Old English in the OED

By Anthony Esposito, OED

Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, as it is sometimes called) is the term used to refer to the oldest recorded stage of the English language, i.e. from the earliest evidence in the seventh century to the period of transition with Middle English in the mid-twelfth century.

When did Old English end and Middle English begin?

When plans for what became known as the Oxford English Dictionary were being drawn up in the late 1850s, it was a commonly held view that the borderline between Old English and later forms of English should be regarded as 1250, rather than 1150. In the scholarship of the time this earliest stage of English was in fact usually considered to be a wholly different language from later English—and therefore not properly within the remit of an English dictionary.

These early views are evident in the Proposal for the Publication of a New Dictionary by the Philological Society (1859) which envisages a starting point for the dictionary of 1250 (the date of the ‘rise’ of ‘our language’), very much in accordance with the thinking of Herbert Coleridge (the first editor of the proposed dictionary), whose own Dictionary of the first, or Oldest Words in the English Language (1863) covers the period 1250-1300.

Prof. Glanville Price (Languages in Britain & Ireland (2000) 148) has remarked with some truth that ‘the language of Beowulf would be almost as unintelligible to a man of Chaucer’s time as it is to the modern reader.’

By the time James Murray was appointed editor of the OED in 1879 scholarly opinion had been revised to the extent that the starting point of English had become fixed a hundred years earlier in the mid-twelfth century (at roughly the time of writing of the final annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)—the period of transition from Old to Middle English.

Back to top

The OED‘s policy regarding Old English

Murray states the policy of the OED with regard to Old English very explicitly in the ‘General Explanations’ in the first volume (1888: p.xviii) of the New English Dictionary (NED):

The present work aims at exhibiting the history and signification of the English words now in use, or known to have been in use since the middle of the twelfth century. This date has been adopted as the only natural halting-place, short of going back to the beginning, so as to include the entire Old English or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Vocabulary. To do this would have involved the inclusion of an immense number of words, not merely long obsolete but also having obsolete inflexions, and thus requiring, if dealt with at all, a treatment different from that adapted to the words which survived the twelfth century… Hence we exclude all words that had become obsolete by 1150. But to words actually included this date has no application; their history is exhibited from their first appearance, however early.

The final sentence is important: Old English was to be only partially excluded from the dictionary. It was to be admitted to the OED when required to illustrate the early history of words remaining in use after 1150, which in practice led to the inclusion of a very substantial amount of Old English material in OED. In fact, the OED currently includes more than 7500 entries for which the first evidence of use is dated 1150 or earlier—in effect, a large component of the core vocabulary of English.

It has been estimated by Prof. Eric Stanley (‘OED and the earlier history of English’, in Lynda Mugglestone (ed.) Lexicography & the OED (2000) 132) that had all of Old English been included in the New English Dictionary it would have resulted in an increase of about 10% in the overall size of the dictionary (or, in terms of the 20-volume OED2, an additional two volumes). This was no small practical consideration in terms of editing time, but a further, and perhaps more decisive, practical concern was simply that reliable editions of Old English texts had not at that time been produced in sufficient numbers, and without these the work of excerption of quotations for the dictionary was rendered practically impossible.

It was precisely to provide accurate texts from which the New English Dictionary could quote that the Early English Text Society had been set up in 1864 by Murray’s predecessor as editor, Frederick Furnivall. But the overwhelming majority of texts published by the society in the first twenty years of its existence were not Old but Middle English.

Back to top

OED3: policy and procedures with regard to Old English

The third edition of the OED continues to adhere to the policy laid down by James Murray. To change the policy at this point to include the entire vocabulary of Old English would be to replicate the work already well in progress of the University of Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English (first volume published in 1986) and to which OED entries are now linked. However, for the Old English material that is represented in OED it is now possible to take advantage of over a hundred years of Old English scholarship. There are now many reliable editions of Old English texts, a comprehensive dictionary of Old English, and the whole corpus of Old English is now available in searchable electronic form. All of this has revolutionized lexicographical methods.

The revision of Old English material in the third edition is thoroughgoing. Every single Old English quotation, whether already in OED or newly added, is being checked against the most recent reliable edition of the text, with new bibliographical details and additional context being given where appropriate.

The dating system for Old English quotations cited in OED3

The dating of quotations has been radically revised: the New English Dictionary‘s practice of assigning putative composition dates to quotations typically preserved in manuscripts of much later date (a practice which resulted in quotations from Beowulf being given no date at all because of its uncertain date of composition) has been abandoned. In fact, individual dating of Old English quotations has itself been abandoned and replaced by a simple threefold division of all pre-1150 quotations into ‘early OE’ (600-950), ‘OE’ (950-1100), and ‘late OE’ (1100-1150), based firmly on manuscript dates as agreed by the most recent authorities, principally N. R. Ker Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (1957; reissued with supplement 1990), and (for manuscripts of charters—not included by Ker) P. H. Sawyer Anglo-Saxon Charters (1968), more especially in the fully revised and electronic version published by the University of Cambridge as Electronic Sawyer (2006-).

It should be noted that the three divisions of eOE, OE, and lOE, adopted by OED3, are equal neither in span of years nor in wealth of material. By far the majority of manuscripts containing Old English that have survived belong to the period 950-1100 (fewer than 20 manuscripts out of nearly 200 principal manuscripts listed by Ker can be assigned to the mid-tenth century or earlier).

Back to top

The ordering of Old English material in OED3

Even within the broad parameters of this new system of dating it has been thought advisable not to extend OED3‘s otherwise strict adherence to the chronological principle to Old English material earlier than 1100 as the surviving record is so fragmentary that reliable chronological interpretation is impossible, and it would be misleading to impose an absolute dating of the sense structure based on the chance survival of an Old English word from the earliest period (where, as we have seen, the number of surviving manuscripts is vanishingly few). Therefore, although within quotation paragraphs strict chronology is maintained even for Old English examples, no conclusions are drawn from this with application to the relative ordering of senses, for the purposes of which all material earlier than 1100 (i.e. eOE and OE) has been regarded as coeval, and hence ordered logically, rather than chronologically. Material for the subsequent (much shorter) period of 1100-50 (i.e. lOE), much of which is demonstrably later in composition as well as in manuscript date, has been treated in the same way as later material.

Back to top

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. learn more about Old English in an article by Philip Durkin, the OED‘s principal etymologist. A growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day, is also available.
  2. OED Online includes just under 3500 entries where the first evidence dates from between 600 and 950 (i.e. early OE), of which some of the earliest include town, earl, and thief.

How do I search for these? with subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for entries by date, usage, origin, region, and subject using the Advanced Search option. To group entries by time period, use Advanced Search/date of entry or entry range. All results can be displayed as timelines (simply click on the link at the top of the results list), or you can browse the OED via the Timelines option.

About the OED