Old English: Early Germanic Britain

Place-names (toponyms)[1]

  • the first speakers of an Indo-European language - the Celts - settled in Britain around 2000 BCE, though more likely around 1000 BCE
  • Celtic contributed little to English, its influence is most manifest in place-names
  • two main sources of linguistic origins of place names (toponyms):
    • prominent features of the landscape (a river, a hill, a flat-plain)
    • name of the inhabitants of the area (whose place it is)
  • two kinds of toponyms:
    • source in one single language
      • Purely Celtic names
        • Bernicia, Devon = tribal names
        • Kent – “border”
        • Kingdom of Deira < Celtic Deifr – “water”
        • Rivers: Avon – “river”, Esk and Exe < isca – “water”, Ouse – “stream, Thames – “dark river” < tamesis – “darkness”
    • hybrid forms
      • Celtic-Latin combinations
        • Lincoln – combines Celtic lindon (“pool”) with Latin colonia (“colony, settlement”)
        • Lancaster – combines the Celtic names for the River Lune (“pure” / “healthy”) with –caster (~ - caster, -chester) derived from Latin castrum (“camp”, “settlement”)
      • Celtic-Germanic combinations
        • Cornwallcornovii (a Celtic tribe) + wealas (Germanic “foreigner, servant, slave”)
        • CumberlandCymry (Celtic “Welsh”) + land (Germanic “land”)
  • reflect the distribution of the tribes – tell us who lived where and occupied the land long enough to impose their own place-names
    • Celtic toponyms appear all around England, but more prominent toward the West and North – areas which remained Celtic-speaking longer
    • West Germanic place – names found esp. in the South and Southeast
      • -ham – “homestead” (Birmingham)
      • -bury, -borough – “castle” (Marlborough, Salisbury)
      • -ing(s) – “the people/family of” (Hastings, Worthing)
      • -ton – “enclosure, village” (Northampton)
      • -field (Sheffield)
    • North Germanic (Scandinavian) – found esp. in the North and Northeast
      • -by – “farm”/”town” (Barmby)
      • -holm – “flat riverside, land, or island” (Downholme)
      • -thorp(e) – “village” (Nunthorpe)
      • -thwaite – “isolated parcel of land” (Langthwaite)
      • -toft – “homestead” (Langtoft)
  • influence of the Roman settlement
    • Latin borrowings:
      • portus – “harbour” (Portsmouth)
      • strata – “street, road” (Stratford)
      • vicus – “farm”/”village” (Keswick)
  • influence of the Norman Conquest
    • French
      • Beaulieubeau- (“beautiful”) + -lieu (“place”)
      • Beaumont - -mont (“hill”)
      • Enville - -ville (“village, farm, field”)

Influence of Celtic/Latin on OE[1]

  • Celtic - no record of the original language, predecessor of Scottish Gaelic and Welsh
    • otherwise few traces in English, not much influence on grammar and pronunciation, presumably because of high degree of Romanization of Celtic Britain
    • only few words survived (bannock), most words of Celtic origin are toponyms
  • Latin - some words entered OE through Celtic (ass, cross)
    • greatly advanced proces of Romanization in towns and cities (the wealthy adopted Roman life-style) leading to Celtic-Latin bilingualism, however despite the great importance of Roman culture, Latin have not much contributed to OE, probably because of the civic military disorder during the transitions from Roman to Celtic to Saxon power, also due to the farming culture of Germanic nations as opposed to urban culture of Romans and Britons (the original rural population was subjugated, driven off or ignored)
    • much more importantly, Latin returned later with the introduction of Christianity

The Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain; its relation to the four major regional dialects of OE[2]

Historical background:

  • According to the legends and remaining evidence (including Bede`s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) the Celtic king Vortigern invited Germanic reinforcements to protect his people from the Picts, the Scots and Saxon raiders
  • The Germanic soldiers were known for serving in the Roman Army; some of them had already settled in Britain
  • After the invitation the Germans came in large numbers and settled rather than coming merely as administrators and soldiers
  • The Germanic forces did not enslave the Celts, they drove them off
  • Celtic resistance to the Germanic conquest was expressed in the legends of King Arthur (who was late 5th-early 6th century Romano-Celtic leader)
  • The Germans continued to arrive until 6th century
  • Were less interested in urban culture than Romans and Britons -> thus so little was borrowed to the emerging English language from Latin or Celtic

Initially settled outside the towns and cities; still Germanic settlement patterns follow the rivers and the Roman roads.

The Saxons settled on the south coast, in Sussex, Wessex, north of the Thames in Middlesex and Essex;

The Angles settled on the east coast, in the Midlands up to Northumbria and Southern Scotland;

The Jutes settled in Kent, parts of Hampshire, the Isle of Wight;

The Frisians are not associated with any particular place.

It is unlikely that there was major linguistic difference, all the newcomers were speakers of “North Sea Germanic”; there were so many similarities that the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon was uniformly called Englisc.

