The English language has undergone a great change and we are not able to understand Old English if we don’t have into account the knowledge of its structure in the old days.
What makes the difference between OE and present English? There are 4 basic distinctions:
- In OE the quality of long vowels change:
Bān > (= macron = -), indicate the vowel is long, like baan
- Hlāf: we have to pronounce absolutely all = loaf
Bān bone Þ , þ thorn, as th in thorn
Räp rope Đ , ð eth, as th in the
Hälig holy Æ , æ /æ/
Föt foot c (a, o, u) /k/
Fÿr fire c (e , i) as c in Cesare
Hüs house (it.)
Sc as sh in should
Old English is a synthetic language, that is, it indicates the relation of words in the sentence by means of inflections (had case endings). In modern English, the subject and the object have no case endings (analytic), we need of auxiliary verbs, and prepositions to compensate the loss of cases, but it happened in Old English.
The night killed the prince.
There are no case endings. The functions of the words are given by position, by word order. If we change this, the meaning is different:
The prince killed the night.
Prepositions were not much used in Old English. As case endings disappeared, prepositions and auxiliary verbs were more used.
Middle English was little by little more analytic and was called the period of levelled inflections
Most of the vocabulary or OE is Germanic. A huge part of it has disappeared, as a consequence of the Norman conquest. The French invaded
in 1066. In many cases it was replaced by Latin or French words. 85 % of OE words are no longer in use, and the words that survived are basic words such as prepositions, auxiliary verbs and pronouns, i.e. cïld, man (n), wïf, etan (“eat”), drincan, brycg (“bridge”), twā (“two”), etc England
The surviving words in OE are insignificant in number but these words part form of basic vocabulary.
There are symbols that now don’t longer exist. Runes like:
Þ : the name is thorn
ð : the name is eth
æ : the name is æsh
sc; pronunciation is /∫/ Shadow, ship
c: /t∫/: cild > child; ic= ich in German; cū > cow
We have to differentiate two types of spellings: the runes and the Roman symbols = Insular Hand.
It is said that Germanic nations were illiterate, until they became Christian and the church brought the knowledge. This is a simplification, because they had their own alphabet (runic). The runes were brought to
by the Germanic tribes. The system is quite simple. Some of the Germanic tribes already had their own alphabet, and the runes were made to decorate in the earliest stages of Germanic languages. The first runes are from the 2nd c AD. They were not designed for writing, but to engrave or to inscribe. The earliest forms of reading or writing imply to interpret the incised runes. The first system was incised on wood, but they are also found in metal, stone or bone. The material on which the runes were inscribed determined their shape. They are formed, basically for a vertical stroke and additional arms. England
The original Germanic rune row had 24 symbols. We call “24 futhark”.
We don’t know the origin of these runes, but wherever they were created, in the 6th c they spread throughout many countries of
Europe. Some scholars believe in the hypothesis that the Germanic tribes may need the runes for commercial and political uses. Their social structure was so simple that they didn’t need to send messages or doing things that required writing.
The runes were a ritual or magic set of characters (run=”mystery”). Runes had magical properties. The rune masters gave each rune a magical value, and they were used to predict the future, taking decisions, etc. Every rune had a name and represented a concept and a sound. For instance :
Rune nº 20:“M” means “man” = replaces a word.
Rune nº 8: “Þ”: means “w”
Rune nº 3:“þ” =”thorn”: is replaced by “th”
Rune nº 24: means “d” and means day
The most ancient verse in AS runes survives in a stone in
, in Ruthwell ( Scotland Dumfries). It dates from 8th. Has the shape as a cross. In the west and east faces there are animals and plants; in the north and south faces there are Christ’s scenes. On the margins contains an extract of the poem The Dream of the Rood written in runes in the Northumbrian dialect. This poem was found in a cross, which seem to be the author of the poem and tells the story of a crucifixion from its point of view. We have a replica in , in London and Victoria Albert Museum
Scandinavia, runes disappeared quickly. In Britain the Roman alphabet replaced them about 11th c. In Scandinavia they were used even after the middle Ages.
