As time went on, Old English evolved further from the original Continental form, and regional dialects developed. The four major dialects recognized in Old English are Kentish, originally the dialect spoken by the Jutes; West Saxon, a branch of the dialect spoken by the Saxons; and Northumbrian and Mercian, subdivisions of the dialects spoken by the Angles. By the 9th century, partly through the influence of Alfred, king of the West Saxons and the first ruler of all England, West Saxon became prevalent in prose literature. A Mercian mixed dialect, however, was primarily used for the greatest poetry, such as the anonymous 8th-century epic poem Beowulf and the contemporary elegiac poems.
Old English was an inflected language characterized by strong and weak verbs; a dual number for pronouns (for example, a form for "we two" as well as "we"), two different declensions of adjectives, four declensions of nouns, and grammatical distinctions of gender. Although rich in word-building possibilities, Old English was sparse in vocabulary. It borrowed few proper nouns from the language of the conquered Celts, primarily those such as Aberdeen ("mouth of the Dee") and Inchcape ("island cape") that describe geographical features. Scholars believe that ten common nouns in Old English are of Celtic origin; among these are bannock, cart, down, and mattock. Although other Celtic words not preserved in literature may have been in use during the Old English period, most Modern English words of Celtic origin, that is, those derived from Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, or Irish, are comparatively recent borrowings.
The number of Latin words, many of them derived
from the Greek, that were introduced during the Old English period has
been estimated at 140. Typical of these words are altar, mass, priest,
psalm, temple, kitchen, palm, and pear. A few were probably introduced
through the Celtic; others were brought to Britain by the Germanic invaders,
who previously had come into contact with Roman culture. By far the largest
number of Latin words was introduced as a result of the spread of Christianity.
Such words included not only ecclesiastical terms but many others of less
specialized significance. About 40 Scandinavian (Old
Norse) words were introduced into Old English by the Norsemen, or Vikings,
who invaded Britain periodically from the late 8th century on.