What was Old English Like?

When you read texts that are written in Old English, you see that there are many different letters and sounds. Sometimes you can guess the meaning but some of them are quite hard even to read. 

If you want to learn more about Old English, this article by everything2.com is just for you!

I quote the parts that I find most interesting. Please click the link at the bottom to read the rest.

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.

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:


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


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)


Old English had two distinct dipthongs, with four vowel sounds because of leanth. They were éa, ea, éo, eo.


‘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’.


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.

Here is a the first page of Beowulf. Wanna practice? 🙂



Click here to read the rest.

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