Beowulf: Old English vs. Modern English

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
This lesson focuses on the differences between Old English, and the English that is spoken and written with today, utilizing the epic poem, Beowulf. Read the lesson, and test yourself with the quiz!

Language of Beowulf

As a matter of course, many English literature classes, especially those that seek to survey the whole of English literature, tend to start with Beowulf as one of their first assignments. However, this reading is almost always a translation from its original form. This begs the question of why a work of English literature requires translation. The answer is pretty simple: because Old English in its original form is very hard to decipher, or even relate, to what we know as English today. While we can have very little trouble reading Shakespeare, and while we may be able to make out a fair amount of Chaucer, Old English is in many ways as different from Modern English as early Latin is from modern Reggaeton sung in Spanish.

What is Old English?

Old English arrived in Great Britain almost 1600 years ago, just before Beowulf was composed. Coming with a wave of settlers known as Angles and Saxons (you've probably heard of the term 'Anglo-Saxon': this is where that comes from), it has its origins in an area reaching from what is now the Netherlands to southern Denmark. In fact, it is here that English's closest spoken relative, Frisian, is spoken. In some ways, Old English isn't that far of a stretch to Modern English. Take this sentence, for example, that describes the geography of Britain:

Ehta hund mila lang and tu hund mila brad

While it in no way looks like what we speak, if you sound it out you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that it sounds like Eight hundred miles long and two hundred miles broad, which happen to loosely describe the size of Great Britain.

Still, the occasional sentence of easy Old English should not fool you. Old English is almost completely unintelligible to today's English speakers.

A page from Beowulf written in Old English
Page of Beowulf written in Old English

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