Lately I have gotten really into Old English

Lately I’ve gotten really into Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon i.e. Aenglisc). I bought a book on it and an old English reader, and I’ve been haphazardly working my way through a bunch of texts. I think the impetus was that I downloaded this app General Prologue, where an actor, Terry Jones, of Monty Python, reads out Chaucer using a Middle English actor. I’d always struggled with Chaucer before, but hearing it read aloud, I was like, this makes perfect sense. Some words are unfamiliar, but when its spoken it’s easier to comprehend. Furthermore, a lot of the poetic techniques come out much more clearly.

I also found it quite beautiful and moving. I love the rhyming couplets, and how the old accent makes rhymes out of unexpected words, and I love the frequent alliteration (a remnant of Old English poetry) too. So as I was making my way through Chaucer, I thought, what if I could understand Old English too!

Well…it’s a lot harder. And Old English poetry is even harder than prose, because it uses lots of archaic, figurative, borrowed, or made-up words. But it’s still a beautiful and moving language. For the past few weeks I’ve been puzzling Rachel by randomly saying stuff like “Sumor aest hate an drygge” Can you hear it? Can you hear what I’m saying? I’m summer is hot and dry!

It’s pretty cool! Hearing it out loud is essential though. Luckily a lot of old english texts are read aloud by enthusiasts on youtube. Sometimes they’ll even put the poems to song. Some of the enthusiasts have worse pronunciation than others. I found one who was pronouncing the “ge-” prefix (meaning an action is completed or in the past) with a soft ‘gee’ sound instead of as more of a ‘yeh’. Rookie move, bro!

I’ve never been terribly into languages. I took seven years of Latin and three years of Spanish in grade school, and in college I took a year of Spanish and a year of Arabic. But lately I’ve been trying a different approach from what my teachers used on me. First I’m narrowing my focus: I’m only interested in reading and comprehending. I don’t need to speak the language. Second, I want, ideally, to not be translating in my head. I want to get a sense of the language as it’d be heard by someone who understands it. So I’ve been reading the texts in the original and just letting the words flow without trying to understand every sentence. Then I’ll read a translation, and I’ll go back through. It’s fascinating, oftentimes you can see places where the translation is really not literal. Old English also has a different word order from New English, which really changes how it reads, even if it doesn’t change the literal meaning.

A lot of Old English poetry is quite mournful, especially compared to, say, Chaucer or to Elizabethan poetry. Probably this is the Germanic strain in the language. I remember reading the Elder Edda (in translation) and being haunted by the doomed quality of the mythology, how they’d say over and over again that the Fenrir wolf will be unleashed, and the bifrost bridge will break, and the world will be inundated, and so on and so forth. All of this is not in the past, but in the future.

In Old English poetry, there’s a lot of focus on ruins–after all they had Roman ruins all around, and on the collapse of civilization, and on loneliness and wandering. My favorite poem so far is “Deor”, where the poet describes a bunch of mythical and historical misfortunes and then says “Þæs oferéode, ðisses swá mæg” (i.e. “Thaes over-eo-de, this-ses swa may”, “That passed away, and so may this”). See…you can sort of hear it, right? Right? That’s pretty cool

landscape landmark summer building
Photo by Simon Gough on

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  1. Alaina

    My partner had a similar “gosh, this language is beautiful, I want to experience it” moment. There was an essay somewhere (I forget what it was) but the author said the word for sea was “whale-road” or something like that and I thought that was delicious.

    Anyway, I’m semi-self-promoting here. Madeleine was frustrated with the Old English dictionary apps out there so she made a better, simpler one based on the Bosworth-Toller dictionary. It’s free, no ads (this is a hobby, not a job for her) and if you have any suggestions for improving it she welcomes them.

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