Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Brief Introduction To Old English

Whenever I mention that Beowulf was written in Old English I hear a lot of comments from people who seem to think that means the author uses "ye" and "thee" a lot, as in "Ye Olde Englishe" or the like, as if it were the ancient language that Ben Franklin wrote in, or what King James employed in his edition of the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, the King James Bible, compiled in the waning days of Shakespeare circa 1600, is written in what is known in linguistic terms as Early Modern English, some four hundred years ago, and a good six hundred years after the heyday ofBeowulf. Geoffrey Chaucer penned his epic Canterbury Tales in Middle English circa 1400, two centuries before good Sir Billy Wigglestick would write how Juliet...
doth teach the torches to burn bright
for I ne'er saw true beauty till this night!
But our more ancient Chaucer could say in Middle English...
And smalle fowles make melody
That sleepen all the night with open eye
...there being ten syllables in each of these two lines - that is: "And small-e fowl-esmak-e me-lo-dy." Here, you'll note as well, how "melody" is rhymed with "eye," signifying how the vowels have greatly shifted through the intervening years.

But this is not a lesson on Middle English, so let us now pass back another four hundred years, where we shall find the opening lines of Beowulf as they were written thus:
Hwæt we gar-dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Yes, this is English! What a difference four hundred years can make. But think, then, how different is Shakespeare's writing from that of ours four hundred years removed in time from him, when he could pose this query in Hamlet's mouth:
Who would fardles bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life...when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?
Those words lived 400 years ago, Chaucer's some 600 years before our present day. And if you were to open the covers of Layamon's Brut from circa 1200 - 800 years into the past - what you would find would look like this:
Arthur hit wende þat hit soþ were
þat Childrich were ichord to his owe londe.
This is slightly more recognizable than our Old English lines, but only marginally so. But what, then do these "English" lines from Beowulf say? Let us take a look and see if we might make it out.

The first thing you might notice are some curious letters wholly foreign to our modern alphabet. Here is where some of the trouble lay. These, of course, would give you trouble if you knew not just what sounds they represent. There are, in fact, three letters in Old English we no longer now possess, these being æ, ð, and þ, the capitals of which are Æ, Ð, and Þ.

The first of these you might easily make out, or well enough to muddle through, for it's two component parts we still do have, the a and e that make up æ/Æ. This letter was called "ash" as that is just the sound it makes. The letter ð/Ð is known as "edth" and represents the voiced "th" sound, as in "then," whereas the letter þ/Þ, or "thorn" is the symbol for your "thin," or unvoiced version of "th." So there you have one mystery revealed.

The second thing you'll notice is that there is no punctuation, save for a final period. Punctuation would remain highly random until the Renaissance, when it would undergo a slow and laborious systematization. The Beowulf poet uses minimal punctuation, with periods and commas being placed in seemingly random places. Only at the end of a section can you be at all certain to find a regular full stop; the rest make little sense at all.

Let us turn now to vocabulary. Among the sixteen words comprising these three lines, only two will be readily recognizable to speakers of modern English, these being we and in, which have not changed in more than a thousand years, save that we would have been pronounced more like way. Here again is the first line in Old English:
Hwæt we gar-dena in gear-dagum
Hwæt literally translates as "what," but is used here as an interjection, much akin to someone saying "what up?" You might translate it here as "Yo!" or "Hark!" but I like to use the more accessible "Listen!" along with the logical and modern exclamation point.

We we have already met, so moving on to gar-dena we find the first of several compound words, which I have signified here by the use of a dash (not found in the Beowulf manuscript itself). This was a common practice in Old English poetry, where two words were put together to form a more expressive term. Here the first word gar - literally meaning "spear" - functions as an adjective to the proper noun dena, or "Danes," thus giving us the compound noun "spear-Danes." Here gar is meant to describe the warlike nature of the Danes, so that you could translate it as "war-Danes" if you prefer.

Here I must mention that, like Latin and the Romance languages, Old English is a "declined" language; meaning that suffixes are added to most words in order to define their function in the sentence. The residual influence of this can still be seen in modern English in the addition of a final "s" to change a singular into a plural, or the apostrophe s for the possessive. Likewise, adding "ed" or "ing" to verbs is still used to alter their tense.

But modern English has become predominantly a "positional" language, in which a word's place in a sentence often gives its function. For example, if you say "Bob hit Bill" you know right off who's being hit and who is doing the hitting. Were you to switch the position of the two nouns, their functions in the sentence would also change. This was not true in Old English. Although it was common to place the subject before a subsequent direct or indirect object, it wasn't technically necessary. That's because these words would have endings added to them (generally a single vowel, or an ending such as um) to define their function. So what you would have would be more like "Bobe Billa hit" (as an example), the verb almost always coming last. Were you to switch the nouns, but keep the suffixes the same, saying "Billa Bobe hit," the meaning would not change: Bob is still doing the hitting. But if you only change the endings, leaving the words in the original positions - "Boba Bille hit" - the meaning is reversed: Bill is now the aggressor.

All this is given to explain that final on dena. The Danes here are plural, and in the genitive (possessive) case, but we don't know yet just what they possess. Essentially this makes dena translate as Dane's or of the Danes. So far then we have: "Listen! We of the Danes..."

Again we come to a word we already know: in, which meant then just what it means now. But then we find our second compound word, which at first glance appears to be complete gibberish. But looks can be deceiving, as you will see.

