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Old English phonology

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Old English phonology

Old English phonology is necessarily somewhat speculative since Old English is preserved only as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large corpus of the language, and the orthography apparently indicates phonological alternations quite faithfully, so it is not difficult to draw certain conclusions about the nature of Old English phonology.


  • Sound inventory 1
    • Consonants 1.1
      • Intervocalic voicing 1.1.1
      • Dorsal consonants 1.1.2
      • Sonorants 1.1.3
      • Velarization 1.1.4
    • Vowels 1.2
      • Monophthongs 1.2.1
      • Diphthongs 1.2.2
      • Origin of diphthongs 1.2.3
  • Sound changes 2
  • Dialects 3
  • Examples 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Sound inventory

The inventory of surface sounds (whether allophones or phonemes) of Old English is as shown below. Allophones are enclosed in parentheses.


Consonant phones
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m () n (ŋ)
Stop p b t d k ɡ
Affricate ()
Fricative f (v) θ (ð) s (z) ʃ (ç) (x ɣ) h
Approximant () l j (ʍ) w
Trill () r

Intervocalic voicing

The fricatives /f θ s/ had voiced allophones [v ð z] between vowels or voiced consonants.

  • stæf ('letter') /ˈstæf/: [ˈstæf]
stafas ('letters') /ˈstɑfɑs/ > [ˈstɑvɑs]
  • smiþ ('blacksmith') /smiθ/: [ˈsmiθ]
smiþas ('blacksmiths') /ˈsmiθɑs/ > [ˈsmiðɑs]
  • hūs ('house' noun) /ˈhuːs/: [ˈhuːs]
hūsian ('house' verb) /ˈhuːsiɑn/ > [ˈhuːziɑn]
  • forþ ('forth') /ˈforθ/: [ˈforθ]
compare eorðe ('earth') /ˈeorθe/ > [ˈeorðe]
  • fæþm ('fathom') /ˈfæθm/ > [ˈfæðm]

Proto-Germanic , a fricative allophone of *b, developed into the OE fricative /f/ except when geminated, but PG developed into the OE stop /d/.[1]

  • PG *stabaz /ˈstɑβɑz/ > OE stæf
  • PG *habjaną, *habdē /ˈhɑbjɑnɑ̃ ˈhɑβðeː/ > OE habban, hæfde '(to) have, had'
  • PG *fadēr /ˈɸɑ.ðɛːr/ > OE fæder

Dorsal consonants

In pronunciation, Old English had many dorsal (postalveolar, palatal, velar) and glottal consonants: [k, tʃ, ɡ, dʒ, ɣ, j, ʃ, x, ç, h]. Typically only /k, tʃ, ɡ, j, ʃ, x/ are analyzed as separate phonemes, and [dʒ] is considered an allophone of /j/, [ɣ] an allophone of /ɡ/, and [x] and [ç] allophones of /h/.

Historically, /tʃ, ʃ/ developed from /k, sk/ by palatalization, and some cases of /j/ developed from palatalization of /ɡ/, while others developed from Proto-Germanic *j. Both the velars /k g/ and the palatals [tʃ, dʒ, j] are spelled as c, g in Old English manuscripts. In modern texts, the palatalized versions may be written with a dot above the letter: ċ, ġ. Because of vowel changes and loan words, it is impossible to determine from spelling whether c, g represents a velar or a palatalized sound (meaning the velar and the palatal had become separate phonemes), although palatalized c frequently occurs before the front vowels i, e, æ.

/j/ was pronounced as [j] in most cases, but as the affricate [dʒ] after /n/ or when geminated. The voiced velar stop /ɡ/ was pronounced as a fricative [ɣ] after a vowel or liquid. At the end of a word, [ɣ] was devoiced to /h/. Because of this, the phonemes /ɡ/, /j/, and /h/ alternate in the inflectional forms of some words.

