Anglo-Saxon helmet
Anglo-Saxon helmet

"The recorded history of the English language begins, not on the Continent, where we know English speakers once lived, but in the British Isles, where they eventually settled. During the period when the language was spoken in Europe, it is known as pre-Old English, for it was only after the English separated themselves from their Germanic cousins that we recognize their speech as a distinct language". (Baugh and Cable, 1993: 95)

Old English (OE) distinguishes itself from modern English in that it was almost purely a Germanic language. Words derived from Latin were few and far between and loans from French were nonexistent. Such features were only to be absorbed into the language following the Norman Conquest. Also, unlike the present-day language written OE is comparatively phonetic.


Features of Old English

OE generally differs from present-day English with regard to a number of features. For example


Old English Dialects

Leith (1996) notes that present knowledge relating to these dialects comes from surviving OE manuscripts and that is is uncertain how well these texts "reflected the spoken languages of the areas where they were written." (1996: 102).

The Venerable Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People which was written in the 8th century, describes the Germanic settlers of England as belonging to three distinct tribes: the Angles of Northumbria, the Saxons of Wessex and the Jutes of Kent. He claims that each spoke their own dialect which they brought with them from their native homeland on the continental mainland. However, it has been argued by some (e.g. DeCamp, 1958 cited by Leith, 1996) that such dialectal variations only developed following the settlement of these tribes in England, though the the forces behind the evolution of these regional differences is uncertain.

Crystal (1995) observes that there is evidence to suggest that, by 600 AD, England consisted of 12 kingdoms. However, from a linguistic perspective, only three held sufficient power to have a lasting effect on the English language: Northumbria in the 7th century; Mercia in the early 8th century; and Wessex (speaking the West Saxon dialect) in the 9th century. Yorkshire dialect has its origins in the speech of the Anglian tribesmen who came to the area from Northern Europe around 500 AD. The language of these invaders and colonizers consisted of: the Mercian of the Midland Angles and the Northumbrian of the Angles occupying the lands  north of the Humber. Although different dialects, both Mercian and Northumbrian displayed similarities to present-day German.

As can be seen from the map Crystal (1995) notes that the border between the two dialects followed a line running roughly from the River Humber in the East to the River Mersey in the West. Northumbrian was spoken as far north as the eastern lowlands of Scotland. Beyond this point was the Celtic of the Strathclyde Britons. Mercian was spoken in an area falling roughly between the rivers Humber and Thames and as far west as the present-day English / Welsh border.

Relative to the settlement of the Anglian kingdoms in Northumbria, Fisher (1973) states that Deira had been established by the end of the 5th century through a large influx of Germanic tribes into the Vale of York and the Yorkshire Wolds. Also, around the same time, Bernicia was established north of the River Tyne, the initial settlement occurring in the coastal regions around the Tyne Estuary and between the rivers Tweed and Coquet. Fisher (1973) speculates that the two kingdoms may have merged in the latter part of the 6th century. He claims that, by the middle of the 8th century, the Northumbrian borders had become firmly established and remained so until the incursion of the Danes. Further details of the county's historical settlement can be viewed by clicking here.

The above however may not be the complete story. It is highly probable that there were a number of English dialects about which nothing is known today because of the absence of any survivng manuscripts written in those dialects: e.g. there are no existing OE texts from East Anglia, Essex or Sussex.




Baugh, A.C. and Cable, T. (1993) A History of the English Language, Fourth Edition, London: Routledge.

Brook, G. L. (1963) English Dialects, London: Andre Deutsch

Burnley, D. (2000) The History of the English Language, Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd

Crystal, D. (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fisher, D. J. V. (1973) The Anglo-Saxon Age, London: Longman Group Ltd.

Leith, D. (1996) The Origins of English. In Graddol, D, Leith, D. and Swann, J. (1996) English history, diversity and change, London: Routledge.