Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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The Old English Alphabet

Posted by (Last Modified: 2012-05-23 18:55)

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Old English texts were copied in manuscripts by scribes. These scribes used an alphabet based on the Latin alphabet, but with some native additions and occasionally runes.

The most important of these additions were

Otherwise the Old English alphabet contained more or less the same letters as the Modern English alphabet, though as we’ll see, several looked somewhat different. The main exceptions are our letters k, v, z, w, the Norman-derived spellings wh, th, sh, and also dg (as in edge), and some differences in the sounds associated with the letters c, g, f, s, and y (For a more detailed discussion of these sounds with example sound files, see my tutorial on the Pronunciation of Old English).

Although Old and Modern English have a large number of letters in common, the forms of these letter were not always the same. Some of the differences can be seen if you compare the image below, a detail from the late tenth/early eleventh century manuscript Winchester Cathedral I folio 81r showing the text of Cædmon’s Hymn, with its transcription in a modern computer font:

Nuƿe sculon heria
heri heofon rices ƿ
metoddes mihte ⁊h
mod ge þanc ƿeorc ƿ

(Winchester Cathedral I folio 81r. Manuscript reproduced with the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Winchester/Winchester Cathedral Library. Please to not reproduce without permission). The background to this image has been simplified slightly for pedagogical purposes. The unmodified version is available here.

In addition to these letters, Anglo-Saxon scribes also very occasionally use runes, as letters in their own right and occasionally to stand for a complete word. Thus the rune ᛟ (eþel) sometimes appears instead of the word eþel ‘estate’, ‘homestead’ in Old English texts. Most often, however, the use of runes in Old English manuscripts is ornamental or self-consciously literary.

Computers and the Anglo-Saxon alphabet.

All Anglo-Saxon letters, including þ, ð, and ƿ are represented in Unicode, the modern standard for encoding characters on a computer.

Old English Character Unicode Code Point
Minuscule Majuscule Lowercase Uppercase
þ Þ U+00FE U+00DE
ð Ð U+00F0 U+00D0
ƿ Ƿ U+01BF U+01F7

A runic alphabet can be found in Unicode between U+16A0 and U+16F0.

On most modern computer systems, these characters can be accessed via a character map utility or, within a word processor, via the Insert Special Characters menu option. It is also possible to modify your keyboard to allow direct typing. See, for Linux, my article on creating custom keyboards. Commercial software allowing you to achieve similar effects is available for both Mac and Windows.

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Posted: Thursday September 18, 2008. 17:15.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 18:55.

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Insular Script

Posted by (Last Modified: 2012-05-23 19:14)

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Here is a basic listing of letters in an insular script. The letters are from a manuscript of the early eleventh century.

Insular character
Modern equivalent a b c d e f g h i l m
Insular character
Modern equivalent n o p r s t ð þ u ƿ y
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Posted: Thursday March 8, 2007. 12:48.

Last modified: Wednesday May 23, 2012. 19:14.

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