Pronunciation Guide to Anglo-Saxon

Written Anglo-Saxon is a medieval language, so it is written basically phonetically—all written letters should be sounded (including r), except that in some cases they are part of a digraph where the combination represents a single sound (like modern th and in some people’s pronunciation, wh). (The Anglo-Saxon digraphs are: ig, cg, hl, hn, hr, hw, and sc.) And as in all medieval languages, the phonetic spelling reveals dialect differences and different scribal preferences, so many words can occur in several different spellings. Above all this affects the vowels in a word: i and y are almost interchangeable, and some dialects had “breaking” and others didn’t, so the same word may have æ, e, or ea–the last, the diphthong, being the “breaking.” Say diphthongs as the two vowels added together—for example, ea as e plus a, as in modern English “pear” not “hear.” (Some scholars think the diphthongs were pronounced differently from how they were spelled, but I don’t share this view.)

Modern English has changed the sound of long vowels so that they no longer match the short ones (several are diphthongs, and long e is actually a long version of i–compare “pit” and “Pete”). The long vowels in Anglo-Saxon are long versions of the same sound as the short vowel, as in most foreign languages.

Stress is on the first syllable except when that is a prefix, such as ge- or for-. Modern English has a more variable stress. When the first (main) syllable is a diphthong, stress the entire diphthong as you would in modern English. Feel free to say unstressed syllables as loosely as you would in modern English—the variations in spelling suggest that was how they said them, too.

Americans and Australians may wish to try to pronounce Anglo-Saxon without the nasalization that distinguishes their accents from British accents; this is hard, but Anglo-Saxon should sound English, and absence of nasalization makes a big difference.

VOWELS

Accents indicate long vowels. Books conventionally use macrons, but when the scribes wrote the length mark, it was as an accent.

Note that in Anglo-Saxon y is always a vowel.

a

A “soft short a” as in, for example, Spanish or German. This is in fact the same sound as an American short o. When an m or n follows, an o is often written instead; for example mann or monn; evidently in such words, there wasn’t much difference.

á

A longer version of the above: “ahh.”

æ

A “hard short a,” like most modern English speakers would say for “hat.” The name of the letter in talking about Anglo-Saxon is “ash,” which is another example.

 

Long version of the above. I do just that; what comes out is an open version of the open e, French è. Most people do what Latin and Old Norse use æ to represent, which is the diphthong ai, the sound in Modern English “I.” There is no evidence that was the sound in Anglo-Saxon, but it is less ugly and easier to say.

e

Short e much as in modern English.

é

A long closed e, as in German “See” or French “fée.” In other words a single sound close to the pronunciation of long a in modern English (for example “fare”), but without the diphthongal quality.

i

Short i much as in modern English (perhaps a “purer” sound)

í

Long version of the above. i.e. the sound of modern English ee, or a long i in other languages and as in the modern English loanword “machine.” Note: this sound can also be spelled ig in Anglo-Saxon.

o

A short o as in modern British English (but closer, or “purer” than in many dialects), or as in , for example, Spanish or German.

ó

Long version of the above, as in German “so.”

u

The “oo” short u, as in “put.”

ú

oo as in “soon” or “rude.”

y

Short ü as in German “Hütte” or French “tu.” However, spelling shows that this sound was often confused with i.

ý

Long version of the above, as in German “Hüter” or “grün.” However, again, often confused with í.

CONSONANTS

Double consonants are pronounced twice, as in Italian, or as in modern English “penknife,” “unnoticed,” “still living,” and “proof found.” They are not just a mark of vowel shortness, as they usually are in modern English.

b

As in modern English

cg

Modern English j or dg. For example ecg is pronounced like its modern descendant, “edge.”

c

Two pronunciations: k and ch. Usually k before a, o, and u, long or short, and at the ends of words with such vowels, and ch before e, i, and y, long or short, and at the ends of words after i, é, and ‘æ. However, the following vowel is not a reliable guide as it is in, say, Italian. Use the modern pronunciation as a guide. For example, cild (ancestor of “child”) has the ch pronunciation, but cyning (ancestor of “king”) and cene (ancestor of “keen”) have k. It also has the k pronunciation finally after æ (e.g.: bæc (ancestor of “back”) and before a consonant at the start of a word, where it is silent in modern English (e.g.: cnáwan, ancestor of “know”). In some words where it follows n or l, it has the ch pronunciation: e.g.: ‘ælc (ancestor of “each”) and þencan (ancestor of “think” and an exception to the modern English guideline rule). Beginners’ books traditionally put a dot over the ch c but one basically has to learn which pronunciation to use where. Note for German speakers: final ch c is not unvoiced German ch, even in ic, which is obviously cognate with German ich. That sound was represented by h.

