Anglo-Saxon Names, Part 1: A Pronunciation Guide

WAVE OF EGG-KINGS

Soon after this event [the conversion of England] Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable—except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfilth, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.

—1066 And All That, W.C. Sellar & R.J. Yeatman, 1930

The names: they are the first thing readers notice and remark on about a book set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most of them sound strange, made up of unexpected groupings of letters. It’s unclear how to pronounce them—even which syllable is supposed to get the stress. And what do you do with a name that starts with Æð ?

Below I’ve provided a simple guide to pronouncing Anglo-Saxon names.

In general, you should pronounce every letter in an Anglo-Saxon name. There are not any silent letters. Emphasis is always on the first syllable.

Vowels:

A as in cart (short) or all (long)

E as in ever (short) or angel (long)

I as in igloo (short) or evil (long)

O as in octopus (short) or over (long)

U as in oops (long)

Æ (upper case) or æ (lower case) is called ash. It is pronounced like the a in ash.

Đ (upper case) or ð (lower case) This letter is called eth and represents a /th/ sound.

Þ (upper case) or þ (lower case) This letter is called thorn and also represents a /th/ sound.

Fun fact: The people of Iceland were originally taught to write by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. As a result, thorn and eth are still used in modern Icelandic. In Icelandic, thorn represents an unvoiced /th/ as in ‘thick’, while eth is used for voiced /th/ as in ‘them.’ In Old English they are used interchangeably for both voiced and unvoiced /th/.

The Mercian characters in the first Edwin story, Aethelwulf and Aethelred, are therefore pronounced Ath-el-wolf and Ath-el-red.

Consonants:

These are pronounced pretty much as in modern English, except for c, h, and g.

C – At the beginning of a word, c is thought to have been pronounced as /ch/, so the name of the Mercian king Ceolwulf would be pronounced Chay-ol-wolf.

H – This letter is pronounced as you would expect, except when it appears next to a t. The h in this -ht combination has a sound like Scottish ‘loch’. It is the origin of our modern -ght at the end of words like ‘night’ and ‘thought’—it used to be a throatier sound. The g was later added to the ht combination by Norman scribes who thought it needed an extra letter.

G – At the beginning of a word, this letter was sometimes pronounced as if the word began with a y. Many of our modern English words that start with a y today (yesterday, yearn, yarn, etc.) were spelled with an initial g in Old English. Elsewhere in the word, g is pronounced as you would expect in Modern English.

There are some consonant pairs that have special pronunciations.

HW – pronounced like modern wh. Sensibly, the Anglo-Saxons put the h first because that’s what sound comes first. It was those pesky Norman scribes that switched them around.

CW – pronounced like modern qu, as in ‘queen’ (Old English cwen). Again, this sensible Anglo-Saxon spelling was changed by Norman scribes.

WR and WL – You pronounce both the letters. Go on, try it!

And what do we do with the wave of Egg-Kings immortalized by that little comedic gem of a book 1066 And All That?

The Egg-Kings really had names beginning with the name element ecg. (More on name elements in the next blog post). The consonant combination cg was pronounced like our /dg/, so what the authors of 1066 remember as “egg” is really “edge”—as in ‘sword’s edge.’ Suddenly these Anglo-Saxon names move from comedy into more of a “military drama” category, don’t they? And if you read your Bede and Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, you’ll see that the Eggdeaths by which they perished were, in fact, more often edge-deaths.

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