Alphabet & Pronunciation
The Old English alphabet has a few differences that of Modern English. It did not have the letters q, z, j, x, and v (k and x are used but rarely). It also had three letters not used in Modern English: Æ/æ (named "Ash"), Þ/þ (named "Thorn"), and Ð/ð (named "Eth").
Because the language has been dead for 900 years, we cannot be completely sure how Old English was pronounced. However, we can make good educated guesses at how Old English was pronounced because the Anglo-Saxons almost certainly wrote quite phonetically (that is, they wrote words how they sounded); we can compare it with Middle English, various Modern English dialects, and other closely related Germanic languages; we can look at phonetic poetic strategies used in Old English poems; and we can look at spelling variations within Old English texts themselves.
For the vowels, try listening to the recordings on the right for an example of long and short pronunciations. Notice that "e", "i", "o", "u", and "y" are all pronounced slightly more "laxed" or open than they are when long.
|Y y||German Über||y|
|Ȳ ȳ||Ü held longer||yː|
B, d, w, m, n, and l were all pronounced exactly as they are in such Modern English dialects as General American.
R was possibly pronounced like a trill (like sometimes in Spanish, or by some Scottish English speakers), or as a flap (like a trill, but only once - like by some Irish speakers, or in most cases in Spanish), or similarly to how it is pronounced in Southern British English or General American today.
"T" and "p" were possibly pronounced exactly like in Modern English "turn" and "police" respectively, but it is also possible that they were pronounced unaspirated - like in Modern Dutch. They almost certainly were pronounced unaspirated at some point in or before the history of English; and since the modern descendants of one of the languages that Anglo-Saxon came from, Old Saxon, today are pronounced with unaspirated consonants, I am inclined to think that aspiration in English happened after arrival - which means at least for a time their "p" "t", and "c" were pronounced unaspirated in the Old English period. "Unaspirated" means that the excess puff of air that most Modern English speakers make when saying these consonants wouldn't be there. We use unaspirated "t" and "p" in "sting" and "spark" when speaking English, respectively (try put your hand in front of your face and first say"turn" and "police" - you should notice feeling a strongish puff of air; then say "sting" and "spark" - the puff of air should be much less). If you want to make sure you're pronouncing them unaspirated, you should hold a piece of paper close in front of your face, and first say normal English "t" and "p" - the paper will move because of the puff of air. Then say them again, trying not to say the extra puff of air. The paper should move barely at all if you say it unaspirated. Note that the same went for "c" when it was pronounced velar and not palatal.
Þ and Đ
The letters Þ and Đ (written in lower-case as þ and ð) are used for the sounds found initially in the Modern English words "this" and "thin".
A writer's choice of whether to use þ or ð did not indicate which of those two sounds the writer thought he was writing. Instead, the pronunciation can be deduced from the context of the letter: if it occurs between either two vowels, or between a vowel and a voiced consonant, or between a voiced consonant and a vowel, it will itself be voiced; otherwise it won't.
So, for example, in the following words, no matter whether they are spelt with þ or ð, the "th" sound is voiced: "maþm", "eorðan", "cūþra", "ēðel". On the other hand, it is unvoiced in the following: "ðonne", "hǣþstapa", "oð", "hafaþ".
There was no standard way of choosing whether to write þ or ð: one can find cases where the same scribe has written the same word twice on the same page using first one and then the other. Therefore, the reader needn't worry about memorizing which is correct, since either is correct according to personal taste.
S and F
S can be pronounced unvoiced, as "s", or voiced as "z". F can be pronounced unvoiced, as "f", or voiced as "v". The rules for when to do which are just the same as the rules given above for deciding to voice a "th" sound.
So, for example, "f" will be pronounced as an "f" in the words "hlāf", "oft", "foldan"; but like a "v" in the words "hlāfas", "næfne", "nefan". This, by the way, is why in Modern English we have alternations between singular and plural like "wolf"/"wolves" and "loaf"/"loaves".
The letter c had two pronunciations: either like the sound we write with a "k" in "kick" (in which case we say it is ´´velar´´) or like the sound we write with a "ch" in "child" (in which case we say that the "c" is palatalized). It was never pronounced as an "s", as it so often is in Modern English.
It was palatalized invariably before or after a letter "i", and sometimes but not always before or after a letter "e", "æ", or "y" - this is unless it was directly followed by a back vowel (a, o, or u), which case it would be pronounced normally like "k".
In textbooks and other modern works the editors will often help you out by putting a little dot over the "c" when it is pronounced as a "ch" sound, like this: "ċ". However, this is not always done; and the Anglo-Saxons themselves never did so.
