Old Saxon phonology

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The phonology of Old Saxon corresponds quite well to that of the other ancient Germanic languages, and also, to a lesser extent, quite well with that of modern Germanic languages such as English, Dutch, German and Low Saxon.

Old Saxon is an Ingvaeonic language, which means that it belongs to the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages, and that it is particularly related to Old English, Old Frisian, Old Dutch, and (to a lesser extent) Old High German (since Old Saxon is a Low German language and Modern German a High German language). Thus, anyone looking at Old Saxon phonology will recognize some typical West-Germanic phonological features also found in Old English, such as gemination and the different pronunciations of the letter g (particularly obvious in Modern Dutch).

Early developments[edit]

Old Saxon did not participate in the High German consonant shift, and thus preserves stop consonants p, t, k that have been shifted in Old High German to various fricatives and affricates. The Germanic diphthongs ai, au consistently develop into long vowels ē, ō, whereas in Old High German they appear either as ei, ou or ē, ō depending on the following consonant.

Old Saxon, alone of the West Germanic languages, consistently preserves Germanic -j- after a consonant, e.g. hēliand "savior" (Old High German: heilant, Old English: hǣlend, Gothic: háiljands). Germanic umlaut, when it occurs with short a, is inconsistent, e.g. hebbean or habbian "to have" (Old English: habban). This feature was carried over into the descendant of Old Saxon, Middle Low German, where, for example, the adjective krank (sick, ill) had the comparative forms krenker and kranker. Apart from the e, however, Umlaut is not marked in writing.


The table below lists the consonants of Old Saxon. If two phonemes appear in the same box, the first of each pair is voiceless, and the second one is voiced. Symbols written in parentheses represent allophones and are not independent phonemes.

Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n (ŋ)
Plosive p b t d k ɡ
Fricative f (v) θ (ð) s (z) ʃ (ç) (x) (ɣ) h
Approximant l j w
Trill r
  • Most consonants could be geminated. Notably, gemination of [v] gave [bb], and gemination of [ɣ] probably gave [ɡɡ]. Gemination of [h] resulted in [xx].
  • As in some other ancient West Germanic dialects[examples needed] the voiceless spirants /f/, /θ/, and /s/ gain voiced allophones ([v], [ð], and [z]) when positioned at the beginning of a syllable. This change is only faithfully reflected in writing for [v] (represented with letters such as ƀ[examples needed] in texts); the other two allophones continued to be written as before.
  • [v] also occurred word medially as an independent phoneme[dubious ], developed from Proto-Germanic *[β], the fricative allophone of */b/. It seems that it also occurred before /d/.
  • [x] is an allophone of /h/ that occurs word finally and before /t/.
  • /d/ was pronounced as [t] only when it occurred word finally; thus, for example, word was pronounced [wort], but its genitive form wordes was pronounced [wordes].
  • [v] devoiced to [f] word finally and before consonants, except for /d/.


Old Saxon vowels
Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i  y u
Mid e  ø o
Open a


  • Long vowels were rare in unstressed syllables and mostly occurred due to suffixation or compounding.
  • /u/ and /o/ were articulatorily close, as they eventually merged into one sound at the end of the Old Saxon period. Thus we find andwordian instead of expected *andwurdian, from Proto-Germanic *andawurdijaną.


Old Saxon diphthongs
Opening io  (ia  ie)
Height-harmonic iu


  • The closing diphthongs /ei/ and /ou/ sometimes occur in texts (especially in Genesis), probably under the influence of Franconian or Old High German dialects, where they replace Old Saxon developments /eː/ and /oː/ (which evolved from Proto-Germanic /ai/ and /au/).
  • The situation for the front opening diphthongs is somewhat unclear in some texts. Words written with io in the Heliand are often found written variably with ia or even ie in other texts, probably under influence from other dialects. They seem to have all developed into /eː/ in Middle Low German.
  • Similarly /iu/ merged with the other opening diphthongs at the end of the old Saxon period. However it seems that the difference between opening and height-harmonic diphthongs remained until Middle Low German, where 3rd class strong verbs still show the alternation of /io/ and /iu/ as /eː/ and /ie/.
  • There also existed 'long' diphthongs /oːu/, /aːu/ and /eːu/. These were however treated as two-syllable sequences of a long vowel followed by a short one, not proper diphthongs.

Spelling and Pronunciation[edit]

Old Saxon comes down to us in a number of different manuscripts whose spelling systems sometimes differ markedly. In this section, only the letters used in normalized versions of the Heliand will be kept, and the sounds modern scholars have traditionally assigned to these letters. Where spelling deviations in other texts may point to significant pronunciation variants, this will be indicated.


In general, the spelling of Old Saxon corresponds quite well to that of the other ancient Germanic languages, such as Old English or Gothic. The letters p, t, and k are pronounced as one would expect:

  • skip 'ship' with [p]
  • watar 'water' with [t]
  • folkes 'folk's' (gen. sg.) with [k]

c is sometimes found instead of k, it is also usually pronounced [k]:

  • cliƀon 'to hold fast' begins with [k]

Only before i and e does c or k have a considerably different pronunciation, namely [ts]:

  • crûci 'cross' with [ts]

The letters b and d are generally pronounced as in Modern English, but in word-final position and before voiceless consonants like t or s, they are probably pronounced [p] and [t]:

  • bi 'by' with [b]
  • dôn 'to do' with [d]


  • lamb 'lamb' with final [p]
  • flôd 'flood' with final [t]

As in other Germanic languages like Old English or Modern Dutch, g is pronounced in a number of ways. At the beginning of a word, immediately after n, and when doubled, it is pronounced [ɡ]:

  • gôd 'good' begins with [ɡ]
  • gangan 'to go' has the sequence [ŋɡ] as in English "finger"
  • seggian 'to say' contains [ɡɡ], as in Modern English "big guns"

Word-finally after n, g is pronounced as [k]

  • lang 'long' with final [ŋk]

As in Gothic and Old Norse, one pronunciation of g in Old Saxon is a voiced fricative: [ɣ], namely medially, before a back vowel (a, o, u, etc.), or before a voiced consonant:

  • dages 'day's' (gen. sg.) with [ɣ]
  • fuglos 'birds' with [ɣ]

As in Old Norse, a more j-like voiced fricative [ɣj] is found medially between front vowels (i, e, etc...):

  • wege 'way' (dat. sg.) with [ɣj]

Word-finally, g is pronounced as [x]:

  • dag 'day' with final [x]

The letter f is pronounced as one would expect:

  • fallan 'to fall' with [f]

The voiced equivalent of f in Old Saxon - thus the letter that is pronounced [v] - is the letter ƀ:

  • cliƀon 'to hold fast' with [v]

Note that in normalized spellings, these two letters do not generally appear in the same positions: ƀ appears medially between voiced sounds (especially vowels) while f appears initially, finally, and before voiceless consonants.

See also[edit]


  • Galleé, Johan Hendrik (1910). Altsächsische Grammatik. Halle: Max Niemeyer. 
  • Robinson, Orrin W. (1947). Old English and its closest relatives. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 
  • Helfenstein, Jacob (1901). Comparative Grammar of the Teutonic languages. Oxford: Forgotten Books.