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Schrift und Klang des Altenglischen / Old English lettering and its pronunciation

Seminararbeit 2001 10 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of contents

1. How and why we dare to guess how extinct languages sounded

2. A Word On Bookprint In England

3. Sounds And Letters In Early English Writing
3. 1) Consonants
3. 2) Digraphs
3. 3) Simple Vowels
3. 4) Diphthongs

4. Changes In Latin Lettering


1. How and why we dare to guess how extinct languages sounded

During the studies[1] of extinct languages such as Latin and old English, the question about the language itself is asked far too seldom. Too many students see these languages as mere conglomerations of grammar, forgetting that even today they are full of life and tell us about their former native speakers and culture.

Losing the contact to language as sign of life and culture, however, often makes us forget that language means mainly spoken language which linguistics is generally supposed to deal with. This leads to the question on the methods of finding out how people spoke in former times. The most popular methods are listed below as quoted from Clark.2

1. 1) First, plenty of the information about the pronunciation of extinct languages depends on descriptions of linguistic sounds by grammarians of the time: a Sanskrit grammarian writing for instance about a sound formed by the upper front teeth and the lower lip meant most certainly the sound [f] or [v], independent from the terminology which changes during the course of time.

1. 2) Furthermore, transliterations from one alphabet to another may help to understand the pronunciation of single words.

Example: Latin uictor transliterated into Greek ouiktvr (uictor) shows that the Latin pronunciation had been [w] instead of [v] as it became later; otherwise, the Greek had transliterated it differently.

Example: Latin Caesar (in Latin probably with initial [k], in new English with initial [s]) is shown in early old English as {casere} [‘ka:zεrε]; had the Latin pronunciation changed, old English would have spelt this word {sasere} or similarly. As a consequence, we can nowadays say that the initial sound changed from [k] to [s] at a time when the word was already a part of the English lexicon.

1. 3) Almost all of the vowel sounds of {a}, {e}, {i}, {o}, {u}, {y} in modern English are pronounced different from all the European languages using the Roman alphabet. We come to the conclusion that new English alone has changed these sounds, in opposition to the possibility that the majority of the ‘continental’ languages have undergone the same changes together (which is not the case).

1. 4) Foreigners’ spelling without instruction can be helpful as well to trace down language and speech development:

Example: 17th century French tourists in England using French transcription wrote to their friends and family in France how to pronounce pale and used {péle} [pel] or [pε:l]. Frenchmen 500 to 600 years earlier use { child} and {cold}/ {cald} to transcribe the English words while the Anglo – Saxons write {cild} and {cald}. Thus, the initial spellings did not have the same pronunciation, a distinction which was not spelt but one the natives were conscious of. This method could be called a special case of transcription as in 2), not by means of using two different alphabets but by the use of interlinguistic spelling.

1. 5) A change or a replacement of sounds takes place unconsciously and successively and stays mostly in a similar position in the mouth.

Example: The letter {i} in modern English [‘ai] has developed from [ i] to [‘li] and [‘ai]; this is called the phonetic drift of a language.

Example: Latin centum [k-] formed to Italian cento [tš-] and French cent [s-] in opposition to: Latin carus = Italian caro

1. 6) Illiterate spellings of the time can be used for finding out about similar sounds:

Example: In case that, in late old English, {ie} and {y} are mixed up often, obviously the accent made no pronunciational distinction between [i ] and [y]; other examples are {itarnle} written instead of {eternal} or today’s spellings of clerk [kla:(r)k] and Derby [da:(r)bi] which have preserved their former pronunciation as well as their spelling.

1. 7) Rhyme tells us almost nothing about old English which almost never used end rhyme but a good deal about middle and early new English (whose verse does use rhyme). Until the 17th or 18th century there was mostly spoken verse, a fact that as a consequence provides good information about the sounds in this language.

Example: Alexander Pope rhymed besieg’d with oblig’d (both probably [-idžd]) and join with divine (both [ -ain] or similar) and even obey and tea (both close to [ -e] at that time).

1. 8) Finally, alliteration was fundamental in Old English verse and still is important in Middle English. Thus, wh and qu can sporadically be found out as spellings of similar sounds (at least for the scriptor who is seldom free from influence by the spoken language and dialect around him).


[1] Die einleitenden Sätze waren in der Präsentation noch nicht konzipiert und wurden erst im September 2001 der Ausarbeitung hinzugefügt.

[2] Zu den aufgelisteten Punkten vgl. Clark


ISBN (eBook)
489 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Koblenz-Landau – Anglistik
Altenglisch Old English Lautlehre




Titel: Schrift und Klang des Altenglischen / Old English lettering and its pronunciation