Old English Alphabet

One of the daunting things about looking at Old English text is the alphabet. It has, to the modern English speaker, some odd characters. These put people off, although they are not difficult to master. Less obvious is the fact that some modern letters are absent from Old English texts.

Modern versions of Old English texts frequently add diacritical marks, usually as an aid in pronunciation (or, more accurately, an aid in how the transcriber thinks the words were pronounced). These do not exist in the original texts and can usually be ignored.

thornThe first of these unfamiliar letters is Þ, þ. This is the letter known as thorn. It has a /th/ sound and can be pronounced as a voiceless interdental fricative, as in thick or as a voiced dental fricative, as in the. Thorn originated in the Old English runic alphabet known as futhorc and survived the transition to the Latin alphabet. Thorn continues to be used well into the Middle English period. In later use the letter often lost its ascender, coming to look much like the letter wynn (see below) or the letter Y. This survives in the pseudo-archaic usage “ye olde…”, which in the modern alphabet should really be written “the old.”

ethThe second of these letters is Ð, ð. This is the letter known as eth. In Old English it is used interchangeably with thorn; a word written with a thorn will be written with an eth somewhere else on the page. This bears repeating; eth and thorn are completely interchangeable and there is no rhyme or reason behind the choice in any given instance. Like thorn, eth lasted into the Middle English period, but faded from use faster. Eth is largely gone from manuscripts by 1300.

Many modern versions of Old English texts will replace both thorn and eth with the letters th, as an aid to modern readers. On this site, we use both thorn and eth and do not use th to represent them.

In Old English glossaries, words that begin with thorn and eth are grouped together and placed after words beginning with T. Typically the glossarist will choose either thorn or eth and use that letter for both.

wynnAnother letter borrowed from the runic alphabet is wynn. Wynn is pronounced as /w/. The earliest Old English writings use the digraph uu to represent this sound, but soon the runic wynn came to replace that digraph. Wynn was used throughout the Old English period, fading with the advent of Middle English and largely gone by 1300. It was replaced by its predecessor uu, which eventually become the modern letter W. In Old English glossaries, wynn is alphabetized as if it was a modern W. Wynn looks similar to thorn in some fonts and can easily be confused with that other letter.

Wynn is frequently substituted by a W in modern versions of Old English texts. We follow this practice on this site, but only because wynn is not supported by the fonts that ship with Microsoft Windows and cannot be read unless one installs a font that does support it.

insular GAnother odd letter to modern eyes is the insular G.  The insular script developed in Ireland in the 7th century and then spread to Britain and the Continent by missionaries. The insular G can still be found in modern Gaelic writing. The insular G is often called a yogh. The insular G is alphabetized as if it were a modern G.

This is another character than cannot be found in most Microsoft fonts, which is unfortunate. Unlike wynn, which can accurately be substituted by the modern letter W, the insular G cannot be adequately substituted by the modern G as its range of pronunciation was substantially wider than the modern letter. In addition to the /g/ and /j/ sounds, the insular G is also used for the /y/, /gh/, /x/, and /w/ sounds. It is actually more difficult to read Old English if the insular G is replaced by the modern G as the range of possible pronunciations is not readily apparent to the modern reader. But because it is not available on the most commonly found computer fonts, we reluctantly replace it with the modern G on this site.

ashThe other letter that is found in Old English is the ligature Æ, æ, known as ash. Ash has a sound intermediate to the modern A and E. The ligature is still found in modern English, particularly British, orthography in words like encyclopædia, dæmon, and mediæval. In the US, the letter E is usually used in these modern cases. Ash is alphabetized between A and B.

The Old English alphabet is also missing some letters we use today. The letters J, V, and X are missing entirely. The insular G is used for the /j/ and /x/ sounds and the letter F being used for the /v/.

The letters Q and Z are found only in foreign names. In native words the /q/ sound is represented in Old English by the letters cw and the /z/ by the letter S.

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