Playing “Eye Spy” with Old English

Old English

The period we call “Old English” lasted from 450-1100 AD. The first version of the English language started when three Germanic tribes invaded the land we today call England. All three tribes spoke a roughly similar language, and in very little time their languages merged into one.

You can read more about the overall history of the language here.

Today we are going to have fun with the language and play a game of I Spy. Normally Eye Spy (or sometimes I Spy) is a game- using specific I Spy series books or just using passing landmarks as a car trip game- and you look through many different objects to find a select few. It’s sort of like the kid’s game version of hunting through the cupboard to find the things you need to make dinner but you can’t find the parmesan because someone hid it in the cupboard even though you’ve always put it away in the refrigerator.

Today we’re going to look at different snippets of Old English and see if you can decipher any letters in it. Bonus points if you can figure out any whole words!

Library of Congress collection

For practice I first included a rough alphabet of the letters. Keep in mind this alphabet was written in modern times for modern audiences to be an approximation of Old English letters and not clones of originals. Additionally, this was made into a typeface, while everything originally written in Old English was handwritten so there will be variations in handwriting and lettering styles. So, now that we have somewhere to start, let’s go!

Example of Old English

This is a snippet from Beowulf. Can you figure out any of the letters in this?

My guess is that thesecond sentence starts with “Oft”, an old timey version of the word “often”.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is supposedly the longest piece of intact Old English writing we have- even longer than Beowulf- according to Wikipedia. Use your own judgement on the accuracy of that. According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is basically an early encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon history, hence the name.

My best guess is that the first word looks like “Brittene”, which I would guess means Britain, but keep in mind I am new to this particular game of Eye-Spy and I have very untrained eyes for it so who knows if I’m right.

Bede’s Historical Ecclesiastes

Bede’s Ecclesiastes recorded snippets of the Synod of Hatfield in year 679 many years after the fact. If you want to read one theory as to why he limited his work to only some portions of that meeting I found an interesting post from Proffesor Miranda Wilcox at the blog for the Medieval Studies division of York University.

I included this post as the last one because, to me, it is the hardest to decipher. I have no clue what it says, and I can only pick out a handful of letters like the distinctive “l” and “p” and all of the larger illuminated letters on the left side.

Which words can you decipher?


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I'm a professional author. I love travel, forests, city life, and being creative. I love to gather hobbies, none of which I am any good at, and I like to spend as much time as possible with people.

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