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.

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

  1. I have a question to English speakers, who don’t speak Dutch or German. Do you understand Dutch, if the person speaks very slow, or if you just read Dutch? Because as a German, I understand a lot of it, like this speech of Beatrix. Some parts are almost identical to German. On holidays in the Netherlands, my mother, who speaks just a little English, and the dutch woman next door, who only spoke a little German, used to chat for hours over the fence, both very slow and trying to pronounce very carefully. Fascinating experience for me, as a child. As Germans and English, we are looking at the dutch language from different directions, but you see the evolution, as in Strasse, straat, street.

    • Most English speakers cannot understand Dutch, except for the occasional word or perhaps a short sentence which uses Germanic words with cognates in Modern English.

      In researching and preparing the podcast, I have spent a great deal of time studying Old English words and grammar. I recently came across an audio clip in Dutch, and I was surprised at how familiar it sounded. I still did not understand most of it, but I could certainly pick out words and phrases that I would not have recognized before.

    • In January of 1960 I spent a night in a seamen’s hostel in Amsterdam. The landlady and other guests were Dutch, except for my roommate, a young Danish sailor. It was my first encounter with Dutch. But (1) I had just finished six months of study in Germany, and (2) I had a smattering of Norwegian from my mother, whose grandparents had immigrated to America from Norway. The Dutch, the Dane and I got along quite well.

    • I used to travel frequently on business to the Netherlands, and found I could not understand Dutch no matter how hard I tried. Not even Frisian, which sounds similar to English, but is still not comprehensible to me.

    • Hi, This is a very good observation. I’m an American who has lived in Germany since 1989, and when I go to Holland (Gent and Rotterdam areas), I do hear sentences that I can piece together with my English and German. And it’s also interesting listening to this fine podcast having some of the German perspective along – I tell my German wife and our half&half kids about excitedly about what I learn and the awesome similarities (sie sind weniger begeistert) – because it truely is amazing this history of not only English, but also Deutsch.

    • I grew up outside New York City. When i finally visited holland i realized though many of the words were obviously unfamilliar, I had a good gauge for reading something correctly the first time as far as pronunciation (NY having been a colony of the netherlands back when dinosaurs roamed van cortland park). As an american, however, I find it much easier to read spanish or french than dutch. Obviously one could get that ‘het weer’ is ‘the weather’, but ‘wisselvallig’ which means something like ‘everchanging’ or ‘has the capacity to change’ is something that I would never put together without a litlte help.

  2. I understand it as German sometimes (that second sentence, for instance). I don’t hear it as English at all, not even the tiniest bit.

    Using your Strasse example, I believe he says in this episode that’s it’s German that evolved during one of the sound shifts. Dutch- to me- is unshifted German.

      • Hi Kevin,

        Well, in Spanish it is also called “i griega” (Greek I). However, this is changing in Latin-America, where it is called “ye.” As I’m old-school, I don’t adhere to this new tendency.



  3. Pingback: Cider By Any Other Letters Spells As Sweet | Pommel Cyder

    • No. Believe it or not, “Ha Ha!” for laughter was actually an expression used in Old English. So it didn’t evolve out of another word. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary, says that “Ha Ha!” is a “natural utterance occurring in most languages; compare Greek ἃ ἅ, ἇ ἇ, Latin hā hā, Old French haha, aha, etc.”

  4. I’m a Brit who has spoken German 24/7 for the last 30 years. I find I can READ Dutch well enough to get through a newspaper article but can’t understand a word of it spoken.
    Luckily , by Law, every Dutchman is required to speak at least 3 languages fluently. That postcard in an Amsterdam shop window where ‘Lisa’ offers ‘French and Greek’ lessons, isn’t a euphemism. ‘Lisa’ really does hold degrees in both languages….and probably a PHD in Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Old Norse.

  5. Hi! In this episode, you talk about three ways in which the s were written, but you only describe two. What was the third one?

    By the way, thank you so much for this podcast, I’ve been a huge fan of your work for years!

  6. As soon as I heard Jutes pronounced as Yutes, I thought of the same scene from “My Cousin Vinny”! That made me laugh. Thank you for that great surprise.
    Thank you for your amazing podcast! It’s greatly appreciated.

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