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

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


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.

stafas ('letters') /ˈstɑfɑs/ > [ˈstɑvɑs]
smiþas ('blacksmiths') /ˈsmiθɑs/ > [ˈsmiðɑs]
hūsian ('house' verb) /ˈhuːsiɑn/ > [ˈhuːziɑn]
compare eorðe ('earth') /ˈeorθe/ > [ˈeorðe]

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 *habjaną, *habdē /ˈhɑbjɑnɑ̃ ˈhɑβðeː/ > OE habban, hæfde /ˈhɑbbɑn/, /ˈhæfde/ '(to) have, had'

Dorsal consonants

Old English had a fairly large set of dorsal (postalveolar, palatal, velar) and glottal consonants: [k, tʃ, ɡ, dʒ, ɣ, j, ʃ, x, ç, h]. Typically only /k, tʃ, ɡ, j, ʃ, h/ are analyzed as separate phonemes; [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. (Although this palatalization occurred as a regular sound change, later vowel changes and borrowings meant that the occurrence of the palatal forms was no longer predictable, that is, the palatals and the velars had become separate phonemes.) Both the velars /k, g/ (including [ɣ]) and the palatals /tʃ, j/ (including [dʒ]) 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. (As just mentioned, it would otherwise not generally be possible to predict whether a palatal or velar is meant, although there are certain common patterns; for example, c often has the palatalized sound before the front vowels i, e, æ. Note that Old English had palatalized g in certain words that have hard G in Modern English due to Old Norse influence, such as ġiefan "give" and ġeat "gate".)

/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 an allophone of /h/ (such as [x]; see below). Because of this, and the palatalization referred to above, the phonemes /ɡ/, /j/, and /h/ alternate in the inflectional forms of some words.

dæġes (GEN.SG) /ˈdæjes/
dagas (NOM.PL) /ˈdɑɡɑs/ > [ˈdɑɣɑs]
dagung ('dawn') /ˈdɑɡunɡ/ > [ˈdɑɣuŋɡ]
burgum (DAT.PL) /ˈburɡum/ > [ˈburɣum]
byriġ (NOM.PL) /ˈbyrij/

In Proto-Germanic and probably early Old English, [ɣ] appeared in initial position as well, and [ɡ] was best considered an allophone of /ɣ/, occurring only 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.

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

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, /h/ 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/. Words that have final /ŋ/ in standard Modern English have the cluster [ŋɡ] in Old English.

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.


/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.


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 or eight vowel qualities, depending on dialect, and each could appear as either a long or short monophthong. An example of a pair of words distinguished by vowel length is god [ɡod] ('god') and gōd [goːd] ('good').

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

The front mid rounded vowels /ø øː/ occur in the Northumbrian dialect, for instance, but merged into /e eː/ in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect.

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.[2]

The short open back vowel /ɑ/ before nasals was probably rounded to [ɒ]. This is suggested by the fact that the word for "man", for example, is spelled as mann or monn.[2]

In unstressed syllables, only three vowels, /ɑ e u/, were distinguished.[3] Here /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 had diphthongs. Like monophthongs, diphthongs appear to have had 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 consist of a front vowel followed by a back offglide; according to some analyses they were in fact front vowels followed by a velarized consonant.[4][5] The diphthongs tend to be height-harmonic, meaning that both parts of the diphthong had the same vowel height (high, mid or low).

The Anglian dialects had the following diphthongs:[4]

(modern editions)
High iu iːu io io, īo
Mid eo eːo eo eo, ēo
Low æɑ æːɑ ea ea, ēa

The high diphthongs io and īo were not present in Late West Saxon, having merged into eo and ēo. Earlier West Saxon, however, had an additional pair of long and short diphthongs written ie (distinguished as ie and īe in modern editions), which 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 been [ie iːe] or [iy iːy]. They were apparently monophothongized by Alfred the Great's time, to a vowel whose pronunciation is still uncertain, but is known as "unstable i". This later went on to merge with /y yː/, according to spellings such as gelyfan, for earlier geliefan and gelifan ('to believe').[6] (According to another interpretation, however, the "unstable i" may simply have been /i/, and the later /y/ can be explained by the fact that Late West Saxon was not a direct descendant of Early West Saxon. See Old English dialects.) This produced additional instances of /y(ː)/ alongside those that developed from i-mutation and from sporadic rounding of /i(ː)/ in certain circumstances (e.g. myċel 'much' from earlier miċel, with rounding perhaps triggered by the rounded /m/). All instances of /y(ː)/ were normally unrounded next to c, g and h, hence gifan from earlier giefan 'to give'.

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:

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.

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.[7]

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 /ɡ/ 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:

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 ˈfroːvre jeˈbɑːd]
wēox under wolcnum, weorð-myndum þāh,
[ˈweːoks under ˈwolknum ˈweorˠðmyndum ˈθɑːx]
oð þæt him ǣġhwylċ þāra ymb-sittendra
[ˈoθːæt him ˈæːjʍyltʃ ˈθɑːrɑ ymbˈsitːendrɑ]
ofer hron-rāde hȳran sċolde,
[ˈover ˈr̥onrɑːde ˈhyːrɑn ʃolde]
gomban ġyldan; þæt wæs gōd cyning.
[ˈɡombɑn ˈjyldɑn ˈθæt wæz ˈɡoːd ˈkyniŋɡ]
Fæder ūre
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 forˈjyvɑθ | 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. 1 2 Hogg 1992, pp. 85–86
  3. Hogg 1992, pp. 119–122
  4. 1 2 3 Hogg 1992, pp. 101–105
  5. Schrijver 2014, pp. 87–91
  6. Quirk, R., Wreenn, C.L., An Old English Grammar, Psychology Press, 1957, p. 140.
  7. Schrijver 2014, pp. 87–92


Baker, Peter S. (2007). Introduction to Old English (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-5272-3. 
Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-811943-7. 
Cercignani, Fausto (1983). "The Development of */k/ and */sk/ in Old English". Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 82 (3): 313–323. 
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. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521264747. ISBN 978-0-521-26474-7. 
Lass, Roger (1994). Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43087-9. 
Mitchell, Bruce; Robinson, Fred C. (2001). A Guide to Old English (6th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22636-2. 
Schrijver, Peter (2014). Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-35548-3. 
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