Old English, Early Middle English And Middle English Analysis

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Assessment Type


Word Count

500 words


English Literature


2 Days

Assignment Criteria


For the portfolio, what you are aiming for is almost to write a grammar of (some features of) Old English and a grammar of (some features of) Middle English – obviously only looking at a very small subset of the grammar, since you’ve got around 2000 words in total! You do this by analysing short sections of text from four different works from different periods during the history of the English language. The works will be divided up in class, and each student will be assigned a particular section for analysis. The analysis is normally done individually, however if you would like to work together on this particular task with another student, that’s fine – just make sure that the lecturer is aware of this when it comes time to assigning sections of text, so that the two of you get contiguous text segments.

For your analysis (about 500 words per work), you will need to look at different aspects of the language used in the excerpt, in particular focusing on:

  • the lexicon (i.e. the vocabulary used in the excerpt; think about whether the words generally come from Old English, Latin, French, …, and maybe give a few illustrative examples from the text);
  • the morphology (inflections or forms of the words; for example, do words in the text show case-marking, or person-marking, or tense);
  • the syntax (primarily the word order).

Obviously, depending on what is present in the text you are analysing, you may wish to focus more on one or two of these facets of the language used in the particular excerpt, but all should at least be mentioned. There may be additional features that you wish to mention, as well, depending on what is present.

So then you will have some data that you can use to exemplify particular grammatical features of Old English and Middle English – don’t worry, we will have talked about the different grammatical aspects of the languages in the classes! The aim of the portfolio is to make sure you’ve understood what the various grammatical features are, by having to find examples yourself in the excerpt. So what you’ll be able to write is things like “Old English distinguished between past and present tense by using different verb forms, and we can see this in Beowulf, where we can contrast the two verb forms XXXX and YYYY, which are past tense and present tense respectively”. Obviously you’ll want to do it a bit more elegantly than that, but that’s the general idea! We will be discussing the various grammatical features of Old English and Middle English in the lectures, and we’ll be exemplifying the sort of analysis you need to do for the portfolio in the tutorials, so I strongly suggest that you attend the classes – while the general ‘lecture’ slides will be available on the web, the examples of how to do the analysis for your portfolio won’t be. So, to work out what you need to do in the analysis for the portfolio and for examples of the sort of thing you need to be doing:

  • come along to classes, where we’ll do some analysis;
  • have a look at the analysis in the literature sections of Gramley (2012), like on page 40 for example;
  • have a look at the analysis in Barber (2000), from from page 163.

In the analysis, you are likely to be making a comparison in many cases with modern English. You can also compare the data in your excerpts with each other to comment on any changes across time. Clearly, you should also be making use of the data to explore particularly important features of the English of the period, as discussed in lectures and in the readings of the course. It’s probably easiest to think about what you’ve learnt are important features of the appropriate period of English, and then see if you’ve got evidence of those features in your particular excerpt. You don’t need to discuss absolutely every possible feature, just pick some of the ones that you think are really well illustrated in your particular excerpt.

The portfolio will be marked in hard copy and then returned in class.

The four texts that the excerpts are from have been chosen for several reasons. They are well-known, and there is quite a bit of discussion of the texts available in publications. In each case, the text and some sort of translation or analysis is available on a website. You don’t have to give a translation of the text in the portfolio, butobviously to analyse what’s going on in your excerpt you’ll have towork out what it means. Each of these texts has at least one website which will assist you in the analysis, generally providing at the very least a glossary of words, often with some discussion of the particular inflectional form of that word. You may wish to do a Google search for other websites which could also be of assistance, but I suggest you start with the following:

Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos

The website http://people.ucalgary.ca/~mmcgilli/OEReader/Sermofram.html has the text of Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, and information about the words in the text and their translation. If you click on any word in the text, the glossary in the bottom left frame goes to that word, which gives you the part of speech, the translation, and some information about the different forms of the word and their grammar. (There’s a problem with the site, so the bottom right frame is just empty on my computer, but you don’t need it anyway!) If you go looking for other websites for more help, just be aware that there are several different versions (manuscripts) of this text, with slightly different wording. There is a full translation (of a slightly different version) at http://courses.ttu.edu/jhowe/Wulfstan%20Sermon.htm. That seems to be sometimes working and sometimes not.  A really nice page is available at https://thewildpeak.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/the-sermon-of-the-wolf-to-the-english/ which discusses what the bits of the text mean, before giving a complete modern English translation. There’s also a parallel text – that is, a text which gives the Old English text and a sentence-by-sentence translation into modern English – which I have downloaded from the University of Dusseldorf and is available here.


