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Orthography and Pronunciation Page 1


  1. There is still dispute about the details of OE pronunciation, although there is general agreement about the main features. These notes are offered as a brief guide only. It is important to practise pronouncing OE because it helps to instil the vocabulary faster than trying to remember the visual shapes of words without saying them. It is very important, however, not to worry too much about precise pronunciation of OE; there are (of course) no tape-recordings from Anglo-Saxon times, and our current ideas are based on the work of scholars over the last century or so. There is therefore still a good deal of uncertainty about the various details of OE pronunciation, and you will find different accounts in different books. The phonetic symbols used here are those of the International Phonetic Association (see M K C MacMahon, Basic Phonetics).

  2. The alphabet. As a glance at the Frontispiece will have shown you, Anglo-Saxon scribes used many letters like our own. However, they also used three letters not in the PDE alphabet:

    Æ, æ (called 'ash')
    Þ, þ (called 'thorn')
    Ð, ð (called 'eth')

    In the Glossary, you will find that æ follows ad- and þ- follows t-. æ seems to have been an open, unrounded vowel, like the pronunciation of 'a' by many Southern English speakers in (eg.) HAT. In late OE times, þ and ð were largely interchangeable, both representing either [Ð] or [ð]. In this book, ð is not used. The scribes also used ƿ 'wynn' (not to be confused with þ or p) for w, and Ʒ 'yogh' (so-called 'insular g'; not to be confused with the phonetic symbol [Ʒ ])for g. In accordance with modern conventions, only w and g are used here.

  3. Pronunciation. The OE vowel system carefully distinguished between long and short vowels. Distinguishing between long and short vowels can be difficult at first. Scottish speakers will notice a quantitative distinction in their pronunciations of the stressed vowels in GREED and AGREED; many English speakers might compare their pronunciation of GRID with GREED (although the quality as well as the quantity of these latter vowels differ). Some examples of the difference of meaning length of vowels can make in OE are: God GOD and gōd GOOD, wendon TURNED and wēndon BELIEVED, āwacian TO AWAKEN and āwācian TO GROW WEAK.

  4. All vowels should be pronounced in OE. Most scholars agree that there were no 'silent' vowels, like 'E' in Present-Day English (PDE) LIFE. Vowels in unstressed syllables were generally pronounced more distinctively than they are in varieties of PDE.


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