Later a series of small kingdoms emerged in which the social organization was created by an extended family or a clan (with hereditary nobles – eorls – and simple freemen – ceorls). A lot of kingdoms boundaries corresponded to the borders of bishoprics. Further stability was achieved by the creation of British-Saxon people. Later the combinations of smaller units led to a set of seven major kingdoms: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex, Wessex – this is also known as the Heptarchy.

The boundaries of these kingdoms more of less coincide with the dialects traditionally postulated for OE. Diversity in OE was partly countered in the process of standardization which eventually took place in OE. Much of variety was regional and was grounded on the four major regional dialects:

  • Northumbrian and
  • Mercian –> sometimes grouped together as Anglian
  • Kentish
  • West Saxon

The majority of extant texts from the OE period are in the West Saxon, but Northumbria was especially important in the seventh and eighth century. Consequently, some texts existed in several versions (ex. “Caedmon`s Hymn”).The major differences are to be found in

  • vowels: unlike the northern ones, the West Saxon dialect underwent a process of diphthongization
  • spelling conventions

Christianization in Britain.[1] 

  • happened between the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons and the invasion of the Vikings (late 6th century)
  • arrived in 597 with St. Augustine of Canterbury (accompanied by 40 monks missionary sent by Pope Gregory I) who converted the King of Kent (Æðelbirht), whose wife was Christian, the most powerful king south of the Humber River
  • close relationship between Church and State rivalry between the Celtic and the Roman churches
  • dispute settled at the Synod of Whitby (664)
  • all England is nominally Christian by 700
  • cultural upswing, use of Latin in the services, flowering of ecclesiastical learning, stimulation of vernacular literature and art
  • emergence of church music, modernized agriculture, development of literacy
  • monasteries produce manuscripts for liturgical and educational use
  • successful cultivation and preservation of Latin literature
  • Nordic-Germanic runes still present (Ruthwell Cross)
  • Latin script adapted for use with English is adopted
  • earlier pagan practices remained e.g. weekdays named for Nordic gods, Easter named for dawn-goddess
  • Latin returned with the introduction of Christianity and exerted considerable influence on English: loanwords of religious and scientific nature
  • importance of Northumbria, in 635 Aidan, (a monk from Scottish monastery of lona, described as the man of great sympathy and tact) undertook independently the conversion of Northumbria with the help of small band of followers journeyed from town to town (he made Northumbira Christian in 20 years)
  • periods of reversion to paganism, clashes between the Celtic and the Roman leaders over doctrine and authority
  • new words are connected with religion (abbot, angel, anthem, candle, canon, cleric, hymn, litany, martyr, mass, noon, nun etc.).

Inflectionally Expressed Grammatical Categories in Old English[3]


  • case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative

giefu giefe giefe giefe

  • number: singular/plural

gift(feminine) - gifts giefu giefa/giefe


  • case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative

gōda gōdan gōdan gōdan

  • number: singular/plural (gōda/gōdan)
  • gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter

gōda gōde gōde

  • comparative {-ra} and superlative {-ost(a)}.

dear dearer dearest

lēof lēofra lēofost


  • case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental (masculine and neuter of the 3rd person singular)

hē his him hine hȳ /heō

  • number: singular, plural, dual (later replaced by plural)

we two - wit

you two - git

  • gender: masculine, feminine, or neuter

this this (feminine) this (neuter)

þes þeōs þis


  • strong/weak conjugation
  • person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd)

am are is

eom eart is

  • number (singular/plural)

to come came (he) came (they)

cuman cōm cōmon

  • tense (present or past {-ode}/preterite {-od})

to live lives lived had lived

wunian wunað wunode wunod

  • mood: (indicative/subjunctive/imperative)

be would be

bēo bēon

  • aspect (expressed by prefixes)

burn burn up

beornan forbeornan

Limitations in the Literature from Old English Period[1]

  • oral tradition (bards)
  • little material available before 700 (less than 9% of surviving corpus of Old English is in the form of verse, about 30 000 lines in four manuscripts)
  • limited fields of writing: mostly legal and religious texts
  • diversity of form and content
  • manuscripts revel much about uses of literacy
  • poetry before conversion had a heroic nature, histories of nations and kinship groups (heroic legends and myths)
  • poetry is structured by the strategy of contrast
  • many poetic words are compounds
  • poets composed in a manner suitable to maximize the density of poetic diction
  • the Early-West Saxon dialect of king Alfred and his contemporaries gave way to Late-West Saxon


  1. 1,0 1,1 1,2 1,3 GRAMLEY STEPHAN. The history of English: an introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, 414 p.
  2. GRAMLEY STEPHAN. The history of English: an introduction. New York: Routledge, 2012, xxv, p. 21-44
  3. Quirk, R. and C.L. Wrenn (1957) An Old English Grammar. 2nd ed. London: Methuen. Slocum, J. and W.P. Lehmann (2009, 2010)

4. Robert D. Fulk,Christopher M. Cain, "A history of Old English Literature"