This manual is short, structured linguistic account of OE for those who already have some up-to-date knowledge of modern English grammar and phonetics. It is designed to give beginners a linguistic reference point both for subsequent literary appreciation and for philological study. It is organised for easy reference, but it is not designed to be read through from beginning to end in order; passages of greater and lesser importance have been marked, and there is extensive use of cross-references and connections to enable rapid navigation through the text on-screen. For those working on your own, a suggested scheme for organising the study of the book is presented in Appendix II.

Some elementary knowledge of Present-Day English grammar and phonetics is assumed here; such knowledge is essential for anyone seriously attempting to learn OE, and should form part of any introductory English Language course. The models of grammar and phonetics adopted here are widely used nowadays, and will be recognised by most teachers of English Language.

A brief word about the normalised OE used in this manual. Any normalised version of OE is artificial, and thus open to scholarly criticism; but experience suggests that beginning students find the frequent variations of "real" OE confusing, and thus conducive to despair at a time when this is the last thing they need. Normalisation is entirely accepted in Old Icelandic studies, and there seems no good reason why beginning students of OE should be unnecessarily impeded by comparatively trivial matters. A little controversially, the basis of this normalisation is Early rather than Late West Saxon. Despite its artificiality, Early West Saxon has definite advantages for those proceeding to more specialised linguistic study. However, it is recognised that students will want to read non-normalised texts soon after using this book, and for them a short Appendix on the main differences between Early and Late West Saxon has been included, along with a list of some common variables which they are likely to encounter.

I wish to take this opportunity of thanking my colleagues at the University of Glasgow for their helpful criticism and advice during the writing of this manual and the exercises which accompany it. I am especially grateful to Ms J. Anderson, Manager of the STELLA Project at Glasgow, who has carried out all the programming and has been a constant source of advice -- so much so that she is really the co-author of this package. I am also grateful to Prof. C. Kay, with whom I have discussed the pedagogical issues involved in its construction, to Dr M. K. C. MacMahon, who made many useful suggestions and indicated a number of weaknesses and errors, and to the many students at Glasgow University who have used and criticised it in its various earlier versions. I am also grateful for the comments and suggestions of various persons who have looked at or used the programmes at conferences, symposia etc. In this regard I am particularly grateful to Dr M. Deegan, Prof. D. Denison, Dr E. Higgleton, Dr O. D. Macrae-Gibson and Prof. J. Roberts.

Jeremy J. Smith
Glasgow, 1996

Reading List

  • B Mitchell, An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon Studies, Blackwell: Oxford, 1994 (Devised as a "prequel" to Mitchell and Robinson, qv., this book is really a survey of contexts: linguistic, literary, historical, archaeological. Perhaps rather large to serve as a true beginner's book, it nevertheless contains a lot of interesting material, and good bibliographies.)
  • B Mitchell and F C Robinson, A Guide to Old English, 5th edition, Blackwell: Oxford, 1992 (Probably now the "standard" OE textbook. The texts are mostly unnormalised.)
  • N Davis (rev), Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer, 9th edition, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1953 (Although replaced by Mitchell and Robinson in some respects, still unrivalled for accuracy, intellectual coherence, clarity and conciseness. The texts are normalised to Early West Saxon.)
  • J J Smith, An Introduction to Old English, 5th edition, Department of English Language, University of Glasgow: Glasgow (in preparation) (This booklet will replace the current fourth edition. If you take this subject on to Higher Ordinary level, you will use this book. It is designed to build on the material in the current pamphlet, with a greater emphasis on literary texts such as the homilies of Ælfric and Old English poetry. It is accompanied by a tape, and by STELLA laboratory sessions.)
  • D Whitelock (rev), Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, 15th edition corrected, Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1970 (Still the best collection of "canonical" texts edited for student use. Not normalised; a selection of non-West Saxon texts is included.)

See also:

  • C L Barber, The English Language: an historical introduction, Cambridge UP; Cambridge, 1992 (an account of the history of English, full of information and expressed in a theoretically-informed way.)
  • M Godden and M Lapidge (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, Cambridge UP: Cambridge, 1991 (A valuable set of essays by leading scholars of Old English, written for the non-expert.)


