Beowulf: Pronunciation of Old English
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There is a lot of information available about pronunciation of Old English and the meter of the Beowulf poem. The information (from Howell D. Chickering, A. G. Rigg, Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, Helmut Gneuss, Alan J. Bliss, and Stephen Pollington) below is only the beginning of what you will be able to find.

The following books have information on meter and pronunciation in Beowulf:

  • The 1958 book by A.J. Bliss, "The Metre of Beowulf," and his shorter 1962 book, "An Introduction to Old English Metre," (which is entirely reproduced below) are entirely dedicated to this topic
  • Bjork and Niles, section entitled "Diction," pages 89-98
  • Brodeur, section I, "The Diction of Beowulf," pages 1-38 and section II, "Variation," pages 39-70
  • Cable, chapter 1, entitled "Old English Meter," pages 6-40
  • Chickering, section entitled "Guide to Reading Aloud," pages 29-38
  • Jack, section entitled "Style and Diction," pages 15-20
  • Klaeber section VI, "Tone, Style, Meter," page lviii-lxxi and section VII, "Language," pages lxxi-xcv
  • Mitchell and Robinson (A Guide to Old English), is entirely dedicated to learning how to read and speak Old English
  • Mitchell and Robinson (Beowulf, An Edition), Section E, "Style, Tone and Metre," pages 24-31
  • Pollington, "First Steps in Old English," is a very good introduction to reading Old English, and in part 2, pages 135-150, is a section entitled "The Pronunciation of Old English" (selected pages from this book are reproduced below)
  • Porter, section entitled "Metre" page 8, and "Pronunciation" pages 9-10
  • Sedgefield, Appendix II, sub-titled "The O.E. Alliterating Metre," pages 266-269 of the second edition of the book
  • Wrenn, Section 6, "Verse Technique," pages 54-62

Links to other information on pronunciation:

The following information has been transcribed from Chickering, pages 29 to 36:

-- begin transcription from Howell D. Chickering --
The Verse Form
     Old English poetry is accentual and alliterative verse. Its meter is defined by its stress patterns, not by vowel length or number of syllables. The Old English poetic line has two halves, divided by a sharp pause, or caesura. There are two beats to each half-line. Thus there are four beats to the line. The alliteration of the whole line is determined by the first heavily stressed syllable of the second half-line. This third stress will alliterate with either or both of the two stresses in the first half-line. The third stress is the key sound that locks the two half-lines together. The fourth stress does not usually alliterate. Naturally there must be at least four syllables in each half-line so that two stresses can be made. A varying number of unaccented syllables surrounding the stresses is permitted. Lines 4-7 of Beowulf illustrate these features:

[Often Scyld Scefing       seized mead-benches
from enemy troops,       from many a clan;
he terrified warriors,       even though first he was found
a waif, helpless.       For that came a remedy]

     The markings , , and indicate heavy stress, half stress, and weak stress. The alliterating sounds are capitalized in bold face. It should be noted that any initial vowel can alliterate with any other.

     The letters in the margins above identify the metrical type of each half-line. While there are variations within each type, basically there are only six stress patterns used throughout Old English poetry. This classification was made by the German scholar Eduard Sievers in the late nineteenth century. There are more than six thousand half-lines in Beowulf, and they all fall into one of the following types of stress patterns:

     If we substitute these Modern English examples (devised by J.R.R. Tolkien) in the OE. quotation above, we can see that the half-line patterns make up whole lines of roughly equal weight, no matter what types are used in any given line:

     The conventions of the verse form in Beowulf do not permit long runs of the same stress patterns, and the last two lines here are close to the limit of metrical repetition. Nor are there usually two half-lines of the same type within a single line. Instead, different types are joined together in each line, to meet the needs of meaning and syntax and to create a harmonious variety from half-lines of similar length. Roughly 40 per cent of the half-lines are Type A.

