Old Saxon

This article is about the ancient language of the continental Saxons. For the Anglo-Saxon language, see Old English. For the ancient Saxon people who spoke the language, see Saxons. For all other uses, see Saxon (disambiguation).
Old Saxon
Old Low German
Sahsisk, Sahsisc
Region England, Northwest Germany, Northeast Netherlands, Southern Denmark
Era Mostly developed into Middle Low German at the end of the 12th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 osx
Linguist list
Glottolog olds1250[1]

Old Saxon, also known as Old Low German, is a Germanic language and the earliest recorded form of Low German. It belongs to the West Germanic branch and is most closely related to the Anglo-Frisian languages.[2] It is documented from the 8th century until the 12th century, when it evolved into Middle Low German. It was spoken on the north-west coast of Germany and in the Netherlands by Saxon peoples. It is close enough to Old Anglo-Frisian (Old Frisian, Old English) that it partially participates in the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law; it is also closely related to Old Dutch.

The grammar of Old Saxon was fully inflected with five grammatical cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, and instrumental), three grammatical numbers (singular, plural, and dual) and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). The dual forms occurred in the first and second persons only and referred to groups of two.

For a long time, Old Saxon and Old Dutch were not distinguished and often thought to be different dialects of the same language. However, while these two languages both shared the same historical origins and some very similar writing styles, Old Saxon shows a slightly reduced morphology compared to Old Dutch, which kept some grammatical distinctions that Old Saxon abandoned. There are also various differences in their phonological evolutions, Old Saxon being considered as an Ingvaeonic language whereas Old Dutch is an Istvaeonic language.


Relation with other West Germanic languages

Area in which Old Saxon was spoken in yellow.

Old Saxon (or Old Low German) probably evolved primarily from Ingvaeonic dialects in the West Germanic branch of Proto-Germanic in the 5th century. However, Old Saxon, even if it is considered as an Ingvaeonic language, is not a pure Ingvaeonic dialect as Old Frisian and Old English are, the two latter sharing some other Ingvaeonic characteristics, like the great vowel shift that took place in both Old English and Old Frisian. This, plus the large number of different forms that the language took, often showing different West-Germanic features, led some philologists to mistakenly think that Old Dutch and Old Saxon were variations of the same language, and that Old Saxon was indeed an Istvaeonic language.[3]

In the Middle Ages, a dialect continuum existed between Old Dutch and Old Saxon; this was only recently interrupted by the simultaneous dissemination of standard languages within each nation and the dissolution of folk dialects. Despite sharing some features, a number of disparities separate Old Saxon, Old English, and Old Dutch; one such difference is the Old Dutch utilization of -a as its plural a-stem noun ending, while Old Saxon and Old English employ -as or -os. However, it seems that some Middle Dutch took the Old Saxon a-stem ending from some Middle Low German dialects, as modern Dutch still shows the plural ending -s added to certain words.

Relation to Middle Low German

Old Saxon naturally evolved into Middle Low German during the 12th century, but the evolution from Old Saxon towards Middle Low German was long and uninterrupted – it took about 200 years to evolve the language. However, 1150 marks the inceptive period of profuse Low German writing wherein the language is patently different from Old Saxon.

One of the most striking differences between Middle Low German and Old Saxon is in a feature of speech known as vowel reduction; that also took place in Middle Dutch and Middle English. While round vowels in word-final syllables were rather frequent in Old Saxon, in Middle Low German, such are leveled to a schwa. Thus, such Old Saxon words like gisprekan (spoken) or dagô (days' – gen. pl.) became gespreken and daghe, dage.


Main article: Old Saxon phonology

Early developments

Old Saxon did not participate in the High German consonant shift, and thus preserves stop consonants p, t, k that have been shifted in Old High German to various fricatives and affricates. The Germanic diphthongs ai, au consistently develop into long vowels ē, ō, whereas in Old High German they appear either as ei, ou or ē, ō depending on the following consonant.

