What Did Old English Sound Like? Hear Reconstructions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casual Conversations

What is the English language? Is it Anglo-Saxon? It is tempting to think so, in part because the definition simplifies a linguistic history that defies linear summary. Over the course of 1000 years, the language came together from extensive contact with Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French; then became heavily Latinized and full of Greek roots and endings; then absorbed words from Arabic, Spanish, and dozens of other languages, and with them, arguably, absorbed concepts and pictures of the world that cannot be separated from the language itself.

Shakespeare and other writers filled in the gaps (and still do), inventing words where they were lacking. Why do we then refer to the long-dead Anglo-Saxon language as “Old English,” if it is only a distant ancestor, and one, you’ll note, no English speaker today understands? There are many technical reasons for this, but to put it in plain terms: if English were a body, Anglo-Saxon might be the bones and ligaments: not only for the hardness of its consonants and its blunt, unadorned poetry, but because it contains the most common words in the language, the structural bits that hold together all those pan-linguistic borrowings.

Observe the piece of verse known as Cædmon’s Hymn, below. Amidst the tangle of unfamiliar phonemes and extinct letters like the “þ,” you cannot miss such bedrock words as “and,” “his,” “or,” “He,” and “to.” In other texts, you’ll find recognizable equivalents of “father,” “mother,” “husband,” “wife,” “good,” “god,” and many other common household words.

Nu sculon herian     heofonrices Weard,
Metodes mihte     and his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,     swa he wundra
ece Dryhten,     or onstealde.
He ærest scop     eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe     halig Scieppend.
þa middangeard     mancynnes Weard
ece Dryhten,     æfter teode
firum foldan     Frea ælmihtig.

Despite sharing many words with modern English, however, Anglo Saxon is another language, from an entirely different world long disappeared. No one living, of course, knows exactly what it sounded like, so scholars make their best educated guesses using internal evidence in the scant literature, secondary sources in other languages from the time, and similarities to other, living languages. Now that you’ve seen what Old English looks like, hear how it sounds to modern ears.

In the video at the top, student of the language Stephen Roper reenacts a casual conversation with an Anglo-Saxon speaker, one who can understand but cannot speak contemporary English. The other examples here come from literary contexts. Further up, Justin A. Jackson, Professor of English at Hillsdale College, reads the opening lines of Beowulf, and just above, hear an unnamed narrator read the epic poem’s full Prologue.

Just below—backed by a dramatic, droning score and recited over footage of misty English moors—a reading of “The Lord’s Prayer” in 11th century Old English. In this text, you’ll pick out quite a few more familiar words, though the fact that most readers know the modern English equivalent probably doesn’t hurt. But if you feel confident after listening to these speculative reconstructions of the language, enough to take a crack at reading it aloud yourself, head over this University of Glasgow collection of Old English readings.

Related Content:

Hear Beowulf Read In the Original Old English: How Many Words Do You Recognize?

These Four Manuscripts Contain All of the Literature Written in Old English–and Beyond That, There’s Nothing More

Hear Beowulf and Gawain and the Green Knight Read in Their Original Old and Middle English by an MIT Medievalist

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Ans van Kemenade says:

    Your description of the history of English, like many others, looks at it from the point of Modern English only. But Old English is thoroughly West-Germanic and is oh so closely related to Dutch and German. I am a Dutch scholar of Old English, and it is impossible to overestimate their “closeness” to Old English. Also, please note a profound influence from contact with Scandinavian in the Viking age.

  • John Jensen says:

    From what little I could follow of that guy in the first video above, it sounded like he was speaking Dutch, or maybe Frisian. What was the story with him? What was he actually speaking? Indeed, the intonations sounded Scandinavian.

    John Jensen
    jjen009 at gmail

  • Joe Jackson says:

    Just want to support the other commenters and say I also felt a Germanic and a Nordic strong influence in hearing this old English. Full disclosure I’m not a linguist just a polyglot with cultural curiosity. Also wondering who the guy in the first video is (thought he was re-enacting a language at first, but seems he’s a member of the village community in the video??). Anyway thanks for the informative article!!

  • Roxann says:

    I noticed the profile pic of whom the video belong’s was the same guy speaking the Anglo Saxon. I clicked on to his youtube page and he’s got a bunch of videos about English I guess… Still confused.

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