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A seventeen-minute history of the English language
the old english period
For the first thousand or so years of the language’s existence, from around 750 in the Common Era, English was a rough and ready tongue.
The first grammar of the language was hundreds of years away and no one cared about spelling in the least. In fact, there was very little written down in the English of the period; the culture’s literary output was passed down primarily through the oral tradition.
In the earliest days, the language was a brew of local and foreign languages brought together by trade and military conquest.
When he invaded Britain, for example, Julius Caesar added Latin to the language of the native Celts. The Roman occupation gave way to raids and military alliances among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from northern Europe, whose own languages were rather like cousins in the Germanic branch of the family.
To the left is the Lord’s Prayer as it looked in the resulting language, Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon).
It is barely recognizable to English speakers today, though one of your cousins who speaks German could help.
Notice that a few letters are no longer in use. For the purposes of the line-by-line translation on the right, the Modern English words which descend directly from the Old English words are preferred. The standard word order is also ignored here in favor of showing the correspondences between these two versions of the same language, separated by some one thousand five hundred years. Some of the Old English words have survived to modern times with their meaning--if not their spelling--intact (fæder/father, heofunum/heaven, gyltas/guilt, hlaf/loaf).
Click here to learn about the kenning, a common figure of speech in Old English.
Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum,
(Father our, thou that art in the heavens)
si þin name gehælgod
(be thy name hallowed )
Tobecume þin rice. Gewurþe ðin willa
(May come thy kingdom. May be worthy thy will)
on eorðan swa swa on heofunum.
(on earth so as in the heavens)
Urne gedæghwæmlican hlaf syle us todæg
(Our daily loaf give us today)
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
(and forgive us our guilts so as we forgive our guilt-causers)
ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of efele. Soþlice.
(Not lead thou us into temptation, and loose us from evil. Amen.)