Old English is a "dead" language. No one, not even the children of the most fanatical Anglo-Saxonists (though some of us are working on it) grows up speaking Anglo-Saxon as a cradle tongue. But it is nevertheless worth learning to pronounce the language, and not only so you can impress people at cocktail parties. Reading Old English words and paradigms aloud can help some students to memorize important information more easily. Also, Old English poetry evolved as an oral medium: while people wrote down their favorite poems, they most likely preferred to hear them read aloud. Finally, Old English poetry is particularly beautiful when read aloud, as this passage from the beginning of Beowulf perhaps demonstrates.
Note: if you are unable to hear the Old English sounds on your computer, click here for help.
There are many relatively complicated charts that explain the pronunciation of Old English vowels. You can find them in any basic Old English grammar book. But the power of new information technology has suggested to us a better way to learn how to pronounce Old English words: simply click on the hyperlinks below to hear the word in Old English.
Most editors use macrons (a horizontal bar over the top of a vowel) to indicate vowel length. A "short" vowel is one without a macron. A long vowel is indicated by a macron. Macrons do not appear in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.
short a is pronounced like the Modern English "o" sound in "contact":manegum
long a is pronounced like the "a" sound in Modern English "father: þam
æ is pronounced like the "a" sound in Modern English "cat" or "bat": fæder
short e is pronounced like the "e" sound in Modern English "bet": betra
long e is pronounced to rhyme with Modern English "way": we
short i is pronounced like the "i" sound in Modern English "his": his
long i is pronounced like Modern English "ee" in "feed": rices
short o is pronounced like the "o" sound in Modern English "pond": ond
long o is pronounced like the "o" sound in Modern English "go":gedon
short u is pronounced like the "u" sound in Modern English "bull": ungelæredum
long u is pronounced like the "oo" sound in Modern English "school":sculan
short y is pronounced like the "i" sound in Modern English "will": wylle
long y is pronounced like the "oo" sound in Modern English "school," but with the lips slightly pursed: gecyþnisse
Diphthongs are combinations of two vowels. Modern English diphthongs include such combinations as the "ea" in "beast," the "ie" in "convenient," and the "ei" in "weight." Explanations of pronunciation of Old English diphthongs are notoriously confusing, so we will simply rely on demonstrating the pronunciation of representative words.
short e + a is pronounced thus healf.
long e + a is pronounced thus þeawa.
short i + e is pronounced thus ahielde.
long i + e is pronounced thus stierde.
short e + o is pronounced thus eorþan.
long e + o is pronounced thus heofon.
Most Old English consonants are pronounced the same way as their Modern English equivalents. We give the exceptions below.
c can be pronounced either as a hard "c" sound, represented in Modern English by "k," or as the sibilant that is represented in Modern English by "ch." Thus cyrran demonstrates the hard "c," and ceosan demonstrates the sibilant. Some editors indicate the sibilant pronunciation of "c" by putting a dot above the consonant.
g can also be pronounced two ways. Before certain vowels it is pronounced like the Modern English "y" in the word "yes": gifu. When "g" is used before other vowels it is pronounced the same as Modern English "g" in "golden": goda. Some editors indicate this voiced pronunciation of "g" by putting a dot above the consonant.
h is never silent. It is pronounced with a bit of a throat-clearing sound, like the "ch" at the end of Scottish "loch" or German "Bach": dryhten. "H" also is used in combination with the "semi-vowels" "r," "l," and "w" in ways not familiar in Modern English: hlaford, hronræd, hwæt.
sc is pronounced like Modern English "sh": scip.