Hiya or Ēalā; hāl. Now you may have been wondering what strange language I just spoke, well that would be old English. Now quite recently as I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned in other blog posts I have recently finished reading Shakespeare in class. And of course it is hard to read because of the old timey language, but I nearly met my doom having called Shakespeare’s lingo “old English”. And why??? You may ask… well because he didn’t speak old English at all.
Old English is in fact old, and much older then Shakespeare. It was spoken at the time when England was the Anglo-Saxons, and there was certainly much less appreciation for the arts. However it is incorrect to say there was no art. There is an extremely famous old English poem, in fact THE most famous called Beowulf.
It lives without a precise date (the manuscript said to have been created somewhere between 975 and 1025), it also lives without an identifiable poet, making the story very hard to verify. Since Scholars don’t really know the details of this poem they can’t truly determine wether the poem is inherently Pagan or Christian. Depending on the original date this poem was first told, it could really go either way. The earlier it was told, the more likely to have been Pagan with the Christianity added later, and the later it was told the more Christian it would be, with the Pagan additions as flourishes.
Old English really was cool language, a Germanic language just like the English we speak today, it originally had a rune like alphabet that slowly turned into a more letter like alphabet after the introduction of the Latin alphabet. It’s said that there are about 400 manuscripts in old English left today, but even more importantly all of the language in the lord of the rings is based off of old English, since J.R.R. Tolkien was in fact an old English Scholar.
However despite the swellness of old English it clearly did not last forever around 700 years (5th century to the late 11th century), and with the influence of Latin and in particular Old Norse, Old English moved into Middle English, then Early Modern English, then eventually to the English we speak today. Shakespeare himself would have been a speaker of Early Modern English, which is why we can actually read the letters he writes!
Thanks for reading this little deep dive into Old English, and I will never complain about Shakespeare’s old language again.
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