  • næġl ('nail') /ˈnæjl/
  • dæġ ('day') /ˈdæj/
dæġes (GEN.SG) /ˈdæjes/
dagas (NOM.PL) /ˈdɑɡɑs/ > [ˈdɑɣɑs]
dagung ('dawn') /ˈdɑɡung/ > [ˈdɑɣuŋɡ]
  • burg, burh ('castle') /burɡ/ > [burx]
burgum (DAT.PL) /ˈburgum/ > [ˈburɣum]
byriġ (NOM.PL) /ˈbyrij/
  • senġan ('to singe') /ˈsenjan/ > [ˈsendʒɑn] (from *sangijan)
  • bryċġ ('bridge') /bryjj/ > [bryddʒ] (from *bruggjō < *bruɣjō)

In Proto-Germanic and probably early Old English, [ɣ] appeared in initial position as well, and [ɡ] was best considered an allophone of /ɣ/ after a nasal or when geminated. But after [ɣ] became [ɡ] word-initially in Old English, it makes sense to consider the stop the basic form and the fricative the allophone.

Old English has palatalized ġ in certain words that have hard g in Modern English due to Old Norse influence.

  • ġiefan /ˈjiefan/ ('to give')
  • ġeat /ˈjæɑt/ ('gate')

[ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively.

  • cniht ('boy') /kniht/ > [kniçt]
  • ġeþōht ('thought') /jeˈθoːht/ > [jeˈθoːxt]

The evidence for the allophone [ç] after front vowels 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.


[ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/. [ŋ] did not occur alone word-finally in Old English as it does in Standard Modern English. Words that have final [ŋ] in Modern English have the cluster [ŋɡ] in Old English. (Some dialects in Northern England retain the Old English pattern.)

  • sincan ('sink') /ˈsinkɑn/ > [ˈsiŋkɑn]
  • hring ('ring') /hring/ > [r̥iŋɡ]

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].

The sequences /hw, hl, hn, hr/ were pronounced as voiceless sonorants [ʍ, l̥, n̥, r̥]. They developed from the clusters *xw, *xl, *xn, *xr in Proto-Germanic.

  • hwæt [ˈʍæt] ('what')
  • hlāf [ˈl̥ɑːf] ('bread') (Modern English loaf)
  • hnutu [ˈn̥utu] ('nut')
  • hring [ˈr̥iŋg] ('ring')


/l r/ apparently had velarized allophones [ɫ] and [rˠ], or similar, when followed by another consonant. This is suggested by the vowel shifts of breaking and retraction before /l r/, which could be cases of assimilation to a following velar consonant.

  • *lirnian > liornian > leornian [ˈleorˠnian] ('learn')
  • *erþe > eorþe [ˈeorˠðe]
  • *fællan > feallan [ˈfæɑɫɫɑn] ('fall')


Old English had a moderately large vowel system. In stressed syllables, both monophthongs and diphthongs had short and long versions, which were clearly distinguished in pronunciation. In unstressed syllables, vowels were reduced or elided, though not as much as in Modern English.


Old English had seven vowel qualities in stressed syllables /ɑ æ e i o u y/, which had long and short versions, yielding a total of fourteen simple vowels or monophthongs. The Northumbrian dialect also had the vowel /ø/, but this vowel merged with /e/ in West Saxon. Through vowel reduction, only three vowels, /ɑ e u/, were distinguished in unstressed syllables.[2]

Front Back
unrounded rounded unrounded rounded
Close i iː y yː u uː
Mid e eː (ø øː) o oː
Open æ æː ɑ ɑː

An example of a pair of words distinguished by vowel length is God [ɡod] ('God') and gōd [goːd] ('good').

The front mid rounded vowels /ø øː/ occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect.

This latter dialect also contained the monophthongization of the ie/īe diphthong (of disputed pronunciation), which was normally written y (e.g. gelȳfan 'to believe' from earlier ġelīefan), although sometimes written with an i known as an unstable i (note variant spelling ġelīfan). Next to c, g and h, unstable i is the normal outcome (e.g. ġifan 'to give' from earlier ġiefan). This produced additional instances of y, alongside those that developed from i-mutation and from sporadic rounding of i in certain circumstances (e.g. myċel 'much' from earlier miċel, with rounding perhaps triggered by the rounded /m/).

