What is Old English?


When I tell people that I study Old English, the single most common reply is the following: “So, like, Shakespeare?” (Or, occasionally: “So, Chaucer?”) This is perhaps understandable to a certain degree: for anyone from Canada who didn’t study English after high school, the oldest English text they’ve read was probably one of a short list of Shakespeare’s plays prescribed by the public school curriculum.

It’s also totally erroneous: Shakespeare is Modern English, and the simplest way to explain this is with an example or two.

Here is a short excerpt of Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, part 1: the scene is the prelude to a duel between Prince Henry (the future Henry V) and Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, who is leading a rebellion against the crown.

This is the text in Old English prose (my translation – leaving personal names intact):



Gif ic ne bēo bedroren, þū eart Harry Monmouth.


þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan.


Mīn nama bið Harry Percy.


Hwæt! þa ic sceāwige

wiþfeohtend ārhwætne mid þām naman.

iċ eom ætheling Brytenlandes; ond ne tale, Percy,

nu in mīn æsctīras efngedǣlan.

swā twēġen steorran in anum hwyrft ne magon belīfan,

swā Albion ne mæġ habban cyningas twēġen:

ǣġðer Harry Percy, ġe ætheling Brytenlandes.


I’m pretty sure that Ontario high school students would be less than thrilled if that was assigned as required reading! Now, Shakespeare’s version, c. 1597:



If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.


Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.


My name is Harry Percy.


Why, then I see

A very valiant rebel of the name.

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,

To share with me in glory any more:

Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;

Nor can one England brook a double reign,

Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.


One of these is intelligible to the average native English speaker; the other … not so much! While Old English is still recognizably related to the language we speak today (“gif” as the predecessor of “if”, “nama” as the predecessor of “name”, and “þū eart” as the predecessor of “thou art”, which is now admittedly archaic), the grammar, vocabulary, and spelling have shifted significantly – signficantly enough that you can’t really sit down and read Old English texts without learning a new language.

The opening lines of the only Old English poem anyone has usually heard of – Beowulf – should suffice to demonstrate this:

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð

feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!


Aside from “we” and “in” and “oft” – which still retain basically the same senses in modern English – and the last sentence (þæt wæs god cyning! = “that was (a) good king!”), most of this is not even close to something that would be comprehensible today.

So we’ve gone back way before Shakespeare. More than five hundred years before, in fact, and to a time when “England” as a country did not even exist – when scholars talk about “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon”, they’re referring to the language spoken by the Germanic tribes who conquered and then settled the land that would become England, in the period from about 500 to 1066 C.E. “Middle English” refers to the period immediately after the Norman Conquest, from about 1066 to 1450. Middle English is the English of Chaucer – “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote” is a little bit more intelligible than “Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum”, but it’s still quite difficult to read. And finally, by the time we get to the Renaissance (and Shakespeare), we’re firmly in the realm of Modern English.

(To put those dates in perspective, there’s still more time between the end of the Old English period and Shakespeare than there is separating Shakespeare and the speaker of modern English today.)

It’s not surprising, then, that in the course of fifteen hundred years, the language has undergone some significant changes – including some changes that can make Old English a bit of a headache for those used to the modern version:


  1. Like Latin, and modern French, German, Spanish, and Icelandic, Old English nouns have grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter).
  1. Like Latin, Old Norse, and German, Old English is an inflected language: meaning is created not through word order, but through little suffixes attached to the end of words, which tell you whether the word in question is the subject, object, verb, indirect object, etc. of the sentence. For example, in my translation of Henry IV, above, the word “nama” (name) appears with a couple of different endings. In Hotspur’s line, “Mīn nama bið Harry Percy” [My name is Harry Percy], “nama” is in the nominative (subject) case and thus has no ending. But in Prince Henry’s line immediately before, “þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan” [Thou speak’st as though I would deny my name], “naman” is the object of the verb, and thus in the accusative case, with a suffixed –n. This also means that writers and poets can become very creative with word order – to go back to the opening lines of Beowulf as an example, in Old English we have:


           We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.


A word-for-word translation without changing the word order:



So! (“Listen!” or “Hey! Pay attention, I’m starting the story!”)


We Gardena                            in         geardagum

We of-the-spear-Danes        in         days-of-yore


þeodcyninga,                           þrym   gefrunon,

of-the-people’s-kings            glories have heard,


hu        ða        æþelingas         ellen              fremedon.

how     those princes           brave-deeds performed.


