Old English, also known as Englisc or Anglo-Saxon, is an early version of the English spoken today in Britain. In use for approximately 700 years, starting in the mid-5th century, it varies widely from the language we know today. Throughout the centuries, it experienced influence from Germanic dialects and Celtic languages. Later on, Latin also became a powerful influence, particularly around the time when a new alphabet was adopted. Because Latin was considered the language of the educated population, it became important at one point to adopt a new alphabet. Old English originally used the runic alphabet, so when the Latin alphabet was adopted, words were written as pronounced, and there were no silent letters.
The language was divided into four dialects, each of them spoken in a different area or kingdom. By the 9th century, the process of unification was well underway, which meant that dialects fell into disuse, as the government favored the use of Wessex, the most widely spoken of the four. Eventually, Wessex became Winchester standard, moving away from Old English and closer and closer to the language that English speakers use today.
There are very few surviving texts written in Old English. The most famous are the epic poem Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of chronicles covering the history of the Anglo-Saxons. Some translations, especially religious, are also available, but most of the original manuscripts have long been lost to time. Because it is now a dead language, only scholars can access the full interpretation of the manuscripts preserved.
The Old English language should not be confused with other early versions of the English language spoken today. While the English spoken by Shakespeare differs greatly from modern English, it's still considered the same. Old English, on the other hand, is a completely different language, with a variety of letters not currently in existence. Examples can now be found on the Internet, and some websites even offer an introductory course for those interested in learning the basics of the language. The grammar is rather difficult, as all nouns have number, case, and gender. People who speak Germanic languages may have an easier time understanding it than modern English speakers.