d

As in modern English

f

Two sounds, modern English f (unvoiced) and v (voiced). Unvoiced at the beginning of a word, at the end of an accented word, next to another unvoiced consonant (e.g., p or t), and when double (e.g.: full, léof–ancestor of Shakespeare’s “lief”). Voiced, the v pronunciation, when single between vowels, between a vowel and another voiced sound (e.g., l, r, m, n), and finally in words like of when unstressed (e.g., lufian, ancestor of “love” and efne, ancestor of “even”).

g

Three or four pronunciations: g (as in “girl”), y (as in “yell”), a velar voiced ghh sound, and a short j.

g before a, o, u, and y, long or short; after n; before a consonant; and when doubled. e.g.: gán, god, gylden, lang (ancestor of “long”), springan; glæd (ancestor of “glad”), and frogga (ancestor of “frog”).

y before e and i, long or short, after those vowels and æ, long or short, and sometimes after r and l. e.g.: (ancestor of “ye”), giefan (ancestor of “give”), þegen, hálig (ancestor of “holy”), weg (ancestor of “way”), dæg (ancestor of “day”), sægde (ancestor of “said”), byrgan (ancestor of “bury”), fylgan, (ancestor of “follow”), and all the words with the ge- prefix. Note that i followed by the y g is identical to the sound ee, i.e.: í, which is why ig is an alternate spelling for í.

ghh as sometimes in German “sagen” and “Wagen” when preceded and followed by any of a, o, and u, long or short, between one of them and an l or r, or after one of them even if in a group with another consonant. e.g.: dagas (ancestor of “days”), boga (ancestor of “bow”), hálga, beorgan, genog (ancestor of “enough”), and burg.

–Although g after n is usually sounded g, occasionally (e.g. sprengan, ancestor of “spring”) it is instead j as in “edge,” but shorter than in cg words.

As with c, beginners’ books traditionally put a dot over the y g and the few occurrences of j after n, but one basically has to learn which pronunciation to use where.

hl

Unvoiced l, similar to Welsh ll; this can be approximated by saying h and l in as quick succession as possible.

hn

Unvoiced n; again this can be approximated by saying h and n in as quick succession as possible.

hr

Unvoiced r; again this can be approximated by saying h and r in as quick succession as possible.

hw

Unvoiced w; this is the sound indicated by modern English wh and still a distinct phoneme in some British dialects; e.g.: “white,” “whether.” Again it can be approximated by saying h and w in as quick succession as possible.

h

Other than in the digraphs listed above, three pronunciations:

–initially, h as in modern English

— Voiced chh as in Scottish “loch” or German “brauchen” after a, o, and u, long or short, and after consonants. e.g.: héah (ancestor of “high,” and that is the reason for the “gh”)

–Unvoiced chh as in German “ich” and as some English speakers say in “Munich” after e, i, and y, long or short. e.g.: riht (ancestor of “right,” and that is the reason for the “gh”)

j, k

rarely or never used

l, m, n, p

As in modern English

q

rarely or never used; the sound combination is written phonetically as cw or sometimes cu

r

Initially: slightly trilled

Otherwise: tongue-tip curved back, as in US English

sc

Modern English “sh,” e.g.: scip, fisc, except in a few words, mainly loan-words, e.g.: scól (ancestor of “school” and borrowed from Latin), Scottas, áscian (ancestor of “ask,” has past tense áscode)

s

As in modern British English “is,” can be the voiced sound of “z” as well as unvoiced modern “s.” Rules as for f: unvoiced at the beginning of a word, at the end of an accented word, next to another unvoiced consonant (e.g., p or t), and when double (e.g.: sunu, ancestor of “son,” wæs, ancestor of “was,” fæst, ancestor of “fast”). Voiced, the z pronunciation, when single between vowels, between a vowel and another voiced sound (e.g., l, r, m, n), and finally in words like is when unstressed (e.g., céosan, ancestor of “choose”).

t

As in modern English

þ, ð (referred to as “thorn” and “eth” or sometimes “bar-d”)

Used interchangeably for the two sounds of modern English th, voiced as in “this” and unvoiced as in “thin.” Rules as for f and s: unvoiced at the beginning of a word, at the end of an accented word, next to another unvoiced consonant (e.g., p or t), and when double (e.g.: þencan, ancestor of “think,” wearþ, “became,” siþþan, “after”). Voiced when single between vowels and between a vowel and another voiced sound (e.g., l, r, m, n) (e.g., bróþor, ancestor of “brother,” máþm, “treasure”).

v

rarely or never used

w

As in modern English

x

rarely used, never initially; the sound combination is usually written phonetically as cs

y

never used as a consonant, only as a vowel

z

rarely or never used