After French loses its influence over England, the nobility starts to shift to English altogether, and English successively regains its position as the national language of England and the process of standardisation begins.

What English gets from this period is a whole lot of vocabulary. We especially see a huge influx of French vocabulary items entering English when the nobles shifted from French to English.. These words are often relating to “higher” contexts, such as art, music, religion and government, but there are also everyday words, such as joy, entering the language as a result of this contact. The legal and “governmentary” words largely came to replace the similar words that were previously borrowed from Old Norse, but mostly the French vocabulary expanded the language so that there were more word choices (compare the French borrowing joyous to the Old Norse borrowing happy).

The influence was not only in form of individual word transfers, however. The sheer number of words that entered English caused some alteration to the grammar: for example, the French suffixes -ment and -able became productive suffixes, meaning they can now combine with any word stem, whether Germanic or French (or other), and the sounds /f/ and /v/ became “upgraded” from allophones to phonemes.

In conclusion…

Most languages do not develop in a straight line from their origin to the present day, and English is certainly no exception – it is usually estimated that 70% of the English vocabulary is loan words! Not all of these are from Old Norse and French of course, but they certainly make out the largest chunks of the borrowed vocabulary.

Is English uniquely mixed, though?
A lot of people would like to think so, but there are plenty of other languages in this melting-pot continent of Europe which have experienced intense contact during long periods of time – for example, 40% of the Swedish vocabulary is estimated to be from German. However, there is no doubt that English has been greatly affected by these conquests, which sets it apart at least from its Germanic sisters in terms of its vocabulary and grammar.