The futhark was not the only rune row used in
, they used other similar system called futhork, which had 31 symbols. England
When runes were replaced by the Roman alphabet, they developed they own variation, the “Insular Hand”. It was a variation used until the Norman Conquest. The Insular Hand was used in Irish Gaelic, and the modifications were done by the Irish. For example:
Þ = wynn; in Middle English; was replaced by “w”
æ = æsh; in OE and 1st part of Middle English
þ =thorn; started to disappear by the 14th; replaced by “th”
ð = eth; in OE and 1st part of Middle English
ſ = “s”
Ic næfre þin Þif. I shall never be your wife
Forðan Þe ic sylfpylles. Because I do of my own wish
Eom criste gehalgod ne ic þam hæþenum godum lacnege offrige
Forðan Þtic crist gelyfe. Because I believe in Christ.
Old English vowels are very easy to pronounce, although the spelling is not fixed. There are 7 vowels, which may be short or long, and 3 diphthongs.
Vowels in unstressed syllables were pronounced clearly in order to be able to differentiate the different cases:
‘Eorles → nominative
‘Eorlas → accusative
a – dagas (days)
æ - cæt
- wæs (was)
e - Зe, bedd
i - inn, wiste
o - god, oft
u - full, sumor (summer)
y - cyme (good, convenient)
ā – āc (type of tree)
- bān (bone)
- stān (stone)
- rāp (rop)
æ - ræd, wæron
ē - hēr (here)
ī - wīn (wine), rīdon (ride)
ō - ōðer (other or second)
ū - tūn (yard), brūncan
ŷ - brŷd (bride)
The stress come in the beginning ALWAYS. The final syllables are very well pronounced in OE.
This mark differences between OE and Middle E: the levelling process. The pronunciation of all final unstressed vowels as a uniform sound became to schwa (ə). With the time there were no differences: case endings were not useful, and for this reason the differences in the end of the words disappeared.
There were 2 dipthongs left by King Alfred:
ēō / eo
ēā / ea
The spelling survived for a while into the Middle English.
All consonants were pronounced in OE. Nowadays this doesn’t happen. In Old English there are no silent consonants, and even g and k before consonant are pronounced, an also “r” in final position (teacher) . Also the double consonants are pronounced as double consonants, like biddan (d is pronounced).
However, there are some exceptions:
- The h has three different pronunciations:
o Initial: aspirated /h/ = hnutu (nut); hweol (wheel), hūs (house)
o h as palatal firicative [g]: we round the “g” with a front vowel. Like riht /rigt/ (=right in Middle English); or nīhsta /nigsta/
o h as velar sound /x/, (en español se pronunciaría como “j”) when is next to a
§ Consonant: wealh /wealj/ (= foreigner)
§ Diphtong: neah /neaj/
§ Back vowel: brōhte /brojte/ (past of brinkan = bring)
Other graphemes like f, s, ð, Þ had a voiceless consonant value when:
- They came initially in a word (initial position)
o /f/ full
o /s/ sum
o /θ/ Þeāw /zeaw/
- Surrounded by a vowel on the one round and voiceless on the other
- In final position:
o Hlāf (= a loaf)
o Gōs (=goose)
The voiced pronunciation can also occur:
- Between 2 vowels
o Heofōn /heovon/
o Rīsan /rizan/
o Cweðan /kweðan/
- Between a vowel and a voiced consonant
o Hæfde /v/
o Ræsde /z/
IMPORTANT: It is possible to find double consonant: reduplication shows a voiceless sound in any position.
[c] is still present in English. In OE had two sound values:
- if “c” is followed by a, o, u, y or consonants it sounds like plosive /k/: cū /kuu/ (=cow)
- if “c” is next to a front vowel sounds like an voiceless fricative /t∫/: OE cild /child/ (=child in Middle English imported from
[sc] = They behave as a single phoneme: fricative voiceless sound /∫/: scip /ship/; sceotan (=shoot)
[cg] = as a single phoneme voiced frictative /dЗ/ /=ch/; brycg /brüch/ (bridge in Middle English);
Hilt (h aspirated)
Hræfn /grævn/ (=raven) ; /f/ = pronounced as [v]
Rūn /ruj/ (rough) /h/= pronounced as [x]
Folc: /f/ pronounced voiceless /f/; /c/ pronounced K (folk)
Fīf: both /f/ pronounced voiceless /f/;
Offrian: double consonant as voiceless /f/
Mæsse: double consonant as voiceless /s/
Ceosan /c/ pronounced as /t∫/; /s/ pronounced as /z/ (=choose)
Cepan: /c/ pronounced as /t∫/; (=Kepan in Middle English; Keep in Modern)