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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