The language now known as Old English arrived in Britain in the fifth century, not long after the end of Roman rule, brought by settlers from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. It was in use for 700 years, but only about 200 manuscripts containing any Old English survive, mainly from the period between 900 and 1100, and they comprise a total of 3.5 million words — fewer than in the current US tax code. Today most people who engage with Old English do so at college and treat it as a dusty relic of a less enlightened age. Those who have not encountered it tend to imagine it’s the stuff of archaic English pub signs. Worse, they assume it’s the name for the language of Geoffrey Chaucer (which is actually Middle English) or Shakespeare (which is technically Early Modern English, despite student protestations to the contrary).
Hana Videen is one of a rare and treasurable breed of enthusiasts who want to remedy such misconceptions. Since the fall of 2013, she has taken to Twitter every day, as @OEWordhord, to post a single example of an Old English word. More than eight years on, the fruit of this slow accumulation is her first book. I doubt that I’m alone in frowning at the proliferation of nonfiction that began life as burblings on social media, and there’s an undelightful subgenre of Twitterature consisting of volumes that merely pile up linguistic trivia. But Ms. Videen is both a passionate medievalist and a relaxed, lucid writer; the pleasure she takes in her subject is infectious.
Some of the vocabulary presented in “The Wordhord” looks very familiar: One needs no help to understand what’s meant by the nouns “butere,” “sumer” and “wulf,” and it’s pretty easy to make sense of “leornung-mann, ”A student, or even“ ears-endu, ”the buttocks. Yet many Old English words have a discouragingly odd appearance, not least because its alphabet boasted three letters that haven’t survived — ash (æ), thorn (þ) and eth (ð). Ms. Videen likens her book to an old photo album; many of the words she cites are “familiar but also strange, like seeing pictures of your parents as children.” And while she revels in showcasing lexical quirks, she has a larger mission: “As I gathered words like gems, I realized that they weren’t just funny, strange and beautiful, but that together they told a story about people’s lives more than a a millennium ago. ”
Instead of offering a comprehensive guide to Old English, “The Wordhord” leads the reader on a tour of those people’s everyday concerns: food, work, recreation, travel. You may be reassured (or dispirited) to learn that the most frequent topics of discussion in Old English included sickness and the weather — though it’s interesting that the latter was by default regarded as mild and that someone warning of an approaching deluge would refer to “ un-weder. ” A different kind of age-old preoccupation is evident in the description of Grendel, a vicious marauder in the epic poem “Beowulf,” who’s considered monstrous because he is a “mearc-stapa” —in other words, a “boundary-stepper, ”Lurking on the fringes of society and threatening the established order.
The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English
Princeton University Press
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Yet, unsurprisingly, much about the world evoked in “The Wordhord” feels alien. One could pay one’s tax in fish, perhaps throwing in a few eels for good measure, or in honey, lumber or blankets. A person accused of a crime might be expected to hold an ounce of bread and cheese in his mouth; if he had difficulty swallowing it, he was guilty. The smallest unit of time measurement was the hour. There was no Old English word for “nature”; one simply referred to “sceaft” (creation).
Ms. Videen explains that “when left untouched by humans, sceaft was wild, often incomprehensible, inspiring fear and awe rather than joy and admiration. ” Accordingly, a horse, instead of being seen to have intrinsic beauty, became attractive only once fitted with a fine saddle and gold ornaments. “Sceaft” was haunted by elves, nymphs and goblins. While the “nagm” —which could be a serpent, earthworm or dragon — seems to have been a motif of people’s darker thoughts, scribes were nervously uncertain about the characteristics of the “twēo-mann,” a creature variously claimed to have a beard reaching its knees, a gentle voice, the long legs of a bird and the shape of a donkey from the navel down.
Ms. Videen tends to exhibit words individually — as tweetable nuggets — rather than situating them in the texts where they occur. Yet there are enough literary snippets here to suggest why Old English has enchanted so many authors. The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins believed it “a vastly superior thing to what we have now”; among those to share his tastes have been Ezra Pound, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and Seamus Heaney. To Heaney, whose translation of “Beowulf” equally relishes the poem’s savagery and subtleties, it seemed substantial and sincere; he commended the “hand-built, rock-sure feel of the thing” and its array of words like “tools from the age of giants.”
A much-admired feature of Old English is the “kenning,” a figurative phrase or compound noun that stands in for a familiar word: The mind is a “hord-loca,” and instead of referring to a ship one might speak of a “Flōd-wudu” (flood-wood). A thousand years ago, writers used kennings — the word itself is not Old English but borrowed from the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson — to achieve descriptive intensity.
Even when rendered in 21st-century English, many kennings remain wonderfully vivid. The body is a bone-locker, flesh-hoard or life-house; the sun is a heaven-candle; the sea can be the wave-path, sail-road or whale-way. A spider is a weaver-walker. A battle is a storm of swords. A visit to a grave is a dust-viewing. These condensed metaphors activate the imagination: First they make the ordinary look strange, and then, as their strangeness dissolves, our powers of perception feel refreshed — or medieval, as an inhabitant of early Britain might have put it, “ge-hyrted.”
Mr. Hitchings is the author of “The Secret Life of Words” and “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English.”
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