Monday, December 12, 2005

Th'Appalachia's the Thing--Not

Living as I did recently very close to Appalachia, and having had a professor a bit odd in his adopted obsession for it, I thought I'd draw attention to this post over at Language Log.

Every linguistic change is brought about by the majority of a language's speakers regardless of their knowledge of its history. This may sound like a truism, but aside the last five hundred years of changes, our language is exactly as it was in 1505. (Which isn't nearly as drastic a set of changes as those of the previous 500 years.)

Anyway, hence the gleaming truth of Sally Thomason's observation: "There are said to be features of Shakespeare's English that are preserved in Appalachian English but not in Standard English; but they would be noticeable only because they have vanished from Standard English. The many features of Shakespeare's English that remain in Standard English are not noticeable: they're just ordinary." Yet they're there. They're just not interesting enough to pass for urban legend. It'd be like saying, "Did you know that the language of Shakespeare's descendants has only one word for 'snow'??"

The error is not is the observation of many "archaisms" of Appalachian ("Southern Mountain") dialects. It is in forgetting that there are also many in standard modern English. For example, take the sentence: "Alfred was grim late in his life; his king dead, he sang of frost and blindness and death." This sentence is 100% archaic. With very few differences in pronunciation, it is exactly the same as it would have been a millennium ago. It is in fact an "Old English" sentence. (See more cool sentences like this, and hear their pronunciation, here.)

See also this LSA article, which calls the association of Appalachian and Shakespearean English one of "the most persistent myths about language."

For those interested (my old professor, for instance), here is an annotated bibliography of Appalachian English.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Hwæt, se boardgema in gear-dagum...

I like boardgames as much as the next guy. But I love Beowulf, definitely more than the next guy. So I was glad to see (thanks to Scott Nokes) a detailed and overall favorable review on Cinerati of a new boardgame, Beowulf the Legend, by Fantasy Flight. Artwork for the game is by John Howe, well known Tolkien artist.

This game looks interesting in that it seems like it might capture a certain flavor of the poem. The goal is very Germanic: glory. With each event, players gain fame, which is ultimately the goal: "In most of the episodes players compete for fame and awards ... Whoever has the most fame and the most treasure to their name becomes Beowulf's successor and wins the game." Compare the last three lines of the poem, spoken about Beowulf: "They said that he was, among all the world's kings, The most generous of men, and the most gracious, The most protective of his people, and the most desirous of honor [lof-geornost]."

Another interesting aspect is how the proud warrior-players handle situations. Players handle the various episodes (minor, major, and treasure: 36 total) by playing Activity Cards such as Travelling, Friendship, Wit, Courage, and Fighting. At certain episodes, you all play cards in turn, going clockwise from player to player, after the fashion of betting: your card has to be worth the same or more than whatever card's currently worth the most. I mean, your goal isn't just defeating the monster, it's that everyone might know that you defeated the monster--and in impressive fashion. So when you see how your companion is getting ready for the attack, you don't dare do anything less than he, or he'll get more of the glory! Think of how Beowulf's companions all went to sleep with their weapons waiting for Grendel, but Beowulf, before retiring, made sure everyone knew that he wasn't even going to use his sword to kill Grendel--that would be too easy!

There are also simultaneous play episodes (Hrothgar's Hall, Grendel's Attack), when "Beowulf" asks all his companions to tackle the situation together. There are episodes of Risk (Sail to Geatland) and Opportunity (Great Rewards, Break Ranks?, Many Friendships), which may leave you with fame, treasure, misfortune, or injury.

The rules (pdf) list the following episodes (running commentary sold separately):

King Hygelac's Court (hwaet, no Scyld Scefing?)
Sail to Denmark (keepin' your head above water...)
King Hrothgar's Hall (welcome to Denmark, Mr. Lambert)
Prepare for Encounter (can you stand the suspense?)
Grendel's Attack (Moor's Attacks!)
Great Rewards (will you get some?)
Celebration (yes, you can earn praise among men for how hard you party)
Sea-Hag's Attack (= Grendel's Mother)
Prepare Pursuit (gatherin' the posse)
Hunting the Sea-Hag (follow your hart)
Encounter the Sea-Hag (underwater and stuff)
Sail to Geatland (makin' a wave when you can...)
King Hygelac (who da man?)
Presentation of Gifts (no this isn't a Swedish Mass)
Raid against Friesland (many are killed but few are Frisian)
Swedish Betrayal (Westu hál; ferðu, Heardred)
Beowulf becomes King (aaah, he da man)
Strong Alliances (anytime you need a friend...)
Geatland Prospers (good times)
Peace Returns (Good Times!)
Many Friendships (will they last?)
Golden Goblet (what could possibly...)
Dragon's Rampage (o-oh)
Iron Shield (as opposed to the Steel Curtain)
Break Ranks (will you, too, leave me?)
Dragon Battle (fighting that pernicious Thread of fate)
Recover Treasures (you can't take it with you)
Death of Beowulf (will you, now, be da man?)

Looks like I'll have to add this to my Christmas list. :-)

Friday, December 2, 2005

Some Futhark for your Friday

Stumbled across this recently:

An English Dictionary of Runic Inscriptions in the Younger Futhark

Briefly, "futhark", from the first 6 runes--for f, u, th, a, r, k--is like "alphabet" from alpha + beta. (The th-sounds had their own letter: þ) The Younger Futhark are distinguished from the Elder Futhark by being a) a smaller set of letters (16, to the 24 Elder) and b) used for Old Norse, while the Elder Futhark inscriptions tend to be in a Proto-Norse language or dialect of proto-Germanic. They are also distinguished from the Anglo-Saxon set of runes, the Futhorc (the 4th rune is O not A), which number as many as 33. See also Wikipedia's main page on runes.

From the Description page comes this piece of information, which I guess I never realized and surprised me:

There are approximately 6,000 inscriptions in the younger futhark produced between AD 750-1500 in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland, and the North Atlantic islands. The language of these inscriptions is the earliest recorded form of Old Norse, yet their evidence for Old Norse vocabulary has not been incorporated into the standard dictionaries of that language.

So, in the words of Uncle Argyle, that is something we shall have to remedy, isn't it?

(Also a surprise: I just noticed that Uncle Argyle played William Stryker in X-2.)