Old English has neither common pronunciation, nor alphabet (written letters), nor most words with modern English.

What made Old English to be identifiable as English?
What separates a language from other languages and dialects?

1 Answer 1


Firstly, the writing system has little relevance to this question but I'll point out that while Old English was originally written in runes, from the 9th Century on the Latin Alphabet was used although with a few characters no longer included (e.g. þ 'thorn', ð 'eth' and ƿ 'wynn').

Old English refers to the language ancestral to Modern English that was spoken in much of England from the 5th C. until the 12th C. We know it was ancestral because we have detailed knowledge of the course of development from Old English, through Middle English up to Modern English. This knowledge includes huge numbers of etymologies as well as a detailed understanding of changes in the grammar. The sequences of changes that led from Old English grammatical structure to that of Modern English is well understood, and is exemplified at many points in time by numerous pieces of writing (scribal, ecclesiastical and personal). It is that substantial evidence of Old English as the ancestor to Modern English that allows us to identify Old English as 'English'. In fact, it was King Alfred the Great who, in the 9th Century, referred to Old English by the name 'English'. So Old English is identifiable as English both because it was the first variety given this name, and because it is demonstrably the ancestor of Modern English.

Historical linguistics is 'diachronic', meaning it examines changes in a language over time. The divisions into 'languages' and 'dialects' is usually applied synchronically (ie at a given point in time). The usual definition is that spoken varieties are different languages if they are not mutually intelligible, and are dialects of the one language if they are. By this definition Old English and Modern English are different languages. Linguists have tried to work out how long it takes for a language to change so much that it would no longer be intelligible to the earlier speakers, but it's highly speculative. To answer your second question then, a language is separated from other languages by sufficient differences in lexicon and grammar such that the two languages are not mutually intelligible.

  • "if they are not mutually intelligible". So, tells that cited by me wiki page: "Any native English speaker of today would find Old English unintelligible without studying it as a separate language". So, why is Old English determined as (some kind of, old) English? Oct 30, 2011 at 7:39
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    'Old English' is the name given to a language spoken centuries ago which is the ancestor of 'Modern English'. I'm not sure what you mean when you say it's 'determined as some kind of English'?? Oct 30, 2011 at 9:01
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    @WebMAOhist I'm not sure about what you're asking, but if I got it, my explanation is this one: English, like other languages, had a development; this development is divided into "macro-phases". In the case of English we have Old English, Middle English and Modern English.
    – Alenanno
    Oct 30, 2011 at 10:34
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    @WebMAOhist Old English is the ancestor of Modern English. Old French is the ancestor of Modern French, Old Norman is a particular dialect of Old French, and is the ancestor of the modern Norman language. Old English and Old French were different languages but related in that they are both descendants of proto-Indo-European. [see next comment] Oct 30, 2011 at 11:54
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    [continues...] Why is Old English called that? Partly tradition, but I guess it's also because it's the earliest stage of the unique Germanic language of England. Before Old English it was the parent language of both Old English and Old Frisian, so it wouldn't make sense to call it any kind of English (or Frisian for that matter). Oct 30, 2011 at 11:55

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