In fact, very many details of the pre-historic relationships between Old English and the other Germanic languages are much debated and very controversial, which greatly complicates any attempt to say when ‘Old English’ began.
Back to top The conventional dividing date of approximately 1150 between Old English and Middle English reflects (very roughly) the period when these changes in grammar and vocabulary begin to become noticeable in most of the surviving texts (which are not very numerous from this transitional period).
If we trace its history back further, Old English belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages, along with Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old High German, and the various dialects which later gave rise to Old Dutch.
The major early representatives of the North Germanic branch are Old Icelandic, Old Norwegian, Old Swedish, and Old Danish (although the earliest extensive remains for all of these are much later than the earliest Old English documents), while the only representative of the East Germanic branch for which extensive remains survive is Gothic.
It is very difficult to say when Old English began, because this pushes us back beyond the date of our earliest records for either Old English or any of its closest relatives (with the exception of very occasional inscriptions and the evidence of words and names occurring in Latin or in other languages).
they were borrowed on the continent), while many others date from the period of the conversion to Christianity and later.
‘Anglo-Saxon’ was one of a number of alternative names formerly used for this period in the language’s history. (On the history of the name, see England n.) Precisely what fate befell the majority of the (Romano-)British population in these areas is a matter of much debate.
Before the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, the majority of the population of Britain spoke Celtic languages.
Likewise, the cataclysmic political events of the Norman Conquest took some time to show their full impact on the English language.
Back to top In grammar, Old English is chiefly distinguished from later stages in the history of English by greater use of a larger set of inflections in verbs, nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, and also (connected with this) by a rather less fixed word order; it also preserves grammatical gender in nouns and adjectives. In vocabulary, Old English is much more homogeneous than later stages in the history of English.