It's a naive question : I can't decide what's the value of "ġe" in Old English :

  • either it's a digraph to be read [j], hence "ġeong" = [joŋɡ] (or [juŋɡ] ? as stated here). Such digraphs exist in French (e.g. the first name "Georges"=[ʒɔʁʒ], not [geɔʁge]). It seems to me that this record reads the line #13 "ġeong in ġeardum..." more or less this way : [joŋɡ in jardum], not [jeo̯ŋɡ in jæa̯rdum] as it would have to be said with the diphthongs "eo" and "ea". But if "ġe" stands for [j], what about a word like ġēotan ("to pour") ?

  • either it's simply "ġ" followed by the vowel [e], leading e.g. to read a diphthong in the word "ġeong" = [jeo̯ŋɡ]. This interpretation would fit with the following extract from Don Ringe's The development of Old English, p.29 : "PGmc *jungaz 'young" (Goth. juggs) > ON ungr, OE iung ~ ġeong", showing that both forms (without/with diphthongaison) existed. Did such a diphthongaison occur in the course of the phonological history of English ? I can't find any evidence of it.

The only book I have (A guide to Old English, 6th edition, pp 14-15) only recalls that the diphthongs "eo" and "ēo" exist in Old English and that "[b]efore e and i, [...] g is usually pronounced like [...] y in MnE 'yet'".

  • 1
    Wikipedia mentions the issue: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… According to the account there, "geong" would have been a false diphthong but "geaf" would have been a true one. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 22:37
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    The Ringe quote simply shows that both spellings existed; I wouldn't take the ~ as necessarily implying a variation in pronunciation.
    – TKR
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 18:39

1 Answer 1


The Old English letter <­g> (specifically not using the overdot as that is a much later convention) is a fickle beast: it pulled double duty as it represented both /g/ (as in <­græf>) and /j/ (as in <­gist>). Because English of the day had no grapheme like <­j>, and since it used <­y> only as a vowel (to mark the front-rounded vowel /y/), it had to adapt what letters it had to the phonetics of its words. Many Proto-Germanic words that had /*g-/ in them (like <*girnijaną>) ended up undergoing palatalisation of that /*g-/ to a palatal sound in Old English, i.e. what we assume to be /j/ (as in <­giernan>).

One must really differentiate between orthography and phonetics here: the way a word is spelled has little effect on how it's pronounced. The letter <­g> in Old English was generally pronounced as /j/ when it was followed by a grapheme used for a front vowel, even if that vowel wasn't actually pronounced (or even, wasn't ever even a thing) there. As such, you'll see a lot of <­e> inserted into Old English words in places where they didn't belong only because the Anglo-Saxons had no other way they could think of to represent /j/; this could lead one to confusion (as it has led you too!) and might make you believe all such <­ge> were pronounced as a plain, vowelless /j/. This isn't the case, as the <­e> in this <­ge> could easily have come from a diphthong, as is the case in <­geard> (whence your <­geardum>) that had the short diphthong <­ea>, or in verbs such as <­giefan> /jiefan/ and <­gēotan> /je:otan/.

On a bit of a sidenote, you'll also see that, due to this palatalisation of Germanic /*g-/, almost no native, directly inherited English word actually has an initial /g/ before a front vowel; words such as <­gift> and <­give> are usually loans from a language with /g/ in such a position (most commonly Old West Norse); the only exceptions to this are English words that underwent i-umlaut (<­geese> is a good example) after the g-palatalisation had already happened.

  • Thank-you, @Darkgamma. I had to look up 'get' immediately, and indeed that's a later borrowing! Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 16:55

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