AccAccusative case
CompComparative degree
DatDative case
eEnumerator (Numeral)
FemFeminine gender
GenGenitive case
ImpImperative mood
IndicIndicative mood
MEMiddle English
NeutNeuter gender
NomNominative case
OEOld English
PDEPresent-Day English
PlPlural number
PretPreterite tense
PropProper (noun)
SgSingular number
SubjSubjunctive mood
SuperlSuperlative degree


Phonetic Symbols


alike the 'A' in Present-Day Scottish or Northern English CAT.
ælike the 'A' in Present-Day Southern English CAT.
ɑlike the 'A' in modern German 'Mann' or in Present-Day Southern English BATH.
elike the 'E' in modern French 'th' or the 'AY' in Present-Day Scottish English DAY.
ɛlike the 'E' in Present-Day English PET.
ilike the 'EE' in Present-Day English MEET.
ɪlike the 'I' in Present-Day English PIT.
ylike the 'U' in modern French 'tu'.
olike modern French 'eau' or the 'OA' in Present-Day Scottish English BOAT.
ɔlike the 'O' in modern German 'Sonne' or in Present-Day Scottish English POT, or the 'AW' in Present-Day Southern English SAW.
ulike the 'OUX' in modern French 'doux' or the 'OO' in Present-Day English FOOD.
ʊlike the 'U' in Present-Day Southern English PUT or in Present- Day Northern English CUT.
əlike the 'A' in Present-Day Southern English ABOUT.
ʌlike the 'A' in Present-Day Scottish English ABOUT or the 'U' in Present-Day Southern English CUT.


blike Present-Day English 'B' in ABOUT
flike Present-Day English 'F' in FOUR
glike Present-Day English 'G' in EAGER
hlike Present-Day English 'H' in HOUSE
jlike Present-Day English 'Y' in YES
klike Present-Day English 'C' in CUT
llike Present-Day English 'L' in LAY
mlike Present-Day English 'M' in MAY
nlike Present-Day English 'N' in NO
ŋlike Present-Day English 'NG' in SING
ðlike Present-Day English 'TH' in WRITHE
θlike Present-Day English 'TH' in THING
plike Present-Day English 'P' in PUT
rlike Present-Day Scottish English 'R' in POOR
slike Present-Day English 'S' in SEE
ʃlike Present-Day English 'SH' in SHIP
ʒlike Present-Day English 'S' in MEASURE
tlike Present-Day English 'T' in TEA
vlike Present-Day English 'V' in EVER
wlike Present-Day English 'W' in WAR
ʍlike Present-Day English Scottish English 'WH' in WHERE
xlike Present-Day Scottish English 'CH' in LOCH
Glike modern German 'G' in 'Frage'
zlike Present-Day English 'Z' in PRIZE


: indicates that the preceding vowel is pronounced 'long'.

The brackets [ ] are used in this book to mark all symbols indicating pronunciation. Strictly speaking, [ ] should be used to mark a phonetic transcription, as opposed to / /, used to mark a phonemic transcription. In OE studies, the phonemic/phonetic status of sounds is frequently controversial; for that reason, I have adopted the convention of using [ ] throughout. However, it should be noted that [ ] indicates a very "broad" phonetic transcription of OE; our evidence for "narrower" pronunciations is generally uncertain, and is not something the beginning student need worry about.

Appendix 1: Early to late West Saxon

Most of the texts which survive from the OE period were written in Late West Saxon, which seems to have achieved the status of a 'written standard language' in the years before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Like all medieval 'standard' languages - and unlike PDE standard written language - this Late West Saxon standard admitted of a fair degree of minor variation. Since most editors do not 'normalise' their texts, the OE that you read after this book will differ slightly from that you will be used to.

The differences and variations can be divided for convenience into two groups: spellings and inflexions. The second group is more important.

1. Spellings

1.1 'Compensatory lengthening.' Early West Saxon g between a short vowel and d, n disappeared, and the vowel was lengthened, eg. sæġde > sǣde SAID.