There are various different websites that give the Beowulf text, and each website has different possibilities in terms of what it shows you; which you prefer is up to you. My favourite is http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/beowulf.html; there are also http://www.heorot.dk/ and http://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~beowulf/main.html. With the first of these, you can click on any word and get a translation and some grammatical information; you can also select ‘Clauses’ and ‘Idioms’ at the top and get some more useful information. What you don’t have on that site is a full translation; but you can get that (as well as the text, a summary, a glossary and lots of other discussion) on the other two sites. There’s also some sections you can listen to at http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/Beowulf.Readings/Beowulf.Readings.html, if you want to hear how it sounded.

Petersborough Chronicles (2nd continuation)

The most useful website for analysis is http://members.optus.net/englesaxe/index.html – click either option, then use the menu bar across the top to find the appropriate text. Weirdly, the site has a whole lot of versions of ‘normalised text’, where the spelling has been changed to follow conventions of different periods, and hovering over or clicking on any of the words in any of these versions gives you some information about it. The actual version in the original spelling is available by clicking on ‘view original text’ … but then you can’t get any information on any of the words. If you’d like a full translation into modern English, try http://omacl.org/Anglo/.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

There are loads of versions on the web. Hear some excerpts at http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/audio.htm. The sitehttp://www.librarius.com/cantales.htm has side-by-side Middle English and modern English, plus you can click on particular words within the text to go to the appropriate point in the glossary.

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Assignment Solution

Beowulf: Fit 1 (From

Excerpt 12

Beowulf is the oldest long poem written around or before the 11th century in Old English by an anonymous writer. In this section, I have analyzed some features of Old English on the basis of the undertaken excerpt from the text. In this excerpt, the author talks about the valor and victory of the hero that he is enjoying loudly in the hall. The Old English is very much influenced with German as we see that words which are used in past tense shows 'ge-' prefix. In German the v2 and v3 forms often occur with 'ge-'as in 'fragen' which is to ask is used as 'gefragt' in its v2 and v3 forms. Similarly 'gekommen' has the root 'kommen' which is to come. Here we notice that 'gehyrde' has been used for heard in the Old English the word for 'hear' is 'hyrde'. Another instance of German influence is the phonological rule. German has undergone a phonological process called 'German Devoicing Rule' where a sound is devoiced if it voiced sound. The word 'bad' in the excerpt is 'wait' in Modern English and one can notice that the 'd' of 'bad' is devoiced and became 't' in 'wait'. Words like 'healle', 'was', 'pat', 'sang' show the similarity to modern English and are instances of Great Vowel Shift. But to a larger extent, there is no relation between old English and modern English for nouns, verbs, and adjectives. There is no clue to say that 'swutol' is 'evident' and 'gepolode' is 'tolerate'. The lexicon of the old English is quite different than the modern English having a very little resemblance. There is also a change in semantics. We see the semantic extension of certain words if they resemble similarity with the modern English. The word 'dream' in the text has not been used what we understand from the dream as a desire in modern English. It is used for joy or mirth. Although both the meanings have some kind of link or positivity in them, they cannot be used as synonyms. 

One more apparent feature is old English uses a lot of diacritics which the phonetician may understand but it is very difficult for a layman to read the text because of these diacritics. They can have different meaning according to the time it was written. If the English speakers of that time used tone for certain words, they can mean various tones. Although we know English has accent and stress, not tone, it is difficult to read the words with such markings for any normal reader. The syntax of old English is also different than modern English as the nouns are written after the verb. In the line 'par was hearpen sweg', 'was' is the verb and the object came after that but in the third line, we see that everything is put in the front and the verb 'gehyrde' at last'. It might be possible in English to front everything and put the verb in the end but if there are a lot of things, it sounds weird in modern English. In sum, the language used in the excerpt as English is quite difficult for any modern English speaker and reader. There is a difference not only in lexicon but also in syntax and semantics. The semantics of certain words might perplex a reader as 'sang' is not the past from of 'sing' in the text but the noun 'song'.

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