About 400 Anglo-Saxon texts survive from this era, including many beautiful poems, telling tales of wild battles and heroic journeys. The oldest surviving text of Old English literature is “Cædmon's Hymn”, which was composed between 658 and 680, and the longest was the ongoing “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”. But by far the best known is the long epic poem “Beowulf”.
“Beowulf” may have been written any time between the 8th and the early 11th Century by an unknown author or authors, or, most likely, it was written in the 8th Century and then revised in the 10th or 11th Century. It was probably originally written in Northumbria, although the single manuscript that has come down to us (which dates from around 1000) contains a bewildering mix of Northumbrian, West Saxon and Anglian dialects. The 3,182 lines of the work shows that Old English was already a fully developed poetic language by this time, with a particular emphasis on alliteration and percussive effects. Even at this early stage (before the subsequent waves of lexical enrichment), the variety and depth of English vocabulary, as well as its predilection for synonyms and subtleties of meanings, is evident. For example, the poem uses 36 different words for hero, 20 for man, 12 for battle and 11 for ship. There are also many interesting "kennings" or allusive compound words, such as hronrad (literally, whale-road, meaning the sea), banhus (bone-house, meaning body) and beadoleoma (battle-light, meaning sword). Of the 903 compound nouns in “Beowulf”, 578 are used once only, and 518 of them are known only from this one poem.
Old English was a very complex language, at least in comparison with modern English. Nouns had three genders (male, female and neuter) and could be inflected for up to five cases. There were seven classes of “strong” verbs and three of “weak” verbs, and their endings changed for number, tense, mood and person. Adjectives could have up to eleven forms. Even definite articles had three genders and five case forms as a singular and four as a plural. Word order was much freer than today, the sense being carried by the inflections (and only later by the use of propositions). Although it looked quite different from modern English on paper, once the pronunciation and spelling rules are understood, many of its words become quite familiar to modern ears.
Many of the most basic and common words in use in English today have their roots in Old English, including words like water, earth, house, food, drink, sleep, sing, night, strong, the, a, be, of, he, she, you, no, not, etc. Interestingly, many of our common swear words are also of Anglo-Saxon origin (including tits, fart, shit, turd, arse and, probably, piss), and most of the others were of early medieval provenance. Care should be taken, though, with what are sometimes called "false friends", words that appear to be similar in Old English and modern English, but whose meanings have changed, words such as wif (wife, which originally meant any woman, married or not), fugol (fowl, which meant any bird, not just a farmyard one), sona (soon, which meant immediately, not just in a while), won (wan, which meant dark, not pale) and fæst (fast, which meant fixed or firm, not rapidly).
During the 6th Century, for reasons which are still unclear, the Anglo-Saxon consonant cluster "sk" changed to "sh", so that skield became shield. This change affected all "sk" words in the language at that time, whether recent borrowings from Latin (e.g. disk became dish) or ancient aboriginal borrowings (e.g. skip became ship). Any modern English words which make use of the "sk" cluster came into the language after the 6th Century (i.e. after the sound change had ceased to operate), mainly, as we will see below, from Scandinavia.
Then, around the 7th Century, a vowel shift took place in Old English pronunciation (analogous to the Great Vowel Shift during the Early Modern period) in which vowels began to be pronouced more to the front of the mouth. The main sound affected was "i", hence its common description as "i-mutation" or "i-umlaut" (umlaut is a German term meaning sound alteration). As part of this process, the plurals of several nouns also started to be represented by changed vowel pronunciations rather than changes in inflection. These changes were sometimes, but not always, reflected in revised spellings, resulting in inconsistent modern words pairings such as foot/feet, goose/geese, man/men, mouse/mice, as well as blood/bleed, foul/filth, broad/breadth, long/length, old/elder, whole/hale/heal/health, etc.