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Theme 7. The Old English Phonetics


The Old English vowels could be either short or long in Old English, just like in Modern English or German. The length of the vowels is marked by the sign of macron: ā (also presented as á). The difference between open and closed syllables obviously did not exist and vowels could be short and long in every position. The table below explains all Old English (OE) vocals compared to those of English and followed by examples:

OE Description; Position; Pronunciation Examples
a Short back vowel; mainly in open syllables, when the following one contains a back vowel; like in English cup habban (to have)
á Long back [a] vowel; in any kind of syllables; like in English star stān (a stone),
æ Short back vowel; mainly in closed syllables, or in open ones, if the next syllable contains a front vowel; like in English bad wæter (water)
ǽ Long back vowel; like in German zählen stǽlon (stolen),
e Short front vowel; like in English bed sengean (to sing)
é Long front [e] vowel; like in German Meer déman (to judge)
i Short front vowel; like in English still niht (a night)
í Long front [i] vowel; like in English steal wrítan (to write)
o Short back vowel; like in English boss coren (chosen)
ó Long back vowel; like in English store scóc (divided)
u Short back vowel; used only when the next syllable contains another back vowel; English book curon (they chose)
ú Long back vowel; like in English stool lúcan (to look)
y Short front vowel; like in German fünf gylden (golden)
ý Long front vowel; like in German glühen mýs (mice)
å A special short sound met only before nasals in closed syllables (pronounced between a and o) månn (a man)


The Old English tongue had two original diphthongs: ēā - céás (he chose) and ēō- céósan (to choose). As for corresponding short diphthongs, ea, eo, io, ie, and īē, all of them got developed as a result of umlaut, breaking and palatalisation:


æ → (developed into) ea before combinations of "r+consonant", "l+cons.", "h+cons.", and before h final: ærm → earm, æld → eald, herte → heorte.

2. Palatalization - the process which took place under the influence of g, c, sc before vowels at the beginning of the word: e → ie (gefan → giefan), æ → ea (cæster → ceaster)

3. i-mutation - being caused by i (or j) in the next syllable, it affected all vowels, except i and e and lead to vowels moving from their back position to the new front one: æ → e (tælian → tellan), u → y (fullian → fyllan)

4. Back Mutation - appears before sonants and labial consonants (i.e. r, l; p, b, f, m): i → io (hira → hiora)

5. Contraction of vowels due to a dropped h:after the consonant had dropped, two vowels met, and they collided into one long vowel:

ah + vowel → eah + vowel → éa, (slahan → sleahan → sléan)


The consonantsin the Old English language are simple to learn for a nowadays English-speaker:


Labials p, b, f, v
Dentals d, t, s, þ (English [th] in thin), ð (English [th] in this)
Velars c [k], g(3), h
Liquids r, l
Nasals n, m


Of them the special attention is always attracted to the letter g(3). Though it was written in the same way in every position, it was pronounced in three different ways:
1. as English [g] in gift - before any consonant or a, o, u (back vowels): (gód (a god).

2. as Greek [γ] or Irish gh and very close to Ukrainian [] in pronunciation - after (between) back vowels (a, o, u or after r, l.): dagas, folgian.

3. as English [j] - preceding or following any front vowel (e, i, y): dæg (a day). As we see, this g in dæg later turned into the Modern English y.


Consonants could also be subject to mutation, the main of which are:

1.Voicing of fricative sounds (h, f, s, þ) appearing if a fricative is between vowels: ofer [΄over], selfa [΄selva], rīsan [΄ri:zan], ōðer [΄o: ðer], wyrþe [΄wyrðe]. However in Old English unlike any other old Germanic languages there exist long consonants geminates marked by a doubled letter sticca (stick), steorra (star). Geminates despite their intervocal position has always been voiceless: offrian [f:] to offer, oððer [θ:] or.

2. Palatalization appears only in Late Old English, but significantly changes the pronunciation making it closer to today's English: cild [kild] [child]; scip [skip] [ship]; everywhere [g], [cg] sounds turn into [d3]: bricg [bricg] [brid3]

3. Doubling of consonants (gemination) followed by -j (except for -r-) after a short consonant: tælian → tellan, swæfian → swebban (later ff→bb)

4. Hardening:voiced fricativesvoiced plosives [ð, v, γ d, b, g]: Gt broþar→Grm Bruder

5. Rhotacism: modification of s into r: Gt raisjan→ OE ræ:ran (to rear)

6. Splitting of velar C:

a)palatalisation of velar \c\ before\after front vowels: cild [kild][t∫aild]

b)preserving the features of velar consonantotherwise: cēpan (keep)

7. Loss of consonants

a) loss of nasal before fricatives (lengthening for compensation = Ingweonic loss of nazal): Gt fimf →OE fīf, OE wifman→NE wife;

b) loss of fricatives between vowels and before some plosive consonants: Gt slahan →OE slean (slay)

8. Metathesis: sounds exchanging the places: P.Gmc. thridjas O.E. þridda third (c.950 in Northumbria)

Date: 2015-12-11; view: 812

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