G had three pronunciations. Often it is pronounced like the "g" in "garden". However, it can also be palatalized under the same circumstances as c, in which case it is pronounced like the "y" in "yes". And when it occurs between two "back vowels" ("a", "o" or "u") then it gets the sound written in the International Phonetic Alphabet as ɣ. It is not easy to describe this sound: however, if you put your tongue in the position it would be in if you were about to say the "g" in "garden", and, keeping your tongue in that position, you then try to say the "y" in "yes" instead, you will produce quite a good approximation to it.
Some texts will help you by writing palatalized "g" as "ġ"; as with "ċ", the Anglo-Saxons themselves never did this.
The letter "h" at the beginning of a word was pronounced like Moden English "h". However, when not at the beginning of a syllable, it had a more "substantial" pronunciation. It was pronounced like the "ch" in Scottish English "loch" when it followed a back vowel (a, o, or u) or a back vowel and then a non-nasal consonant (like in the word "burg"). See the second recording to the right for an example of this pronunciation. After a frontal vowel (æ, e, i, or y), it was similar to how some people say the "h" in "human" - like the "ch" in German "ich". For an example of this pronunciation, see the first recording on the right.
The letters "sc" together very usually represented the sound which in Modern English we write as "sh". So the word "scip" would be pronounced "ship"; and, indeed, it meant "ship". This is one instance of how knowing how to pronounce Old English words makes it easier to learn.
There are exceptions to this rule: for example, in the word "āscian" ("to ask") the "sc" sound is pronounced like the "sk" in Modern English "ask".
Some modern editions will help you by writing "sċ" wherever "sc" has the "sh" pronunciation. As usual, we should note that the Anglo-Saxons themselves didn't ever do this.
The letters "cg" written together represented the sound which in Modern English is written as "j" or "dg". So Old English "hecg" would be pronounced like Modern English "hedge", which, again, is exactly what it means.
The letters ng represent a similar sound to Modern English "ng", except that the "g" sound is always pronounced, as it is in Modern English "anger" and "linger", not dropped as it is in "clanger" and "singer".
In many modern British dialects, and some modern American dialects, the letter "r" is unpronounced at the end of a word, so that the word "sister" comes out more like "sistuh". In Old English the letter "r" is pronounced whenever it is written.
In writings of Old English using the Latin alphabet, initially "uu" was used for /w/, but it was later replaced with the rune wynn (Ƿ and ƿ). However, it was once again replaced with "uu" due to French influence, whence modern English "w". Modern versions usually substitute "w" for "ƿ".
In Old English, if a consonant is written as a double consonant, for example in the word "winnan", it is pronounced as a double consonant: "win-nan". In Modern English such doubling is only found in the middle of compound words: for example, the sound in the middle of Modern English "penknife" is like the double n in "winnan".
Listen to the examples on the right. The first is the word layman, where "m" is pronounced short, and then the two words "lame man", where "m" is pronounced long. The second example is the word "ready", with a short "d", and then the two words "red d" (as in the letter d), with a long "d" pronunciation.
In Old English a long vowel was a lengthened version of the shorter vowel, or very similar, unlike in Modern English where the "long e" in "seem" is actually a quite different vowel to the "short e" in "bed".
Historically, long vowels in Old English were usually not explicitly written as such. Occasionally they were, either by doubling the vowel letter, or by adding an acute-accent-like mark above the vowel (actually, it is not certain that this mark was intended to signify a long vowel - if it was, it was often poorly implemented). Note that the vowel mark they did use did not resemble the macron used in Latin. One mark they did use that did resemble the macron, was used as a shortcut above a vowel to show that the vowel was followed by a nasal consonant (m or n) without having to write the consonant, and in other writing shortcuts.
However, on this Wikibook, long vowels are written with a macron.
No silent consonants
Modern English has a number of cases where written consonants are silent: the "w" in "wren", the "b" in dumb, the "g" in "gnat", the "k" in "knight" and so on. These silent consonants were all pronounced in Old English: the equivalent words are spelt "wrænna", "dumb", "gnætt", and "cniht", and every consonant receives its full value, no matter how awkward you find it to pronounce.
The same is true of consonant combinations that in Modern English we no longer even write, such as the "wl" in "wlanc" (meaning "proud") or the "hl" in "hlædel" (meaning "ladle").
Example of Old English Pronunciation (Lines 1-11 of Beowulf)
Hwæt! wē Gārdena in ġeārdagum
þēodcyninga þrym ġefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Sċyld Sċēfing sċeaðena þrēatum,
monegum mǣġðum meodosetla oftēah.
Eġsode eorl, syððan ǣrest wearð
fēasċeaft funden; hē þæs frōfre ġebād:
wēox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum ðāh,
ōð þæt him ǣġhwylċ þāra ymbsittendra
ofer hronrāde hȳran sċolde,
gomban gyldan: þæt wæs gōd cyning!