1.2 Early West Saxon ie, īe were replaced by i, ī, y, ȳ in Late West Saxon, eg. Scieppend > Scyppend.

1.3 Early West Saxon (-)weor-, (-)wier- appear as (-)wur-, eg. sweord > swurd.

1.4 When followed by ht, hs at the end of a word, Early West Saxon eo, io became i; hence cniht BOY, pl. cneohtas. In a rather similar fashion, Early West Saxon ea, ēa frequently become e, ē before c, g, h and after ċ, ġ, sc.

1.5 Other frequent variations in spelling include: a : o before nasal consonants (eg. hand : hond); ǣ : ā in words like þǣm : þām.

2. Inflexions

2.1 Towards the end of the OE period, unstressed vowels seem to have become indistinct in pronunciation. This seems to have been part of a trend in the history of English away from inflexions towards the use of prepositions and a more fixed word-order in order to express the relationship between words. This spoken-language feature was reflected in the written mode by the confusion of endings such as -an, -on, -en etc.; thus -en on verbs could function as an indicative as well as a subjunctive inflexion.

2.2 Such 'confusion' is unhelpful to the beginner in OE studies, and it is the main reason why a 'normalised' Early West Saxon has been adopted as the basis of this manual. However, you should be aware of it when you turn to more advanced work in OE.

Appendix 2: A suggested scheme of study

It is, of course, easier to learn OE with a teacher; but these notes are offered for those of you learning on your own. Whether you are working with a teacher or not, you should start and keep a vocabulary book (a small notebook will do) to record the new words you come across. (Some people also use such a notebook to record any difficulties, or new constructions they might discover). You will find that the act of writing out these words will help you to remember them; try to learn them in conjunction with your study of the Texts and the Grammar.

The paragraph and Text references here are to Essentials of Old English, the textbook which is designed to accompany this course, and also to the additional pamphlet Essentials of Old English: Plus, and NOT to the grammatical manual and texts which are attached to these programmes.

1. Read the Introduction, 'About this book'.

2. Read paragraphs 6-14.

3. Read paragraphs 41-42, 17-19.

4. Now practise reading Text I, 'The Man who Built his House on Sand'. If you can, try to read it aloud. Do NOT worry overmuch about getting the pronunciation exactly right at this stage. Using the translation given, try to work out the phrase-structure of the passage, make a list of words which you cannot recognise and check them in the Glossary.

5. In the 'Paradigms' section, read about and learn the noun-declensions (strong and weak, paragraphs 50-57), the pronouns (paragraphs 58-63), and the determiners (paragraphs 65-66).

6. Read paragraphs 20-24.

7. Read paragraphs 27-35.

8. Now re-read Text I. See if you can recognise anything you have learnt.

9. Now practise reading Text II, treating it in the same way as you treated Text I.

10. Read about and learn the adjective-declensions (paragraphs 67-69), and the verb-conjugations (paragraphs 72-75); read about coordination and subordination (paragraphs 44-47).

11. Now re-read Texts I and II. See if you can recognise anything you have learnt.

12. Re-read carefully the Grammar in Essentials of Old English, checking cross-references and making notes. Learn any 'boxed' sections you have not yet covered. You should have learnt by now the main features of OE grammar.

13. Now practise reading Texts III and IV in Part III. See if you can recognise anything you have learnt. As before, try to work out the phrase-structure of the passages, make a list of any new words and check them in the Glossary.

14. Now read through the supplementary material in Essentials of Old English: Plus, so that you will be able to recognise the forms and constructions covered there.

15. Now practise reading Text V, in the same way as before.

16. Finally, read Text VI. Don't worry if the structure of this short poem seems rather complex; this text is included as something of a challenge!

20. You are now ready to proceed to more advanced books. Suggestions for further reading appear in Essentials of Old English, paragraph 3; especially recommended are Magennis and Herbison (1990), and Mitchell and Robinson (1992).

The above is only a suggested scheme of study; you should, of course, adopt any method which works for you. As you will have gathered, the scheme suggested here tries to mix the study of grammar with the reading of texts.

There are two key rules for acquiring a sound grasp of OE: (1) don't panic, and (2) don't try to run before you can walk! It is really a waste of time to move onto more advanced literary or linguistic matters before you have acquired the basics.