     A great deal of unnecessary technical fuss can be made over Sievers' types. It helps to notice the similarity between Types A and D and what we normally call trochaic feet; between Type B and our traditional iambics; and the fact that Type C is the inside-out version of Type E . The metrical types are best understood as selections from the wide variety of normal stress patterns found within any given two-beat utterance of spoken English prose. The stress patterns of Old English verse differ from the patterns in Old English prose chiefly in two respects: their stresses are clearer, and they have fewer unstressed syllables. The stresses are clearer because they are louder and higher. In normal speech, when a speaker emphasizes a word or syllable, he raises its stress by raising his voice in pitch and volume. In Old English verse, it is the artifice of alliteration -- coming on top of the natural heavy stress -- that produces the "overstressed" effect. This gives a formal rhythm to that line, so that it sounds rather like chanting to a 4/8 musical tempo.

     This regularity of timing was not taken into account by Sievers, whose method of scansion, if practiced scrupulously, leads to an ungainly drawling or hurrying up of some half-lines. The rhythm and tempo of Old English verse during recitation have been explained by another theory worked out mainly by Andreas Heusler and John Pope. This system takes the musical concept of the measure as its basis and states that four isochronous (equally timed) measures are found in all lines. When a normal enunciation of the syllables in the half-line does not fill the measure, Pope has suggested that the harp would be struck to fill in the "rest" in the verbal music. From the description of the scop's performance at the hall-feast in lines 89-90 and elsewhere, it is clear that the harp, or more exactly, the Germanic round lyre, was used in the recitation of Old English verse. Whether it was used only to fill rests or used continuously and whether chords or single notes were struck are still matters for conjecture.

     The isochronous theory is especially attractive as an explanation for the "hypermetric" verses found occasionally in Old English verse. Examples of such "long lines" occur in lines 1163-68, 1705-7, and 2995-96 of Beowulf. They are like Sievers' usual half-line types, but with extra unaccented syllables and roughly twice the length of ordinary verses. They are explained in Pope's theory as a doubling of the regular 4/8 measure, filling out the same time interval but in 4/4 tempo.

     Attempts to combine the two systems of scansion have often been made, and new analyses of Old English meter have recently been offered from other points of view as well. But the endeavor to find a comprehensive theory of Old English meter is rather like trying to account for all the variations upon iambic pentameter throughout the history of later English poetry. Paull F. Baum, a scholar of great good sense, was well nigh irrefutable when he said the Beowulf is roughly isochronous and roughly trochaic (Types A and D). If the reader remembers these two points and lets his voice follow the natural flow of the sense, he can scan the poem easily and can gain a clear sense of how the alliterative meter reinforces poetic meaning.

Aids to Scansion and Recitation

     Alliteration. To find the alliteration of a given line, look at the first large word in the second half-line. Very likely (but not always) it will be the third stress and the key to the alliteration. Check to see if its initial consonant is matched by a stressed word or words in the first half-line. If its initial letter is a vowel, look for any other initial vowels in the first half-line.

     Stress. All Old English words normally have the heavy stress on the first syllable of the root. Thus root syllables receive the alliterating stresses. To find the root of a word, the following rules are helpful. (1) Compounds: the first element of a compound receives the heavy stress, and the second element receives a half stress. Examples: . (2) Prefixes: since they come before the root, prefixes need to be recognized and given weak stress. The following are the most frequent: á-, æt-, an-, be-, bí-, for-, ge-, ofer-, on-, tó,un-, wið-. [Chickering's diacritics in the preceeding list are all straight lines over the letters. Syd.] The noun and verb prefix ge- is especially common and is never stressed. Sometimes a prefix that changes the meaning of a word (e.g., un-) will receive a strong stress. (3) Finally, if there is no prefix, the first syllable of a word will be the root. Division into syllables follows the same rules as Modern English.

     Parts of Speech. The alliterating stresses fall most often on nouns, then on adjectives, then verbs. Once the student of Old English begins to recognize these parts of speech -- and the general reader can see the ancenstors of many Modern English words, even without learning Old English -- the task of getting the stress right is greatly simplified. Verbs frequently come at the end of the second half-line, receiving the non-alliterating fourth stress. When they come earlier in a clause they do not take a heavy stress even if they could alliterate. For example:

'the troop was in joy' (2014)

Here wæs might even take only a light stress, depending on how fast the reader is reciting. The other parts of speech -- adverbs, pronouns, conjunctions -- all take light stress, with the exception that if they are out of their natural word order in the sentence, they may be given heavy stress:

'I know [this about]       my noble Hrothulf'

     Rhetorical emphasis can also elevate pronouns and adverbs to heavy stress:

     But as a general rule, expect nouns and adjectives to receive the alliteration and the heavy stresses.

