Old English/Roadmap to learning Old English
Okay, so, you are interested in learning Old English. But, it's a dead language, so how do you even do that?
It won't be very easy!
People who learn Old English usually either:
- only care about reading Old English (this is true of most academics) - it is not necessary to develop the skills to be good at writing and speaking Old English, only reading and understanding it
- are interested also in speaking Old English (this is mostly true of enthusiasts) - this is a harder goal to achieve, but this Old English Wikibook should (eventually) be in a condition to help you achieve this
This Old English Wikibook overall should eventually be sufficient to get a person a significant way down the path of speaking Old English, and therefore also reading it. It is currently under work, and therefore you may find as your learning advances, that there have been some mistakes in this Wikibook. If you spot any clear mistakes yourself, feel free to correct them, or notify someone who is active in writing this Wikibook.
However, your own approach also matters. Because Old English is a dead language, and almost all of the resources for Old English are technically focussed, with no focus on developing speaking skills, you yourself will have to make special, well-considered efforts, to achieve even an intermediate level of speaking ability in Old English. This page offers advice on how to achieve an intermediate level of speaking. If you make it that far, you will be as well qualified as anyone else to figure out how to achieve an advanced level of speaking.
Robert Fulk has kindly made his modern, reputable, basic scholarly introduction to Old English freely available under the public domain. It can be used to follow this learning road map for Old English, and can be found here:
This book is a high-quality resource. If you are unclear on grammar jargon, you may wish to look at the grammar page, which explains some fundamental grammar concepts.
Old English Discord ServerEdit
As of 2021, there is a very active Old English Discord server, with several advanced learners of Old English present, and a number of intermediate learners. This is one of the few places you will be able to practice Old English with other people, and can expect some degree of reliable corrective feedback. You can also practice speaking Old English, and you can also ask specific questions, which can greatly accelerate your learning.
- Be careful not to assume that cognate ("cousin words", like "Eis" in German, "ice" in Modern English, and "īs" in Old English) words in Old English had the same meaning as in Modern English. The primary meaning of "mann" in Old English is "person" or "human", not "male adult human".
- Don't assume that because you can put words together in a particular way in Modern English, or any modern language, you can also do that in Old English - Old English was its own language with its own standards. Modern German has many similarities, but they are not identical.
- It may be helpful to learn Modern German or Modern Icelandic before you learn Old English. They are grammatically similar, and benefit from being living languages - you can find people who can correct your errors.
- As you become more advanced, after you have mastered the basics, put increasing effort into avoiding making errors. Over time, with care and attention, you should make fewer and fewer errors, as you become aware of more and more facets of Old English.
- There are 3 aspects of "correctness" when you speak a language: correct sense of meaning of words, correct grammar, and suitable style/phrasing. The first two points are what you should focus on when you are first getting started in Old English, but after you have mastered the basics, you should start paying attention to how things are written in authentic, historical Old English texts - take notes, and remember those phrases.
- Don't sweat learning something perfectly before you move on to the next topic; so long as you have learned most of the topic, you can move on. You can always revisit old lessons if you need a reminder.
- Most modern Old English content which you find on the internet is poor quality, even much of that written by academics (note: with regards to academics, this is only applicable to their modern Old English content, which is barely ever viewed as an important part of academic Old English studies, not their content about Old English). Modern Old English should never be considered as a primary learning source. You should always prioritize authentic, historical texts as the authoritative examples of Old English. Academics, generally speaking, despite often not being able themselves to use advanced Old English with reliable correctness and proficiency, nevertheless provide the most in-depth, reliable analyses and descriptions of historical Old English, and are the main providers of reliable resources which can be used to learn Old English. Pouring over a text to analyse a technical point, or even reading such a text to understand its contents, are very different activities to speaking a language in a social context, or writing a text in that language.
- To learn how to write and speak Old English, you have to practice. You cannot learn how to write and speak Old English well only by reading. You should, however, also be exposing yourself to historical Old English texts, and comparing it with your own writings, and correcting yourself by comparing what you write to authentic texts.
- Learning is a mentally creative and proactive process. You need to take active notice of things. Although repetition is necessary to first memorize something, that alone will not help you master Old English. Repetition of noun, adjective, verb paradigms only helps you remember their forms - you also have to try to use those forms, to get good at it.
