Old English is dead. Long extinct, thoroughly distant, gone gone gone. So why bother with learning to pronounce it? Well, on a purely abstract level you haven't really learned a language until you at least know how to speak it, whether or not that skill is practical. More specific to Old English, however, knowing the correct pronunciation of a word can be an important tool to understanding. If you're unsure of a word's meaning, it sometimes helps to pronounce it outloud. For example, the words þúsenda, hláafas, and dáélde all are more immediately recognizable as thousand, loafs, and dealt when pronounced out loud. Knowing the proper pronunciation is also a great aide in tracking the shifts of words from their ancient to modern forms, absolutely vital to a proper linguistic analysis and comprehension of the development of English.

What follows will be a guide to generally accepted postulates about Old English pronunciation. It must be taken with the important caveat that none of this is for certain, merely a well-researched guess. Absolutely vital information about intonation, pitch levels, sentence stress, and other necessities of a truly proper aural description is missing, since there are of course no native speakers to learn from. Patterns of stress and phenome quality, however, through pain-staking analysis, can be said to be a reasonable approximate of the true pronunciation.

The Alphabet


The old English alphabet made use of twenty-three letters, some of which are no longer present in the modern English alphabet. Many were hand-written quite differently from today, although their evolution into modern forms can be easily traced. They are:

a
æ
b
c
d
e
f
g
h
i
l
m
n
o
p
r
s
t
u
w
y
þ
ð

The letters k and x were known, but used only infrequently.

Vowels


Old English vowels had a somewhat different quality than their modern English equivalents, although certain aspects of dialects in Britain reflect ancient usage. There were seven vowels and fourteen distinct vowel sounds. The evolution of various words into divergent forms though they only differed in vowel length in the original Old English proves that there must've been a noticeable difference between short and long vowels. In cases where the long and short sounds seem the same, the key to their distinction is intonation length; an 'áé' (long ash) will be held for two counts, while an 'æ' will be held for one, making it short and choppy. Finnish has a similar separation of long and short vowels, although the Uralic language applies it to all vowels, whereas Old English only makes an absolute necessity of intonation length with 'y', 'a', and 'æ'. It is important to remember, however, that long vowels must not only sound different from their short counterparts, they should be held for slightly longer, as well. In the proceeding table are given the vowel, it's modern English equivalent (if there is one), and Old English examples.

The Long Vowels

  • á - calm, father - bát (boat), cáf (quick), lád (journey)
  • áé - band, fan, land (American network English) - báéd (bid), fáé (doomed)
  • é - fate, same, place - fét (fate), mé (me)
  • í - feet, seem, bleed - tím (time), síd (wide)
  • ó - coat, hope, flow - cóm (come), gód (good)
  • ú - soon, food, blue - hús (house), úhte (twilight before dawn)
  • ý - Not present in English. The closest approximate might be 'few' or 'huge', but not really. In Old English, ý is a long front rounded vowel. It correlates exactly with the long German ü, so an example from there would be Tübingen - fýr (fire), sý (be)

The Short Vowels

  • a - cot (American network English), but (British Received Pronunciation) - batt (bat), rand (boss)
  • æ - bat (American network English), cat, bad - fæst (fast), hæleð (warrior)
  • e - bet, met, said - bedd (bed), denu (valley)
  • i - bit, sit, win - rib (rib), sitton (to sit)
  • o - bought, cought, fawn - post (post), ofer (over)
  • u - would, could, full - pund (pound), dust (ashes)
  • y - Again, a front rounded vowel not found in English. Go with fülle for German. - yfel (evil), fyrd (army)

There are some conjectures that long vowels are no actually pure, but rather dipthong combinations with an off-glide vowel like present in some dialects of modern English (Southern American English really illustrates it). This is not fully accepted.

Diphthongs

Old English had two distinct dipthongs, with four vowel sounds because of leanth. They were éa, ea, éo, eo. The 'ea' series was a long or short 'æ' sound followed by a schwa off-glide. The 'eo' series had a long or short 'e' sound also followed by a schwa. This schwa must be distinct for comprehension purposes, but the stress falls on the initial letter of the dipthong.