     Grammatical Formulas. Some half-line types are naturally filled by certain grammatical units. For instance, Type Da will exactly accomodate the genitive plural of a compound present participle used as a noun:

     Type A fits a number of especially common grammatical patterns in the plural:

adjective + noun: 'hateful strangers'
subject + verb: 'the warriors fell'
object + verb: 'spears they bore'
infinitive + verb: 'to wield they were able'
noun + adjective: 'for war eager'

(Exampled adapted from Bruce Mitchell.) Once the reader recognizes such grammatical combinations, he will also know how to stress the words.'

     Recitation. Tastes will differ according to the prosodical persuasion of one's teacher. It is possible to read Beowulf aloud as a sort of quick and lively rhythmical prose, without pausing noticeably between half-lines. At the other extreme, some readers prefer a heavy bardic chant, like Vachel Lindsay's The Congo at half speed. I think an intermediate pace is best, somewhat slower than ordinary conversation but not so slow as Presidential oratory. The alliterating stresses should come out clearly, strongly, and regularly, with pauses between half-lines as the punctuation indicates.

     The stress and intonation of the Modern English sense make the best guide to the recitation of the original. The reader should feel free to introduce tonal nuances, changes of speed, pronlongations for emphasis, and rhetorical pauses. A poem that was meant to be said aloud invites dramatic interpretation. The beginner should not be shy about experimenting, so long as he sees clearly where the alliterating stresses fall and how they mold the meaning of the sentence.

Old English Pronunciation
All the letters in Old English regularly represent their sounds and must be pronounced. This includes letters now silent in their Modern English descendants, as in wrítan 'to write' where the w is prounced as well as the r.
Vowels Mod. Eng. Equivalents OE. Examples
a not nama 'name'
á father stán 'stone'
æ that, hat þæt 'that'
æ (with a line over it) Dad, mad dæd (with a line over the æ) 'deed'
e set, help, egg helpan 'to help'
é they, hate hé 'he'
i pit, hit hit 'it'
í mean, machine híe 'they'
o ought holm 'sea,' god 'God'
ó goad gód 'good'
u put, full full 'full'
ú rude nú 'now'
y as in Fr. tu fyllan 'to fill'
ý as in Ger. Grún [u with 2 dots over it], Fr. lune lýtel 'little'
In OE. diphthongs the first vowel is always stressed more heavily than the second, and the two vowels form a single syllable. The first vowel is pronounced as it appears in the chart above. The sound of the second vowel is reduced to the schwa [upside-down e] of Mod. Eng. but. The principle diphthongs in Beowulf are:
Vowels Mod. Eng. Equivalents
ea eald 'old,' wearð 'became'
éa éast 'east,' scéap 'sheep'
eo eorl 'nobleman,' heorte 'heart'
éo déop 'deep,' béor 'beer'
Most of the consonants are pronounced as in Modern English. Since all letters in OE, represent sounds, double consonants should be enunciated twice, as in biddan 'to pray,' pronounced as though is were Mod. Eng. "bid-don."

Consonants that are pronounced differently:

  1. sc is like sh in Mod. Eng. ship: OE, scip 'ship'
  2. cg is like dg in Mod. Eng. edge: OE. ecg 'edge'
  3. h at the beginning of the word is aspirated as in Mod. Eng. house. Thus OE. hús 'house.' Otherwise h is pronounced like Ger. ch in ach or ich. Thus OE. niht 'night' sounds like Ger. nicht.
  4. c usually has the sound of k, and g is usually the hard g of God. (This means that -ing sounds like "ingk.") However, it is crucial to pay attention to the following rule:

    Before or after i or e, and after æ, c has the sound of ch as in child, and g has the sound of y as in yet.

