The earliest appearances of the Old English language are found in inscriptions written using the runic Futhoric alphabet. The letters, their names, and the meaning of the names can be viewed in the image on the left. There is in fact a mnemonic poem in Old English for the Anglo-Saxon runes.
Once Old English started to be used more commonly for writing, the Roman alphabet was adopted and adapted. The grapheme Æ/æ (called ‘ash’), earlier used by scribes to represent the Latin diphthong ae, came to stand as a full letter on its own. Two runes – Þ/þ (called ‘thorn’) and Ƿ/ƿ (called ‘wynn’) – from Futhoric were retained to represent sounds with no corresponding letters in the Roman alphabet. The letter Ð/ð (called ‘eth’), developed first in Irish writing, was also employed, being generally interchangeable with Þ/þ.
In the image below are the letters of the Old English alphabet in their manuscript form, along with the most common abbreviations found in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.
Note above that the lower case f and r actually drop below the line rather than riding on the line as they do in modern writing. Note too how s can take various forms, the second of which can easily be confused with the lower case r. Also mark how the letters p, wynn, and thorn are all quite similar to one another. Pay special attention when you come across any of these characters.
As no native-speakers of Old English are currently living, there is no way to be absolutely certain how Old English was pronounced. However, thanks to the sciences of phonology, comparative linguistics, and historical linguistics, there is a well-educated idea of how Old English most likely sounded. Of course, there are some points of dispute between linguists.
The following table provides links to audio files which give the approximate sound values of the Old English language. Note that while the aim is to be accurate as possible, there will undoubtedly be numerous instances when the pronunciation is off, to a lesser or greater degree, due to interference from the speakers’ native languages*.
|Letters of the Anglo-Saxon Alphabet|
|Letter||IPA||O.E. word:||Mn.E. meaning:||word w/ sound|
|A||a||/ɑ/||lacu||sea (lake)||farm but shorter|
|Ǣ||ǣ||/æː/||dǣd||deed||cat but longer|
|E||e||/e/||ende||end||first sound in eight|
|Ē||ē||/eː/||cwēn||queen||eight but longer|
|I||i||/i/||clif||cliff||feet but shorter|
|O||o||/o/||folc||folk||first sound in oat|
|Ō||ō||/oː/||mōna||moon||oat but longer|
|U||u||/u/||tunge||tongue||mood but shorter|
|Ȳ||ȳ||/yː/||fȳr||fire||tu (Fr.) but longer|
|Diphthongs and Digraphs|
|Īe8||īe||/ıː/(?)||hīeran||hear||sit but longer|
|1||a||When word initial and followed by a back vowel (a, o, u) or y, or when word final and preceded by a back vowel, c is pronounced /k/.|
|b||When followed by a front vowel (æ, e, i) or the diphthongs ea or eo, or when preceded by the letter i AND not followed by a back vowel, c is pronounced /ʧ/.|
|2||Ð/ð and Þ/þ are interchangeable, with no difference in pronunciation or meaning caused.|
|3||a||When at the beginning or end of a word, or when adjacent to an unvoiced consonant, f, ð/þ, and s are unvoiced: /f/, /θ/, /s/, respectively.|
|b||When falling between two vowels or adjacent to a voiced consonant, these letters are voiced: /v/, /ð/, /z/.|
|4||a||When syllable initial and followed by a back vowel or word final and preceded by a back vowel, g is pronounced /g/.|
|b||When falling between two voiced sounds, g is pronounced /γ/. If you are unable to make this sound, simply say the approximant /w/ instead.|
|c||When followed by a front vowel or the diphthongs ea or eo, or when preceded by a front vowel AND not followed by a back vowel, g is pronounced /j/, like the ‘y’ sound in Mn.E. yes.|
|5||a||When syllable initial, h is pronounced /h/.|
|b||When preceded by a back vowel, h is pronounced /x/.|
|c||When preceded by a front vowel, h is pronounced /ç/.|
|6||The exact pronunciation cannot be known for sure. In most recordings of Old English readings you will hear this letter trilled, which may or may not have been the way Anglo-Saxons would have produced this sound. The best approach is to pronounce the letter whatever way you find easiest and/or most pleasing.|
|7||a||When preceded by c, g, and sc, the graphemes ea or eo may not be diphthongs, but rather the initial e may act as an orthographical way of showing that the preceding sound should be softened; i.e., c = /ʧ/, g = /j/, and sc = /ʃ/.|
|b||Because the grapheme eu was not allowed in Old English orthography (for unknown reasons), on such occasions eo is used instead. In these cases, the initial e shows softening of the preceding sound (see note 7a above), and o = /u/, ō = /uː/. For example, Geōl, alternatively written as Iūl, is equivalent in sound and meaning to Mn.E. Yule.|
|8||This is another example of a phoneme whose exact nature isn’t known. It could represent the diphthong /ie/ and /iːe/, or alternatively it may simply represent the sound /ı/ and /ıː/.|
|9||a||When followed or preceded by a front vowel (æ, e, i, y) or the diphthongs ea or eo, sc is usually pronounced /ʃ/.|
|b||When followed or preceded by a back vowel, sc is sometimes pronounced /sk/.|
A few points should be made. First off, all letters – with the occasional exception of e, see note 7b above – are pronounced in any given Old English word. For example, the h in words such as hring (ring) or mearh (mare) should be clearly articulated. Also, doubled consonants are distinguished from singular consonants. A word like scieppan, therefore, should be pronounced as sciep-pan, NOT as scie-pan; likewise, the word sunne is said as sun-ne, not su-ne. And in a word such as weall, the ‘l’ sound should be held longer than in a word like engel.
