Language Lost and Found

Languages which are taught and studied are usually divided into two major cohorts:

  1. Living Languages, such as English, Spanish and Chinese
  2. Dead Languages, such as Latin, Ancient Greek and SanskritUnknown

Latin, Greek and Sanskrit are examples of languages which no longer have any native speakers but are still regularly taught in schools and universities across the world. These can be contrasted with languages, such as Manx from the Isle of Man, which aren’t studied  and no longer have any mother tongue speakers. To this group of languages we can also add the huge number of indigenous languages of South America and Australia, where a language or dialect is lost almost on a daily basis.

To this list of dead but still taught languages we can add Old English, which is often taught to those studying English literature and Historical Linguistics. Either way, compulsory reading usually consists of the classics, such as the Beowulf saga, where the language is dissected and analyzed either for literary or linguistic purposes.

Of course, to be able to appreciate the prose of Beowulf, you first have to learn Old English. Given that Old English is merely an older version of English, why is it treated as a separate language which is taught with its own dictionaries, grammatical rules and pronunciation? 

How different is Old English?

It might seem odd to suggest that Old English needs to be taught, given that it is just an older version of English. However, the language of St Bede has changed so much over the last 1000 years that it has become incomprehensible to the untrained eye, or ear for that matter.

Take a look at the following Old English sentence, which is the opening line to The Life of King Oswald (you can read the rest of the text here as well as hear how it would’ve been spoken aloud here).

Æfter þan þe Augustinus to Engla lande becom, wæs sum æþele cyning, 
Oswold gehaten, on Norþhymbra lande, gelyfed swyþe on God.

After reading the sentence a few times, you might be able to decipher a few words, such as aefter (after), Engla lande (England) and waes (was), but generally speaking the text remains incomprehensible to speakers of Present Day English. In fact, it seems almost crazy to claim this to be English at all. If you listen to the spoken version, the language sounds more akin to German than it does to modern English.

So, in short, it’s fair to say that Old English is very different from Modern Day English. So much so that the two languages are not mutually intelligible. Hence the need to teach the language before you can understand it.

What’s changed in English?

The language has undergone a lot of change over the last millennium. Change has taken effect in almost every facet of the language. However, there has been more change in some areas than in others. Here we’ll take a look at some of the more discernible changes.

  • Lexis
    Where English used to rely heavily on a Germanic words, it now has largely Latin based vocabulary, with some estimates placing the lexical repertoire at around 70% predominantly from French and Latin. For example, where we used to talk about gewitscipe we now talk about knowledge.
  • Grammatical Cases
    Nouns, adjectives and determiners in English used to take a wide variety of forms depending on the role they played in the sentence. This is very much akin to the case system you see today in Polish, German and Hungarian.

    For example, Æþelbald lufode þone cyning means Alfred loved the king and the king is written using the grammatical endings which show he was the one being loved, not the person doing the loving. If the king were the active person in the sentence, then it would have been written se cyning and not þone cyning. This had a big effect on the next area of change…

  • Word Order
    As much more meaning was tied up in the morphology of words in Old English, the position words took in a sentence could be a lot freer. After all, whether you said arcebiscopes hús or hús arcebiscopes it didn’t matter as it meant the same thing. This gave way to a lot of freedom in the order words appeared in a sentence, which meant they could be used to poetic or comical effect. Today, English has a much stricter word order, with sentences general following the Subject-Verb-Object pattern.
  • Pronunciation
    In all of the areas above, English has become a lot less complex in comparison to Old English. However, there is one area where Present Day English is far greater in complexity than Old English and that is pronunciation.

    Let’s just take English vowels as an example. Old English used to have a small set of pure vowels and a few diphthongs, though these were thought to be pronounced more like two vowels next to one and other. Present Day English, however, boats some 23 vowels and diphthongs!

  • Gender
    Old English nouns were assigned a random gender: Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. This meant that determines, such as the and these, as well as adjectives would change depending on the gender of the nouns they were used with. For example, the Old English adjective for good  was gōd and it had to change to gōde niht because night was a feminine noun and gõdne morgen because morning was a masculine noun.

What does the future hold?

While the study of Old English might seem boring or a bit stuck in the past to some, it is by studying these historical changes that we can be better equipped to anticipate future changes to the language.

What’s more, many of these changes are not unique to English but have been experienced by a wide variety of language in very much the same way: German has few case endings today than it used to; Dutch no longer differentiates between masculine and feminine nouns; a huge majority of words in Albanian today come from Greek.

It’s funny to think, but one day in the distant future, some university study will be studying Present Day English with a dictionary and grammar book.

4 thoughts on “Language Lost and Found

    1. Ah thank you Carey – I’m really glad you enjoyed reading it. In my MA I specialised in the history of English, so it was nice to blog about that as opposed to just teaching and learning for a change. I might write more in the future.


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