What is Old English?

 

When I tell people that I study Old English, the single most common reply is the following: “So, like, Shakespeare?” (Or, occasionally: “So, Chaucer?”) This is perhaps understandable to a certain degree: for anyone from Canada who didn’t study English after high school, the oldest English text they’ve read was probably one of a short list of Shakespeare’s plays prescribed by the public school curriculum.

It’s also totally erroneous: Shakespeare is Modern English, and the simplest way to explain this is with an example or two.

Here is a short excerpt of Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, part 1: the scene is the prelude to a duel between Prince Henry (the future Henry V) and Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, who is leading a rebellion against the crown.

This is the text in Old English prose (my translation – leaving personal names intact):

 

HOTSPUR:

Gif ic ne bēo bedroren, þū eart Harry Monmouth.

PRINCE HENRY

þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan.

HOTSPUR:

Mīn nama bið Harry Percy.

PRINCE HENRY:

Hwæt! þa ic sceāwige

wiþfeohtend ārhwætne mid þām naman.

iċ eom ætheling Brytenlandes; ond ne tale, Percy,

nu in mīn æsctīras efngedǣlan.

swā twēġen steorran in anum hwyrft ne magon belīfan,

swā Albion ne mæġ habban cyningas twēġen:

ǣġðer Harry Percy, ġe ætheling Brytenlandes.

 

I’m pretty sure that Ontario high school students would be less than thrilled if that was assigned as required reading! Now, Shakespeare’s version, c. 1597:

 

HOTSPUR

If I mistake not, thou art Harry Monmouth.

PRINCE HENRY

Thou speak’st as if I would deny my name.

HOTSPUR

My name is Harry Percy.

PRINCE HENRY

Why, then I see

A very valiant rebel of the name.

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,

To share with me in glory any more:

Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere;

Nor can one England brook a double reign,

Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.

 

One of these is intelligible to the average native English speaker; the other … not so much! While Old English is still recognizably related to the language we speak today (“gif” as the predecessor of “if”, “nama” as the predecessor of “name”, and “þū eart” as the predecessor of “thou art”, which is now admittedly archaic), the grammar, vocabulary, and spelling have shifted significantly – signficantly enough that you can’t really sit down and read Old English texts without learning a new language.

The opening lines of the only Old English poem anyone has usually heard of – Beowulf – should suffice to demonstrate this:

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,

monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,

egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð

feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,

weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,

oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra

ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,

gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!

 

Aside from “we” and “in” and “oft” – which still retain basically the same senses in modern English – and the last sentence (þæt wæs god cyning! = “that was (a) good king!”), most of this is not even close to something that would be comprehensible today.

So we’ve gone back way before Shakespeare. More than five hundred years before, in fact, and to a time when “England” as a country did not even exist – when scholars talk about “Old English” or “Anglo-Saxon”, they’re referring to the language spoken by the Germanic tribes who conquered and then settled the land that would become England, in the period from about 500 to 1066 C.E. “Middle English” refers to the period immediately after the Norman Conquest, from about 1066 to 1450. Middle English is the English of Chaucer – “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote” is a little bit more intelligible than “Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum”, but it’s still quite difficult to read. And finally, by the time we get to the Renaissance (and Shakespeare), we’re firmly in the realm of Modern English.

(To put those dates in perspective, there’s still more time between the end of the Old English period and Shakespeare than there is separating Shakespeare and the speaker of modern English today.)

It’s not surprising, then, that in the course of fifteen hundred years, the language has undergone some significant changes – including some changes that can make Old English a bit of a headache for those used to the modern version:

 

  1. Like Latin, and modern French, German, Spanish, and Icelandic, Old English nouns have grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter).
  1. Like Latin, Old Norse, and German, Old English is an inflected language: meaning is created not through word order, but through little suffixes attached to the end of words, which tell you whether the word in question is the subject, object, verb, indirect object, etc. of the sentence. For example, in my translation of Henry IV, above, the word “nama” (name) appears with a couple of different endings. In Hotspur’s line, “Mīn nama bið Harry Percy” [My name is Harry Percy], “nama” is in the nominative (subject) case and thus has no ending. But in Prince Henry’s line immediately before, “þū sprecst, swelċe ic wille mīn naman ætsacan” [Thou speak’st as though I would deny my name], “naman” is the object of the verb, and thus in the accusative case, with a suffixed –n. This also means that writers and poets can become very creative with word order – to go back to the opening lines of Beowulf as an example, in Old English we have:

Hwæt!

           We Gardena         in geardagum,

þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,

hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.

 

A word-for-word translation without changing the word order:

 

Hwæt!

So! (“Listen!” or “Hey! Pay attention, I’m starting the story!”)

 

We Gardena                            in         geardagum

We of-the-spear-Danes        in         days-of-yore

 

þeodcyninga,                           þrym   gefrunon,

of-the-people’s-kings            glories have heard,

 

hu        ða        æþelingas         ellen              fremedon.

how     those princes           brave-deeds performed.

 

To get it into modern English word order, we have to do this:

 

Hwæt! We gefrunon þrym þeodcyninga Gardena in geardagum,

So! We have heard of the glories of the kings of the peoples of the Spear-Danes in days of yore,

hu ða æþelingas fremedon ellen.

how those princes performed brave deeds.

 

  1. Like Old Norse, modern Arabic, and Tolkien’s invented languages Sindarin and Quenya, Old English retains dual pronouns: “we (two)” or “you (two)” required a different pronoun than “we (group of three or more)” or “you (group of three or more)”
  1. Like Old Norse and modern Icelandic, Old English has a few extra letters: þ (“thorn” – borrowed from the runic alphabet, and pronounced “th” as in “thin”), æ (“ash” – pronounced like the “a” in “cat”), and ð (“eth” – pronounced “th” as in “then”).
  1. Like Old Norse poetry, Old English verse depends on alliteration, not end-rhyme: “Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, / monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah”

 

Despite the differences, though, the close relationship between the two languages – Old English and its modern descendant – is made clear when we look at the basic vocabulary. Although we’ve since borrowed all sorts of words from other languages like French and Latin, many of the most common words in English are still derived from Old English originals:

sprecan                      to speak

singan                         to sing

rinnan                         to run

hus                              house

fæder                          father

modor                         mother

blæc                            black

and/ond                     and

þæt                             that

eald                             old

god                              good

leoht                           light

nu                               now

hwa                             who

hwæt                          what

cyning                         king

sæ                               sea

 

(One obligatory caveat: while this is often helpful, even words that seem to look familiar may have changed their meanings significantly. Our modern English “queen”, for example, comes straight from Old English “cwen”. But in Old English, “cwen” simply meant “woman”, not “queen”. Similarly, modern English “churl” comes from Old English “ceorl”, but in Old English, “ceorl” had no negative connotations whatsoever, and was simply a word for a man. A “cniht” was a boy, not a knight in shining armour; a “wif” was any woman, not just a wife; an “eorl” was any man or warrior, not just a nobleman; and “sona” translates as “immediately” rather than “soon”.)

I have another post in the works that will cover the Old Norse side of things, but suffice it for the moment to say that while Old Norse is contemporary with Middle English, it’s much closer – linguistically – to Old English. And while neither Old English nor Old Norse would have been intelligible to Shakespeare, there’s a great deal of wonderful literature written in both languages that has survived for a millennium and more, available to be read and enjoyed – if only we take the time to learn the languages in which it’s written.

(And hopefully, Shakespeare doesn’t seem so bad, now?)

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One comment on “What is Old English?

  1. Pingback: On Learning Languages (2) | Merely Inquisitive

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