To get it into modern English word order, we have to do this:


Hwæt! We gefrunon þrym þeodcyninga Gardena in geardagum,

So! We have heard of the glories of the kings of the peoples of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,

hu ða æþelingas fremedon ellen.

how those princes performed brave deeds.


  1. Like Old Norse, modern Arabic, and Tolkien’s invented languages Sindarin and Quenya, Old English retains dual pronouns: “we (two)” or “you (two)” required a different pronoun than “we (group of three or more)” or “you (group of three or more)”
  1. Like Old Norse and modern Icelandic, Old English has a few extra letters: þ (“thorn” – borrowed from the runic alphabet, and pronounced “th” as in “thin”), æ (“ash” – pronounced like the “a” in “cat”), and ð (“eth” – pronounced “th” as in “then”).
  1. Like Old Norse poetry, Old English verse depends on alliteration, not end-rhyme: “Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, / monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah”


Despite the differences, though, the close relationship between the two languages – Old English and its modern descendant – is made clear when we look at the basic vocabulary. Although we’ve since borrowed all sorts of words from other languages like French and Latin, many of the most common words in English are still derived from Old English originals:

sprecan                      to speak

singan                         to sing

rinnan                         to run

hus                              house

fæder                          father

modor                         mother

blæc                            black

and/ond                     and

þæt                             that

eald                             old

god                              good

leoht                           light

nu                               now

hwa                             who

hwæt                          what

cyning                         king

sæ                               sea


(One obligatory caveat: while this is often helpful, even words that seem to look familiar may have changed their meanings significantly. Our modern English “queen”, for example, comes straight from Old English “cwen”. But in Old English, “cwen” simply meant “woman”, not “queen”. Similarly, modern English “churl” comes from Old English “ceorl”, but in Old English, “ceorl” had no negative connotations whatsoever, and was simply a word for a man. A “cniht” was a boy, not a knight in shining armour; a “wif” was any woman, not just a wife; an “eorl” was any man or warrior, not just a nobleman; and “sona” translates as “immediately” rather than “soon”.)

I have another post in the works that will cover the Old Norse side of things, but suffice it for the moment to say that while Old Norse is contemporary with Middle English, it’s much closer – linguistically – to Old English. And while neither Old English nor Old Norse would have been intelligible to Shakespeare, there’s a great deal of wonderful literature written in both languages that has survived for a millennium and more, available to be read and enjoyed – if only we take the time to learn the languages in which it’s written.

(And hopefully, Shakespeare doesn’t seem so bad, now?)


The Books I Can’t Live Without?


I move to Toronto tomorrow morning. So instead of doing something practical, like rushing around like the proverbial headless chicken wondering what I have forgotten to pack, I’m writing a blog post about books.

There are all sorts of things that I’m terribly excited for when I get to Toronto. The program, the classes I’m taking, the professors, the library resources, living next door to “Fort Book,” the theatre scene (and the three auditions I have lined up for my first week!), the discounted student tickets to the National Ballet, stage combat classes, the fact that the athletic centre is right across the street …

But when I accepted my offer of residence at Grad House, there was one thing I was definitely not looking forward to: sorting through my books. If you’ve ever been to my house, you know that the basement is home to a 4,000-tome family library, and that’s not including any of my father’s books (roughly another 4,000 volumes, split between his study at home and his study at work). Upstairs, I have six full bookcases of my own, including a large one that takes up most of the closest – when forced to choose between removing two-thirds of my clothes and letting the myriad unshelved books take over the floor in ungainly heaps, I opted for ditching the clothes.

And honestly, that is pretty standard for me. I am a fairly uncomplicated nerd in many ways. When I go on vacation, I always come back with a stack of new books, because I always run out of things to read – even if it’s only a three-day trip. I have never been known to splurge on handbags or heels, but when armed with a debit card, it is a dangerous thing to send me into a bookstore unaccompanied or without a budget – especially a really good used bookstore, like the one I discovered in Vancouver this summer. And when, a couple months ago, a friend asked me what I would do with a million dollars, my answer was straightforward: order a hard copy of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes, $1,000), go to Oxford for my doctorate ($150,000), buy some more books, and put the rest of the money in the bank.


