How to write Old English correctly
Technically speaking, there was no standard orthography in Old English, so you could write however you spoke, as the Anglo-Saxons did. But, for the modern reader, who is accustomed to a uniform writing for his words (one word, one spelling), we will thus use a standard orthography here based on Early West Saxon (an early standard for Old English), without syncopating endings of verbs after t/d/þ (for ease of use to beginners, and for orthographic consistency with the other forms of the same verb).
There were 18 consonants in the Old English language: b c d f g h l m n p r s t v w x þ ð. Sometimes, you will see k, q, and z in foreign words.
There were 7 (sometimes 8) vowels in Old English: a æ, e, i, o, u, y, and sometimes œ (Northumbrian).
Sounds of Old English
The inventory of surface sounds (whether allophones or phonemes) of Old English is as shown below.
|Stop||p b||t d||k g|
|Fricative||f (v)||θ (ð)||s (z)||ʃ||(ç)||(x) (ɣ)||h|
1. ^ The exact nature of Old English r is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant [ɹ], as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar flap [ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r]. In this article we will use the symbol /r/ indiscriminately to stand for this phoneme.
The sounds marked in parentheses in the table above are allophones:
- [dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ and when geminated
- For example, senġan "to singe" is [sendʒɑn] < /senjɑn/ < *sangjan
- and bryċġ "bridge" is [bryddʒ] < /bryjj/ < *bruggjō < *bruɣjō
- [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /g/
- For example, hring "ring" is [hriŋg]; [ŋ] did not occur alone word-finally in Old English as it does in Modern English.
- [v, ð, z] are allophones of /f, θ, s/ respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants.
- For example, stafas "letters" is [stɑvɑs] < /stɑfɑs/, smiþas "blacksmiths" is [smiðɑs] < /smiθɑs/, and hūses "house (genitive)" is [huːzes] < /huːses/.
- [ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively. The evidence for this is indirect, as it is not indicated in the orthography. Nevertheless, the fact that there was historically a fronting of *k to /tʃ/ and of *ɣ to /j/ after front vowels makes it very likely. Moreover, in late Middle English, /x/ sometimes became /f/ (e.g. tough, cough), but only after back vowels, never after front vowels. This is explained if we assume that the allophone [x] sometimes became [f] but the allophone [ç] never did.
- For example, cniht "boy" is [kniçt], while ġeþōht "thought" is [jeˈθoːxt]
- The sequences /hw hl hn hr/ were realized as [ʍ l ̥ n ̥ r ̥].
- [ɣ] is an allophone of /g/ occurring after a vowel or liquid. Historically, [ɣ] is older, and originally appeared in word-initial position as well; for Proto-West Germanic (PWG) and probably the earliest Old English it makes more sense to say that [g] is an allophone of /ɣ/ after a nasal. But after [ɣ] became [g] word-initially, it makes more sense to treat the stop as the basic form and the fricative as the allophonic variant.
- For example, dagas "days" is [dɑɣɑs] and burgum "castles (dative)" is [burɣum]
|Close||i y||u||iː yː||uː|
|Mid||e (ø)||o||eː (øː)||oː|
The front mid rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect. There is also historical evidence suggesting that short /e/ and /o/ were phonetically lower and/or more centralized (perhaps /ɛ/ and /ɔ/) than the corresponding long ones.
|Diphthongs||Short (monomoraic)||Long (bimoraic)|
|First element is close||iy||iːy|
|Both elements are mid||eo||eːo|
|Both elements are open||æɑ||æːɑ|
2. ^ It is uncertain whether the diphthongs spelt ie/īe were pronounced [i(ː)y] or [i(ː)e]. The fact that this diphthong was merged with /y(ː)/ in many dialects suggests the former.
Some common words which had many variant spellings include:
- hīe they, them, her - also as hy, hig, hi
- hira their - also hiera, heora
- hine him - also hiene
There were a four main dialects in Old English: West Saxon, Anglian (consisting of Mercian and Northumbrian), and Kentish. West Saxon has the most documented evidence, which is why it is used here. But the other three dialects show some differences in spelling, grammar, and vocabulary which will be explored in the chapter on dialects.