The long–short vowel pair /æ æː/ developed into the Middle English vowels /a ɛː/, with two different vowel qualities distinguished by height, so they may have had different qualities in Old English as well.[3]

The short open back vowel /ɑ/ before nasals was probably rounded to [ɒ]. This is suggested by the fact that the word for "man" is spelled as mann or monn.[3]

In unstressed syllables, /æ, e, i/ were reduced to /e/, /ɑ, o/ were reduced to /ɑ/, and /u/ remained. Unstressed /e, u/ were sometimes pronounced as [i, o], as in haliġ and heofon.


All dialects of Old English have diphthongs. Like monophthongs, diphthongs appear to have short and long versions. In modern texts, long diphthongs are marked with a macron on the first letter. The short versions behave like short monophthongs, and the long versions like long monophthongs. Most Old English diphthongs end in a back vowel, and according to some analyses they were front vowels followed by a velarized consonant.[4][5]

Anglian has the diphthongs io and īo, eo and ēo, ea and ēa.[4]

Anglian diphthongs
High iu iːu
Mid eo eːo
Low æɑ æːɑ

The late West Saxon dialect of Old English has six diphthongs: ie and īe, eo and ēo, ea and ēa. The Anglian diphthongs io and īo merged with eo and ēo in West Saxon.

West Saxon diphthongs
High iy/ie iːy/iːe
Mid eo eːo
Low æɑ æːɑ

The diphthongs eo and ēo, ea and ēa occurred in other dialects, and were backing diphthongs, pronounced with a front element /e eː æ æː/ and a back offglide /o ɑ/. They are also called height-harmonic, because both parts of the diphthong had the same vowel height, either mid or low.

The diphthongs ie and īe only occurred in West Saxon, and developed from i-mutation or umlaut of eo or ea, ēo or ēa. Scholars do not agree on how they were pronounced. They may have simply been pronounced as [ie iːe], but because they apparently merged with /y yː/, they may have been pronounced as [iy iːy]. However, even the monophthong i was often spelt as y in late Old English.

Origin of diphthongs

Old English diphthongs have several origins, either from Proto-Germanic or from Old English vowel shifts. Long diphthongs developed partly from the Proto-Germanic diphthongs *iu, *eu, *au and partly from the Old English vowel shifts, while the short diphthongs developed only from Old English vowel shifts. These are examples of diphthongs inherited from Proto-Germanic:

  • PG *biun > Anglian bīon, West Saxon bēon ('be')
  • PG *deur > OE dēor ('animal') > Modern English deer
  • PG *dauþ > OE dēaþ ('death')

There are three vowel shifts that resulted in diphthongs: breaking, palatal diphthongization, and back mutation. Through breaking, Anglo-Frisian short *i, *e, *æ developed into the short diphthongs io, eo, ea before /h, w/ or a consonant cluster beginning with /r, l/, and Anglo-Frisian long *ī, *ǣ developed into the diphthongs īo and ēa before /h/. Palatal diphthongization changed e, æ and a, ǣ, u and o, ē to the diphthongs ie, ea, ēo, ēa respectively after the palatalized consonants ġ, , and ċ (though this may have only been a spelling change). Back mutation changed i, e, and sometimes a to io, eo, and ea before a back vowel in the next syllable.

  • PG *liznōjaną > Anglo-Frisian *lirnian > Anglian liornian, West Saxon leornian 'learn' (breaking)
  • PG *sebun > AF *sefon > OE seofon 'seven' (back mutation)
  • PG *nāh > AF *nǣh > Old English nēah 'near' (breaking)
  • PG *gebaną > AF *jevan > ġiefan 'give' (palatal diphthongization)

Scholars disagree on whether short diphthongs are phonologically possible, and some say that Old English short diphthongs must actually have been centralized vowels. Hogg argues against this, saying that a length contrast in diphthongs exist in modern languages, such as Scots, in which the short diphthong in tide /təid/ contrasts with the long diphthong in tied /taid/.[4]

