Voices of Earlier English: Wulfstan's Sermon of 1014

The pronunciation of Old English used in teaching it is essentially a spelling pronunciation, with the regularized graphemes of Late West Saxon mapped onto sounds that English-speaking academics are able to pronounce. This I think contributes to the sense — already fathered by the pervasive Winchesterization of most surviving texts from the period— of linguistic homogeneity and stasis. It is also full of things that were probably absent from anybody's genuine pronunciation in the period.
Apart from a relatively small pool of historical phonologists, people who study Old English tend not to bother themselves too much about details of reconstructed pronunciation beyond what is necessary, even when they are interested in historically informed recreations. Pouring through all the readings of Old English available on Youtube and elsewhere on the internet, I could not find a single one who realized ēa as /æǝ~æɑ/ consistently, and few who even tried. This is not surprising, since the sound /eǝ~eɐ/ both comes much more naturally to Modern English speakers and conforms more to spelling. There is often either a general failure to distinguish long and short vowels, or else a tendency to exaggerate vowel length in a way that doesn't actually happen in normal speech of people who actually speak languages with contrastive vowel length. Also a strong tendency to turn ū ō ē into falling diphthongs. And more besides.

Moreover, when recordings of Old English being read aloud are made, the result sometimes does not even sound anything like a genuine language spoken by someone who both understands the sounds coming out of their mouths and is accustomed to producing them.

Dissatisfied with the OE recordings that were out there, I wanted to see if I could produce something that would hold up as a plausible specimen of late prose being read aloud. So, here's a reading of the beginning of Wulfstan's famous homily, in West Saxon. (This is probably not the pronunciation that Wulfstan himself would have used.) So here you go.

Opening of the "Sermo Lupi"

Leofan men, gecnawað þæt soð is: ðeos worold is on ofste, and hit nealæcð þam ende, and þy hit is on worolde aa swa leng swa wyrse; and swa hit sceal nyde for folces synnan ær Antecristes tocyme yfelian swyþe, and huru hit wyrð þænne egeslic and grimlic wide on worolde. Understandað eac georne þæt deofol þas þeode nu fela geara dwelode to swyþe, and þæt lytle getreowþa wæran mid mannum, þeah hy wel spæcan, and unrihta to fela ricsode on lande. And næs a fela manna þe smeade ymbe þa bote swa georne swa man scolde, ac dæghwamlice man ihte yfel æfter oðrum and unriht rærde and unlaga manege ealles to wide gynd ealle þas þeode.


Dear people, know the truth. This world is swift and nearing its end. So the longer things go on in this world, the worse they get. So it must needs be, thanks to people's sinning, that things worsen fast before the Antichrist comes and it really gets nasty and horrible throughout the world. Realize this too: that the Devil has been leading this nation off-course for years now, and people have little loyalty left — smooth talkers though they were. Crime and wrong took charge of the land, and there were never many with the zeal needed to plan out a remedy. They just heaped evil on evil day in and day out, breaking laws and wronging their way through this country.


By this point, the distinctiveness of inflectional vowels was probably quite unstable if not completely done with. Unstressed /a o/ had already merged (into something like [ɒ]) long before. At this point unstressed /e/ was on its way toward joining them as [ǝ], if it hadn't done so already. The sounds represented by <eo> had probably already shifted to /ø: ø/ (which is why the <eo> digraph was used to represent the /ø/ of early loans from Norman Romance.)


  1. You are so right about many OE recordings not sounding like natural language. I don't have anything like the analytic skills you have but in my recordings I try hard to sound natural.

  2. This is so fine! This is now my all time favorite of your recordings (mainly because of my passion for 9th C West Saxon and dear old Alfred, and because you pin down what I have often puzzled about but was unqualified to resolve)