Secondly, as the above table may have made apparent, at times there will be some doubt as to the exact pronunciation of a word, with eo, g and sc being the most notorious troublemakers. For example, the sc is pronounced as /ʃ/ in wȳscan (to wish) but /sk/ in fiscas (fish, pl.) despite the fact that in both words the digraph is preceded by a front vowel and followed by a back vowel.
Lastly, while manuscripts have various [not very well understood, and quite possibly superfluous] marks over some letters, vowels with macrons over them (e.g., ā, ē, etc.) are a modern, not Anglo-Saxon, convention designed to help with accurate pronunciation and with making distinctions between words that are homographs in the manuscripts.
Word-stress is relatively simple in Old English. As a general rule, the first syllable of a word receives the stress. However, verbs with prefixes are never stressed on the prefixes, but rather on the first syllable falling after the prefix (i.e., on the verb root). Take for example the Old English words for “[an] answer” and “to answer”: the noun answaru, stressed ANswaru, and the verb answarian, stressed anSWARian – this is because the ‘an-‘ is actually a prefix. Modern English still occasionally follows similar patterns – compare for example the noun “a PREsent” which has the stress on the first syllable (the prefix ‘pre-‘), versus the verb “to preSENT” which has the stress on the first syllable after the prefix.
In compound words – that is, two separate words which are compounded together to form a new word – the main stress falls on the first syllable of the first element of the compound word, and a secondary stress falls on the first syllable of the second element. So in dēofolwītga (soothsayer, from dēofol “devil” + wītega “wise man”) the primary stress is on the syllable ‘dēo’ and a secondary stress falls on ‘wīt’.
Syllabification and Syllable-Length:
This final point is extremely important both for Old English grammar as well as for Old English poetical meter. It is therefore necessary that you fully grasp how syllable length works in Old English. Luckily, it isn’t difficult to understand and learn.
When a single consonant is followed by a vowel, it belongs to the following syllable; otherwise it belongs to the preceding syllable. So the word scipu has two syllables (sci-pu) because the p is followed by a vowel, while the word scip has only one (scip) as no vowel follows p. When two consonants are flanked on each side by a vowel, the first consonant belongs to the preceding syllable while the second consonant belongs to the following syllable; otherwise, both consonants belong to the preceding syllable. The word ende thus breaks down into two syllables as en-de, but weall is a single syllable.
Long syllables are those which end with a consonant (thus forming a so-called ‘closed syllable’) and/or include a long vowel/long diphthong – ā, ǣ, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ, ēa, ēo, īe. The verb rīsan has two long syllables: rī-san; ‘rī’ has a long vowel and ‘san’ is closed. Short syllables are those which end with no consonant (a so-called ‘open syllable’) and contain a short vowel/short diphthong – a, æ, e, i, o, u, y, ea, eo, ie. The word lacu, for example, has two short syllables: la-cu; both syllables are open and contain short vowels.
Note that changes can occur that will cause syllables to change length. For example the Old English word for “whale” in the nominative singular is hwæl, a single long syllable because it is closed, but in the nominative plural it is hwalas, whose first syllable is now short – ‘hwa’ contains a short vowel and is open – and which has acquired a second syllable that is long – ‘las’ contains a short vowel but is closed.
A couple final points important for poetical meter concerns disyllable words. In a disyllable word containing two short syllables, those two syllables may, for the purposes of meter, be taken together to count as a single long syllable. A word like spere (spear), with the two short syllables spe-re, can be employed as a single long syllable when needed by the poet. In a disyllable word whose first syllable is long, the second syllable is counted as being short even if it is long due to its being a closed syllable. Wǣpen (weapon), for example, has two long syllables, but if required by meter it could be counted as long syllable + short syllable.
1) Practise your recognition of manuscript letters by reading the text in the left column below. The modernized letters are in the right column for the sake of comparison. For those who might not realize it, these are the opening lines of Beowulf.
2) Determine the syllabification of the following words and the syllable lengths, and explain why each syllable is either short or long:
h) oððe (or)
i) sǣ (sea)
Further Þæt Eald-Ænglisce Blog Resources:
- Downloadable audio guide to Old English pronunciation
- A video guide to Old English pronunciation (forthcoming)
- Þæt Eald-Ænglisce Blog on YouTube – a collection of videos with readings and other recordings of people speaking Old English
Additional Online Resources on Old English Pronunciation:
- Wikipedia: International Phonetic Alphabet – most of the IPA audio files were taken from there
- Omniglot: Old English – the images of the alphabet and of the Beowulf text were modified from the original images on the Omniglot site
- The Electronic Introduction to Old English: Pronunciation by Peter S. Baker – the pronunciation guide was constantly referenced in the writing of my own guide.
- Anglo-Saxon Aloud by Michael D.C. Drout: a great resource for listening to texts being read aloud in the original Old English
Print Resources for Learning Old English:
Here are a few books to help you along your Old English adventure. The first two are introductions to Old English (grammar, syntax, vocabulary). The third book is a good resource for building up your Old English word bank. The final book is particularly good for those with an interest in how Old English compares with the other old Germanic languages.
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*Special thanks to Endevide (the female voice) for the hours of recording she suffered through for the sake of this guide, and for her Midas touch in editing the images on this page.