Saturday, March 10, 2012

Old English - The Language of the Anglo Saxons

by Richard Denning

The Anglo Saxon’s used a language called Old English which evolved out of Old German – the language spoken in the homelands in West Germany. Old English was in use between the 5th and 11th centuries when it merged with Norman French and produced middle English – the language of Chaucer.

Old English looks and sounds VERY alien to a modern English speaker. Here is a reading of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English:

Here is the text in Old English and Modern English

Fader ure au ae eart on heofonum;
Si ain nama gehalgod
to becume in rice
gewure in willa
on eoran swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedghwamlican hlaf syle us todag
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfa urum gyltendum
and ne geld au us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele solice

Translation of the Old English Text

Father our thou that art in heavens
be thy name hallowed
come thy kingdom
be-done thy will
on earth as in heavens
our daily bread give us today
and forgive us our sins
as we forgive those-who-have-sinned-against-us
and not lead thou us into temptation
but deliver us from evil. truly

Whilst much of modern English comes from the French brought over by the Normans in 1066, the majority originated in the older form of old English. This then is how our ancestors would have sounded. Much of Old English survives in the names we use for our days and for our towns.

Anglo Saxon Day Names

The Germanic races took the Roman day names that they encountered with dealings with the Roman Empire and translated it into Old German, Old Norse and ultimately Old English. They replaced the Roman god names with their own (with the exception of Saturday).

Modern English day  
Old English day  
English day meaning  
Latin day name  
Latin day name meaning

“Moon’s day”
Dies Lunae
“Day of the Luna”

“Tiw’s day”
Dies Martis
“Day of Mars”

“Woden’s day”
Dies Mercurii
“Day of Mercury”

“Thunor’s day”
Dies Iovis
“Day of Jupiter”

“Frija’s day”
Dies Veneris
“Day of Venus”

“Saturn’s day”
Dies Saturni
“Day of Saturn”

“Sun’s day”
Dies Solis
“Day of the Sun”

Anglo Saxon Town and Place Names

Many elements in our modern English place names ultimately come from Anglo Saxon place names (although in the north and east from Norse names). Often a name would combine a reference to the owner of the land and some description about it. Here are some common elements in place names:

barrow - a wood
burna (-borne) - a brook, stream
burh (modern word – borough) - Fortified town
combe - Small valley
ford - a shallow river crossing
dun – a hill
eg (-ey) - an island
halh – a nook, corner of land
ham – a homestead
hamm – an enclosure, water-meadow
hurst - wooded hill
ingas (-ing) - the people of …
leah (-ley) - a clearing
stede – a place, site of a building
tun – an enclosure, farmstead
well – a well, spring
wick - Farm or dwelling
worth – an enclosure, homestead

Here are some examples of Old English place names and the modern name and what it means:.

enclosure of the sons (or descendants) of Beorma

Oxon Ford
Place where Oxon can cross the river

Dwelling by the weir

Hast+ ingas
Hasta’s people

Place where stags forded the river 

Canta + leah
Canta’s clearing

dun + ham
Hill village

elm + wella
Elm-trees’ spring

worth + ham
Homestead with enclosure

Koli + by
Koli’s farmstead

vestr + thorp
Westerly outlying farmstead

stan + tun
Stony farmstead

Gysela + ham
Gysela’s homestead

Anglo Saxon Months

The Anglo-Saxon year was originally divided into twelve lunar months (which mean ‘moons’), but this created a problem because a lunar cycle is about 29 days. The result was a 354 day year. After only a few years the lunar and solar months would be out of alignment. To get around this issue the Anglo-Saxons would have leap years and would insert an extra month into the summer. The summer was one long 2 month period called liaa, roughly corresponding to June and July.So the leap years was called ÐriliÃi (three liÃas).

The year began on Modranecht, Mothers’ Night, the 25th of December. This festival was later adopted as the date for Christmas in the typical pragmatic style of the Church. It's possible that Anglo-Saxons honoured female ancestral spirits on this day.

December and January were both called Giuli, or’Yules’. Yule, was the name for the winter solstice period – the shortest days in the year when the anglo Saxons would drive away the darkness by feasting. December was roughly equivalent to Ærra Geola, or ‘before Yule’, and January was Æfterra Geola, ‘after Yule’.

February was known as Solmona or ‘Mudmonth’.

March was Hreamona possibly named after a goddess Hrea of which we know little.

April corresponded with the lunar month of Eostermona named again after an obscure deity called Eostre. This month has survived into modern times as the word Easter which is typically celebrated in March or April.

May was Ðrimilcemona, ‘month of three milkings’. “So called because in this month the cattle were milked three times a day,” commented the 7th century historian Bede.

As has been said June was known as Ærra Liaa, ‘first’ or ‘preceding’ Liaa and July was Æfterra Liaa, ‘following Liaa’. The word Liaa might mean sailing as this was the time of year when sailing was easiest due to calm weather. So this was the summer sailing season.

August was called Weodmonað, ‘weed month’ probably because weeds and crops wwere growing fast.

September was Haligmonað, ‘holy month’. It was a time to give thanks to the gods for the fruits of the summer harvest. Harvest festivals stll survive in many countries into the modern period.

October was Winterfille – the begining of winter.

November was called Blotmona. This many have been a month of sacrifices BUT more likely it was the time of year when the animals would be saluaghtered and preserved for the coming winter feasts.

Material on this page is sourced from Omniglot Wikipedia and English Place names


  1. Wow, that was a great post Richard, I loved listening to it being spoken.

  2. Very informative post. I was fascinated by the reading of the Lord’s Prayer in Old English.

  3. That was AMAZING! Gave me the chills. THANKS for posting!!!

  4. Thank you - that's really useful for a writer!

  5. A tremendous post. I've learnt a lot from it.

  6. This post was fabulous! Reading about our language roots is always interesting, but you have really expounded on the subject. Hearing how it would have sounded enhances the information incredibly. Thank you!

  7. Fab and very informative post! I studied Anglo-Saxon at university and have always loved it, but it is a bit obscure as a dead language compared to, say, Latin or Classical Greek, so it's good to see it being given a popular boost like this.

    I have translated a fair amount of AS poetry as Jane Holland, my literary alter-ego, and have an unorthodox version of The Wanderer in translation on Kindle under that name, for those who are interested in Anglo-Saxon poetry. (Lol, any excuse to promote!)

    Thanks again for a brilliant post. Vx

  8. the trouble with transcribing Old English into modern Latin alphabet is that the Thorn symbol for th, like a d with a cross stroke, has been written here as a lower case a, which makes the words nonsense to modern readers. So be cautious if you carry this written version over into anything else.

  9. Very interesting post. Thank you


  10. I once read a poem in Old English to a friend from Germany. She swore it was really Old German!

  11. I'm truly amazed...this is so beautiful. Thank you for the post.


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