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: Sep 18, 2008 17:09;
Last Modified: Jun 07, 2016 12:06

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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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Transcription Guidelines

Posted: Nov 19, 2007 12:11;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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The following is a list of typographical conventions to use when transcribing medieval manuscripts in my classes.



deletion

Strikethrough indicates the physical deletion of text in a witness. Deletion may be by any method (underlining, punctum delens, erasure, overwriting, etc). You should indicate the precise method of deletion by a note at the end of your transcription. The deleted text is recorded whenever possible. If deleted text cannot be recovered, it is replaced by colons.

You indicate strikethrough in HTML as follows <strike>Text struck through</strike>


\addition/

Upward sloping brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added above the manuscript line. If a caret was used, this is indicated with a preceding comma or caret symbol (⁁): ⁁\addition above the line/.

|addition|

Vertical brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been inserted between existing characters within the manuscript line. Insertion is distinguished from overwriting (i.e. the conversion of one character to another or the addition of a new character in the space left by a previously deleted form).

{addition}

Brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added over some pre-existing form. This addition may involve the conversion of one letter to another (for example, the conversion of to by the addition of an ascender), or the addition of new text in the place of a previous erasure. The overwritten text is treated as a deletion.

/addition\

Downward sloping brackets indicate that the enclosed text has been added below the manuscript line.

addition| or |addition

A single vertical bar indicates that the text has been added at the beginning or end of a manuscript line. Text preceded by a single vertical bar has been added at the end of a manuscript line. Text followed by a single vertical bar has been added at the beginning of a manuscript line. Text between two vertical bars has been added “within the line” (i.e. between pre-existing letters or words).

damage

Underlining indicates that text has been damaged. When damaged text is unclear or illegible, additional symbols are used.

In HTML, you indicate text is underlined as follows: <u>Underlined text</u>.


〈unclear〉

Angle brackets indicate that the enclosed text is unclear for some physical reason (e.g. rubbing, flaking, staining, poorly executed script).

In HTML, there is a distinction between angled brackets ( and ) and the greater than and less than signs (> and <). If you use the greater and less than signs, your text will not appear as the browser will think your text is an HTML code.


[supplied] or [emended]

Square brackets indicate that the enclosed text is being supplied or emended. “Supplied text” refers to the hypothetical restoration of original readings from a specific witness that have become lost or illegible due to some physical reason. “Emended text” refers to the replacement of legible text from extant witnesses by a modern editor or transcriber.
::

Colons represent text that is completely effaced or illegible. The number of colons used corresponds roughly to the number of letters the transcriber believes are missing. Note that colons are used for text that was in the manuscript but is not physically missing due to erasure or other damage. They are not used to indicate text that has not been copied into the manuscript but appears in other versions.

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Insular Script

Posted: Mar 08, 2007 12:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05

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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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