At Grad House there will be only one small bookcase in my room, and bringing additional furniture, aka more bookcases, is strictly forbidden.

Drastic measures have been required. Ruthless sessions of sorting have been followed by adding just one more back onto the pile … and one more … and one more … followed by more ruthless sessions of sorting.

But the six bookcases taking up all available wall space in my room have been whittled down to just over fifty volumes, which fit in two small crates, and generally fall into one or both of the following categories:

– The first, and largest, category is for books that are directly related to my studies (Old English textbooks, E.V. Gordon’s Introduction to Old Norse, various editions of Beowulf, the complete Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and quite a few others).

– The second category is for books I have decided I do not wish to live without. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records fit into this category quite nicely as well – there are really quite a few books from category one that also belong in category two – but this is really the category for stuff like the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Watership Down, and The Silmarillion. 

What’s most interesting about the second category is not only what I’ve included – which might be a totally different set of books if I was posed the same question ten years from now – but what has been left on the shelves. There are, for instance, virtually no fantasy books other than Tolkien’s in the pile for Toronto. When push came to shove, only Tolkien and Eddings made the cut. And three-quarters of my (many) Tolkien-related books are still on the shelves, including most volumes of the History of Middle-Earth – except The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2, and Lays of Beleriand, which did make it into the crates for Toronto.

Most of the Great Books of the Western World series will be left behind – as much as I’d like to have Newton’s Principia Mathematica handy, I won’t use it regularly, and somehow I’m pretty sure Robarts Library has a copy if I really want one. (Actually, I know they do, because I just looked it up … not only do they have translations in abundance, they have original copies in the Rare Book library. I may be geeking out about that one.)

Most of my dictionaries have been left behind. Only Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged is coming; all the books on Latin and Greek word roots are not. Neither is the Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, nor Bioscientific Terminology, nor the Rhyming Dictionary, nor the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, nor the Finnish, Spanish, French, or Latin dictionaries that usually sit right beside my bed – again, either I can access an equivalent online, or I’ll just have to walk the two hundred metres from residence to the library.

Which is the most amusing part of the whole problem, for me. Not only am I going to be living right beside the main library of the University of Toronto, which has one of the largest library systems in North America, two of the largest branches of the Toronto Public Library are within walking distance.

Whatever books I am taking, therefore, are the books that I want to have within arm’s reach.


Quite probably, but still – here’s the list:

Category 1:

1. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Seamus Heaney)

2. Beowulf (bilingual edition, trans. Howell D. Chickering)

3. A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse

4. Old English Shorter Poems

5. The History of the Kings of Britain (Geoffrey Monmouth)

6. Morte Darthur (Thomas Malory)

7. Arthurian Romances (Chretien de Troyes)

8. The Sagas of Icelanders

9. The Saga of the Volsungs

10. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

11. The Monsters and the Critics and other essays (J.R.R. Tolkien and in category two, but it definitely belongs here as well)

12. The Prose Edda

13. The Poetic Edda

14. An Introduction to Old Norse (E.V. Gordon)

15. An Old High German Primer (Joseph Wright)

16. A Primer of the Gothic Language (Joseph Wright)

17. The Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)

18. Word-hoard: an Introduction to Old English Vocabulary (Stephen A. Barney)

19. A Guide to Old English (Mitchell and Robinson)

20. Medieval Latin (ed. K.P. Harrington)

21. Wheelock’s Latin

22. The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (6 volumes)

23. The Norton Anthology of English Literature (6 volumes)

24. Paradise Lost (John Milton)

Category 2:

25. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Arden edition)

26. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

27. The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

28. The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)

29. The Lord of the Rings (3 volumes) (J.R.R. Tolkien)

30. The Book of Lost Tales, Part 2 (J.R.R. Tolkien)

31. Lays of Beleriand (J.R.R. Tolkien)

32. Polgara the Sorceress (David Eddings)

33. Watership Down (Richard Adams)

34. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

35. Mara, Daughter of the Nile (Eloise Jarvis McGraw)

36. A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain)

37. Linear Algebra (Nicholson)

38. Quantum Mechanics (Scherrer)

39. Modern Physics (Serway, Moses, and Moyer)

40. The Singer’s Musical Theatre Anthology (soprano, 3 volumes)

41. The Bibliophile’s Dictionary (Miles Westley)