Old Saxon, alone of the West Germanic languages except for Frisian, consistently preserves Germanic -j- after a consonant, e.g. hēliand "savior" (Old High German: heilant , Old English: hǣlend, Gothic: háiljands). Germanic umlaut, when it occurs with short a, is inconsistent, e.g. hebbean or habbian "to have" (Old English: habban). This feature was carried over into the descendant-language of Old Saxon, Middle Low German, where e.g. the adjective krank (sick, ill) had the comparative forms krenker and kranker. Apart from the e, however, the umlaut is not marked in writing.


The table below lists the consonants of Old Saxon. Phonemes written in parentheses represent allophones and are not independent phonemes.

Old Saxon consonant phonemes
Labial Dental/
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɣ (x)
Fricative sibilant (z)
non-sibilant f (v) θ (ð) h
Approximant l j w
Rhotic r



Old Saxon monophthongs
Front Back
unrounded rounded
short long short long short long
Close ɪ (ʏ) () ʊ
Close-mid (e) (øː)
Open-mid ɛ ɛː (œ) (œː) ɔ ɔː
Near-open (æ) (æː)
Open ɑ ɑː



Old Saxon diphthongs
Opening io  (ia  ie)
Height-harmonic iu



Main article: Old Saxon grammar


Unlike modern English, but like Old English, Old Saxon is an inflected language, rich in morphological diversity. It kept several distinct cases from Proto-Germanic: the nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and (vestigially in oldest texts) instrumental.

Old Saxon also had three grammatical numbers (singular, plural, and dual) and three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). The dual forms occurred in the first and second persons only and referred to groups of two.


Old Saxon nouns were inflected in very different ways following their classes. Here are the endings for dag, "day" an a-stem masculine noun:

dag 'day' m.
Case Singular Plural
Nominative dag dagos
Accusative dag dagos
Genitive dages, -as dago
Dative dage, -a dagum, -un

At the end of the Old Saxon period, distinctions between noun classes began to disappear, and endings from one were often transferred to the other declension, and vice versa. This happened to be a large process, and the most common noun classes started to cause the least represented to disappear. As a result, in Middle Low German, only the former weak n-stem and strong a-stem classes remained. These two noun inflection classes started being added to words not only following the historical belonging of this word, but also following the root of the word.


The Old Saxon verb inflection system reflects an intermediate stage between Old English and Old Dutch, and further Old High German. Unlike Old High German and Old Dutch, but similarly to Old English, it did not preserve the three different verb endings in the plural, all featured as -ad (also -iad or -iod following the different verb inflection classes). Like Old Dutch, it had only two classes of weak verb, with only a few relic verbs of the third weak class (namely four verbs: libbian, seggian, huggian and hebbian).

This table sums up all the seven Old Saxon strong verb classes and the three weak verb classes:

Strong verbs Weak verbs
Conjugation Pronoun 'to ride' 'to fly' 'to help' 'to break' 'to speak' 'to travel' 'to wield' 'to deem' 'to declare' 'to say'
Infinitive rīdan fliogan helpan brekan sprekan faran waldan dōmian mahlon seggian
Present indicative
ik rīdu fliugu hilpu briku spriku faru waldu dōmiu mahlo(n) seggiu
thū rīdis fliugis hilpis brikis sprikis feris weldis dōmis mahlos sages
hē/it/siu rīdid fliugid hilpid brikid sprikid ferid weldid dōmid mahlod saged
wī/gī/sia rīdad fliogad helpad brekad sprekad farad waldad dōmiad mahliod seggiad
Past indicative
ik rēd flōg halp brak sprak fōr wēld dōmda mahloda sagda
thū ridi flugi hulpi brāki sprāki fōri wēldi dōmdes mahlodes sagdes
hē/it/siu rēd flōg halp brak sprak fōr wēld dōmda mahloda sagda
wī/gī/sia ridun flugun hulpun brākun sprākun fōrun wēldun dōmdun mahlodun sagdun
Present subjunctive
ik rīde flioge helpe breke spreke fare walde dōmie mahlo seggie
thū rīdes flioges helpes brekes sprekes fares waldes dōmies mahlos seggies
hē/it/siu rīde flioge helpe breke spreke fare walde dōmie mahlo seggie
wī/gī/sia rīden fliogen helpen breken spreken faren walden dōmien mahlion seggien
Past subjunctive
ik ridi flugi hulpi brāki sprāki fōri wēldi dōmdi mahlodi sagdi
thū ridis flugis hulpis brākis sprākis fōris wēldis dōmdis mahlodis sagdis
hē/it/siu ridi flugi hulpi brāki sprāki fōri wēldi dōmdi mahlodi sagdi
wī/gī/sia ridin flugin hulpin brākin sprākin fōrin wēldin dōmdin mahlodin sagdin
Imperative Singular rīd fliog help brek sprek far wald dōmi mahlo sage
Plural rīdad fliogad helpad brekad sprekad farad waldad dōmiad mahliod seggiad
Present participle rīdandi fliogandi helpandi brekandi sprekandi farandi waldandi dōmiandi mahlondi seggiandi
Past participle (gi)ridan (gi)flogan (gi)holpan (gi)brokan (gi)sprekan (gi)faran (gi)waldan (gi)dōmid (gi)mahlod (gi)sagd

