Old English Pronunciation Guide
The letters of the Old English alphabet are: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T U X Y Ƿ Þ Ð Æ.
You should notice there are four letters which are not present in modern English: wynn (Ƿ), thorn (Þ), eth (Ð), and ash (Æ), and there is no 'j', 'v', 'w', or 'z', but that's not to say these sounds are not represented in Old English. For example, the Old English letter 'Ƿ' is equivelant to the modern 'w', so for ease of understanding we've replaced it with 'w' on the website, however you will not find 'w' in an Old English manuscript.
Let's explore the sounds of Old English, starting with the consonants. The consonants below are categorised by their place of articulation. You can select any of the coloured IPA symbols in the row below to hear how they sound.
against top teeth
You'll notice in the above examples that some letters can represent multiple sounds. There are specific rules governing when to change the sound of a consonant.
F is pronounced the same as the modern English when at the start or end of a word, or when it is beside an unvoiced consonant. However, it is pronounced like if it comes between two vowels (heofan, seofan, yfel), or between a vowel and a voiced consonant within a word (wulfas).
S also changes in the same way, being pronounced like when between two vowels (dysig, husian, ceosan).
C is pronounced like 'ch' when before a front vowel (i, e, æ), for example, cild, lice, ceaster are pronounced 'child', 'lich', and 'chester'. If 'c' comes before a back vowel (a, o, u) or a consonant, it is pronounced like , for example, cyning, cræft, cnapa.
G can be pronounced one of three ways depending on what it occurs in a word. Before front vowels (i, e, æ), the 'g' is pronounced , like a modern 'y' in 'yet'. For example, þegen, geond, werig. If 'g' is before or after a consonant or back vowel (a, o, u), the g is pronounced like in 'garden'. For example, god, gar, lang. Between two back vowels, g is pronounced . For example, boga, dragan. This sound is no longer used in modern English and is hard for Anglophones to pronounce.
Sc is pronounced like the modern English 'sh', so words like biscop, scip, fisc, scyld are all pronounced like their modern English equivalents, bishop, ship, fish and shield. There are only two instances where 'sc' is pronounced like 'sk'. The first is if the 'sc' occurs due to a compound like 'iscald - ice cold'. The second is when 'sc' occurs before or after a back vowel (a, o, u). For example, ascian and tusc are pronounced 'askian' and 'tusk'.
Cg in Old English is pronounced like 'dg' in modern English. So 'brycg' is pronounced just like its modern equivalent 'bridge'. Similarly, 'ecg' is pronounced like its modern equivalent 'edge'.
As you may have noticed, in many instances where a consonant changes sound in Old English, it is preserved in the modern English spelling. We write 'heaven', 'ship', 'bridge', 'ask' and 'dizzy' as these are how the words have always been pronounced and the letters we use to represent these sounds have evolved. However, it is important to remember that there are no silent letters in Old English so all letters are pronounced.
Vowels can be sorted into two categories: back vowels and front vowels. Back vowels are vowels produced with the tongue further back in the mouth like , , or , while front vowels are vowels produced with the tongue in the front of the mouth like , , or . It can be hard to visualise where a vowel sound is produced, but examine the below diagram and try to make the sounds and . You should feel your tongue move as you do this, with the origin of the sound shifting backwards and lower as you move from [i] to [o]. You can click on any of the dots in the vowel origin chart below to hear the related vowel sound.
Vowels can also be long or short. In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived duration of a vowel sound and in Old English, vowel length can substantially change how a word is said, and how a word is conjugated. In the table below, the long vowels are marked with a macron (¯) above the letter.
|Old English Vowels|
|Letter||IPA Symbol||Explanation||Old English|
|a||like the 'a' in 'can'|
|ā||like the 'a' in 'father'|
|æ||like the 'a' in 'mat'|
|ǣ||like the 'a' in 'bra'|
|e||like the 'e' in 'bed'|
|ē||like the 'ay' in 'may'|
|i||like the 'i' in 'bit'|
|ī||like the 'ee' in 'seen'|
|o||like the 'o' in 'cough'|
|ō||like the 'o' in 'so'|
|u||like the 'u' in 'pull'|
|ū||like the 'oo' in 'cool'|
|y||like the 'ew' in 'few'|
|ȳ||like the 'u' in 'mule'|
It is more helpful to think in terms of sounds rather than letters when considering the construction of Old English words. While long and short vowels are not marked in manuscripts, sound changes are not arbitrary, and how a vowel is pronounced can greatly affect how a word conjugates or declines. These rules will be pointed out in the modules where they occur and should help you identify when a vowel is long or short.
In addition to single vowels, Old English also has diphthongs. Diphthongs are a single sound represented by two vowels. For example, the modern English word 'meat' has two vowels but you do not pronounce them individually the way you would in the word 'meander'. Not all dialects of Old English have the same vowel sounds - for example, 'ie' is not a diphthong in Anglican - but the below diphthongs are generally found in West Saxon.
|Old English Diphthongs|
|Letter||IPA Symbol||Explanation||Old English|
|ea||like the 'ai' in 'fail'|
|ēa||like the 'a' in 'favour'|
|eo||like the 'e' in bed gliding to the 'o' in 'cough'|
|ēo||like the 'ay' in 'May' gliding to the 'o' in 'oar'|
|ie||like the 'ie' in 'yield'|
|īe||like the 'ea' in 'beard'|
Also, do remember that Old English phonetics are reconstructed and so can only provide an approximation of what Old English sounded like. There are disagreements between historical linguists about a number of features, even today, but the above should serve as a guide.