Old English

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 do not find this idea intriguing it may seem off putting; but if are looking for your next reading challenge and have any interest in 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 thousands 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 (to not try and memorize, 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.

Language, Old English

Old English – Introduction and the Shift from G to Y

Old English, as we know it today, is the original Germanic language [group] spoken by the Angles, Saxon, and Jutes that migrated to the isle of Great Britain from around the 5th century to the 11th century leading up and through the Norman Invasion of 1066.  It is a language that is virtually unrecognizable compared to contemporary English unless you study and/or have a penchant for linguistics.  Old English was not a snapshot in time but a set of languages with various dialects and ongoing influences from the native Celtic languages of the Britons, Welsh, Picts, and Scots and the Northern Germanic Old Norse languages of the viking invaders.  In addition, even prior to the influx of French words into English during the period of Norman domination, Latin had already provided some influences into the original Germanic languages from the mainland prior to the migration to Great Britain and afterwards through the Church.

From my very humble knowledge of Old English, I would say that learning it is a much more palpable task for native speakers of English that also have a decent understanding of German and/or any Scandinavian language.  It becomes much more apparent that the English language is Germanic in origin as you gain appreciation for Old English and see where so many of our most common words originate.

For those not familiar with linguistics, it is not just a study of language but a study of history as well as the clashing, bending, and blending of cultures.  However, when it comes to language, we are able to derive our understanding of “dead” languages through various rules that can be applied backwards in a manner that is very similar to mathematics and “checking” your answers.

In each post about Old English, I intend to leave a recommendation for reading or listening that will provide you with greater insight.  Before this posts suggestion, I want to give you a feel for one rule in the evolution of Old English from Germanic to our modern tongue with a few examples.

The Shift from G to Y

Many examples of the letter G in Old English were pronounced with a Y sound.  For example, we can evaluate the etymology of the English word “day”.

By today’s spelling standards, it is pronounced as we would expect.  However, in Old English, spelling was not nearly as “fixed” as we have become accustomed and words were mostly spelled how they were pronounced, which means that the spelling could change over time or between dialects based on variations in pronunciation.

The Old English word for “day” was: dæg.

The word “dæg” is comprised of three letters “d” (pronounced as we do today), “æ” (pronounced similar to a modern short vowel “a;” the ASCII code for this character is “æ” made by holding ALT+0230), and the letter “g” (pronounced like a modern “y”).

So, this shows you the Old English connection to our modern word for day.  However, by looking at the spelling, it does indeed suggest that the pronunciation had changed over time to the “y” sound from a “g” sound.  With the spelling and the intuition that the sound has shifted, we can see the connection between “dæg” and the following cousins:

  • German: Tag (meaning “day” and pronounced like “tog,” tak,” or “takh” depending on the dialect);
  • Dutch: dag (meaning “day” and pronounced like the German “Tag” but with a “d” sound instead of a “t” sound, as written); and,
  • Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish: dag (meaning “day” and pronounced like “day” in Danish, and variations of “dog” in Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish).

So, we now have a connection between our modern English word “day” and several of our Germanic cousin languages.  We can also see many Old English compound words built off of dæg:

  • mid-dæg: midday;
  • merigen-dæg: tomorrow… similar to the German “Morgen” meaning tomorrow or morning;
  • gebyrddæg: birthday… similar to the German “Geburtstag” meaning birthday;
  • enddæg: end day or last day, similar again to the German “Ende” and “Tag”;
  • dægweorc: this means day’s work (weorc is pronounced similar to “way” and “orc”);
  • Sunnandæg: Sunday; and,
  • Sæterndæg: Saturday (again, “æ” is a short “a” sound, so it is apparent that the origin of Saturday is from the god Saturn, here, which is not a Germanic god… but there really is no Germanic equivalent to Saturn in the Germanic/Norse pantheon).

*Special thanks to Old English Wordhord for these words.

Okay, how about some other examples?

The Old English word for “yard” was: gerd (in the Mercian dialect) or gierd (in the West Saxon dialect) and geard (when talking about the land outside of your home).

Again, we need to look at the “g” with a “y” pronunciation.  If you apply some of the rules of pronunciation to German, the “e” would be similar to a long “a” in modern English and the “ie” would be similar to a long “e” in modern English. So, “geard” would be pronounced like ye-ard.  Let’s look at some Germanic cousins:

  • German: Garten (pronounced similar to the English borrowing in Kindergarten, but there is a bit of an elongation of the short “a” sound… maybe close to two short “a” sounds);
  • Dutch: yard (pretty similar to the modern English pronunciation, with a mix of the Old English pronunciation of “geard”);
  • Danish and Norwegian: yard (similar to modern English with some variation);
  • Icelandic: garð (pronounced with a hard “g” and the symbol “ð” is called “eth” and is pronounced like a “th” in modern English… it is not only an Icelandic character, but also an Old English character… so it would be good to keep that one in your back pocket and is ALT+0240); and,
  • Swedish: gård (the “å” is pronounced like the “o” in the modern English “or” and the other characters are pronounced similar to modern English).

The Old English word for “year” was: gear (pronounced like “ye”+”are” from modern English).  And some Germanic cousins for comparison:

  • German: jahr (this is actually an odd ball, but the German “j” is pronounced like the “y” in modern English… so maybe the “y” sound was happening before the migration from the continent, to a degree);
  • Dutch: jaar (like the German, again);
  • Icelandic: ári (like the English “our” with an ending “ie” sound);
  • Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish: år (using the previously mentioned rule for “å”, the word actually is pronounced similarly to the modern English “or” with variations in each language).

So, that wraps up the Shift from G to Y.  If you have any more example words, please post them in the comments below.

For my book recommendation, I am reaching very deep by recommending a book that really covers the historical, linguistic, and archaeological history of most all of the European languages, as many of these languages have influenced English in some way or another, whether the Germanic origins, early Celtic influence, early and late Italic/Latin influence, and even influence from Greek.  The title is: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern WorldIt is available as a traditional book and an eBook.  I must warn you that is a long read, but it is great and thorough.