I'm curious about when the English, in early modern period, first found out about texts such as Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon chronicles and realised it was an old version of English? Or did they always know about the history of the English language?

When did linguistic studies of the English language begin? I mean, today we can pick an Old English word and say which word it developed into in Modern English; when did this study first begin?

  • 3
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this is about the history of studying English, not the language itself.
    – Helmar
    Commented Oct 24, 2016 at 13:12

1 Answer 1


Oxford University has had a chair of Anglo-Saxon since 1795, about a century, I think, before the rediscovery of Beowulf. The first holder of the chair was Charles Mayo. A later holder, Joseph Bosworth, published what may have been the first major dictionary of the language, in 1838. But, apparently, according to records of Sir Robert Cotton, a great collector of Anglo-Saxon texts, an earlier owner of the Beowulf text had also been compiling a dictionary back in the 1560s.

Pursuing any of these names should prove useful leads, but my hunch is that, if dictionaries were being compiled back in the 1560s, within living memory of the Act of Dissolution, then there was probably continuous monastic awareness that Old English was, indeed, old English.

  • "... there was probably continuous (monastic) awareness that Old English was, indeed, old English" is what I am inclined to believe, too. It may not be possible to find convincing evidence for that, though.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 13:05
  • @Kris: Gnanadesikan's The Writing Revolution has some good summary of awareness of the divergence of “French”, “Italian”, etc., from Latin at the time of Charlemagne. I’m not aware of anything similar for English, but if such documentation exists for the Romance languages, then something similar might be available for English too. A colleague of mine, a sociolinguist, teaches a history English course. I’ll see if she knows. Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 22:53
  • You would think of this as being related in some way to the Q at hand? english.stackexchange.com/q/38414/14666
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 5:38

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