Pronunciation of Old English is closely related to the written language, which cannot be said of Modern English. It is uncertain as there are no recordings form a thousand years ago, but we can be fairly sure of general rules from the letters used, comparison with other languages and indeed from modern dialects such as that of Somerset. Much scholarly activity has reconstructed Old English pronunciation, and the result, with a personal take on it on occasion, is below.
Furthermore, there were dialects at that age with more differences between them than the dialects of our day, though considering the difference between Cornish English and Geordie will give an idea. The guide to pronunciation below is framed for West Saxon, which sounds very similar to the accents of the West Country today; a guide for Northumbrian English might produce an accent more like Yorkshire or Scots, or Geordie – how much of those accents today is from old Northumbrian sounds and how much from the Norse settlers we cannot tell.
Most consonants are the same as in Modern English, and short vowels too, though the long vowels are all different. Rough descriptions of sounds along with phonetic symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (in square brackets) are used in these. One problem with a guide is that Modern English dialects and accents pronounce vowels in very different ways: compare bath or "shut" in Oxford English with Yorkshire English ([ba:θ] and [ʃʌt] against [bæθ] and [ʃut]
The Great Vowel Shift of the Middle Ages is responsible for some confusion; it changed the sounds of the long vowels so that, for example "take" changed from [ta:k] to [teik] and "mine" from [mi:n] to become [main]. The change did not affect all dialects in the same way though; Scots and Geordie were largely immune and so a house is still [hu:s].
The length of a vowel does matter in Old English; they sound very different and may make the difference between two meanings of one homonym. For this reason macrons are used below to mark the long vowels (which are not used in authentic Old English writing).
To complicate it, a vowel may be long in a simple word, but shortened when in a compound (as in Modern English), though we cannot be so sure of these.
Americans and others accustomed to drawling short vowels should learn to keep short vowels short and not drawl unless the vowel is marked as long. For example, "dæl" (vowel not drawled) means "valley", but "dǣl" (vowel drawled) means "part".
A pairs of vowels is pronounced as a combination of the two, not a new, single sound as in modern Oxford English. This is still found in West Country dialects. The common ones are ea, eo, ie, and these are described below.
C and GEdit
The consonants c and g have alternative pronunciations, soft and hard, and will change between them depending on context. For example the word dæg ("day") has a soft g pronounced as a modern consonantal y ([j]), but dagum ("days (dative)") has a hard g ([g], or possibly [ɣ] here). In the Middle Ages the soft "c" became "ch" and the "g" was written with a new letter, ȝ, which later became "y" in Modern English and "z" in Scots.
It is specifically West Saxon as analysed here; dialectical and place-name evidence suggests that Northumbrian English behaved differently, which is why a West Saxon church is a Northern kirk, and villages ending "wich" in the south would be "wick" in the north. "Dyke" and "ditch" were once one word (dic). "Yatt" as a dialect version of "gate" (geat) shows the soft g.
Americans should pronounce 't' inside and at the ends of words as a clear unvoiced 't' sound like at the beginnings of words, and not let it slip into 'd' or 'r' or 'ð' or complete omission.
Open your mouth and speakEdit
A good guide to making it sound right in the mouth is to imitate the West Country accent of Somerset of Devon; these preserve some of the more unfamiliar diphthongs such as ea and eo lost to the Home Counties.
