In older variations of English in history, how much evidence of written language samples are 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?

  • yes, problems registering – nicholas ainsworth Mar 29 '11 at 14:31
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    What the OP is asking isn't really a question. That is, we don't do that in lexicography. One data point is one data point. Two are better. Three are better yet. Etc. – The Raven Mar 29 '11 at 14:46
  • Question title too long, and repeated in the body verbatim, and not really an English-specific question to boot. If there were (or is there?) a linguistics.SE, that's where this should go. – Jürgen A. Erhard Mar 30 '11 at 12:34
  • @jae: Linguistics.SE is currently in commitment. – RegDwigнt Mar 30 '11 at 12:38

The short answer is that there are so little available sources that you would need all you can find. In addition, the corpus has already been gathered and is readily available.

Indeed, one of the most complete corpus of Old English sources is the one gathered by the University of Toronto to elaborate their Dictionary of Old English. This dictionary is still a work in progress and they have only reached the letter 'G'. It is online and the corpus is also available online or on a CD.

From their own web site, they claim to have gathered a comprehensive corpus:

The DOE is based on a computerized Corpus comprising at least one copy of each text surviving in Old English. The total size is not quite five times the collected works of Shakespeare.

Considering the scarcity of sources, this is a remarkable achievement (consider for instance that the story of "Beowulf" is only known from a single, half burnt and incomplete manuscript).

As for year 500 AD, there are simply no sources (except some runic carvings) and the words are reconstructed. The oldest sources are dated ca 650.


Another problem is that before widespread printing the language, grammar and spelling changed from region to region and person to person. Except perhaps in copying Gospels spelling doesn't seem to have mattered much to anyone

  • +1, absolutely. I initially included that remark in y initial answer and them removed it to make it lighter but Old English indeed was not as unified as modern English is nowadays. There were many regional variations (mostly along the divisions of the early Saxon Kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, Sussex and East Anglia. – Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 29 '11 at 16:14
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    "In the preface to the Eneydos [Caxton] told a story of some merchants going down the Thames. There was no wind so they landed on the Kent side of the river to buy food. ‘And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren." - bl.uk/treasures/caxton/english.html – RedGrittyBrick Mar 29 '11 at 16:35
  • @RedGrittyBrick - that hasn't changed much today, try speaking geordie in kent! Historian friends tell me they can follow individual monks from abbey to abbey by their pattern of spellings (even though they don't know their names) and they leave a trail of students who learned from them. – mgb Mar 29 '11 at 17:32
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    Right. It wasn't until the mid-1600s or so that we began to see the first English orthographies. These prototypical "dictionaries" didn't define words, but rather attempted to regulate their spelling. Before that, all bets were off. A book is something you could "read," "rede," "reade," etc. – The Raven Mar 29 '11 at 18:02

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