Old English/Orthography

How to write Old English correctlyEdit

Technically speaking, Old English was historically written with laxer standards than in Modern English - the same word could often be written in several different ways; and spelling was heavily influenced by pronunciation. 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).


There were 19 consonants in the Old English language: b c d f g h k l m n p r s t v ƿ x þ ð. Sometimes, you will see 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 EnglishEdit

The inventory of surface sounds (whether allophones or phonemes) of Old English is as shown below.


  Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p  b     t  d     k  g  
Affricate         tʃ  (dʒ)      
Nasal m     n     (ŋ)  
Fricative   f  (v) θ  (ð) s  (z) ʃ (ç) (x)  (ɣ) h
Approximant       r[1]   j w  
Lateral approximant       l        

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.

Consonant allophonesEdit

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] < /bryt͡ʃj/ < *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 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 [jeˈðoːxt]
  • The sequences /hƿ 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 because [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]


Monophthongs Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i  y u iː  yː
Mid e  (ø) o eː  (øː)
Open æ ɑ æː ɑː

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[2] 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.


There were 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.