The in gar was like our modern g. But at this early stage of the English language, where the alphabet was very much in flux, several letters had not yet settled into their final function. Even today the modern English alphabet has letters which contain multiple sounds: for example, can take on the sound of s or k, and is essentially a redundant letter, save when followed by an h. G itself, in fact, can still be voiced as a hard proper g, or as a soft "j" sound. In Old English it could also be a y. The y had not come into common use, and throughout Beowulf the g is actually used almost as often for the y sound than the letter y is itself.

And that is the case with our initial g in gear. Thus, replacing g with y you will suddenly recognize our word: year. Not so foreign looking as it seemed just a moment ago. When used as a past tense it can also be translated as yore, meaning formerly or long ago. This was a two syllable word, by the way, pronounced something like yay-ar.

The second portion of this compound term likewise employs a g, and although here it was pronounced as a hard g sound, it actually represents a y in function. The root of dagum is actually dæg, the original Old High German variant of tag, which speakers of modern German will immediately recognize as the word for day. The -um suffix is the dative plural case, which is the case that equates with the preceding in (and with the prepositions to or for)Thus, our compound phrase here is something like in year-days-gone, or day of yore. So we now have something like:
Listen! We of war-Danes in days gone by...
Okay, on to line two!
þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon
Here we come across our "thin" th, or thorn. I might also mention alliteration here. In Old English poetry the meter was employed using initial sounds of words rather than ending rhymes, and numbers of accented beats instead of syllables. Each line would contain two halves, each with two accented beats, among any number of syllables, each half of which must contain at least one word with the same initial sound, but preferably with a total of three. This being poetry, there was, of course, a great amount of variation. Thus, here in the second line we find two alliterating thorns, while in the first line we have a somewhat more unusual alliteration of two g's, the second being on the second syllable of the second part in a compound word (the first g in gear not alliterating since it's really a y). You also have two initial w's right off, so that you might think to find another w in the second half-line, but you don't. There are, however, also two alliterating d's in the first line. A more common use of alliteration comes in the fifth line of the poem where there are three initial m's:
monegum mægþum meodo-setla ofteah
But back to our translation...

The first two words here form our final compound term, and this one is fairly straight-forward. The first part, þeod, is the word for tribe, or the people of a nation or clan. Here it's being used as an adjective much as gar for our war-Danes, and so we might rather say tribal in this case. The term to which tribal refers is the Old English word for king, which you might make out from the sound, once you know the c here is pronounced with the hard k sound. Our here is akin to the German ü in pronunciation. And again, the ending makes it plural and genitive, so that we know we are speaking of the tribal kings, or leaders of the people.

The third word here is wholly unrecognizable, and bears no direct lineage to its Modern English equivalent, which is glory or greatness. I like to translate it as fame since it bears a closer resemblance to þrym in sound. And, after all, this is poetry, so you have to decide while undergoing your translation just how much of the original you want to retain, in terms of sound and meter. You can probably already see that this is, at best, difficult to achieve, and no translation can possibly attain a perfect match in every aspect. Meaning, however, is always the most important element. This word, by the way, is in the accusative case, which is the direct object of a transitive verb.

And now finally we get to our verb! So far it's all been subjects and objects about the action of which we know nothing. In Modern English we employ the suffix -ed for the past tense (preterit) case, but in Old English they often used a prefix instead. Our verb, gefrugnon, bears the past tense prefix gewhich is the equivalent of -ed. The root of the verb is frignan, meaning to hear of, so that here we have heard of something. And what have we heard of? The þrym or fame of the preceding objects: the tribal kings of the war-Danes in days gone by! 

So our literal translation is this:
Listen! We (of) war-Danes in year-days-gone
tribal-kings fame heard-of
Here we would place a comma in Modern English to indicate the end of a clause, but in Old English the words just continue on. Our final sentence in this opening passage is:
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
The first word here was pronounced who, but meant how. Next we come across an instance of our "then" th sound (or edth), in the Old English equivalent of the. Thus, these first two words mean literally how the. You can begin to see now how Old English is often not as foreign as it first appears.

Of course, the remaining three words are entirely foreign, with no direct lineage into Modern English. The first of these was the word for prince or noble, but is commonly translated here as hero, since that is what's inferred. The as ending makes it plural, so that now we have how the heroes...

Ellen might look like a woman's name, but in Old English is was the word for courage or valor. Perhaps that's why a lot of women came to be named Ellen in the Middle Ages.

And lastly we have our final verb, the root of which can be either fremian or fremman, meaning to perform or to accomplish respectively. Again this is a past tense verb, but this time the suffix -don is employed. So at last we know:
how the heroes valor performed!
So an absolutely literal translation of these lines might go:
What! We war-Danes in year-days-gone
tribal-kings fame heard-of
how the heroes valor performed!
Congratulations! You have just translated the first three lines of the epic Old English poem Beowulf. You only have 3179 lines to go!

In the opening chapter of The Saga of Beowulf the Danish King Hrothgar calls an elder bard to entertain his people as they feast in celebration of their newly-built meadhall. The old song-smith comes forth to stand before the fire, golden harp in hand, and this is what he sings:
Listen now friends!
To the glory of the Danes in days gone by
Of the King of our clan, leaders of men!
Hear now of Heroes and the clash of steel,
The feats of courage of kith and kin,
Our noble ancestors gone before!
Though they have fallen, their deeds remain,
Recorded in song, remembered by all!
You can easily see where I drew my inspiration for this opening of the bard's song. As the chapter progresses there are several further snippets such as this, each drawn from a segment of the Beowulf poem itself, sort of a poem within a poem, so to speak.