Old English Wiki
Introduction Lesson 1: letter pronunciation Lesson 2: Verbs


|Not all letters have an exact equivalent in English, but I will do my best. It is also important to note that the language has been dead (has no native speakers) for about nine-hundred years, so we do not have an exact idea of the pronunciation.

Note that the Old English alphabet has twenty-five letters: A, Æ, B, C, D, E, F, Ȝ, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, Ð/Þ, U, Ƿ, X, and Y. N Notice that instead of g and w, there are ȝ and ƿ. In many modern editions of Old English works, ƿ is replaces by w, and ȝ by g. However, by reason of preference of authenticity, I choose to use ƿ always here. Ȝ will be used to represent a "y" sound and in the combination cȝ when it represents a sound like modern "dg/j"; but when representing a sound like Modern English g, I will use g. This distinction will only be made in learner tects, such as this grammar, the dictionary, and readers.

J, Q, and Z are used rarely in foreign words.

All letters are pronounced as in Modern English except these below which must be noted.


A: pronounced like a in ah-ha. IPA symbol: ɑ

Ā: pronounced like a in father. IPA symbol: ɑː

Æ: pronounced like a in bat. IPA symbol: æ

Ǣ: pronounced like a in bad. IPA symbol: æː

E: pronounced like ay in pay without the "y" sound. IPA symbol: e

Ē: pronounced like a in made without the "y" sound at the end (e.g. just as above, but longer). IPA symbol: eː

I: pronounced like i in it. IPA symbol: ɪ

Ī: pronounced like ee in seem. IPA symbol: iː

O: pronounced like o in hot. IPA symbol: o

Ō: pronounced like au in caught. IPA symbol: oː

U: pronounced like u in full. IPA symbol: u

Ū: pronounced like oo in fool. IPA symbol: uː

Y: pronounced like German y or ü; that is, say the ee sound in feel but round your lips more. IPA symbol: ʏ

Ȳ: prounced like German y or ü, but it's held for longer. IPA symbol: yː

Note that long vowels were rarely distinguished from short vowels in writing, but that, for ease's sake, most people, including me, do it these days.

C and ȝ in Old English are pronounced like Modern English ch and y or g and k, depending on what other sounds they were next to. Unless one has a good knowledge of the etymology of a particular word, it can be difficult to to predict when those letters represent which sound. For clarity, I will use a c with a dot above it ("ċ") for the ch sound and a ȝ to represent the y sound (instead of a g, which will be used to represent the sound of Modern English "g" in "god"); I too will do this for clarity in this guide to Old English. "G" was also pronounced as a slurred "g" sound (which is not in Modern English, but is similar to gargling) when after a back vowel (it was a voiced version of the variant of h after a back vowel; keep reading to learn what I mean). The back vowels are a, o, and u.

Aside from these two letters, there were three more letters not known to the Modern English alphabet. You have already met one of them, æ. There are also the letter þ, borrowed from runic, and ð, a modified form of the letter d, which both represent the Modern English th sound in "thing" and the th sound in "that". The two letters were liberally interchanged with each other.

S, f, and ð/þ were either voice or unvoiced (the voicing distinguishes p from b, t from d, f from v, s from z, k from g, and the th in thing from the th in that; all of the later examples are called "voiced")(see voicing) depending on whether they were in the middle of a word or not. If they were anywhere an a word and next to an unvoiced letter or were at the beginning or end of a word, they were unvoiced. If they were in the middle of a word and not next to an unvoiced letter or were anywhere in a word and next to a voiced letter, they were voiced. If they were beside another sibilant (s, f, and þ/ð are called sibilants), they were also not voiced. For example, you would pronounce "faf" (a meaningless sylable, I assure you) in Old English like "faf"; but you would pronounce "efe" like "ev-e" (make sure to pronounce that second e - no silent letters in Old English). But if you saw "effe", you would pronounce it like "ef-fe" (making sure to pronounce the "ff" longer than if there were only one "f").

H, when at the beginning of a word, was pronounced as Modern English h, but when after a back vowel (a, o, and u), it was pronounced as German ch in "ach" or Scottish "loch". That is, it took on a harsh, guttural sound after the letters a, o, and u; to achieve this sound merely gurgle some water the the back of your throat, and then try making that sound, but without the water. When after a consonant or the vowels y, i, e, and æ, it was pronounced like a prolonged h sound, like the ch in German "ich", that is to say, roughly the "h" in "human".

There were also some letter combinations and diphthongs in Old English that should be noted. Here they are:

Diphthongs and letter combinations

Cȝ: pronounced like dg in edge.

Ea: pronounced like a combination of Old English æ and Old English a. Sometimes (rarely) spelt "æa".

Ēa: pronounced as above, but longer. Sometimes (rarely) spelt æa.

Eo: pronounced like a combination of Old English e and Old English o. Also sometimes spelt (especially in the latter Old English period) "io".

Ēo: pronounced like as above, but longer. Also sometimes spelt "io", especially in latter Old English period.

Hw: pronounced like modern day wh (that is: a w sound with an h sound before it) as in what.

Ie: pronounced like a combination of Old English i and e.

Īe: pronounced like above, but longer.

Ng: pronounced like ng as in finger (make sure to pronounce the g, not just the "n" sound, not like in "sing").

Sċ: pronounced like Modern English sh in ship. Rarely pronounced like sk in ask.

You need not be overly careful as to how you spells words in Old English, as spelling varied a little depending on the dialect and the time in which one lived. Especially the following variations happened: o and u were interchangeable in an unstressed syllable, a and o were interchangeable before a nasal (m or n), e and æ were often interchangeable, ie (and īe) variously was spelt (and probably just as variously pronounced) i, e, and y. Cg (pronounced like a long "g", not like cȝ, which was like "dg" in "bridge") was also spelt gg (perhaps more logically). Ea was rarely spelt æa (also more logically). Eo was often spelt (and probably pronounced) io (there was a historical distinction between the sounds, but they became indistinguishable later). Sounds (especially sibilants, which as I said earlier are s, f, and þ/ð) had a tendency to take on some of the properties of following sounds, so that "efne" ("even") was also spelt and pronounced "emne". "Hrefne" ("raven" was also spelt and pronounced, "hremne", "hremme" and "hrem".

Syllables and Stress[]

Main stress is almost always on the first syllable in OE, except when the first syllable was prefixed with "ȝe-" (in which case it came on the second syllable), and also the stress shifted to the second syllable for many other suffixes when given to verbs (so that "forȝiefan" ("forgive") had the stress on the second syllable).

Old English syllables break:

  1. When there is a vowel, then a consonant and another vowel (breaks before the consonant like so: bī-tan)
  2. When there are two consonants between vowels (breaks in between the consonants like so: frem-man, sin-gan)

Note that syllable length is important on OE (in noun and adjective declensions, in poetry, and in a few other things).

There are five kinds of syllable classes among words relevant to the Old English language:

Short-stemmed monosyllable: ends in a short vowel and possibly also one consonant. Example: scip - ship

Long-stemmed monosyllable: has a long and/or more than one final consonant. Example: þing - thing

Short stemmed disyllable: must have two syllables, and each syllable must not have a long vowel, and must end in no more than one consoant.

Long stemmed disyllable: must have two syllables, and must have a cluster of more than one consonant not preliminary and/or a long vowel. Example: engel

Polysyllabic words: must have at least three syllables.