Peter Schrijver has theorized that Old English breaking developed from language contact with Celtic. He says that two Celtic languages were spoken in Britain, Highland British Celtic, which was phonologically influenced by British Latin and developed into Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, and Lowland British Celtic, which was brought to Ireland at the time of the Roman conquest of Britain and became Old Irish. Lowland British Celtic had velarization like Old and Modern Irish, which gives preceding vowels a back offglide, and this feature was loaned by language contact into Old English, resulting in backing diphthongs.[6]

Sound changes

Like Frisian, Old English underwent palatalization of the velar consonants /k ɡ/ and fronting of the open vowel /ɑ ɑː/ to /æ æː/ in certain cases. It also underwent vowel shifts that were not shared with Frisian: smoothing, diphthong height harmonization, and breaking. Diphthong height harmonization and breaking resulted in the unique Old English diphthongs io, ie, eo, ea.

Palatalization yielded some Modern English word-pairs in which one word has a velar and the other has a palatal or postalveolar. Some of these were inherited from Old English (drink and drench, day and dawn), while others have an unpalatalized form loaned from Old Norse (skirt and shirt).


Old English had four major dialect groups: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish. West Saxon and Kentish occurred in the south, approximately to the south of the Thames river. Mercian constituted the middle section of the country, divided from the southern dialects by the Thames and from Northumbrian by the Humber river. In the south, the easternmost portion was Kentish and everywhere else was West Saxon. Mercian and Northumbrian are often grouped together as "Anglian".

The biggest differences occurred between West Saxon and the other groups. The differences occurred mostly in the front vowels, and particularly the diphthongs. (However, Northumbrian was distinguished from the rest by much less palatalization. Forms in Modern English with hard /k/ and /g/ where a palatalized sound would be expected from Old English are due either to Northumbrian influence or to direct borrowing from Scandinavian. Note that, in fact, the lack of palatalization in Northumbrian was probably due to heavy Scandinavian influence.)

The early history of Kentish was similar to Anglian, but sometime around the ninth century all of the front vowels æ, e, y (long and short) merged into e (long and short). The further discussion concerns the differences between Anglian and West Saxon, with the understanding that Kentish, other than where noted, can be derived from Anglian by front-vowel merger. The primary differences were:

  • Original (post Anglo-Frisian brightening) ǣ was raised to ē in Anglian but remained in West Saxon. This occurred before other changes such as breaking, and did not affect ǣ caused by i-umlaut of ā. Hence, e.g., dǣlan ('to divide') < *dailijan appears the same in both dialects, but West Saxon slǣpan ('to sleep') appears as slēpan in Anglian. (Note the corresponding vowel difference in the spelling of "deal" < dǣlan vs. "sleep" < Anglian slēpan.)
  • The West Saxon vowels ie/īe, caused by i-umlaut of long and short ea,eo,io, did not appear in Anglian. Instead, i-umlaut of ea and rare eo is spelled e, and i-umlaut of io remains as io.
  • Breaking of short /æ/ to ea did not happen in Anglian before /l/+consonant; instead, the vowel was retracted to /a/. When mutated by i-umlaut, it appears again as æ (vs. West Saxon ie). Hence, Anglian cald ('cold') vs. West Saxon ċeald.
  • Merger of eo and io (long and short) occurred early in West Saxon, but much later in Anglian.
  • Many instances of diphthongs in Anglian, including the majority of cases caused by breaking, were turned back into monophthongs again by the process of "Anglian smoothing", which occurred before c,h,g, alone or preceded by r or l. This accounts for some of the most noticeable differences between standard (i.e. West Saxon) Old English and Modern English spelling. E.g. ēage ('eye') became ēge in Anglian; nēah ('near') became Anglian nēh, later raised to nīh in the transition to Middle English by raising of ē before h (hence nigh in Modern English); nēahst ('nearest') become Anglian nēhst, shortened to nehst in late Old English by vowel-shortening before three consonants (hence next in Modern English).

Modern English derives mostly from the Anglian dialect rather than the standard West Saxon dialect of Old English. However, since London sits on the Thames near the boundary of the Anglian, West Saxon, and Kentish dialects, some West Saxon and Kentish forms have entered Modern English. For example, bury has its spelling derived from West Saxon and its pronunciation from Kentish (see below).


