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.


32 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.

    • I am a native English speaker, but I also took an intensive Dutch course a number of years ago. It also made learning German much easier, a sort of bridge language. This podcast series is reminiscent of that course. When Kevin noted that the Dutch pronunciation is a good guide to how Old English sounded, he was correct. His example of the evolution of “enough” is excellent. The Dutch equivalent is “genoeg”, in which each “g” is pronunced as a “back of the throat” fricative. I suspect the Dutch pronunciation is an authentic representation of how the Old English word was pronounced.

  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.

  7. Dear Kevin,
    Thank you so much for this superb series.

    1. a question: Are you aware of any other podcast series dealing with historical linguistics, e.g., a German-language podcast about the history of German (or Spanish on Spanish, French on French, etc.). I did a Google search for German, and aside from one episode, could not find anything. (“Sozusagen” from Bavarian Radio occasionally deals with language history, but not in the systematic way you do.)

    2. a request. Until others step up to do the yeoman’s job for their languages that you have valiantly done for English, might it be possible for you to have occasional supplemental podcasts where you, say, have a talk with a German linguist to discuss ways in which German and English are intertwined. A listener above pointed out the very example which inspires my request: until your program, I had not realized how modern German “genug” is related to “enough.”

    You obviously could do a bunch of these, one for Dutch, one for Norwegian, etc. In one of your episodes you made me realize that the phrase I heard my Norwegian grandmother say before the meal, “Takk for maten,” (thanks for the food) shows that “meat” was originally food in general. It would be wonderful to have the speakers of modern related languages tell how the words that in English are obsolete or archaic have survived to the modern day.

    Again, many thanks!

    Again, many thanks,

      • Hi again,
        If you’re interested by the history of French the University of Laval (Quebec) wrote a very complete document in French. Wiki’s article about it is also good and readable in French and some other languages .
        All the articles I could read online about the history of Spanish in Spanish are always short.
        Merry Christmas to everybody!

    • Hi Bill,

      With respect to your question, there is a German-language podcast called “Belles Lettres” that discusses topics related to the history of German. I don’t know of any other similar podcasts. Frankly, when I started this podcast, I didn’t realize that it would be such a unique project. I am surprised that others haven’t picked up the mantle, but the history of a language can be a difficult topic to tackle. Maybe that’s why there haven’t been similar podcasts dealing with other languages (as far as I know).

      With respect to your episode suggestion, it is actually something I have thought about, but I doubt I will make it part of this podcast. The History of English Podcast has a specific format which is a chronological narrative. With the exception of my recent interview Allan Metcalf, I don’t really do interviews. (I don’t consider myself to be very good at conducting interviews.) However, I am fascinated by the links between English and other Germanic languages, and I have considered a separate series where I break down some well known Old English texts with people who speak other Germanic languages. It would be interesting to see how the vocabulary has changed within English, but has been preserved in German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages.

    • This seems to be a common phenomenon. Semitic root word “l-h-m” means “meat” in Arabic (“lahm”) and “bread” in Hebrew (“lehem”, as in “Beth-Lehem”)

  8. Ah, I speak English and Afrikaans (descended from Dutch) and I’ve often been able to see links to Afrikaans words in your examples of Old English. That explains it.

  9. Dear Kevin,

    Thanks very much for the reference to the German podcast Belle Lettres, which is marvellous. Thanks also to the listener Monique who recommended the sources for French and Spanish (which actually do include a podcast for Spanish).

    Far be it from me, this admiring listener, to interfere with your winning formula. You say you do not feel you do well at interviews; I suspect you are being unnecessarily humble, but even if that were the case — that a discussion of this nature might not reach the high standards you have set for yourself — I suspect many of us would enjoy listening in to a recording of you casually “talking shop” with others.

    But even if that does not happen, I will certainly put in a vote for you to discuss old texts, as you propose.

    Again, many thanks.


    • Thanks! Glad the recommendations helped. With respect to interviews, we’ll see how it goes. I do have a couple of interviews planned for future episodes, but they specifically relate to the historical material in the podcast.

  10. A very interesting episode.

    A quick note on Dutch. You mentioned that it preserves a lot of the old sounds of old West Germanic but, interestingly, it has completely lost the voiced velar stop (the /g/ sound that you focused on in this episode). They all shifted to fricatives.

  11. As a latecomer trying to catch up with all of the older episodes, I first of all have to thank you for a really well-made and interesting podcast.

    Regarding the usage of the letter ‘f’ for the ‘v’-sound, that was common in Swedish as well. We used ‘f’ or ‘fv’ for the ‘v’-sound all the way up to the year 1906 (!), when a spelling reform was implemented. “Hof” (“hoof”) became “hov”, “lif” (“life”) became “liv”, “öfver” (“over”) became “över”, etc.

    Regarding vowels: to an “outsider” like me, what’s most typical of the English vowel system is that most of the Long vowels actually are diphthongs (as a result of the great vowel shift, from what I gather). So when you talk about the ‘a’-sound in “mane”, it’s actually the same diphthong as in “slay”, and the same goes for the sounds in “old”, “why”, etc. So when English-speaking people say the French word “café” for instance, it’s commonly (as in your case) pronounced “cafay” with a diphthong instead of a single vowel at the end. That’s obvious not a criticism, just an observation. 🙂

    • Good point about the diphthongs. When I was learning French in high school more than 50 years ago, a English friend who is a now-retired professor of linguistics in Paris told me that the important thing to know about French is that there are no diphthongs. It’s not quite true, but nearly so, and that is one of the hardest things for Anglophones to learn when learning to speak French.

  12. How did the voiced breathy fricative ‘g’ sound become a ‘w’ sound? Can suggest any resources that deal with this? Frankly I can’t wrap my head around it.

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