Anglo-Saxon is the language that was spoken more than a thousand years ago in the southern part of what is now England. It is also called Old English and is the mother tongue from which Modern English is descended. But to speakers of Modern English it looks like an entirely different language. The following example, the first few lines from the epic poem Beowulf, will persuade you that we're not talking Shakespeare here:
hwæt we gar-dena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
oft scyld scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þær ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!
(A translation of this is given at the end of this entry.)
In this Entry, the language is referred to throughout as Anglo-Saxon, rather than Old English, to reinforce its difference from Modern English.
Where the Language Came From
The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes were three groups of people who came to Great Britain from Northern Germany in the 5th Century. They merged together and became known as the Anglo-Saxons. Their language was a Germanic one, closely related to Old High German, Frisian, and Scandinavian. Speakers of modern German or Dutch will see many aspects of Anglo-Saxon that are familiar to them from their own languages.
At the time the Anglo-Saxons arrived, the inhabitants of England were Britons who spoke a form of Welsh, a Celtic language.
The Anglo-Saxon Alphabet
Anglo-Saxon has many of the letters found in Modern English, as well as three extra letters.
a b c d e f g h i l m n o p r s t u w x y þ ð æ
The Anglo-Saxon alphabet does not include j, q, or v. The letters k and z are very rarely used and are not usually listed as part of the alphabet.
Modern transcriptions of Anglo-Saxon use modern letters, usually all in lower-case. At the time when Anglo-Saxon was written down, there was not a distinction between upper- and lower-case letters. If the font does not include the three extra letters, it is normal to use 'th' to represent both þ and ð, while 'ae' is used for æ.
Anglo-Saxon had two forms of each vowel, long and short. This was not indicated in the spelling. Modern manuscripts often use the macron (a horizontal bar over the vowel) to show long vowels. Computerised versions will often use a rising accent, since standard fonts do not include versions of the vowels with a horizontal bar over them.
Reading Ancient Manuscripts
If you are lucky enough to have access to original manuscripts in Anglo-Saxon, you will find that many of the letters are unfamiliar looking. The language was written down by monks who used the Irish alphabet, so most of the the letters used are the same as ancient Irish. To represent sounds not found in the Irish and Latin languages, the monks had to adapt versions of the Runic alphabet for the letters w, þ, ð, and æ.
All the following letters are recognisably the same as modern letters:
a b c h i l m n o p u x y
The following have shapes which are slightly different to modern usage but most are the same as Ancient Irish letters:
d e f g t
The following letters have completely different shapes from the modern equivalent:
r s w
s is represented by a letter like a modern r but with a long descending vertical stroke, like the one on a p.
r is similar to s but with the curved section replaced by a pointed top like an inverted v
w looks very similar to a p but is narrower and the curved part descends at 45° to meet the descending stroke.
The three letters þ, ð, and æ are all additional to the modern alphabet.
Ancient manuscripts sometimes put accents on some of the letters, but it is not clear what they signified. They were not indications of long and short vowels and do not appear to have affected the pronunciation in any way.
There is no single definitive set of rules for how Anglo-Saxon was pronounced. Firstly, pronunciation would have varied across England, as it does at the moment. Secondly, scholars are not completely decided on the exact pronunciation anyway. The following rules give a rough guideline.
There are seven vowels: a æ e i o u y.
In Modern English, y is sometimes a vowel and sometimes a consonant. It was always a vowel in Anglo-Saxon.
The general pronunciation of the vowels is the same as most modern European languages, but different from Modern English:
- a as in path (North of England open 'ah' sound)
- e as in pet
- é as in pay
- i as in pit
- í as in peat
- o as in pot
- ó as in pole
- u as in put
- ú as in pool
- æ as American pronunciation of man
- y as in French tu or German für
The long versions of a, æ, and y (with an accent or macron) are the same but held for a longer time.
A diphthong is where a vowel is pronounced and then the sound is modified into another vowel. This is done smoothly and quickly, so that the whole thing counts as one syllable rather than two. For example, in modern English, the sounds in 'tune', 'pain', and 'sole' are all diphthongs: tee-oon, pay-een, and so-ull.
There were six diphthongs in Anglo-Saxon: ea, éa, eo, éo, ie, and íe. For modern speakers, the easiest way is just to say the two vowels without a break between them, one after the other, putting the emphasis on the first. So:ea = eh - ah
éa = ay - ah
eo = eh - o (short o like in pot)
éo = ay - o (short o like in pot)
ie = ih - eh
íe = ee - eh
Most consonants were pronounced as in English. Ones which were different are given in the following table:
|f||at start or end of word||f|
|in middle of word||v|
|beside unvoiced consonant||f|
|s||at start or end of word||s|
|in middle of word||z|
|beside unvoiced consonant||s|
|þ or ð||at start or end of word||th as in thin|
|in middle of word||th as in that|
|beside unvoiced consonant||th as in thin|
|doubled||th as in thin|
|h||at start or end of word||h|
|in middle of word||ch as in Loch|
|before e, before i, after i||ch as in church|
|g||in general||g as in garden|
|before e, before i, after i||y as in yellow|
|in middle of word||gh as Modern Greek ghamma or voiced version of ch in Loch|
|cg||usually j sound as in bridge|
|ng||with hard g as in finger, linger, not like in singer, even when at the end of a word|
The two letters þ and ð were interchangeable. Modern scholars often try to use þ for the unvoiced 'th as in thin' sound and ð for the voiced 'th as in this' sound, but this was not the practice of the ancient scribes.
Exceptions: sc in ascian (to ask) is pronounced sk. The gy- prefix at start of some words is sometimes an alternative spelling of the prefix gie. In this case, it is pronounced with a y sound. The cg in docg (dog) is pronounced with a hard g.
Like in Italian and Finnish, doubled letters sound longer than single letters.
All letters are pronounced. So g at start of gnæt (gnat) is pronounced, as are h at start of hwæt (what) and e at end of sunne (sun).
Many Anglo-Saxon words will be familiar to Modern English speakers, particularly when you've figured out the pronunciation:
|siex or syx||six|
|fif hundred þreo ond twentig||five hundred and twenty-three|
Some will sound archaic:
Others will sound completely strange, as the word has changed in usage or has been replaced in Modern English by a word from a different language.
|wes þu hal||hello (be you hale)|
|god þe mid sie||goodbye|
|hu gæþ hit||how are you? (how goes it)|
|hit gæþ god||I'm well (it goes good)|
|ic þancie þe||I thank you|
What Ever Happened to Anglo-Saxon?
Anglo-Saxon was spoken until the Norman Invasion in 1066. Norman French then became the language of the ruling classes. Anglo-Saxon continued to be spoken by the ordinary people, but the language evolved very quickly, adopting many words and phrases from French and eventually becoming what is known as Middle English, the language of Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales. This process continued, becoming Modern English at about the time of Shakespeare.
JRR Tolkien taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. It was a required subject for students of English at the time. Tolkien used the Anglo-Saxons as a model for his people of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings, giving them Anglo-Saxon names, customs, and poetry. Although Tolkien gave detailed instructions on how to pronounce the Elvish language used for most of the names in the book, he never explained how to pronounce the Rohirric names, perhaps because he thought it was obvious! You can use this Entry to decipher those peculiar words such as Éowyn, Folcwine and Simbelmyne.
Translation of Beowulf Lines
The lines of Anglo-Saxon given at the start of this Entry are translated into slightly archaic Modern English here:
Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honour the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay,
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
Translation by Francis Gummere (1910).