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 Pronunciation of Old English

Posted: Sep 18, 2008 17:09;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 18:05

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Introduction

The sounds of Old English should not prove difficult, with a few exceptions, for speakers of Modern English. It can be hard at first to get used to some of the spelling conventions, such as the fact that all letters—including final e—are pronounced; but on the whole Old English does not have many sounds that are not the same as in Modern English, and, in most cases, indicated by the same letters (you can read a brief tutorial on Old English script here).

This is particularly true of the short vowels and the consonants, most of which are thought to have been largely the same as their Modern English equivalents. The lax e /ɛ/ in Modern English edge, for example, is probably not all that different from the short e [ɛ] the word’s Old English ancestor, ecg [1]. Likewise the d [d] in Old English dysiġ (‘foolish’), was pronounced much the same as the same letter in dizzy, the Modern English descendant of dysiġ.

There are two major exceptions to this. The first involves the Old English long vowels, which underwent great changes in the transition from late Middle to early Modern English (roughly the period between Chaucer and Shakespeare). The second is the existence of a few vowel and consonant sounds that are rare or no longer exist in Modern English or that fail to reflect distinctions we now consider important. These include the sounds associated with the letter *, some of the sounds associated with *c, *, and *h, and the fact that the sounds we now associate with s and z and with f and v do not seem to have been seen as distinct meaningful sounds (phonemes) in Anglo-Saxon England.

The following sections discuss each of the major groups of sounds in turn. In each case you are given some examples of the sound in Old and Modern English and a sound clip illustrating the sound in and Old English context. At the end of each section there is an exercise, suitable for downloading to an Digital Audio Player (such as an iPod or similar), that allows you to practice the sounds out loud while comparing yourself to a reference sample.

Consonants

With a very few exceptions, the Old English consonant system is essentially identical that of Old English. Hence the sound spelled by the Old English letter b was pronounced more or less as is that spelled by our modern b: Old English bār, Modern English boar (i.e. wild pig).

Even when Anglo-Saxons used different characters or spellings, the actual sounds were mostly the same:

Old English also distinguished between long and short consonants. This distinction, which is found in Modern Italian, has no equivalent in Modern English. When pronouncing a long consonant, which were usually written as double consonants, try to hold the consonant longer than you would for a regular (i.e. short) consonant.

Consonant IPA Value1 Old English Example Comments
b b bār, ‘boar’  
c k cyning, ‘king’ Often spelled with a k in Middle and Modern English
ʧ ċīese The dot above the letter for this sound is a modern convention not found in the manuscripts.
cg ʤ ecg, ‘edge’  
d d dysiġ, ‘foolish’  
f f wīf, ‘woman’  
v wīfum, ‘to/by/for/with the women’  
g g gār, ‘spear’  
ɣ būgan, ‘to bow’ These sounds are commonly spelled with a w in modern English.
j ġeard, ‘enclosure, yard’ The dot above the letter for this sound is a modern convention not found in the manuscripts.
h h hlūde, ‘loud’ Initially
x cniht Medially and finally; often spelled gh in Middle and Modern English
l l lār, ‘teaching, lore’ &#:x00A0;
m m miċel, ‘great, big; Yorkshire: mickle’  
n n nȳd, ‘necessity’  
ŋ sang When in combination with g, say the sound as in modern English -ing words, but then also add the g.
p p pleoh, ‘danger, risk’  
r r rōf, ‘strong’ Rolled.
s s seġl, ‘sail’  
z cēosan, ‘to choose’  
sc ʃ æsc, ‘ash’  
sk ascian, ‘to ask’ Many (but not all) words with sk in Modern English are of Norse original while those with sh are from Old English; cf. shirt (from Old English) and skirt (same word, but from Norse)
t t til, ‘good’  
þ or ð θ þær (or ðær), ‘there’  
ð cweðan (or cweþan), ‘to say’  

Vowels

Old English made a quantitative and probably qualitative distinction between long and short vowels. This means that vowels were distinguished by how long they were held as much or more than by differences in how they sound. The vowel in Old English god (Modern English God) was certainly shorter and probably had a different sound (though not as dramatically different a sound as its Modern English descendent has) than gōd (Modern English good); the Old English words āc (Modern English oak) and ac (‘but, and’) differed primarily in length.

