In older variations of English in history, how much evidence of written language samples is needed to accurately define the grammar and usage of that period?

For example, if we want to define how English was in the year 500 CE, how much evidence in the form of parchments and samples must we have and analyze? Is there an official figure or standard?

  • 2
    The grammar and usage of a language cannot be defined completely: we can only define rules, but their number is practically infinite. Consequently, "defining" grammar is just a gradual process of defining more and more rules and listing more examples: you are never at a certain % of completion. It goes on forever. So more evidence means understanding a language better, and that's about all there is to say about it...there is no threshold or anything.
    – Cerberus
    Jan 26, 2013 at 9:08

1 Answer 1


As Cerberus told you in his comment, we can't really be 100% sure. Well, if we had the chance to go back in time and collect every written material then we could have a chance but that's impossible, for now.

What we can do is study the material that got to us and formulate hypotheses using that material. Old English was roughly between the V (5th, 400 AD) and the XII century (13th, 1200 AD), when it was already mostly developing into Middle English. But these are arbitrary dates. I mean, Old English didn't suddenly start at the V century. That is the date where we're sure it was already enough present and that it had those certain features that we attribute to Old English.

And not to mention that what we call Old English for simplification was actually a co-existence of four dialects: Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon. The one that emerged, for political reasons, was this last one.

The changes occurred between this period of time and the XV century on the language were so deep and drastic that they make this old phase of English basically incomprehensible to the typical speaker of Modern English. Pick a piece from the Beowulf and ask a native that hasn't studied to read it and tell you what it's saying: he won't be able to do it because they are really different.

So what material do we have? Alfred the Great by the IX century, who favored the union of the various kingdoms/regions, also favored the "english" culture through two measures. An educative program focused, on one side on the study of Latin for the ecclesiastics, and on the other side on providing the most significative texts for translation.

Thus the Anglo-saxon prose was born through translating texts:

  • Historia - Beda;
  • Cura Pastoralis and Dialogi Miraculorum - Pope Gregory I;
  • parts of the Bible;
  • De consolatione philosophiae - Boethius.

Then we had the homiletic production by Wulfstan, who composed Sermo Lupi ad Anglos in 1014, and Ælfric, who composed the 120 sermons divided in three series, where the first two formed the Homiliae catholicae and the third Passiones sanctorum.

By the X century, most of the anglo-saxon poetic patrimony is represented by four manuscripts:

  1. the manuscript Junius;
  2. the manuscript Vercelli;
  3. the manuscript Exeter;
  4. the manuscript Cotton Vitellius A XV, better known as the Manuscript of Beowulf.

We actually have more material (Cædmon, Cynewulf) but I think that the basic answer to your question relies in what I said up to now.

  • 2
    There's also the confounding factors that (1) there were a large number of dialects of English spoken, at every point in its history; and (2) English spelling was not standardized until after Elizabethan times -- before that it was intended to represent sounds, by any means the writer cared to use. This means that one must be an expert both in dialects (histories and individual phonologies), and in the phonetic spelling conventions used in these dialects to decide these things. It's very clearly not a matter of just the quantity of written language available.
    – jlawler
    Jan 26, 2013 at 18:02
  • @jlawler Ah I see, I wasn't aware of the standardization of spelling. But doesn't the abundance/lack of written material still have its importance? It's not the only factor considering what you said, but since it's the only way we can "see" what they spoke back then (recordings didn't exist eheh), if the material is already unreliable and it's also in a small quantity, then your attempt to determine an old/extinct language is even harder to accomplish, right?
    – Alenanno
    Jan 26, 2013 at 18:15
  • Pretty much, everything written in OE and ME that's survived has been carefully examined and dated. And published about. And argued about. This is one of the things English professors do. So it's not like anybody needs an algorithm for it
    – jlawler
    Jan 26, 2013 at 19:09

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