- At the start, your Old English will be very bad. Don't be discouraged - this is normal. You will get better over time as you keep at it.
- Because it is a dead language and there are few people who can reliably correct you, or who you can practice speaking with, your progress in Old English will likely be slower than for living languages.
Here is a specific roadmap to how to learn spoken Old English. For a very driven learner, they might perhaps be able to cover this entire roadmap in just a few months, but for most people, going at a reasonable pace, it might take 1-2 years.
- learn at a pace that is effective for you. In general, to make progress in a new language, you need to put at least several hours in a week. However, if you become frustrated trying to understanding something, you should give it a break, move on to something else, and come back to it later. Revisiting topics which you learned imperfectly is a key to effective learning. If you get mentally fatigued, you've done enough for that day - leave it and come back another day.
- first learn the pronunciation. At first, don't worry if your pronunciation isn't perfect - you can improve it as you learn. Every so often, as you continue improving in your Old English journey, revisit Old English pronunciation - you will gradually improve over time, as you get a better understanding of what you were doing wrong as a beginner. However, if you let "perfect" pronunciation hold you up too much as a beginner, that is as needless slowdown.
- next, ensure you are familiar with some basic grammatical concepts. The Grammar page gives an introduction to some important grammar concepts. If you don't understand it all the first time, don't worry - revisit the page as often as you need, whenever you come across a grammatical concept you don't understand.
- next, memorize the declension paradigm of the definitive article ("sē" - "the"). It may seem boring, but the definitive article is a very common word in Old English, and it has similarities to some noun and adjective declensions which make them easy to learn afterwards.
- as soon as you have memorized the definite article, you can start memorizing Old English nouns that you want to - make sure you memorize them with their grammatically correct definitive article form, to remember their grammatical gender (e.g. memorize "sē mann" not just "mann", so that you can remember the gender; "þæt ƿīf" not just "ƿīf", and so forth). You can search for nouns at Bosworth-Toller website. You can specify nouns using the relevant advance search fields.
- next, memorize the strong masculine noun declension and the strong masculine adjective declension and weak adjectival declension for all genders (this is because the weak declension for all genders is almost identical, so you might as well just learn them all at once). You should notice that the strong declension has some similarities with the declension of the definitive article. Make sure you also read the Strong or Weak? section, so you can understand when to use the strong adjectival declension, and when to use the weak adjective declension. You can now also start finding and memorizing adjectives.
- next, memorize the weak class 2 verb conjugation. Don't worry if you haven't mastered it the first time - revisit it several times. The weak 2 conjugation is the easiest verb conjugation in Old English. Note that even though nouns, adjectives, and verbs are all called "weak", it doesn't mean the same thing in all of the cases. In general, it just refers to the fact that the weak declensions, and the weak conjugations, are easier to learn than the strong declensions and conjugations.
- Now that you have memorized the article, the strong masculine noun declension, some adjective declensions, first make sure you understand the meaning, purpose of usage of cases, but, now you can start making Old English sentences! Practice making a variety of different simply Old English sentences. Here are some simple ones you could try: "the dog goes"; "the man sings a song"; "the rooster bites the waggon". This is your first big milestone! From hereon, keep trying to make new, simple sentences. You can start trying to read Old English prose if you would like - Ælfric is known for his simple writing style. Don't worry if you don't understand it - just give it quick shot, see how much of it you can work it, and come back to it later when you have a better understanding.
- Next, memorize the neuter strong noun and adjective declensions (which has some similarities with the strong masculine declensions), as well as the weak noun declensions (they have the exact same pattern as the weak adjective declension, so you don't really need to learn anything - you just have to apply them to the correct nouns). This expands the range of nouns you can use considerably!
- Next, memorize the weak 1 verb conjugation (the second easiest verb conjugation) and the strong 1 verb conjugation. The strong verb conjugation may seem intimidating at first, but remember that they have 2 main components: the vowel changes and the suffixes. The strong suffixes are identical across the different strong verb conjugations. Once you have mastered the suffixes for one strong verb paradigm, you have mastered the suffixes for all strong verb paradigms, and you only need to learn the new vowel changes to learn the new strong verb paradigms.
