Episode 35: English Sounds and Roman Letters

As the sounds of English evolved in the 7th century, the first English scribes began to write the language with the Roman alphabet.  But the English scribes had to invent ways to represent the unique sounds of Old English.  In this episode, we explore the first English alphabet and the lingering effect of that alphabet on modern English spellings.

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9 thoughts on “Episode 35: English Sounds and Roman Letters

  1. Hi, I’m enjoying all the old English pronunciations and feeling that, as. Dutch speaker, I could easily pick it up and hold conversations. (This is probably hubris.)

    When I got to know more British and American people, I didn’t understand why they thought Beowulf was difficult.

    If you should want more Dutch readings, or just sounds, let me know.

    • MJ,

      Thanks for the feedback. I don’t speak Dutch, but my impression is that Dutch is actually closer to Old English than Modern English is. Your comments seem to confirm that. I don’t know if I will incorporate Dutch into any future episodes, but if I do, I may take you up on your offer.

      Thanks again and be sure to keep listening!

  2. Great episode. I always feel like Dutch is a language I should understand, but can’t. It sounds so familiar to me, but I can’t make out most of it.

    A couple of thoughts:

    I am wondering if you are going to get into the reason why English has no accents (umlauts, etc.). I know we dropped edh and thorn because the Normans preferred the “Th” instead, but they have ç á, etc – why don’t we? Yes, adding an e at the end of a word can change the sound of a vowel (hat, hate) but surely we could use accents elsewhere.

    Also, I studied a bit of Icelandic and the g sound shift (right term?) makes much more sense to me now. For example, the Icelandic word for day is dag and it’s pronounced dag but the plural is daginn which is pronounced like “Day-in”; the g shifts to a y in the middle of words (generally).

    • Jim,

      I am not sure how much I will cover accents marks or symbols since English doesn’t really use them. I may cover it during the period of Middle English when I will speak much more about French and the impact it had on English. I usually have the next 4 or 5 episodes planned out in my head – but beyond that anything is possible.

  3. Hi Kevin. I’ve listened to all your episodes from the beginning and I’m beginning to feel like an expert on the subject. Thanks very much.

    One thing that has always intrigued me is the elongated “s” that was in use until quite recently. I can’t determine the sound it would have made from the context and it seems to be used in a very arbitrary manner. Also, does it have a specific name?

    Everything else seems to make sense so far.

    • Anita,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. The elongated ‘S’ is typically called the “long S” or “medial S.” It had the same sound as the modern regular ‘S’. It was just a different way of writing the letter. Apparently it was often confused with the lowercase italicized ‘f’, so later printers just switched to the modern ‘S’ which was also used at the time.

      Thanks again for the question.

  4. All of you History of English podcasts have been very satisfying to me. I have had so many “aha” moments when you shed light on some word or sound of letter that I have wondered about or more likely never thought about until I heard it on your podcast. Your podcast have given me a deep appreciation for many simple words that I had taken for granted.

    I have been waiting on this episode for a long time to finally understand the reason for the silent “gh”. And it was so satisfying after you explained it. I listened to this podcast several times and I enjoyed it each time. I know I can look it up but listened to your podcast is more enjoyable.

    I do have a what I think is a related question, where did the silent “k’ come from in words like knife and knight? I hope I didn’t miss it.

    Always looking forward to your next podcast. Not looking forward to the dreaded LAST episode.

    • Chuck,

      Thanks for the feedback regarding the episode. Old English words were spelled phonetically, so the ‘K’ was once pronounced at the beginning of words like ‘knight’ and ‘knife.’ And the ‘G’ was once pronounced in words like ‘gnat.’ But those initial consonants disappeared in Middle English. So I decided to wait to discuss those disappearing sounds when I get to the period of Middle English.

      Thanks again for the comments and stay tuned for the next episode where I will continue to explore Old English spellings.

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