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The Sounds of Old English. How Do Linguists Know About Ancient Pronunciation?. Looking at the alphabet—letter values do not change at random, should be somewhat similar as today, especially consonants. Vowels are a little tricky—they tend to change more.

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how do linguists know about ancient pronunciation
How Do Linguists Know About Ancient Pronunciation?
  • Looking at the alphabet—letter values do not change at random, should be somewhat similar as today, especially consonants. Vowels are a little tricky—they tend to change more.
Usually no strict rules in past Old English for spelling, so scribes probably wrote as they spoke—with evidence from language variation.
  • Comparative reconstruction—working back from present known forms.
  • Known sound changes, e.g., hit becoming it can easily happen as initial h dropped also in Modern English (I saw ’im)
  • Poetic evidence—how poets use rhyme of alliteration.
old english texts
Old English Texts
  • No early manuscripts right after Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain; only a few inscriptions in the Runic alphabet
With the coming of Christianity in 597, there was a need for manuscripts for religious purposes
  • Materials start from about the year 700, mostly glossaries (lists) of Latin words
  • Probably many texts were lost
  • From about 850 on more religious texts, lives of saints, sermons, etc.
Secular literature, epic poetry, e.g. Beowulf
  • Also works translated from Latin
  • Texts remaining total about 3.5 million words
the sound system
The Sound System
  • Vowels very different from in Modern English
  • Set of seven long and short vowels
  • Two diphthongs with long and short varieties
  • Many consonants much the same, some showed differences
  • Much variation; sometimes scribes made mistakes
the vowels
The Vowels

Long and Short Vowels Contrasted

r was probably trilled

Other consonants much like expected

Contrast of short and long consonants

prayer our father king james version
Prayer Our FatherKing James Version

Our Father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed by Thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thine will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil.

vowel mutations
Vowel Mutations
  • Happened also in ancient times, e.g., goose/geese; mouse/mice; old/elder; man/men; blood/bleed
  • In early Old English another vowel mutation, i-mutation (umlaut), probably in 7th century but not too much later
When followed by a syllable with the high front vowel i, the vowel in a stressed syllable became front, e.g., *fotiz became fet, Modern English feet.
  • Also provides evidence for when certain Latin words were borrowed into OE, e.g., Latin caseus in in OE cyse, so we know this word was already in OE in the 7th century.