In Modern English, we no longer recognise length as a meaningful distinction between vowels. Instead we recognise differences in tenseness and quality. What are often called “short” vowels in Old English are really lax; so-called “long vowels” are actually tense. Fortunately, however, Modern English short vowels correspond quite closely to Old English short vowels; and while Modern English tense vowels sound quite different from Old English long vowels, our set of tense vowels matches the Old English set of long vowels.

Old English did have one set of vowels, at least in the earlier periods, which we no longer have: front rounded vowels, long and short, written as y. This is similar to an umlauted u in German, or the u in French tu. To form it, begin by saying (and holding) a long or short i. While you are saying the i, round your lips as if you were saying a u. When your lips are rounded, you’ll have the sound. Listen to the reference examples to practice—but even if you can’t do it in the end, take heart; by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, the sounds were more or less indistinguishable from the corresponding form of i.

Long vowels

Because length is not a quality we hear naturally any more as native speakers of English, it is the quality of the long vowels that probably is most striking to our ears. In addition to being longer than their Modern English descendants, Old English long vowels also tend to have the values associated with them in continental languages like French, Dutch, German, or Italian, rather than their Modern English sounds:

Old English Vowel IPA Symbol1 Mnemonic Old English Example
ȳ French ruse cȳþþ ‘kith, friends’
ī beat wīte, ‘punishment’
ē bait ēþel, ‘homeland, territory’
ā ɑː  aunt (non-Canadian pronunciation) [2] stān, ‘stone’
ǣ æː bat bæde, ‘bade, i.e. asked, commanded’
ō boat gōd, ‘good’
ū boot brūcan, ‘to enjoy’

Listen to the Long vowels and example words

Short Vowels

As noted above the short vowels correspond very closely, with the exception of y, to our Modern English lax vowels:

Old English Vowel IPA Symbol1 Mnemonic Old English Example
y y French tu cynn ‘kin, family’
i ɪ bit scip, ‘ship’
e ɛ bet ecg, ‘ecg, sword’
a ɑ father pað, ‘path’
æ æ bad cræft, ‘skill or trade’
o ɔ bought god, ‘God’
u ʊ book sunu, ‘son’

Listen to the short vowels and example words

Diphthongs

Old English had three main sets of long and short diphthongs: ea/ēa, eo/ēo, and ie/īe:

Old English Diphthong IPA Symbol1 Equivalent to Old English Example
ea æa æ+a  
ēa æːa ǣ+a  
eo ɛɔ e+o  
ēo eːɔ ē+o  
ie ɪɛ i+e  
īe iːɛ ī+e  

The Old English diphthongs were strongly falling. That is to say they gave a much stronger prominence to the first part of the glide than the second. By the late Old English period, all were probably equivalent to long and short æ, e, and i, respectively.

Exercise

The following podcast contains an exercise that will let you practice your Old English consonants, long and short vowels, and diphthongs.

You complete the exercise as follows:

  1. Listen to the Old English sound, example word, and Modern English translation
  2. In the pause that follows this, trying saying the Old English sound and example word yourself
  3. Listen again as the sound, Old English word, and Modern English translation is repeated
  4. Then try the Old English sound and word again, correcting any problems.
  5. If you are still having difficulty, repeat the exercise for the sound and word, before moving on to the next.

Listen to an exercise involving long vowels

Listen to an exercise involving short vowels


Notes

1 Symbols in square or slanted brackets (e.g. /ɛ/ or [ɛ]) are notations for the relevant sound in IPA. Not all students will understand this system, so I have also provided spelling pronunciations based on North American English. If you would like to hear the sounds associated with the IPA symbols, a good site to visit is the following: http://www.phonetics.ucla.edu/course/chapter1/chapter1.html (thanks to Lee Ann Schneider for the link).

2 In Canadian English aunt (i.e. the sister of your father or mother) sounds the same as (is a homophone of) ant (i.e. the creepy crawly thing). Old English ā sounds like the first sound in aunt when spoken by people who can hear the difference between aunts and ants.

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