A New Take on Old English with “The Wake: A Novel”

As a devotee of language, I am also a fan of history.  Language and its change are a result of what happens in history; when cultures meet, trade, meld, or dominate… there is linguistic change.  For the English language, the single most transformative period followed the Norman Conquest of 1066.  We do have writings from this period in both Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French, but nothing can quite capture the feelings of a people truly facing the end of their world like a personal narrative, even if it is fictional.  Enter “The Wake: A Novel” by Paul Kingsnorth.

Kingsnorth wanted to write a story written in Old English, but he faced a problem… would anyone be able to read it.  So, what he set out to do was to pair down our modern language to rely more heavily on words of Anglo-Saxon origin and use a spelling more reminiscent of of this older tongue.  He has created what he calls a “Shadow Tongue.”  It isn’t Old English, but you get the feeling of the language but with the ability for a much wider audience to comprehend its pages.  Don’t get me wrong, if you do not find this idea intriguing it may seem off putting; but if you are looking for your next reading challenge and have any interest in the English language and history, this is for you.

Throughout the read, I have found myself laughing at the character of Buccmaster of Holland, the principal character and narrator of the tale, and his outbursts only shortly thereafter to be taken aback by the thoughts of living through such a time.  The book certainly has its share of humor expressed in the camaraderie of many of the characters and it spares little of the brutality of the events.

My understanding is that this book is the first of a trilogy with the first set one thousand years ago, the second in modern times, and the third a millennium into our future.

The book comes with a small glossary that explains some of the words, but it isn’t comprehensive, by intent, and a small guide concerning the language.  My suggestion would be to start with the guide and skim the glossary (not to try to memorize, but just go with it), then jump in.  If you have at least a vague understanding of Old English and the sound changes it was experiencing before the Norman Conquest (for example, “C” often times being pronounced as our modern “CH” and “G” often times being pronounced as our modern “Y”), then you are off to a good start.

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