|a||[ɑ]||nama||Short a otherwise as in father|
|ā||[ɑ:]||stān||Long a as in bath (southern)|
|æ, (æsc)||[æ]||sæt||a as in sat|
|ǣ||[æ:]||dǣd||Longer version, like the a in the specifically southern English pronunciation of "man" or "bad"|
|e||[ɛ]||helpan||Short e as in get|
|ē||[ɛ:]||bēdan||Long e, like the vowel in "heir" or the first part of the a in cake, before it glides into the 'y' sound|
|ea||[ɛ:a]||eald, ēast||A double-sound (diphthong) combining "e" and "a"; long or half-long e slurring into short a, still heard in the West Country|
|eo||[ɛ:ɔ]||eorl, dēop||A double-sound with "e" and "o"; long or half-long e slurring into short o, still heard in the West Country|
|i||[i]||gif||i as in if|
|ī||[i:]||mīn||ee as in see|
|ie||[ie]||ieldu||A double-sound with "i" and "e"; i slurring into short e, still heard in the West Country|
|o||[ɔ], poss [o]||bodig||o in body, or possibly an more open "o" sound|
|ō||[o:], poss [ɔ:]||bōc||Long o as in "stone"|
|oe||[ø]||Like the German ö – a sound which only occurs in the Mercian and Northumbrian dialects|
|u||[u]||sunu||Short "oo" as in "book"|
|ū||[u:]||nū||Long "oo" as in cool|
|y||[y]||synn||The German ü or French u (or Norwegian y) (short). Not used in Modern English. For those unfamiliar with German, say i in pin, but round the lips as they are in the ew of yew|
|ȳ||[y:]||brȳde||Longer version of the above|
|c (hard)||[k]||cyning||k as in king|
|c (soft)||[tʃ]||cirice||ch as in church; See below|
|cg||[dƷ] or [g]||secg||dge as in sedge, or j in jump. Sometimes a longer, hard g, as in big gun.|
|f||[f] / [v]||fisc / fæt||f as in fish or a v as in vat; See below|
|g (hard)||[g]||gat||g as is "goat"|
|g (soft)||[j]||gear||y as in "year"; See below.|
|h||[h]||heafod||h as in "head"|
| Mostly like the Modern English h, in particular at the beginning of a syllable.
At the end of a word or between vowels it may be pronounced like ch in loch, or the German ch in ich. Some philologists make a distinction between the sound after æ, e, i, and oe (ich) and the sound after a, l, o, r, and u (loch).
In the sequences hl, hn, hr, hƿ, the second part of the sequence takes on the voicelessness of the h.
|hl||hlaf||May be a voiceless l or like the Welsh ll|
|ng||[ɳ]||sing||ng as in sing|
|r||Exact timbre unknown. It might be quiet like the Modern English [ɹ] or trilled as in Scots [r] or emphatic as spoken in the West Country, differing between dialects|
|"s"||[s]||sunne||Like a, "s" or a "z"; See below|
|sc (soft)||[ʃ]||scir||"sh" as in shire. This is the more common pronunciation|
|sc (hard)||[sk]||Scottas||Sc as in Scots; the sequence sk, used in particular in loan words.|
|It is assumed that where the 'c' would take a soft form, so would 'sc', but we also have scort' ("short") and scrin ("shrine") presumed soft though the latter is a Latin loan.|
|w||[w]||wæter||w as in water (See 'ƿ' below also.)|
| þ and ð|
|[θ]||þing||th unvoiced as in thing|
| þ and ð|
|[ð]||þis||th unvoiced as in this|
|In both cases, the letters þ and ð are interchangeable. See See below|
|ƿ (wynn)||[w]||ƿæter|| w as in water. In later manuscripts and most modern transcriptions (and this wiki) ƿ is transcribed as w
Ƿ and w are always pronounced in Old English, so in ƿritan (write) the 'w' sound is sounded.
Voiced and unvoiced sounds in f, s, and þEdit
The letters f, s, þ and ð may be unvoiced (f, s, and θ) or voiced (v, z and ð). Generally the letter is:
- Voiced when it is:
- between two vowels between a vowel and a consonant,
- the consonant is c, f, h, k, p, s, t, þ, ð, or x, or
- the sounds comes at the beginning or end of a syllable.
- when double or
- After c, f, h, k, p, s, t, þ, ð, or x
Hard and soft 'c' and 'g'Edit
There is no fixed rule as to when these letters are hard and when soft. They do switch round as the word mutates, and there are dialectical differences. Generally for West Saxon, as best we can tell:
- Before e, i; or y;
- After e or i (as in the suffixes -ic and -ig);
- Before a, o or u or a consonant.
- Variant as [γ]' theorised in some circumstances for the hard 'g'.