- Next, memorize the strong feminine noun and adjective declensions. You are now able to correctly handle the vast majority of Old English nouns and adjectives! (However, there are a few common nouns that you still haven't specially learned).
- Now, learn the conjugation of the irregular verb "ƿesan/bēon" - to be. You will need this verb to say many things, like "I am happy" - "Iċ eom glæd (man)/gladu (woman)". Also learn the conjugation of the common class 3 verb, "habban" - have. It is obviously fairly similar to the other weak verb conjugations. You may also want to familiarize yourself with the other class 3 verbs, including "libban" - "to live, be alive", and "hyċgan" - "to think, intend"; however, you don't have to memorize them aright now. There are very few class 3 verbs.
- Learn the i-mutated strong noun declensions. They are somewhat modified versions of the normal strong declensions; not many nouns are i-mutated in declension; but some important common ones are, like "mann" - "person, human" ("menn" - "people", compare Modern English "men"), "fōt" - "foot" ("fēt" - "feet"). Also learn the somewhat irregular declensions of the common family terms "brōðor" (brother), "sƿeostor" (sister), "fæder" (father), "mōdor" (mother), "dohtor" (daughter). Finally, familiarize yourself with the strong-declension nouns which end in -h and those which end in -u/-o (which gets turned to -ƿ before suffixes that start with a vowel) - these should be very easy, because they are almost identical to the normal strong declensions you have already learned, just with a slight modification.
- Okay! Let's get stuck into more complicated sentences now. You should familiarize yourself with a number of common conjunctions and prepositions. You can now start making more complicated sentences like "my mother had a cat, but the cat fled". This is your second big milestone. From now on, you can practice making more complicated sentences.
- Since you learned the strong 1 verb conjugation earlier, you don't need to re-learn the correct suffixes for all other strong verb conjugations. Instead, you only need to learn the vowel shifts. You should familiarize yourself with the vowel shifts, but it doesn't matter if you memorize them all, just so long as whenever you learn a strong verb going forward, you learn it with the correct vowel shift (you can do this by memorizing e.g. the present tense, the past simple indicative third person, the past plural, and the past participle, whenever you learn a strong verb. So if I was learning "ƿrītan" - "to write", I would memorize it as "ƿrītan, ƿrāt, ƿriton, ƿriten"). Dictionaries often either tell you which conjugation a verb belongs to, and you can check the correct vowel shifts by looking at the verbs page.
- Now learn about the preterite-present verbs. They use vowel shifts normal of strong vowel past tense, in the present tense; and usually use suffixes, like weak verbs, in the past tense. These include a number of common auxiliary verbs, such as "cunnan" - "to know how to", "magan" - "to be able to, can", "sċulan" - "must, should, have to", "ƿillan" - "to want to, will", "mōtan" - "be allowed to". Now you can express much more subtlety in your Old English. This is your third big milestone!
- There aren't that many basic grammar points left to cover! You can choose what order you learn them in: The u-declension for nouns, indeclinable nouns and adjectives, partitive genitive, how to use the subjunctive mood for verbs.
- After this, what waits for you is advanced topics: Mastering word order in main clauses and dependant clauses, learning different sentence structures with subtle meanings, and natural ways of saying things in Old English as well as idioms (set phrases that have a particular meaning which is not the same as their surface meaning, like "She gave it everything she had to master Old English." She didn't literally give everything in her possession - she just made a big effort. In Old English, there are lots of normal ways of saying things, that are different to Modern English.
- You should now, with a dictionary, be able to read quite a bit of Old English prose. As you are reading the Old English prose, make sure you take notes of anything interesting that you notice, and particular phrases that seems interesting or hard to understand. Put time aside to try and figure out what they mean. Often, scholars will have already figured it out before you, so you can search on the internet for what this or that particular phrase means. You should learn these phrases, so that your own Old English is more authentic.
- When you find you are able to understand a lot of prose, you should start reading Old English poetry. Old English poetry uses many artistic conventions and clause structures which are not normal to Old English prose, making Old English poetry generally more difficult to understand. However, this is a good opportunity for you to practice speaking Old English: Why not memorize some short Old English poems, and verbally recite them? This makes the language feel alive, and gives you good pronunciation practice. Don't worry if you don't understand the poem - you can try and figure it out later. After all, if you memorized it, you can think about it in any free moment.