Consonants


Hoo boy. This gets a bit complicated. The letters b, d, l, m, n, p, r, t, and w have basically the same values as in modern English (the rhoticity of the 'r' is unknown, however, pronounce it as you naturally would in your accent).

Fricatives are more difficult, however. In modern English, we have pairs of letters that are voiced or unvoiced. This terminology refers to whether the vocal cords vibrate during pronunciation. For example, 'v' is a voiced fricative, 'f' is an unvoiced fricative. 'z' is a voiced fricative, 's' is an unvoiced fricative. These sounds can occur anywhere in a word, regardless of context, so they each have their own letter. However, in Old English, no distinction was made between voiced and unvoiced fricatives. They were both written with either 'f' or 's'. The sounds unvoiced and voiced sounds were present, though. When in initial or final position, 'f' is pronounced as an 'f', and 's' is pronounced as an 's'. Inbetween vowels, however, these sounds become 'v' and 'z'.

'Þ' and 'ð' are a special case. In Old English spelling they were used somewhat interchangeably, much to scholar's confusement. Normally, the 'þ' represents an unvoiced 'th' sound like 'froth' or 'thin' (this is the value it has in modern Icelandic, a cousin language). 'ð' represents the voiced equivalent, 'the' or 'bathe'. Because of the confusement about which goes with which, though, either could be used without necessarily corresponding to its voiced or unvoiced default. Being frictives, though, they both follow the standard rules for such letters: unvoiced in the initial or final position, voiced between vowels.

Difficulties really start to manifest when one arrives at 'c' and 'g'. Normally 'c' has a value of 'k' (never, never, never an 's' sound as in 'city'. Don't do that, you'll break izubachi's poor little heart). Before an 'i' or 'e' (long or short), however, it morphs into something close to the 'ch' sound in 'chat', or 'fetch'. This also occurred at the ends of words, if 'c' was preceeded by an 'i'. 'G' normally has the hard value of 'good' or 'grow' (again, don't turn it into a 'j' sound like in 'generation'. I'll get all sad-puppy-eyed on you). Under similar circumstances to 'c' it morphs into a palatized 'y' sound, like in 'huge'.

Diagraphs


These are consonant clusters representing one individual consonant sound. Unlike modern English, Old English doesn't have many of these. The main ones are 'sc', which is pronounced as an 'sh' sound, and 'cg', the 'j' sound of 'job'.

Consonant Length


Also unlike modern English, doubled consonants in Old English actually have a purpose, don't ignore them! A doubled consonant is held for two times as long as a regular one. This sounds odd; how can one hold a consonant? It's possible, the Finnish do it extensively. Think about how you pronounce two-word combos like 'pen knife', 'half fed', 'head dress', etc. How do you differentiate 'head dress' from 'head rest'? Because the 'd' sound in the middle there is doubled for 'head dress', while it stays short in 'head rest'. Thus with Old English doubled consonants.

Silent Letters


Except for the diagraphs, there are no silent letters in Old English. Zip. Zero. Nada. You will need to pronounce everything, even for odd-looking combonations like 'writere'. Both the 'w' and the 'r' are pronounced.

Stress


Old English stress fell on the root syllable of a word, the 'core'. Prefixes and suffixes were unstressed. A similar system is employed in modern German and modern English, just do what feels natural. Unstressed syllables do not change vowel quality (this is similar to Spanish or Italian); resist the temptation to reduce everything to 'uh' sounds if it isn't stressed. All vowels must ring crystal clear for the inflection system to properly work.

Linguistic Phenomes


Finally, here are the phenomes of Old English in linguistic terms for those interested.
        VOWELS         DIPHTHONGS
    |  front  | back | front first element
high|/i/, /y/ | /u/  | /iə/
mid |/e/      | /o/  | /eə/
low |/æ/      | /a/  | /æə/

STOPS: /p/, /b/, /t/, /d/, /k/, /g/ (voiced and unvoiced) FRICATIVES: /f/, /θ/, /s/, /s^/, /h/ AFFRICATES: /c^/, /j^/ NASALS: /m/, /n/ LIQUIDS: /l/, /r/ GLIDES: /g^/, /w/


Marckwardt, Albert H. Rosier, James L. Old English Language and Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 1972.

Thanks to Gritchka for more accurate Received Pronunciation examples in the vowel section, and corrections on linguistic terms.

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