    These palatalized pronunciations occur just as frequently as do the hard g and k sounds. Examples:

    dæg 'day,' pronounced roughly "dæy"
    cild 'child,' pronounced "chilled"
    micel 'great,' pronounced "mitchel"
    ic 'I,' pronounced "itch"
    spræc [with a line over the æ] 'speech,' pronounced "sprætch"
    ge- the prefix, always pronounced "yuh" or "yeh"
    hefig 'heavy,' pronounced roughly "heavy"
    giefu 'gift,' pronounced roughly "yivoo"

    Exceptions to this rule can be recognized by the pronunciation of their Mod. Eng. descendants: OE, bæc 'back,' céne 'keen.'

  5. Two letters peculiar to OE, are þ (thorn) and ð (eth) which interchangeably represent the th sound. Both letters can have either the voiceless sound of Mod. Eng. thin or the voiced sound of Mod. Eng. other.
-- end transcription from Howell D. Chickering --

The following information has been transcribed from A. G. Rigg, pages 34 and 35 [I have had to indicate long vowels -- with a line over them -- by using the acute accent, or, in the case of æ, with an apostrophe]:

-- begin transcription from A. G. Rigg --
Some Aids To Reading Old English
     Even without any previous knowledge of Old English, a modern reader can recognize MnE [Modern English] words in their OE dress, once he is aware of certain equivalences. As already noted, OE þ and ð correspond to MnE th, and OE æ to MnE a or e, so that OE þæt, pæþ are clearly MnE that, path. A few other correspondences make the task of recognition easier: OE á > MnE [o:], spelled o, oa, so that OE stán > MnE stone.OE æ' often produces the MnE spelling ea, so læ'dan > MnE verb lead. OE y normally produces MnE i, so OE hyll > hill. OE sc(e) = MnE sh, so OE sceadu > MnE shade. OE c before e and i (and some other vowels) often produces MnE ch, so that OE cild = MnE child. Sometimes OE g before e and i produces MnE y, as in OE géar, MnE year, or OE giernan, MnE yearn. OE cg corresponds to MnE dg, so OE ecg > MnE edge. The h disappears from the OE initial consonant groups hl, hn, hr, so that hléapan > verb leap, hnutu > nut, hræfn > raven. The OE initial hw group, however, produces MnE wh, so that OE Hwá > who. Between vowels OE f was voiced and pronounced as MnE v, so that drífan > verb drive.

     ME [Middle English], followed by MnE, often used the letter o for OE u simply to avoid spelling confusion in words that had several "minims" (i, m, n, u, w); thus it is often possible to recognize a MnE word by substituting o for u, so that OE sunu, lufu can be seen to correspond to MnE son, love (see p. 20).

     Many words can be recognized more easily once they are stripped of their prefixes and suffixes. The perfective prefix ge- can always be ignored: OE gedrifen > driven. Many other prefixes, such as á-, be-, (not, of course, without meaning in OE) can be mentally removed in order to reveal a MnE word; thus, OE ábítan conceals MnE bite, or OE bemurnan without its prefix > MnE mourn.

     It is important to recognize the OE inflexional suffixes: -de, -ede, -ode, are past endings, so that geopenode, gemacode = open(ed), make(d) > made. The student will find his task much easier if he familiarizes himself at an early stage with the principal inflexional endings of nouns, adjectives, and verbs; he should also know the declension of the definite article and the personal pronouns, and the conjugation of the verb béon, 'be' as well as common auxiliary verbs such as cann, mæg, sceal, etc. A glossary of some very common Old English words, which the student is advised to learn as soon as he begins to read the Old English texts, is included at the end of the book.

-- end transcription from A. G. Rigg --

The following related information has been transcribed from Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, pages 11 and 311:

-- begin transcription from Mitchell and Robinson --
Preliminary Remarks on the Language
§1 Alistair Campbell defines Old English as 'the vernacular Germanic language of Great Britain as it is recorded in manuscripts and inscriptions dating from before about 1100'. It is one of the Germanic group of the Indo-European family of languages. Those who are unfamiliar with this concept should read about it in one of the histories of the English language cited in the Bibliography.

§2 There are four dialects distinguishable in the extant monuments -- Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, West-Saxon. The differences are apparent in the spelling; otherwise, of course, we should not know about them. After 900 West-Saxon was increasingly used as a standard written language. It is for this reason that, initially at any rate, you learn West-Saxon. But even here the spelling conventions were never as rigidly observed as they are in Great Britain or America today, where compositors, typists, and writers, in different parts of the country use the same spelling, no matter how different their pronunciations may be.

