The approximate extent of Germanic languages in the early 10th century:
Old English was not static, and its usage covered a period of 700 years, from the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain in the 5th century to the late 11th century, some time after the Norman invasion. While indicating that the establishment of dates is an arbitrary process, Albert Baugh dates Old English from 450 to 1150, a period of full inflections, a synthetic language. Perhaps around 85% of Old English words are no longer in use, but those that survived are basic elements of Modern English vocabulary.
Old English is a West Germanic language, developing out of Ingvaeonic (also known as North Sea Germanic) dialects from the 5th century. It came to be spoken over most of the territory of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which became the Kingdom of England. This included most of present-day England, as well as part of what is now southeastern Scotland, which for several centuries belonged to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. Other parts of the island – Wales and most of Scotland – continued to use Celtic languages, except in the areas of Scandinavian settlements where Old Norse was spoken. Celtic speech also remained established in certain parts of England: Medieval Cornish was spoken all over Cornwall and in adjacent parts of Devon, while Cumbric survived perhaps to the 12th century in parts of Cumbria, and Welsh may have been spoken on the English side of the Anglo-Welsh border. Norse was also widely spoken in the parts of England which fell under Danish law.
Anglo-Saxon literacy developed after Christianisation in the late 7th century. The oldest surviving work of Old English literature is Cædmon's Hymn, which was composed between 658 and 680 but not written down until the early 8th century. There is a limited corpus of runic inscriptions from the 5th to 7th centuries, but the oldest coherent runic texts (notably the inscriptions on the Franks Casket) date to the early 8th century. The Old English Latin alphabet was introduced around the 8th century.
Alfred the Great
statue in Winchester
. The 9th-century English King proposed that primary education be taught in English, with those wishing to advance to holy orders to continue their studies in Latin.
With the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (outside the Danelaw) by Alfred the Great in the later 9th century, the language of government and literature became standardised around the West Saxon dialect (Early West Saxon). Alfred advocated education in English alongside Latin, and had many works translated into the English language; some of them, such as Pope Gregory I's treatise Pastoral Care, appear to have been translated by Alfred himself. In Old English, typical of the development of literature, poetry arose before prose, but Alfred chiefly inspired the growth of prose.
A later literary standard, dating from the later 10th century, arose under the influence of Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester, and was followed by such writers as the prolific Ælfric of Eynsham ("the Grammarian"). This form of the language is known as the "Winchester standard", or more commonly as Late West Saxon. It is considered to represent the "classical" form of Old English. It retained its position of prestige until the time of the Norman Conquest, after which English ceased for a time to be of importance as a literary language.
The history of Old English can be subdivided into:
- Prehistoric Old English (c. 450 to 650); for this period, Old English is mostly a reconstructed language as no literary witnesses survive (with the exception of limited epigraphic evidence). This language, or closely related group of dialects, spoken by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, and pre-dating documented Old English or Anglo-Saxon, has also been called Primitive Old English.
- Early Old English (c. 650 to 900), the period of the oldest manuscript traditions, with authors such as Cædmon, Bede, Cynewulf and Aldhelm.
- Late Old English (c. 900 to 1170), the final stage of the language leading up to the Norman conquest of England and the subsequent transition to Early Middle English.
The Old English period is followed by Middle English (12th to 15th century), Early Modern English (c. 1480 to 1650) and finally Modern English (after 1650).