Are varying spellings available, or was Old English rather uniform, as far as the sources show?

Variant spelling may have indicated different verbal dialects, but written dialects, involuntary eye dialect, may allow greater insight into the pronunciation. Is this cleaned up and normalized in OE dictionaries?


Old English spelling wasn't entirely uniform. I don't know how to judge the precise degree to which it was non-uniform. Old English words could have more than one spelling, and dictionary entries certainly make use of normalization: the most common normalizations are the use of symbols like ċ, ġ to represent palatal consonants and ā, ō, etc. to represent long vowels, the exclusive use of w instead of ƿ, and the use of only one of þ or ð.

The letters þ and ð both represented the same sound(s) in Old English (typically analyzed as a single phoneme /θ/ with two conditioned allophones, voiceless [θ] and voiced [ð]), and there are examples of the same word being spelled in some places with þ and in others with ð. For example, Beowulf uses the spellings æþeling and æðeling.

"Old English" comprises at least four main dialect groups that Wikipedia gives as "Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon". There were differences in pronunciation between these dialects that were made manifest in various spelling differences.

"Essentials of Old English" (University of Glasgow) mentions the existence of variation between the letters "a" and "o" before nasal consonants.

  • 2
    I might add that the spelling variations could have been much more confounding to a reader had the scribes not been generally well founded in Latin. Principles of Latin pronunciation were followed in writing the various OE dialects. There was enough correspondence of sound in the dialects and Latin that a "proper" spelling of many words was obvious. This gave readers of English 1500 years ago a certain advantage over many today, as spelling today, although largely uniform, can only give a rough guide as to pronunciation. – J. Taylor Jan 5 '19 at 10:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.