A Note on the Punctuation of Old English Poetry
One thing is certain about OE prosaists and poets, scribes and scops: they knew nothing of modern punctuation. Yet today modern punctuation is invariably used in OE texts presented to beginners and is probably the norm in scholarly editions. Why? The main reason appears to be the 'inadequacy' of the punctuation of OE manuscripts. This is less true of the prose, where some texts at any rate can be and have been presented with manuscript punctuation, than of the poetry where (as a glance at the facsimile of lines 1-33a of The Wanderer printed on page 270 will show) the punctuation can be almost non-existent. But there are good grounds for believing that the use of modern punctuation can distort both the syntax and the meaning of OE texts.
-- end transcription from Mitchell and Robinson --

The following information, written by Helmut Gneuss, has been transcribed from pages 28 and 29 of The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, second chapter, entitled "The Old English Language," [I have had to indicate long vowels -- with a line over them -- by using the acute accent, or, in the case of æ, with an apostrophe]:

-- begin transcription from Helmut Gneuss --

     The speaker of Modern English who wants to read Old English texts aloud needs to observe the following points:

1.    In accordance with the principles of Germanic accentuation, all words are stressed on the first syllable, except for words formed with a number of unstressed prefixes, especially ge-, a-, be-, for-, as in gewínnan 'conquer', forléosan [the é in the previous word was written with a line over it, and an acute accent over that line] 'lose', etc.

2.    As opposed to Modern English and Modern French, Old English has no 'silent' letters; every written letter, including word-final -e and the initial consonants in OE cnáwan 'to know' or wrítan 'to write', has to be pronounced.

3.    The phonetic value of a letter is not always that of Modern English; it is always that of Latin and therefore often that of other modern languages (Italian, French, German). This is particularly important for the pronunciation of the vowels, which is explained in the following table:

aas in English father, but shortened
áas in English father
æas in English cat
æ'[æ with a line over it] as (approximately) in English mare
eas in English let
éas the first element of the diphthong in English lane
eaas æ followed by a
éaas æ' followed by a
eoas e followed by o
éoas é followed by o
ias in English pin
ías in English see
oas in English got
óas in French côte or in German rot
uas in English put
úas in English mood
yas in French tu or in German Sünde
ýas in French rue or in German Süden

Long and short vowels must be kept distinct because they are 'phonemic', that is, they distinguish different words, as OE god 'God' and gód 'good'. Most text editions for beginners indicate vowel length by means of a superscript macron [in HTML we must use other conventions, such as acute accents, because the "superscript macron" is not available within the UTF-8 character set. The only way to get the precisely correct diacritics is to use an image of the text, but then the text size does not automatically adjust (unless you use JavaScript to detect the text size and switch the images) and the text cannot be searched or cataloged.], although no such convention was followed systematically by Anglo-Saxon scribes. Diphthongs are usually stressed on their first element.

     The pronunciation of most of the consonants corresponds to that of Modern English. Exceptions are:
(a) the spirants f, ð/þ and s, which are voiceless initially and finally, as in ModE foot/thief, thin/cloth, sin/grass, and voiced internally between vowels or voiced consonants, as in ModE drive (OE drífan), bathe and rose;
(b) h, which is a breathing initially, as in Modern English, but finally and internally is a voiceless spirant as in German ach or ich;
(c) c, g and sc, and also cc and cg. For the somewhat complex rules affecting the pronunciation of these letters, a grammar should be consulted. As a general rule -- to which, however, there are exceptions -- it may be said that c is always a stop (as in ModE can) if followed or preceded by a 'dark' vowel (a, o, u), or if followed by a consonant, but often represents an affricate (as in ModE chin) if followed by æ, e, i, or preceded by i, while g -- in early Old English actually a velar spirant -- should be pronounced as a stop (as in ModE go) if followed or preceded by 'dark' vowels or if followed by a consonant; otherwise it is frequently a spirant to be pronounced like the initial sound in ModE yell.

-- end transcription from Helmut Gneuss --

Here are some selected pages from Stephen Pollington's 1997 book, First Steps in Old English.

The following is a complete reproduction of Alan J. Bliss's short book, An Introduction to Old English Metre. --