The Anglo-Saxons used two different systems of writing: runes, and the Roman alphabet. Runes were of limited use, mostly used in the very early period for carving onto stone or wooden objects; there are no charter bounds written in runes, so these will not be considered here.

The system of writing that we are interested in was brought to the Anglo-Saxons through contact with the post-Roman world of Christian Europe. This is essentially the same alphabet that we use today, but there are some letters which, for the writing of Old English, have come and gone over time. There are four letters which we don't use any more (‘thorn’, ‘eth’, ‘ash’ and ‘wynn’) and two letters which we use but which the Anglo-Saxons didn't (‘j’ and ‘v’). Until the late Old and early Middle English period, they also rarely used the letters ‘k’, ‘q’ and ‘z’.

The problem was that the Roman alphabet was designed for the language of the Romans, namely Latin. But there were some sounds in Old English which don't exist in Latin, and so there was no obvious way of writing them. One example of this is the sound we represent in modern English by the letters th.

There are several ways of dealing with this problem. You can amalgamate two separate letters into one new letter. You can adapt an existing letter to create a new one. You can put two letters together. Or you can borrow a letter from a different alphabet. The Anglo-Saxons did all four.

The letter æ ‘ash’ is an amalgamated letter roughly representing a sound between ‘a’ and ‘e’. Two letters were borrowed from the runic alphabet: þ 'thorn', and ƿ 'wynn', and one was adapted from the Latin alphabet ð ‘eth’. Eth and thorn both represent the th sound, and wynn represents w. Because wynn has exactly the same sound as our modern w, a lot of editors just use w to represent wynn, and we are building in a facility to enable you to replace the wynn with a w in the edited texts.

Please note that ð (eth), þ (thorn), and æ (ash) can be displayed on your monitor but wynn may be more difficult. This is because æ, ð, and þ are still used in the Icelandic language today, and so they are built into your computer. If you want to see these letters in action then have a look at Morgunblaðið which is the daily newspaper in Iceland. There are other characters, such as a crossed thorn (see later), which you could use if you install a special font on your computer. This font is called Junicode and can be downloaded from the Junicode website. The instructional part of this module will use w rather than wynn.

The name 'English'