Phonological history of Old English

The phonological system of the Old English language underwent many changes during the period of its existence. These included a number of vowel shifts, and the palatalization of velar consonants in many positions.

For historical developments prior to the Old English period, see Proto-Germanic language.

Phonetic transcription

Various conventions are used below for describing Old English words, reconstructed parent forms of various sorts and reconstructed Proto-West-Germanic (PWG), Proto-Germanic (PG) and Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forms:

  • Forms in italics denote either Old English words as they appear in spelling or reconstructed forms of various sorts. Where phonemic ambiguity occurs in Old English spelling, extra diacritics are used (ċ, ġ, ā, ǣ, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ).
  • Forms between /slashes/ or [brackets] indicate, respectively, broad (phonemic) or narrow (allophonic) pronunciation. Sounds are indicated using standard IPA notation.

The following table indicates the correspondence between spelling and pronunciation transcribed in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For details of the relevant sound systems, see Proto-Germanic phonology and Old English phonology.

Sound Spelling Pronunciation
Short vowels o e etc. /o e/ etc.
Short nasal vowels ǫ ę etc. /õ ẽ/ etc.
Long vowels ō ē etc. /oː eː/ etc.
Long nasal vowels ǭ ę̄ etc. /õː ẽː/ etc.
Overlong vowels ô ê /oːː eːː/
Overlong nasal vowels ǫ̂ ę̂ /õːː ẽːː/
"Long" diphthongs ēa ēo īo īe /æːɑ eːo iːu iːy/
"Short" diphthongs ea eo io ie /æɑ eo iu iy/
Old English unpalatalized velars1 c sc g ng gg /k sk/ [ɣ ŋɡ ɡ]
Old English palatalized velars1 ċ sċ ġ nġ ċġ /tʃ ʃ/ [j ndʒ ddʒ]
Proto-Germanic velars1 k sk g; sometimes also ɣ /k sk/ [ɡ ɣ]
Proto-Germanic voiced stops/fricatives1 b d g; sometimes also β, ð or đ, ɣ [b~β] [d~ð] [ɡ~ɣ]

1Proto-Germanic /b d ɡ/ had two allophones each: stops [b d ɡ] and fricatives [β ð ɣ]. The stops occurred:

  1. following a nasal;
  2. when geminated;
  3. word-initially, for /b/ and /d/ only;
  4. following /l/, for /d/ only.

By West Germanic times, /d/ was pronounced as a stop [d] in all positions. The fricative allophones are sometimes indicated in reconstructed forms to make it easier to understand the development of Old English consonants. Old English retained the allophony [ɡ~ɣ], which in case of palatalization (see below) became [dʒ~j]. Later, non-palatalized [ɣ] became [ɡ] word-initially. The allophony [b~β] was broken when [β] merged with [v], the voiced allophone of /f/.