It should be noticed that the third weak verb class includes only four verbs (namely libbian, seggian, huggian and hebbian); it is a remnant of an older and larger class that was kept in Old High German.


Old Saxon syntax is mostly different from that of English. Some were simply consequences of the greater level of nominal and verbal inflection – e.g., word order was generally freer. In addition:


Old Saxon comes down in a number of different manuscripts whose spelling systems sometimes differ markedly. In this section, only the letters used in normalized versions of the Heliand will be kept, and the sounds modern scholars have traditionally assigned to these letters. Where spelling deviations in other texts may point to significant pronunciation variants, this will be indicated.

In general, the spelling of Old Saxon corresponds quite well to that of the other ancient Germanic languages, such as Old High German or Gothic.


Heliand excerpt from the German Historical Museum

Only a few texts survive, predominantly baptismal vows the Saxons were required to perform at the behest of Charlemagne. The only literary texts preserved are Heliand and fragments of the Old Saxon Genesis.

Text sample

A poetic version of the Lord's Prayer in the form of the traditional Germanic alliterative verse is given in Old Saxon below as it appears in the Heliand.

Line Original Translation
[1] Fadar usa firiho barno, Father of us, the sons of men,
[2] thu bist an them hohon himila rikea, You are in the high heavenly kingdom,
[3] geuuihid si thin namo uuordo gehuuilico, Blessed be Your name in every word (special word),
[4] Cuma thin craftag riki. May Your mighty kingdom come.
[5] UUerða thin uuilleo oƀar thesa werold alla, May (become) Your will be done over all this world,
[6] so sama an erðo, so thar uppa ist Just the same on earth, as (just like) it is up there
[7] an them hohon himilo rikea. in the high heavenly kingdom (in the kingdom of the heavens).
[8] Gef us dag gehuuilikes rad, drohtin the godo, Give us support (advices/counsels) each day, good Chieftain (Chieftain/Lord the Good),
[9] thina helaga helpa, endi alat us, heƀenes uuard, Your holy help, and pardon us, Protector (Lord/Ruler) of Heaven,
[10] managoro mensculdio, (of) our many crimes,
[11] al so uue oðrum mannum doan. just as we do to other human beings (to other men).
[12] Ne lat us farledean leða uuihti Do not let evil little creatures lead us off (cause us to leave)
[13] so forð an iro uuileon, so uui uuirðige sind, to do (to go on with) their will, as we deserve,
[14] ac help us uuiðar allun uƀilon dadiun. but help us (to fight?) against all evil deeds.

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Old Saxon". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Old Saxon language at Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. Helfenstein, Jacob (1901). A Comparative Grammar of the Teutonic Languages. Stanford University Library. ISBN 1440056625.
  4. Lasch 1914, §339


Old Saxon test of Wikipedia at Wikimedia Incubator
Look up Old Saxon in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
For a list of words relating to Old Saxon, see the Old Saxon language category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Old Saxon.




External history

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 9/21/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.