What Was Old English Like? Part I: Blithering with Beowulf
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Faced with a line in French, Spanish, or German, discerning English speakers can at least recognise a few words. Even farther-flung tongues like Russian or Japanese have some familiar tidbits sprinkled in. But you are not alone if the opening verse of Beowulf, the text written in our very own English, left you comprehensively bewildered.
When people today hear “Old English,” most think of Shakespeare. But the language of the Bard was actually an early form of modern English, a register he himself did much to shape as distinct from the late Middle English of his great-grandparents’ generation. Between him and the real Old English of Beowulf yawns a chasm one thousand years wide. As is so often true in linguistics, reality is considerably more bizarre than even the more creative among us can imagine.
To us, the language of our ancient forebears is extremely weird. Nouns arbitrarily fell into one of three genders, which is the norm for Europe but alien to English-speakers today. Depending on where they fell in a sentence, words took any of five grammatical cases, marked by changing the article (i.e., any of fifteen versions of “the”) and tacking on new endings. Modern English preserves this only in personal pronouns: “I,” “me,” and “my” correspond to the nominative, accusative/dative, and genitive cases, respectively. Imagine making that system 40% more complicated, and applying it to every single word you say.
Pronunciation, of course, was also far from ours. Before the Great Vowel Shift of the late Middle Ages, English generally sounded something like someone speaking with a thick Scottish accent. The closest modern analogy for Old English phonology would be a heady blend of Scots and Dutch.
Vocabulary is one area where at least some words are familiar. In the wake of the Norman conquest of 1066, English absorbed at least half of its current lexicon from French and Latin. But the core of our language (including ninety-nine of the hundred most common words) is still original Germanic words that have remained more or less the same since Beowulf’s day. (To illustrate, I have put non-native words in this paragraph in italics.)
For the linguistically-inclined, trying to glean meaning from a simple Old English sentence can be like a treasure hunt. Consider the following positive spin on wintry weather: Mē līcaþ sē snāw for þon þe hē dēþ þā burg stille. Literally, this is “Me liketh the snow for then he doeth the burg still” — I like the snow because it makes the city quiet.
Among other things, you may notice that “like” in Old English meant “to please.” It functioned like me gusta in Spanish: whereas we say, “I like the snow,” Beowulf would say “the snow pleases me.” Also observe that snow, as a masculine noun, is referred to as “he.” Vestiges of this survived into the 17th Century. As late as 1843, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, channelling the dialect of an ancient mariner, waxed, “The Sun came up upon the left/Out of the sea came he!” It sounds archaic in English, but this is still standard grammar in German.
In another world, if the winds had blown seaward off Lindisfarne in 793, or a fateful arrow had missed Harold Godwinson’s eyeball, nothing in this article would be particularly surprising. Old English was a conservative language — like the French today, ancient Englishmen were loth to shake up their grammar rules or adopt new words. Had England been left alone, our language today probably would not be far off from that of the 7th Century.
Just 3% of Old English words were non-native, mostly Latin. In a feat of bigotry practically unprecedented in linguistic history, the Saxons refused to adopt more than a dozen or so words from the Celtic native peoples of their own homeland. They would not even call them by their own names, instead naming them “Welsh,” a slur for foreigners.
Our language’s radical transformation over the past millennium is not normal. If a modern Russian or Icelander were transported way back in time, he would not have much difficulty making himself understood. Arabs today do not have too much trouble reading a certain religious text written 1,400 years ago. In another world, the same might go for Beowulf.
But, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, English is really weird. It is possible for a discerning person to pick out a few gems of comprehensibility in Old English. But by shining a light on the chaotic latter days of the language, we can see the origins of the English we know today.