15 September 2009

A quick tic about "Old English"

I was gone much of the weekend to visit the Harry Potter Experience at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (and the museum, too, because it has some cool stuff) and didn't take the laptop with me. When I was home, I was either working or watching the Iowa Hawkeyes wipe the field with the ISU Cyclones (woot, go Hawks!). So, yeah, not much blog updating and that's kind of a problem with BBAW this week. However, I do have to throw up a quick post about "Old English" and a rant I went on while driving to Chicago.

I brought along Portable Professor's Of Sorcerer's and Men: Tolkien and the Roots of Modern Fantasy Literature to listen to in the car. media_zombie has the first two discs stuck in her car's CD player, so I thought she'd like it and we've both read a good deal of Tolkien so we had a bit of commentary to add to Professor Drout's. At one point in the lectures Drout begins reading Beowulf not in translation but in Old English - it's fantastic to hear but reminded me that not once but twice that weekend I'd heard modern English from a pre-20th century source referred to as "Old English."

Which pretty much makes me flip my shit and proceeded to do so while driving (in a slightly understated way because media_zombie tends to share my opinion on the subject). The first instance had someone linking to a "modern" version of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner because the original was in "old English" (published in 1798). The second instance was some teenager asking for the Cliff's Notes to Jane Eyre because it was in "old English" and hard to understand. Can I flip my shit now? THIS is Old English:

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas, syððanærest wearð
feasceaft funden; he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum weorðmyndum þah,
oð þæt him æghwylc ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan; þæt wæs god cyning!
(first 11 lines of Beowulf, courtesy of Fordham University)

This is Middle English, spoken from about 1066 to around 1450:

Whan that Aueryłł wt his shoures soote,
The droghte of Marcħ, hath perced to the roote;
And bathed euery veyne in swich lycour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek wt his sweete breeth,
Inspired hath in euery holt and heeth;
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne,
Hath in the Ram, his half cours yronne;
And smale foweles, maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open iye;
So priketh hem nature, in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrymages;
And Palmeres for to seeken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from euery shyres ende,
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende;
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan þt they weere seeke.
(opening of The Prologue from The Canterbury Tales)

Chancery Standard became the dominant language around 1450 to 1650 and is what is known as Early Modern English; this is why Shakespeare writes in modern English and doesn't need "modern translations," just a dictionary from time to time. For people used to writing that breaks grammar conventions (and, I suppose, those addicted to text spelling) I'm sure properly written English looks a bit odd but that's what makes your brain grow. Deal and quit trying to tell me Jane Austen writes "old English."


  1. This just made me grin. =)

  2. Take a look at my modern verse translations of Shakespeare's plays. You are right that Shakespeare's English is modern, but 400 years is a long time. To understand Shakespeare as a living Elizabethan would, we need more than an occasional look at a dictionary. Our understanding today is rather "impressionistic" and not at all nuanced.

    Kent Richmond

  3. GAH, what an awesome post. I agree! I agree a lot! (And that Tolkien book looks v. interesting, by the way.)

    Totally adding you to my feedreader, yup.