Old Saxon

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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]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

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.


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.

Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Fricative voiceless f θ s (ʃ) (ç) (x) (h)
voiced v (ð) (z) (ɣ)
Approximant l j w
Rhotic r


  • Most consonants could be geminated. Notably, geminated /v/ gave /bb/, and geminated /ɣ/ probably gave /ɡɡ/. Geminated /h/ resulted in /xx/.
  • As in other West-Germanic dialects, the voiceless spirants /f/, /θ/ and /s/ gained voiced allophones [v], [ð] and [z] when between vowels. Of these, only /f/ and [v] (written with ƀ in texts) are distinguished in the orthography.
  • /v/ also occurred word-medially as an independent phoneme, developed from Proto-Germanic [β], the fricative allophone of /b/. It seems that it also occurred before /d/.
  • [x] is an allophone of /h/ occurring word-finally and before /t/.
  • /d/ was pronounced /t/ when it occurred word-finally. Thus word was pronounced /wort/, but its genitive form wordes was pronounced /wordes/.
  • /v/ changed into /f/ word-finally and before consonants (except /d/).


Old Saxon vowels
Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i  y u
Mid e  ø o
Open a


  • Long vowels were rare in unstressed syllables and mostly occurred due to suffixation or compounding.
  • /u/ and /o/ were articulatorily close, as they eventually merged into one sound at the end of the Old Saxon period. Thus, one finds andwordian instead of expected *andwurdian, from Proto-Germanic *andawurdijaną.


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


  • The closing diphthongs /ei/ and /ou/ sometimes occur in texts (especially in Genesis), probably under the influence of Franconian or High German dialects, where they replace Old Saxon developments /eː/ and /oː/ (which evolved from Proto-Germanic /ai/ and /au/).
  • The situation for the front opening diphthongs is somewhat unclear in some texts. Words written with io in the Heliand are often found written variably with ia or even ie in other texts, probably under influence from other dialects. They seem to have all developed into /eː/ in Middle Low German.
  • Similarly, /iu/ merged with the other opening diphthongs at the end of the Old Saxon period. However it seems that the difference between opening and high-harmonic diphthongs remained until Middle Low German, where 3rd class strong verbs still show the alternation of /io/ and /iu/ as /eː/ and /ie/.
  • There also existed 'long' diphthongs /oːu/, /aːu/ and /eːu/. These were, however, treated as two-syllable sequences of a long vowel followed by a short one, not proper diphthongs.



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.

  • c and k were both used for [k]. However, it seems that, as in other West-Germanic dialects, when [k] was followed by i or e, it had the pronunciation /ts/ or /kʲsʲ/.[4] The letters c and x were preferred for the palatalisations, k and even sometimes ch being rather used before u, o or a for /k/ (kuning for [kʏnɪŋk] 'king', modern köning ; crûci for [kryːtsi] ; forsachistu for [forsakistuː]).
  • g represented [ɣ] or its allophone [ɡ]: brengian [brɛŋɡjan] 'to bring', seggian [sɛɡɡjan] 'to say', wege [wɛɣe] 'way' (dative).
  • g seems, at least in a few dialects, to have had the pronunciation [j] or [ʝ] at the beginning of a word, only when followed by i or e. Thus we find giār [jaːr] 'year' and even gēr [jeːr] 'year', the latter betraying a strong Old Frisian influence.
  • h represents [h] and its allophone [x]: holt [hɔlt] 'wood', naht [naxt] 'night' (mod. nacht).
  • i is used for both the vowels [ɪ] and [iː] and the consonant [j]: ik [ɪk] 'I' (mod. ick, ik), iār [jaːr] 'year'.
  • qu and kw always represents [kw]: quāmun [kwaːmʊn] 'they came'.
  • s represented [s], and between two vowels also [z].
  • th is used to indicate [θ]: thōhtun [θoːxtun] 'they thought'. ð is used for [ð], occasionally also written dh.
  • u represented the vowels [ʊ] and [uː] or the consonant [v] which was usually written with ƀ.
  • uu was normally used to represent [w], predating the letter w.
  • z only appeared in a few texts due to Old High German influence.


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.

  • Heliand
  • Beda homily (Homilie Bedas)
  • Credo (Abrenunciatio diaboli et credo) → Old Saxon baptismal vow.
  • Old Saxon Genesis fragments
  • Essener Heberegister
  • Old Saxon Baptismal Vow (German: Sächsisches Taufgelöbnis)
  • Penitentiary (Westfälische Beichte)
  • Trierer Blutsegen (Wikisource-logo.svg de.)
  • Spurihalz (Wiener pferdsegen) (Wikisource-logo.svg de.)
  • Wurmsegen (Wiener Wurmsegen) (Wikisource-logo.svg de).
  • Psalms commentary (Gernroder Psalmenkommentars)

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. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Old Saxon". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Old Saxon language at Encyclopædia Britannica
  3. Helfenstein, Jacob (1901). A Comparative Grammar of the Teutonic Languages. Stanford University Library. ISBN 1440056625.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Lasch 1914, §339



  • Galleé, Johan Hendrik (1910). Altsächsische Grammatik. Halle: Max Niemeyer.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Lasch, Agathe (1914). Mittelniederdeutsche Grammatik. Halle: Max Niemeyer.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Euler, Wolfram (2013). Das Westgermanische - von der Herausbildung im 3. bis zur Aufgliederung im 7. Jahrhundert - Analyse und Rekonstruktion (West Germanic - from its Emergence in the 3rd up until its Dissolution in the 7th Century CE - Analyses and Reconstruction). 244 p., in German with English summary, London/Berlin 2013, ISBN 978-3-9812110-7-8.
  • Rauch, Irmengard (1992). The Old Saxon Language. Berkeley Models of Grammar: Peter Lang Publishing.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ringe, Donald R. and Taylor, Ann (2014). The Development of Old English - A Linguistic History of English, vol. II, 632p. ISBN 978-0199207848. Oxford.
  • Holthausen, Ferdinand (1923). Altsächsisches Elementarbuch. Ulan Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


External history

  • Robinson, Orrin W. (1947). Old English and its closest relatives. Stanford: Stanford University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Helfenstein, Jacob (1901). Comparative Grammar of the Teutonic languages. Oxford: Forgotten Books.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Meidinger, Heinrich (1923). Vergleichendes Etymologisches Wörterbuch Der Gothisch-Teutonischen Mundarten. Ulan Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Schade, Oskar (1923). Altdeutsches Lesebuch. Ulan Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Ammon, Hermann (1922). Repetitorium der deutschen sprache, gotisch, althochdeutsch, altsächsisch. Michigan: University of Michigan Library.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links