12 Languages

12.13 Old and Middle English

12.13.1 Alphabet

Old English is the name given to the earliest stage of English, in use until around 1150. Middle English is the name given to the English of the period between Old and modern English, roughly 1150 to 1500.

Several special characters are (or have been) employed in the printing of both Old and Middle English texts:

  • • the ash (Æ, æ), a character borrowed from the runic alphabet, pronounced approximately as in ‘hat’. This character should be printed as a single sort, not two separate letters.

  • • the eth or edh (Ð, ð), sometimes called a ‘crossed d’. This character is used indiscriminately for the voiced th as in ‘that’ and the voiceless th of ‘thin’.

  • • the thorn (Þ, þ), a character borrowed from the runic alphabet, pronounced the same as eth. Authors and editors should ensure that the printer cannot mistake a thorn for a p or a wyn (see below).

  • • the wyn or wynn, formerly called the wen (Ƿ, ƿ), a character borrowed from the runic alphabet to represent the sound of w. It is now usual to substitute w for the wyn of the manuscript, as it is easily confused with a thorn, though it may be distinguished by the absence of an ascender. Note that a printer may also mistake a wyn for a p.

  • • the yogh (Ȝ, ȝ), a Middle English letter used mainly where modern English has gh and y. In Old English script the letter g was written , so-called ‘insular g’, and pronounced, according to context, either hard (in the earlier period like Dutch g (the voiced equivalent of the German ach sound); in later Old English (like g in go) or soft (like y in year). In later manuscripts the ‘Carolingian’ g is found; after the Norman Conquest the influence of French, in which the letter was pronounced either as in go or as in gentle, caused this to be used in Middle English for those sounds, but a developed form of the insular shape (Ȝ, ȝ) for specifically English values, including the voiceless spirant in niȜt ‘night’ (still heard in Scots nicht); a combination of its two most characteristic sounds gave this character the name ‘yogh’. Except in special circumstances, Old English is now represented by g; in Middle English the distinction between g and yogh must be maintained; Ȝ is to be used for yogh in all Middle English work. In some Middle English texts the same shape is also used for z. Note that a printer may mistake a yogh for a g in one form or a 3 or z in the other.

In printing Old and Middle English no attempt should be made to regularize the use of eth and thorn even in the same word; scribes used both letters at random. Whereas eth had died out by the end of the thirteenth century, thorn continued in use into the fifteenth century, and even later as the у for th of early Scots printing and in ye or ye used for the and yt, yt, yat, for that; hence Ye Olde was originally read The Old.

12.13.2 Punctuation

Except in specialized texts, normal modern English punctuation conventions should be applied to Old and Middle English. In manuscripts, editors should not attempt to regularize or correct individual punctuation marks, especially as these marks do not necessarily perform functions equivalent to those of their modern counterparts: in the Old English of the late tenth and eleventh centuries a semicolon was the strongest stop and a full point the weakest.


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