The prologue to Beowulf:

Hwæt! wē Gār-Dena in ġēar-dagum
[ˈʍæt weː ˈɡɑːrdenɑ in ˈjæːɑrdɑɣum]
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
[ˈθeːodkyniŋɡɑ ˈθrym jeˈfruːnon]
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.
[huː ðɑː ˈæðeliŋɡɑs ˈelːen ˈfremedon]
Oft Sċyld Sċēfing sċeaþena þrēatum,
[oft ˈʃyld ˈʃeːviŋɡ ˈʃɑðenɑ ˈθræːɑtum]
monegum mǣġþum meodo-setla oftēah.
[ˈmoneɣum ˈmæːjðum ˈmeodosetlɑ ofˈtæːɑx]
Eġsode eorl, syððan ǣrest wearð
[ˈejzode ˈeorˠɫ ˈsyθːɑn ˈæːrest wæɑrˠθ]
fēa-sceaft funden; hē þæs frōfre gebād,
[ˈfæːɑʃɑft ˈfunden heː ðæs ˈfroːfre jeˈbɑːd]
wēox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum þāh,
[ˈweːoks under ˈwolknum ˈweorˠðmyndum ˈθɑːx]
oð þæt him ǣġhwylċ þāra ymb-sittendra
[ˈoθːæt him ˈæːjʍyltʃ ˈθɑːrɑ ymbˈsittendrɑ]
ofer hron-rāde hȳran sċolde,
[ˈover ˈr̥onrɑːde ˈhyːrɑn ʃolde]
gomban ġyldan; þæt wæs gōd cyning.
[ˈɡombɑn ˈjyldɑn ˈθæt wæz ˈɡoːd ˈkyniŋɡ]
Recording of the Lord's Prayer in reconstructed Old English

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The Lord's Prayer:

Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
[ˈfæder ˈuːre | ˈθuː ðe ˈæɑrˠt on ˈheovonum]
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
[ˈsiː ðiːn ˈnɑmɑ jeˈhɑːlɣod]
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
[toːbeˈkume ˈðiːn ˈriːtʃe]
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
[jeˈwurðe ˈðiːn ˈwilːɑ | on ˈeorˠðɑn ˈswɑːswɑː on ˈheovonum]
Ūrne ġedæġhwāmlīcan hlāf syle ūs tō dæġ,
[ˈuːrne jeˈdæjʍɑːmliːkɑn ˈl̥ɑːf | ˈsyle ˈuːs toːˈdæj]
and forġyf ūs ūre gyltas, swā swā wē forġyfað ūrum gyltendum.
[ɑnd forˈjyv uːs | ˈuːre ˈɡyltɑs | ˈswɑːswɑː ˈweː forˈjyfɑθ | ˈuːrum ˈɡyltendum]
And ne ġelǣd þū ūs on costnunge, ac ālȳs ūs of yfele.
[ɑnd ne jeˈlæːd ðuː | ˈuːz on ˈkostnuŋɡe | ɑk ɑːˈlyːs | uːz ov ˈyvele]


  1. ^ Hogg 1992, pp. 108–111
  2. ^ Hogg 1992, pp. 119–122
  3. ^ a b Hogg 1992, pp. 85–86
  4. ^ a b c Hogg 1992, pp. 101–105
  5. ^ Schrijver 2015, pp. 87–91
  6. ^ Schrijver 2014, pp. 87–92


Baker, Peter S. (2007). Introduction to Old English (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.  
Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar.  
Hogg, Richard M. (1992). "Chapter 3: Phonology and Morphology". In Hogg, Richard M. The Cambridge History of the English Language. 1: The Beginnings to 1066. Cambridge University Press. pp. 67–168.  
Lass, Roger (1994). Old English: A historical linguistic companion.  
Mitchell, Bruce; Robinson, Fred C. (2001). A Guide to Old English (6th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.  
Schrijver, Peter (2014). Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages.  

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